DECEMBER 24, 2010

Stories We Tell

Hasan Altaf

Reading about Pakistan has become, for me, a fraught experience. Every time I see the country mentioned in a headline, my first reaction – the news or analysis being so unending, and so uniformly disheartening – is to hold my breath. I don’t know how other people interpret our current ticking-time-bomb situation, but to me, it feels like a particularly bizarre and dramatic existential crisis, dragging on and on without end. I can never resist the articles, but it’s an exercise in masochism.

For that reason, I was both eager and anxious to read two recent collections of Pakistan-centered writing. The cover of Granta’s Pakistan issue, designed like one of the brightly painted trucks that were the representation of our country in what seems like a happier time, was a pleasant surprise; by itself, it did a great deal to alleviate my nervousness. The Life’s Too Short literary review was impressive for its novelty, its uniqueness – and its sheer audacity, too: In the middle of the madness, life goes on, life is lived, and life is always too short.

Beyond theme, the two collections have little in common, and they leave the reader with very different impressions. At first read, Granta seems more familiar, more in sync with other contemporary coverage of Pakistan. It’s not all beards and bombs, but none of the pieces seem too far away from the country we read about every day in the New York Times or the BBC – it has that sense to it, of bated breath, of decades of decay, of disaster around every corner.

The other anthology is kind of jarring; reading it, you would never know that this country has become a war zone, a deathtrap, a state whose list of failures grows by the day. In these stories, Pakistan is just a place, where people live and die, get by or don’t, fail and succeed, love and hate – as people do everywhere, anywhere. These are really the more familiar stories: what we did today, where we went, where we came from – but in the context of Pakistan, somehow I did not expect such ordinariness.

It would be oversimplifying to say that the difference between the two is that of macro and micro, capital-H History and ordinary stories. It’s more likely that the collections simply reflect their different intentions. Granta is geared to the “international market,” which in this context means, I imagine, the Western market, and that market has certain expectations from Pakistani writing. The Life’s Too Short anthology will probably not be read as much, outside of the country, and so does not have to meet those expectations.

There is a semantic difference, too, which is important. Granta published a Pakistan issue: The theme, the unifier, is “the country” itself, whatever that means, Pakistan as a concept. The other, when it advertised earlier for submissions, asked for writing “by Pakistanis,” and on its cover highlights writing “from Pakistan.” Granta takes the concept of Pakistan and examines it in light of our current situation; the other creates a Pakistan, or many Pakistans, out of the lives and stories of Pakistanis.

Given that they are engaged in such different projects, it doesn’t make sense to me to really measure the two collections against one another, but reading them together made me think about what it means to be writing, now, about Pakistan. Cynical as it may sound, this is an excellent moment to be a Pakistani writer: The mess and the mayhem make a fertile ground, and there is, for now, always someone willing to listen. This comes, though, with a kind of responsibility, or if that is too strong a word, a set of expectations and considerations that other writers do not have (although most corners of the world have been or will be in this strange spotlight at some point). What we say about the country now has a resonance that it would be foolish to deny.

I don’t see how anyone writing about Pakistan now, writing anything, could fail to at least indirectly touch on the current situation; it would be like writing about Atlanta in the 1800s and never mentioning slavery, writing about Europe in the 1940s without even hinting at a war. This is our environment, now; violence is part of the fabric of our lives, more so than it was before. But a story made up of beards and bombs, with perhaps an honor killing every now and then for spice, would be an uninteresting polemic with little to say about reality. It would be writing directly to an expectation, giving some readers exactly what they want and expect – and if that’s all it does, then what would be the point of writing?

People confront the current situation every day, but in small ways; the war may be general, but the battles are specific. A father whose son is disappeared; a child whose mosque is suicide-bombed or drone attacked into oblivion; a woman trying to drive across a dysfunctional city; even someone waiting for hours and hours for their lights to come back on – these are the battles, the small, individual ways in which Pakistanis live Pakistan. In some pieces in the Life’s Too Short anthology, the situation lurks like this, as background noise, part of the set – but never the star.

So perhaps we have a dual challenge, a double responsibility. In writing, the important thing is always going to be the particular, the individual, but ignoring the general would be disingenuous and blind. Maybe successful writing about Pakistan has to speak to both these challenges at once. Because both are important – no individual exists alone, and there is no experience that is without context.

In Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat touches upon the difficulty of this balancing act. When the place you’re writing about has become such an “issue,” then of course your work will be interpreted, by some, in that light. But for writers, the unique and the particular have to be the focus. She quotes a letter she wrote to a character in one of her earlier books: “And so I write this to you now, Sophie, as I write it to myself, praying that the singularity of your experience be allowed to exist.” The singular has to come first – for writers, at least, a bottom-up approach makes more sense than a top-down.

It’s a difficult balance, a tightrope act in which falling to either side is dangerous. In my view, one of the strongest masters of this art is Joan Didion, in her fiction and, especially, her essays. Books like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Where I Was From and even Political Fictions tell stories, individual stories, particular stories, and somehow a larger theme emerges. Her books say something about an era, a place, a culture, while allowing singular experiences the right to exist.

We read a writer like Didion, now, with hindsight, and this kind of balance is much harder to do in the moment, especially when the moment is so bizarre, but I think this may be the only way to really deal, on paper, with Pakistan. You can’t write about Pakistan and get to Pakistanis – it has to be the other way around. Pakistan must be approached as Pakistanis, through Pakistanis, through singular experiences, through the stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories, even if they are never written down and exist only in words over coffee or just in our heads. These are the stories that get us through the day, through the “situation,” through the concept.

Posted by Hasan Altaf at 10:18 PM | Permalink

 

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