There has been immense interest in all things Pakistan post-9/11. And English-language fiction writers, knowingly or unknowingly, shoulder the burden of realistically showcasing their country, perpetually on the brink of disaster, to the West, and sometimes to their own.
The journey is never easy. There are a dozen issues they have to sort in their heads before putting pen to paper. Besides the obvious — contesting western stereotypes about Pakistan — they have to deal with their own hybridity, linguistic and otherwise, as most are dual nationals.
There is the also the all-important question — should they be taking their roles as writers this seriously?
Mohammed Hanif, who floored us with his debut novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”, does not carry the cross of presenting the real Pakistan to the West.
“I think we have a foreign office for that,” he sniggers in a very Hanifesque way.
Mushtaq Bilal’s book, the first-ever collection of interviews with Pakistani novelists writing in English, is an intellectual treat for anyone trying to understand writing and writers from Pakistan. The country is experiencing a “boom” in English writing in the “Anglophone world”; a boom which could be “a function of the country’s pivotal position in the so-called War on Terror”.
However, most writers Bilal spoke to don’t see or care about the boom.
Kamila Shamsie, author of Burnt Shadows and Home Fire, among others, dismisses words like “boom” and “flourishing” as overstatements. “Even the most engaged readers in Pakistan would be hard-pressed to name more than a dozen writers from Pakistan writing English-language novels,” she says.
To add to this confusion, there is no dedicated publishing house for English-language writers in Pakistan; and few contemporary writers, who are considered “Pakistani” in the Anglophone publishing world, are not just “Pakistani” – with identity politics running as a theme across their work.
Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam and Aamer Hussein are all British nationals. Bapsi Sidhwa and Daniyal Mueenuddin are American nationals, and Musharraf Ali Farooqi holds a Canadian passport.
Daniyal Mueenuddin, author of “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”, wonders if “there must be Lithuanian writers who are not getting the attention they deserve because their country is not in the news”.
But then who knows. As Hanif points out, “The only thing people never mention is that maybe they (Pakistani writers) are getting attention because some of them are writing good stories regardless of the fact that they are from Pakistan. That possibility should also be considered.”
For this book, Bilal, a student of postcolonial studies, interviewed 10 distinguished authors across several generations – from the legendary Bapsi Sidhwa to Mohammed Hanif, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Mohsin Hamid.
The authors talk about the relationship between fiction, art and politics; their own relationship with their country; and if it is important to deconstruct their country through political rather than aesthetic eyes?
The result: a page-turner.
Boom or no boom, books by Pakistani authors are flying off the shelves, and it remains – as Bilal points out – “one of the most politically engaged bodies of contemporary literature”.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi disagrees. He insists his writing is not overtly political.
“I will write only if it pleases me.”
However, as Bilal points out, it is difficult for a Pakistani English fiction writers to not take sides.
“Pakistan has come to acquire a highly volatile position in contemporary international politics and has an extremely unstable domestic political climate, it has become very difficult to talk or write about Pakistan, whether in fiction or in non-fiction, without taking sides,” he writes in the introduction to the book.
Some writers do admit finding it difficult to not articulate political world views, or seeing themselves from a coloniser’s gaze.
Bapsi Sidhwa, one of the pioneers of Pakistani English fiction writing, talks about it. “Naturally, the colonisers have always held the position of power and prestige and English has always been a prestigious language…”
The favourable reviews and the awards follow. Also, the labelling of literature – New English Literature, Commonwealth Literature or Postcolonial Literature.
Sidhwa does not have a problem with labels. “These (labels) are used by colleges and universities to give a particular literature course a name…”
Writers like Hanif recognise that these labels represent a kind of colonial gaze, which is still used to look at Pakistani literature. Farooqi is unforgiving. “Literature is literature… Academia has become a kind of a joke now because of things like these.”
Thanks to their travels and dual nationalities, most Pakistani writers have a world view which is at once cosmopolitan and Pakistani. Their eyes can dissect the way Pakistan is stereotyped by the West and how Pakistan stereotypes the West.
Bilal Tanweer, the author of “The Scatter Here is Too Great”, says readers are looking for answers to questions like, “Why are people in tribal areas going over to the Taliban, why are they this way, and well, how are they anyway, and why don’t we know anything about them in the first place – and like, why aren’t they on TV?”
This frustrates him. “Fiction from Pakistan is not supposed to have artistic engagements – it’s required to provide information, not an experience.”
Pakistan being a conservative country, the issue of self-censorship plays on most writers’ mind. Sidhwa talks about how it crept into her writing.
“…But now if you were to tell me to write (about sex) I have got a hundred and one inhibitions…after being criticised the way I was by some people in Pakistan, I unconsciously developed my inhibitions.”
Farooqi uses Urdu words in his novels often. His defence: “..if you read Latin American fiction, they use quite a few Hispanic terms for which there is no proper English counterpart. If I translate gulab jamun as…” Bilal’s prompter – “sweet balls” – has both laughing.
At another point Farooqi reveals that he doesn’t like “clever” writers like Salman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami. “They are unreadable, honestly. By ‘clever’ I mean that you write a weird-looking sentence and then claim it to be art. This is not art.”
Sidhwa reveals when her first novel “The Crow Eaters” was published, the Parsi community was angry. So when the book was being launched there was a bomb scare! Mischief done by the otherwise tolerant Parsi community.
When asked about labelling writings from the subcontinent as Commonwealth literature, Hanif retorts, “The Commonwealth is one of those organisations that nobody knows what it does. I think it is meant to plan holidays for the Queen. I have never heard it do anything else…”
Self-censorship doesn’t scare Hanif. “I don’t think fundamentalists read novels,” he chuckles.
We hope more and more Pakistani writers believe in this and to paraphrase Hanif – feel responsible only for the story, and how not to bore the reader. The foreign office can take care of the burden of representing Pakistan to the world.