Encouraging English language fiction in Pakistan

Huma Imtiaz
(1 hour ago) Today

launh543 Encouraging English language fiction in PakistanMohammed Hanif and Faiza S. Khan at the LUMS Sayeed Saigol Auditorium in Lahore. – Photo by Huma Imtiaz

LAHORE: On a chilly autumn night in Lahore, The Life’s Too Short Short Story Prize winners were introduced to dozens of literary enthusiasts at the LUMS Sayeed Saigol Auditorium.

Attended mainly by students and late 20-somethings, the event featured founder and editor ofThe Life’s Too Short Literary Review Faiza S. Khan and publisher, Aysha Raja, along with the winners of the prize, and the writers featured in the review. The celebrity guests at the event were authors Mohammed Hanif and Ali Sethi who offered commentary on writing fiction and judging such a competition.

Announced earlier this year, the winners were featured in a literary review titled, The Life’s Too Short Literary Review, which has been widely acclaimed by critics and readers around the country. Aysha Raja, co-founder of the prize and publisher of the review, told Dawn.com that the journal is now going into its second print run due to the phenomenal response they received. “We’ve also sold distribution rights to an Indian publisher and it will be hitting their shelves in the near future. Offers have also been received for selling the UK rights to the journal.”

In Pakistan, one is accustomed to seeing a handful of the usual names tossed around (namely Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie, among others) when talking about English fiction written by local authors. That is perhaps why it was refreshing to see six new faces – possibly the next generation of writers who can add diversity to select few English writers in the country.

The event kicked off with an introduction to the prize and review by Raja, followed by readings from the winners and contributors of the review.

Sadaf Halai, who won the first prize of Rs.100,000, told Dawn.com that it was wonderful that there was a journal that showcases writing in Pakistan. When asked what she did with the prize money, Halai said she bought her husband a computer, since she had used his for the past five years. “I also wrote the short story on his computer, so I think it was only fair to buy him one!”

Bilal Tanweer, who currently teaches a Mechanics of Fiction course at LUMS, says that the reason that Pakistan is not producing enough writers is because education is driven away from the humanities. “We don’t have enough of a literary culture. It is very exciting that we [finally] have a quality publication (like the review) in Pakistan, something that we can put in front of the world.”

According to contributor Mehreen Ajaz, one of the biggest challenges aspiring writers face is the lack of writing groups where one can get constructive criticism. Madiha Sattar, senior assistant editor at the Herald, whose story Ruth and Richard deals with a failed marriage and the longing for the Karachi of one’s childhood, says this was her first attempt at writing fiction. Speaking at the event, she said New York, where her story is set, left a lasting impression on her, as has Karachi, where she has primarily resided.

When asked about his decision to become a judge for the competition, Mohammed Hanif said: “I thought I should become a judge [because] at that time, judges used to be our heroes, that is when I thought I should become one too.” Asked what he was disappointed by in the selection of stories that were sent to him, Hanif wryly added, “There wasn’t enough sex and violence.”

Ali Sethi offered critique and praise for the contributors and their efforts, and provided valuable insight into the clichés that pervade South Asian literature, especially when writing about food.

Khan announced the panel of judges for the next competition: authors Mohsin Hamid, Sara Suleri and Musharraf Ali Farooqui. According to Khan, “The biggest problem we had with the entries was that it showed that people do no read enough and lack very basic writing skills. However, I was thrilled by the sheer number of entries and in some cases, the story was so strong that the fact that it was weak in terms of language didn’t stand in its way.”

After each reading by the winners and contributors, which was followed by a brief question-and-answer among the panel, the event quickly came to a close an hour after it began. However, one felt that the audience was deprived of interacting with the participants, which might have helped them understand more about the writers’ fears of being published for the first time and the problems one faces. Nevertheless, with the second Life’s Too Short Short Story Prize now accepting contributions and plans are in place for a second issue of the review, it is a relief to note that an endeavour like this is not limited to a one-time effort, and will shine a long needed spotlight on fresh literary talent.

Entries for the second round of competition can be sent at lifestooshortentry@gmail.com and the deadline is March 31, 2011.

Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and can be reached athuma.imtiaz@gmail.com