In February last year, a local writer and editor, Faiza S Khan, and the owner of a smart, independent bookshop, Aysha Raja, inaugurated the The Life’s Too Short Short Story Prize.

This was an open short story prize with a cash prize of Rs100,000 and judging panel of Pakistani literary heavyweights Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie, and the prize for 2010 has just been announced with Mohsin Hamid as the first confirmed judge. Last year, many promises were made about the winning selection being published in a literary journal, the duo remained conspicuously silent after announcing the winners, Sadaf Halai, Aziz A Sheikh and Rayika Choudri. Just when it was beginning to seem like a vanity project abandoned halfway, the promised journal surfaced and is now available at Raja’s bookshop, The Last Word, in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

The publication also marks the maiden project from Raja and Khan’s publishing house, Siren, complete with sexy pink logo, which aims to start with this periodical and move into publishing both fiction and non-fiction from Pakistani writers. The Life’s Too Short Literary Review features a yellow cityscape with a large white ambulance superimposed onto it, consistent with the somewhat alarmist theme of its title.

It is at first glance entirely different in tone from most of the literary periodicals from this region, being playful and bold, as opposed to dry and stodgy. Made up of nine stories and some tidbits, Bina Shah is the only recognisable name amongst the short story writers, the rest have either not published before or in a very limited capacity, and as such the prize fulfilled its brief of providing a forum for new writers. Most of all, it’s entertaining; a virtue the South Asian literary journal too often doesn’t pay enough attention to.

While first prize went to Sadaf Halai for her subtle, perceptive and superbly understated story of class conflict, Lucky People, the real stand out is Sheikh’s Six-Fingered Man, a coming of age story set in Kashmir. It is hard to imagine that this is somebody’s first attempt at fiction, so confident is his prose and so tender the characterisation, with a lyricism that never, ever succumbs to the maudlin. Other exceptional stories in this collection include the first, Baby, by creative writing graduate Mehreen Ajaz, not only for its stark prose and brave subject matter but also for being a short story by a Pakistani writer that doesn’t lean on Pakistan to attract attention — it is a story about two people which could be set anywhere, and this is more rare than one would imagine in Pakistani fiction. A delightfully quirky addition to this collection is Danish Islam’s, Mir Sahib’s Hairdo, a comic fable that appears very much to draw upon the conventions of Urdu literature.

Along with the nine selected stories, the review also features an excerpt of Pakistan’s first graphic novel, Rabbit Rap, by Musharraf and Michelle Farooqi, another sign that Pakistani writing has moved on and can now be confident and playful and bold and relevant without having to live within the narrow strictures it’s inhabited for the last so many years. And in the tradition of saving the best for last, The Life’s Too Short Review also features a short excerpt from a serialised Urdu story dating back to the 60s, Challawa, a lurid pulp classic, translated into English by Mohammed Hanif, who appears to have carried out this task tongue firmly in cheek.

Selling for under Rs 400, and well worth it, The Life’s Too Short Literary Review, if maintained, has the potential to be an influential voice in Pakistani publishing and needs to expand to reach that potential — currently it ignores poetry, which one can forgive, but also non-fiction, which is much harder to overlook.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2010.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/34802/short-and-sweet/

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