Keeping it short and sweet

The panel at the Life’s Too Short Literary Review launch at LUMS Syed Saigol auditorium. photo: abid nawaz

LAHORE: Over the past five or six years Pakistan has come into international focus in a big way. More often than not the attention has been for all the wrong reasons. So it is encouraging when the focus is directed away from suicide blasts and political mishaps to art and literature.

This was the overwhelming consensus of the contributors, editors and judges of the Life’s Too Short Review 01, which has received national and international attention since it was published two months ago.

“We’ve tried to unequivocally avoid two things: teenage angst and suicide blasts,” said Faiza S Khan, the editor of the review. “There’s plenty of stuff out there about how ‘dangerous’ Pakistan is and this was our chance to present another side to us.”

The Life’s Too Short print edition follows up on winning entries from last year’s popular short story competition of the same name. Mohammad Hanif, author of the bestselling A Case of Exploding Mangoes and one of the judges of the competition, said he was thrilled to see the winning stories in print.

“I have always been a bit of a literary voyeur and a short story just holds so much potential. It can always become something more,” said Hanif. “This was the first time I was ever asked to judge anything and given that it was two years ago  ‘judges’ were pretty popular back then  I figured it couldn’t be too bad.”

The official launch of the review was organised by the LUMS humanities and social sciences department and brought together many of the contributors to the print edition. The writers read out excerpts of their work to a large and appreciative audience.

The editors and writers all stressed that they were very aware of the fact that Pakistan is in the limelight at present. “There is so much going on that involves us that it is affecting both how the international community views us and how we view ourselves. The key is to take back the narrative and direct it ourselves,” said associate editor Maheen Pracha.

The writers said that in some ways, the Life’s Too Short review could be set against the much talked about recent Granta literary issue on Pakistan. The former takes an insider’s perspective of the country and the latter reiterates – to a great extent – the hype regarding the ‘most dangerous country in the world’, as Pakistan was once dubbed by Newsweek.

“It’s not like we don’t know that bombs are going off. It’s just that we have to live our lives around it,” said Bilal Tanweer, author of short story To Live. “It’s more of an inconvenience and a daily hiccup to our lives because, sadly, we are getting far too accustomed to it.”

Tanweer’s is the only story in the entire edition that mentions a bomb blast, that too in the background. “It’s a very offhand mention, almost like, ‘Oh dear there’s been a blast. How will I get my manicure?’” Khan said.

Life’s Too Short illustrates the literary renaissance Pakistan is undergoing. Whether this in the form of several English dailies that have been launched recently with websites and magazines that feature prominent blogs; writers groups and online workshops such as and Project A with its book clubs and open mic nights in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad; or online literary and commentary sites like The Missing Slate (TMS) and View Point, this is a good time to be a writer in Pakistan.

There is little in the way of reactionary dissidence in this magazine. It is by no means a literary foray into revolution, ala Russia or Latin America. Life’s Too Short is simply about finding voices that haven’t been heard and turning up the volume.

The magazine features new fiction writer Mehreen Ajaz’s story Baby, Settling Affairs by Rayika Choudri, Mir Sahib’s Hairdo by Danish Islam, Lucky People by Sadaf Halai, To Live by Bilal Tanweer, The Wedding by Sarwat Yasmeen Azeem, The Six-Fingered Man by Aziz A Sheikh, Ruth and Richard by Madiha Sattar and Not Another Voice by Bina Shah.

It is hard to explain why Pakistani fiction is experiencing such a kick-start. Some might think it is because the country is going though hard times, which automatically leads to retrospection and provides a desperate surge of impetus. Or it could be that these voices were always there and have finally been uncovered. Regardless, this new wave of writers emerging from the underground is reminiscent of the upsurge of South Asian fiction in the 1980s dubbed by many at the time as ‘The empire writes back’. Whatever the reason, one hopes that this is just the beginning to more and more Pakistanis finding and showcasing the inner author in them.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 28th, 2010.