News on Sunday – Special Report

 

short story of fiction

Has the boom merely taken place in the minds of local and foreign journalists?

 

By Huma Imtiaz

The boom or “renaissance” in Pakistan’s English literary scene is becoming a cliché that needs to be laid to rest. Had there been a boom, one would not have to keep referring to the usual suspects — Mohammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohsin Hamid and Nadeem Aslam — to ask what sparked the world’s focus on Pakistan or why there is not one reputable international publishing house in Pakistan or a sustained stream of novels by new authors. Or, why it takes a privately-run initiative like the Life’s Too Short short story prize for one to see new writers emerge.

The reasons for this are numerous: the lack of state patronage of the simple habit of reading, the dismal state of the education system, or the lack of bookstores to provide cheap, quality publications. It took the Ministry of Education-run National Book Foundation 63 years to organise a National Book Day and have unexpected celebrities like Reema endorse reading.

So, has the boom merely taken place in the minds of local and foreign journalists? According to Kamila Shamsie, the interest began in India, sparked by William Dalrymple’s article “Moonlight’s Children” about Pakistani authors writing in English, followed by a dozen or so more. It was boosted, she tells TNS, by the presence of Nadeem Aslam, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Mohammad Hanif at the 2009 Jaipur Literature Festival. “Mohsin had just been on the Booker shortlist, and my novel Burnt Shadows was weeks away from being published. So, a number of journalists saw a story,” she adds.

Mohammed Hanif’s response is a less diplomatic version of Kamila’s. He writes, “This is the sixty-third time I have been asked this question in 2010. I think it’s all because of desperate features editors who don’t really have imagination/budgets to commission proper stories. It works like this: First, we do a story on a writer/book, then after a couple of media outlets have done the same story, we do the ‘writers getting attention’ story and, obviously, that will lead to the story that asks ‘why writers are getting attention’.”

Daniyal Mueenuddin, whose poem “Trying Tripe” was recently published in the Granta Pakistan issue, nearly two years after his stellar debut collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is exasperated and takes to sarcasm: “I’m sure my fellow Pakistani writers will agree, this is due to the fact that we’ve been producing world-shatteringly splendid work. I suspect that in future times, ‘in the fullness of time’, as they say in bad movies, historians will speak of Pakistan in the naughts and tens (2000 to 2019) in the same hushed and respectful tones as they speak, for example, of fifteenth century Florence. A renaissance, in short. The only question is, who will play the part of the Medici? There are, as you know, several contenders.”

Shamsie adds, “It really is far too early to talk about sustained interest — three years is not sustained. 30 years, that’s sustained.”

Another way of getting a wider range of voices across into the international market is through translation, with recent efforts being Musharraf Ali Farooqui’s translations of Amir Hamza and Hoshruba. Another example is Bilal Tanweer’s translation of Ibn-e-Safi’s detective Imran series, The House of Fear, which went largely unnoticed thanks to the lack of PR by its publisher Random House India.

“Whichever writer would not want his work to be translated?” asks noted writer and critic Intezar Hussain, talking to TNS. “This is part of the adab (literature). My work has been translated into Hindi, Marathi and other languages, and there is nothing wrong about it.”

Hussain’s essay, titled “The House by the Gallows”, translated by writer Basharat Peer in Granta’s Pakistan issue, was very well received by reviewers. And, while all the authors interviewed rubbished the notion that they had been pressured to ‘exoticise’ their work, perhaps the fault lies in the hands of those who market the books and commission work from Pakistan. Talking about the balance between writing about issues in Pakistan and falling into “representational traps”, John Freeman, editor of Granta, said in an interview to a local daily: “It’s a catch 22 for many of them because it is in some ways what makes them marketable. I think they write about it because they are deeply concerned, but to be marketed based on something that’s very close to your heart and very serious raises all sorts of questions.”

Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Moth Smoke, doesn’t find the issue of representation particularly problematic: “Hanif writes about politics, there are the deep magical stories of Nadeem Aslam, the writing is very diverse, which refutes the notion that we’re writing for the West.”

Hamid adds that since his move back to Pakistan, he has almost always turned down offers to write for foreign publications. “I’m a secular Pakistani, I love living here, and this has nothing to do with being a nationalistic person, but I don’t want to be serving up the ‘Here is Pakistan’ thing all the time.”

But if one really wants Pakistan-produced fiction to be treated differently, it will require a push from agents, publicists and dedicated publishing houses within Pakistan to treat books with the marketing angles they deserve, not something that fits into Western stereotypes. Sadly, both are missing in Pakistan, something that the writers too feel the absence of.

“It’s frustrating not to have at least a couple of publishing houses, committed to Anglophone fiction, and with effective editorial, marketing and distribution systems present in Pakistan,” says Shamsie. “They don’t have to be international. If you look at India, Penguin India is the only international house that was there for a long term. But you had a series of good independent houses such as Kali, Rupa and Roli who provided a home for many good writers. It’s only in the last few years that the big international houses have made a major push into India — this is after three decades of Indian writers being ‘big news’ in English-language publishing, and I suspect it’s the size of India’s consumer population rather than just the breadth and depth of its Anglophone writing which has caused the big international publishing push into India. Let’s face it, the number of Anglophone fiction readers in Pakistan is probably not very commercially enticing.”

Mohsin Hamid is keen to lure international publishing houses into Pakistan. “I want them to establish a publishing operation in Pakistan. So many of our writers get published first in India. We have a surprising number of readers which is growing, even though it is only limited to those who are reading English fiction. I’m not doing this for myself, but for the other Pakistani writers out there.”

Aysha Raja, a relatively new publisher and bookseller, regards Pakistan as a virgin territory: “Although it is safe to assume that the readership in Pakistan is relatively small, there is room for significant growth. One has to consider that in this day and age there are various devices and pastimes competing for a consumer’s attention. To neglect marketing books under the assumption that people will buy and read out by force of habit is absurd. Even more so when you consider that reading has not been inculcated as a noble pursuit amongst our population. Numbers are destined to fall further and good marketing by a publisher can only do so much.

“We may get giddy with excitement when a handful of Pakistani authors gain global recognition, and harp on about a literary renaissance, but without a concerted push towards creating readers this success will register as a mere blip on the global literary landscape,” she adds.

“To assume that we have writers before readers is putting the cart before the horse, although a writer’s success may inspire one to write, how well one writes will depend on how well one reads. I’m glad to see that some institutions have caught on to this. At LUMS, Bilal Tanweer, a creative writing lecturer, begins his course with a mandatory class called the ‘Mechanics of Fiction’ — a reading course for writers. I don’t think inculcating reading as a habit is a mammoth task. My experience as a bookseller has taught me that there is a great deal of intellectual curiosity in Pakistan. You have a receptive audience that needs to be stimulated with ideas and concepts and some guidance.”

However, this is just the starting point. A few novels and a handful of nominations is indeed commendable when one looks at the way literature and writers have been treated in Pakistan, but for the industry to grow and for more work to be produced, there must be a conscious effort from both the private and the public sector to push for the creation of a proper arts and culture sector which can lead to a vibrant literary scene.

Faiza S Khan, critic, publisher, sometime agent and editor-in-chief of the Life’s Too Short Literary Review, Pakistan’s first English language literary journal which has attracted international attention, says: “For me Pakistani literature is an attractive bandwagon to throw oneself upon. Whether the reasons for the popularity of Pakistani writing are less than appealing, the fact that one’s voice now holds greater value is a boon all the same. Perhaps one can ride the rumour of a literary boom into something more tangible.”

 

The writer is a Pakistan-based journalist and can be reached at huma.imtiaz@gmail.com

 

 

 

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