January 2011

Interview: Bilal Tanweer

Bilal Tanweer is our latest New Voice, with his story ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’, published yesterday. Here, Bilal tells Ollie Brock about about his book of connected stories, of which ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’ is one, and the importance of voice in his fiction.

OB: You’re both a writer and a translator. Which came first? Do they exercise completely different parts of your brain, or is it similar work?

BT: Fiction writing came first, although it came very late – during the sophomore year of my undergraduate studies. I started translating even later, when I wanted to win a translation competition during my MFA at Columbia. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it immensely and have been translating ever since. It also anchors me, keeps me thinking about words, writing and language.

For me, translating is very much like writing itself; and like every other translator, I also feel that literary translation is underrated and underappreciated (and underpaid) for the amount of imaginative and technical labour it requires. One has to make a lot of choices that are similar to writing fiction, and many that are specific to translation itself. On the whole, it could be as imaginative an enterprise as any other creative endeavour. William Weaver once used the metaphor of a performance for translation: you must act out the text in a different language. Ultimately, I feel every good translator is a writer first. Yes, translating can be tedious and oppressive if you don’t find some kind of personal affinity with the work you’re translating, or if you don’t believe in it. If you love the work, it’s like travelling to a new country with the person you love. At heart, I think, all good translators are like writers: they want to share something important, something urgent, something beautiful with the world.

The book I just finished translating (and sent out to a few publishers – fingers crossed!), a humorous novel from Urdu, Love in Chakiwara (and Other Such Adventures), I enjoyed translating immensely because I found a connection with the narrator’s voice – mischievous, oppressed, trying to show spine to somebody who is openly fleecing him but cannot do so because he also admires and hero-worships him. Great fun!

The story we’ve featured has a very distinctive style: a rough, brazen monologue from an angry, rather cruel narrator. What inspired it?

In my writing, the voice is the primary concern for me, and most of the time I construct everything else from it. My influences are mainly from Urdu poetry, and for this story, Karachi street language. The writer I go back to for voice is N. M. Rashed, one of the pioneers of modernist poetry and free verse in Urdu, and also among its finest practitioners. His poetry started making sense to me when I understood the voice. It also made me realize how important voice is for my own writing. I was also influenced a lot by Grace Paley’s stories. Goodbye and Good Luck is one of my favourites.

It’s interesting you consider that narrator to be ‘cruel’. I think it comes from the fact that he is vehemently a know-it-all guy, who is not prone to being surprised – at least he won’t admit to being surprised. So whatever he narrates, it will be with the intention to entertain, with the pretence that he knows and understands everything perfectly well. Perhaps the cruelty also comes from the fact that he’s ostensibly enjoying what he’s narrating. But this could simply be his way of telling the story. He might be performing for an audience who would not have it any other way.

The bomb-blast of the ending seems to deny all meaning to the encounter on the bus. Is this deliberate? Does it reflect something about life in Pakistan?

This story is part of a larger work. The bomb blast at the end ties it to the other stories in the same book, which are all about the same bomb blast. The book is 80 per cent done. It is deliberate, yes, because the book is trying to show a host of different characters and how they are affected by the blast.

I am not sure if it reflects anything about Pakistan except that there is an occasional bomb blast somewhere and people just factor that risk into their lives and go on with their business.

Our last issue’s theme was Pakistan, and it brought together some of the country’s finest novelists and non-fiction authors. Does it feel like a good time to be a Pakistani writer?

I do think that a sense of community is healthy in all circumstances. I also feel that all the Pakistani writers I’ve known (almost all of them!) are incredibly generous and supportive and helpful. I wrote my first story for Kamila Shamsie’s workshop and since then, she has been one of my key supporters and mentors. For the last two years or so, Musharraf Ali Farooqi has been unbelievably kind and helpful, especially with the translations but also with just about everything else.

Is it a good time? It certainly feels good to know that if you write something worthwhile, there is an audience for it, although I am not sure how much of that applies to short stories because agents and publishers tend to gravitate towards novels. The international audience – I am told repeatedly, and by reliable sources – has no appetite for Pakistani or South Asian short stories.

Tell us a little about what you’re working on now.

I finished the translation of Love in Chakiwara last month, a humorous Urdu novel considered to be one of the milestones of Urdu humorous fiction. Now I am writing the final two chapters of my Karachi book, of which ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’, is the opening chapter. Another chapter appeared in The Life’s Too Short Literary Review last year. ■

Read ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’ here, or visit our New Voices section for a full list of stories and interviews.


Pakistani pulp fiction ‘too hot’ for Indians

  • Amanda Hodge, South Asia correspondent
  • From:The Australian
  • January 26, 2011

FAIZA Khan knew she might encounter trouble when she published the first English translation of one of Pakistan’s best-selling and most salacious pulp fiction serial novels, Challawa.

The editor of the recently published Life’s Too Short literary review of new Pakistani writing just didn’t expect to find it at the wall-to-wall luvvy weekend that is India’s annual Jaipur Literary Festival.

The adventures of a lesbian detective kept millions of Pakistanis enthralled for eight years. In weekly instalments, its male writer brought to life in high Urdu and Farsi the voracious Bano, a wealthy Karachi-ite who solved crimes and trawled school buses for schoolgirls.

In Pakistan, only the repressive 1980s regime of Zia-ul-Haq could end Challawa’s reign as king of the Penny Dreadfuls – though back copies can again be found in thousands of Urdu book stalls across the nation.

On Monday, however, it was the festival’s co-director, Namita Gokhale, who deemed Challawa too hot to read aloud, insisting the decision was not censorship but merely accounting for the “sensitivities of the audience”, which included teenaged students.

The English extract from the Challawa serial – which remains a household name in Pakistan, albeit one mentioned in abashed tones – is the first glimpse into the lusty world of Pakistani pulp fiction.

In the expurgated passages Khan was to read this week, Bano scans for prey on a schoolbus before settling on a fresh-faced 15-year-old “whose breasts met my preference of size and shape”.

“I casually put my hand on her thigh and asked; ‘Where do you live, baby?’ ”

“Nasirabad,” she responded shyly.

“I liked her shyness. Bold and extroverted girls are usually more delicious in bed, but it’s difficult to get them there. The shy ones are easy to seduce.” And on it goes.

Khan, a London-born and educated Pakistani who doesn’t read Urdu and relied on friends to translate, says she was surprised at being “unexpectedly censored” at the Jaipur festival, but also “excited that literature from Pakistan is too racy to discuss”.

While Challawa strays from the Life’s Too Short anthology’s basic new writing criteria, it was included “to make the point that the West did not invent sex”.

“It wasn’t brought to Pakistan by a couple of authors who studied abroad,” she says. “This is what the gentleman who makes my tea will be reading. It sells more than anything else.”

Khan is delighted by the “boom” in interest in Pakistan’s writers – on Sunday, HM Naqvi took out this year’s South Asian Literature Prize for his debut novel, Homeboy. But she is irritated at the way Western critics review Pakistani literature.

“It’s seen as a matter of cultural anthropological interest, like, this is a window into a troubled country. Please don’t be so f . . king patronising. Either it’s good writing or it’s not.”

But she doesn’t deny the relatively explicit nature of Pakistan’s vast canon of pulp fiction sits uncomfortably with the country’s lurch towards extreme Islamic conservatism.

It’s one of the many contradictions of Pakistani culture that such material can be openly sold at any bazaar while traditional dancers and singers face Taliban threats for offending Islam.

“It’s so arbitrary what people take immense umbrage to. In Pakistan this is what people are likely to read and people aren’t scandalised by it,” says Khan.

“But I suspect if it was written in English it would generate far greater fuss.”


Pakistan pulp reading censored at Jaipur Lit Fest

Updated Jan 25, 2011 at 02:36pm IST

Jaipur: It started with a bang with sexually explosive content being discussed in a matter of fact way, but enter a few teenagers clad in school uniforms at the ‘pulp’ session of the Jaipur Literature Festival Monday, and the content was “suitably moderated in accordance with the sensibilities of the audience”.


The session on day four at the informal Baithak Hall saw Pritham Chakravarthy, who has translated the popular Tamil pulp fiction anthologies, and Karachi-based columnist Faiza S. Khan in conversation with writer-publisher Namita Gokhale.


Chakravarthy, bustling with restless energy, read out what she called a “dirty” passage from the book translated from Rajesh Kumar’s works about a father trying to find a suitable match for his daughter as she has “a big one”.




Pakistan pulp reading censored at Jaipur Lit Fest


Her self-celebratory way of reading raised many a eyebrows and left many red-faced. Gokhale, who was visibly taken by surprise, called it quite “shocking and sloppy”. Then came the turn of Khan to read. But it was not to be, as a few school students entered and Gokhale dropped in a line about not scandalising them.


Khan, who has translated Urdu writer Humayun Iqbal’s “Challawa”, a serial novel from the 1970s, warned that the passage she was going to read might be a “rude awakening” for the students.


On a cue, Gokhale took a look at the passage and gave a disapproving look. On this, Khan again flipped through the pages in her pursuit to find a suitable one. The whole process was repeated with Gokhale still looking unconvinced. All this went on even as the audience kept laughing and the kids looking perplexed.


“Wow…I’m so excited to find that literature from Pakistan is so racy…I am so thrilled,” Khan said to a roaring audience.


“This is the kind of stuff what sells the most in Pakistan. People there really like reading it and are not scandalized about it.”


In the end, she did read out a passage which was the “least offensive” one.


Books in 2011 – from the new Alan Hollinghurst to David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King

There’s little by way of ex-prime ministers’ memoirs, but the year ahead offers some fiction big-hitters and some impressive debuts

Anne EnrightAnne Enright’s first novel since her Booker prize-winning The Gathering is out in April, entitled The Forgotten Waltz. Photograph: Murdo MacleodBy far the two most talked-about (if not most read) books published in the past 12 months have been Tony Blair’s memoir A Journey and Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom. It is tempting, therefore, to ask what their equivalents are likely to be in the coming year. The good news is that, as far as I can tell, they won’t have any equivalents. If 2010 was, in literary terms, a year of disproportionate attention lavished on a few high-profile titles, 2011 looks set to be one in which the spoils of praise and publicity are more evenly divided.

It helps, of course, that no ex-prime ministers (or indeed ex-presidents) will be publishing their memoirs, although political anoraks will still have much to get them going, from volume two of Alastair Campbell‘s diaries,Power and the People (Hutchinson, January), to Sarah Brown‘sBehind the Black Door (Ebury, March), her account of life at No 10, which will certainly be more revealing about what wielding power is like than her husband’s recent Beyond the Crash. Another politics title to look out for is Medhi Hasan and James Macintyre’s Ed Miliband and the Remaking of the Labour Party, a July offering from the innovative politics publisher Biteback.

Those who like their reading to track the news cycle closely will also find much to divert them in Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website (Cape, February), by Assange’s former number two, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. It’s a book that is likely to irritate Domscheit-Berg’s former boss, scooping as it does his own recently signed (and currently untitled) memoir, which Canongate expects to publish later in the year.

A broader, more reflective take on the recent past will be provided early in 2011 by two hard-hitting works of current affairs: Eric Hobsbawm’sHow to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism (Little, Brown, January), about the thinker’s ongoing relevance to the modern world, and Dambisa Moyo’s How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly – And the Stark Choices Ahead (Allen Lane, January), a critique of postwar western economic policy by the well-respected author of 2009’s Dead Aid. In history and biography, 2011’s offerings look slightly less compelling, aside from Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, January) and Sadakat Kadri’s Heaven on Earth: A History of Sharia Law (Bodley Head, June). In October, the biographer Claire Tomalin publishes her eagerly awaited life of Dickens (Viking).

One non-genre fiction that is thriving is the memoir, and the first few months of 2011 sees a glut of them, many with a depressing theme: stand-outs include Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay (Granta, February), about the author’s struggle with degenerative disease, andJoyce Carol Oates‘s A Widow’s Story (Fourth Estate, March), about her battle to survive her husband’s unexpected death. Another leading American novelist, Annie Proulx, is also branching out into the personal form, with Bird Cloud (Fourth Estate, February), an account of building a new home on a 640-acre plot of Wyoming prairie.

For some reason, books about raising children are much to the fore in coming months. Affluenza author Oliver James returns with How Not to F*** Them Up (Ebury, June), about bringing up under-threes, while in the memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Bloomsbury, February), Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, outlines the superiority of Chinese child-rearing methods. Joining them in this contentious terrain is Rebecca Asher’s polemic Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality (Harvill Secker, April), calling for a revolution in child-rearing based on greater equality for mothers.

Moving to fiction, the first few months of the year are chiefly notable for some impressive debuts. In January, Sunjeev Sahota’s Ours Are the Streets (Picador) audaciously attempts to make us feel sympathy for a British suicide bomber, while AD Miller’s highly accomplished thrillerSnowdrops (Atlantic) relates the misfortunes of a British lawyer in contemporary Moscow. Another January debut, Scissors, Paper, Stone(Bloomsbury), by Observer journalist Elizabeth Day, deftly unpicks a daughter’s troubled relationship with her mother after her father has lapsed into a coma. In February, Tristran Garcia’s Hate: A Romance(Faber) – a novel that took France by storm – chronicles friendship and death in 1980s Paris, while Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator (Viking) is a heartbreaking portrayal of war-torn Kashmir in the 90s. In March, Leo Benedictus’s The Afterparty (Cape) – touted as a “new kind of novel” – offers an ingenious postmodern take on contemporary celebrity culture. Surely the year’s unlikeliest debut, though, will be Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon (Hamish Hamilton), a collection of stories set in Pakistan’s northwest frontier by a 77-year-old Pakistani ex-government official.

As the year moves forward, there will be a greater number of works by established authors. In April David Lodge brings out A Man of Parts(Harvill Secker), a fictional account of the life of HG Wells, and Esther Freud skewers the world of acting in Lucky Break (Bloomsbury). Edward St Aubyn returns in May with At Last (Picador), the final instalment of his exquisite Patrick Melrose series, while Anne Enright publishes The Forgotten Waltz, a story of remembered love set in contemporary Dublin, her first novel since her Booker prize-winning The Gathering. In June, the highly talented Ross Raisin brings out his second novel,Waterline (Viking), and there’s also a return for Ali Smith, with the eccentrically titled There but for the (Hamish Hamilton).

But two novels stand out, for very different reasons, as particularly momentous. In April, David Foster Wallace‘s unfinished work The Pale King (Hamish Hamilton) finally hits the shelves, more than two years after his death. The story of life in a tax office, it promises to be yet another reminder from this remarkable writer of how wide the possibilities of fiction remain. And then in July, Alan Hollinghurst publishes The Stranger’s Child (Picador), his first novel since his Booker-winning The Line of Beauty (2004). An epic story of two families and two houses spanning the entire 20th century, it promises to enhance its author’s claim to the title of best British novelist working at the moment.