Books

Exploring the World of Pakistani English Fiction

In conversation with the renowned English fiction writers Kamila Shamsie, H.M. Naqvi, Omar Shahid Hamid and Osama Siddiquen.

Credit: Herald

The last year could very well be categorised as the ‘Year of the English Novel’ in Pakistan. Not only was the number of longer works of fiction published in 2017 by writers of Pakistani origin perhaps greater than in any previous year, their reception was also warmer than before. Two such novels – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie and Exit West by Mohsin Hamid – made it to the longlist of nominees for the prestigious British literary award, the Man Booker Prize. The latter then made it to the shortlist as well. Other books, such as Osama Siddique’s epic novel, Snuffing out the Moon, and Sami Shah’s Boy of Fire and Earth, have also received much critical acclaim, as has Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Party Worker.

On the pages that follow, four eminent writers – three of whom published novels in 2017 while the fourth, H.M. Naqvi, is scheduled to publish his second novel in the coming months – provide a quick glance into the burgeoning world of Pakistani English fiction. They offer answers to questions that have been long on the minds of many critics as well as most discerning readers.

How and why is English fiction written in Pakistan, and by authors of Pakistani origin, different from fiction written in local languages, especially Urdu?

Kamila Shamsie: I don’t know the answer to that. Almost all my fiction reading is in English and the novels I have read in Urdu aren’t contemporary.

H.M. Naqvi: Writers world over from time immemorial write what they know. In the Odyssey, for instance, Homer invoked the gods and demigods that populated the imaginations of the denizens of ancient Greece because he was steeped in the sociocultural milieu of Greece. He couldn’t pen Gilgamesh, the epic featuring a demigod hailing from the environs of present day Iraq or for that matter, the Dastan-e-Amir Humza, a catalogue of the adventures of the eponymous hero. Literature is derived from a certain time, place, and context.

Closer to home, both my aunt Qurratulain Haider and my friend Abdullah Hussain were compelled to contend with the creation of Pakistan and India in Aag ka Darya and Udaas Naslain, respectively. They wrote what they knew. And, of course, both left an indelible mark on Urdu literature, indeed defined the language; their resonance in the Subcontinent has undoubtedly been profound.

The resonance of contemporary South Asian literature in English, on the other hand, has not been as profound in the Subcontinent. I remember few knew of Vikram Seth’s Golden Gatewhen it was published. After all, Seth’s elegant, ambitious novel in verse contended with San Francisco. Some of my peers contend with the expatriate predicament, one that might not have much meaning for the denizens of Hyderabad or Faisalabad or Dera Ismail Khan. And Nigerian writers writing in the US don’t have much meaning for the denizens of Lagos or Kano or Ibadan. Again, literature is a function of a certain time, place, and context

Fundamentally, philosophically, however, I like to believe a good story has universal resonance.

Osama Siddique. Credit: Twitter

Osama Siddique: There is, increasingly, a very distinct class divide in terms of those who write in English and those who write in Urdu and local languages. Not only have we been unable to resolve our national confusion over which language to fully support and utilise as a universal medium of instruction (and why does it have to be one?), we have also allowed access to education in English to remain largely reserved for the privileged. This language apartheid has created a large gap in terms of experience and world view between these two sets of writers. The privileged get to travel and explore both the actual world and the world of ideas. The rest largely stay at home and regurgitate the same old books as very little of the globally produced, new knowledge is translated into local languages.

This was not always the case. Many of the prominent Urdu writers of the 1960s, the 1970s and even the 1980s were not just truly bilingual, if not adept in multiple languages, they were also well travelled, widely read, cosmopolitan in outlook and intellectually dexterous. Their mode of artistic expression was Urdu and their imagery and metaphors frequently local; but their vision was truly global. I believe that much as some of the contemporary Urdu writers are commendably capturing local issues and realities and possess a fine sense of context, they lack an international and comparativist perspective. At the same time, the English-wallas, whose skills in Urdu and regional languages are increasingly negligible and who are, therefore, also quite ill-read in local literature, can often sound elitist and disconnected from their environment and context.

As to the ‘why’ part: globalisation, greater access to foreign university education to certain classes, the burgeoning and success of Indian, South American and African literatures in English and greater amenability thereby on the part of international publishers to publish non-European and non-American voices have all contributed to the growth of Pakistani literature in English.

Omar Shahid Hamid: I am not an expert, by any stretch of the imagination, on fiction being written in Urdu, but there is a general impression that Urdu fiction has been in a state of decline over the last 40 years, more or less since the Zia era. That is reflected in the state of publishing houses which enjoyed their high point in the 1960s.

The wave of English literature has been sweeping [Pakistan] for the last 25 years. The first [writers] in this wave were not residing in Pakistan — people like Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid and Bina Shah. They were from Pakistan but their writing careers fundamentally began abroad when they were studying or working there. They were looking back at a certain image of Pakistan that they remembered from the time when they had left [the country] in their teens, [though] they started writing five to ten years later.

As time has passed, you now find a lot more indigenous writers. [They are] indigenous in the sense that they don’t view Pakistan necessarily from the point of view of expatriates. They have been living in Pakistan throughout [their lives].

The growth of the Indian publishing industry for books in English has also helped. There seems to be a fascination with Pakistan among Indian publishers who have expressed a lot of interest in Pakistani writers. Because of this growth, many new people, who in the past might not have gotten the chance to get published, have gotten a chance [to have their works published]. Their perspective is different from those who I would call the pioneers [of English fiction writing].

What started fundamentally as an expatriate phenomenon is gradually becoming [more locally-based]. You can argue about the quality – whether the indigenous writers have got to the right literary level, whether they have been successful – but that is a separate issue. The main thing is this transition. You will now increasingly find locally-based writers writing more [than the expatriates].

But I am not sure if you can compare Urdu fiction with Pakistani English fiction. The advantage that English fiction has always had is that it has a publishing market which may also not be local. I think 99.9% of Pakistani English literature is being published outside Pakistan — in India, the UK and the US. There is a very small percentage of work that is published in Pakistan.

Kamila Shamsie. Credit: Facebook

Critics point out that most English fiction written by authors of Pakistani origin is aimed at a market abroad. How does this inform the themes, the style and the form of these works?

Kamila Shamsie: In defence of critics, I should say that the increased body of serious critical work on Pakistani writing in English rarely concerns itself with the ‘market abroad’ but covers all kinds of more fertile grounds, including questions of transnationalism, contested histories, feminism, representations of violence, modernity, etc. I do, of course, understand why the question of an intended audience is one that continues to interest people but I am surprised by the phrasing of your question which doesn’t merely pose the ‘aiming for a market abroad’ issue but it treats it as though it’s an incontestable truth that writers must acknowledge. If you’ll excuse me putting on my teacher’s voice for a moment, here’s why no serious novelist can acknowledge it: the reason the novel is such a successful form, with its ‘classics’ read across different times and in different countries, has to do with its elasticity. What I mean by that is the novel accommodates different readings — it rewards both intimacy with the subject matter and distance from it. Anna Karenina is one kind of novel if you’re Russian; it’s another kind of novel if you have lived in a feudal culture; it’s yet another kind of novel if you’re a woman in a society that allows women very little agency.

Yet, that doesn’t mean a man in a capitalist country who knows nothing about Russia can’t love and admire it and find familiarity in it. Any writer who understands the novel form also understands its potential for appealing to different audiences (and I don’t just mean in geographical terms — gender, race, religion, class, vocation, etc are also defining factors in how we read). So, can people please stop telling writers that they write for one particular audience when really writers write for a whole range of audiences? If I thought any book I wrote only worked at one level, and only spoke to one group of people, I would rip it up and start again.

Also, you never know where you’ll find your audiences. Of my novels, A God in Every Stone has sold more copies in India than anywhere else; Salt and Saffron sold more in Italy – in translation – than anywhere else; Burnt Shadows was on the bestseller list in Norway – again, in translation – for weeks and weeks. You write a novel, you send it out into the world and there’s always some surprise in the responses it finds in different places.

The critics who claim Pakistani [English-language] writers write for a market abroad should spend some time talking to the Pakistani readers I meet. They certainly don’t seem to think that the books written by Pakistani writers aren’t for them.

Naqvi: Once upon a time, I was asked to introduce a Malayali author at a literary festival in Sharjah. As I was in the process of explaining to the organisers that I know as much about literature in Malayalam as the oral traditions of Papua New Guinea, a venerable old gentleman rose to greet me. “I am so happy,” he began, “that you have agreed to introduce me.” “Sir,” I replied. “It will be my honour.” What else do you say?

Although the expo center was packed – I learnt that many in attendance were there for self-help books and religious literature or interested in the live cooking demonstrations – the literary sessions were generally poorly attended. But as I walked into the session featuring the venerable old Malayali gentleman, a few hundred were in attendance. I was presented a bouquet by a young girl which I placed in my lap. Then the proceedings began. I couldn’t understand what was going on – the proceedings were in Malayalam – or what I was expected to say.

After rambling introductory remarks, there was a pregnant pause, one that suggested I had to play my indeterminate role. I rested the bouquet on the adjacent plastic chair and took my place on stage. Hundreds were observing my pantomime. I took a deep breath. I told myself to start with the facts. “I,” I began, “am H.M. Naqvi. I hail from Karachi, in Pakistan.” I was done with the facts.

“We might be separated by language,” I continued, sweating, “we might be separated by borders, but I like to think we share a common sociocultural ecosystem. I like to think we share a common literary imagination.” It was a tall claim. I was compelled to proffer evidence. “I, for instance, was weaned on the works of…” Who, I thought, is suitably Southern? “Narayan! Yes, Narayan!”

H.M. Naqvi. Credit: YouTube

There were polite nods. Narayan was born in Madras and wrote in English. I told myself I have to dig deeper. “But,” I continued, “the story that stirred me in class six was After the Hanging by O.V. Vijayan.” The hall erupted with applause. Somehow, I said something apt. I had not, however, yet introduced the venerable old gentleman. I didn’t even know his name.

Turning towards him, I saw a book lying before him. There were two words on it. One read Sethu. “Sethu Sahab,” I said. “Yes?” he replied. “Will you give me the honour of reading from your new novel?” I would later learn he had written dozens over the last quarter century. He amicably agreed.

I read the first two pages of Pandavapuram — a recent translation of an old novel and declaimed afterwards, “If I were able to conjure the sort of atmosphere you have managed in the first two pages in my next novel, I’ll consider myself a successful writer!” Sethu Sahab replied, “I didn’t know there was so much atmosphere in the first two pages until you read it!”

The question is, why didn’t I, or for that matter, why don’t you know about one of the most celebrated modernist Malayali novelists? And what of our greats? Hyder and Hussain attempted to translate their respective opuses into English — a language that, for better or for worse, has become the lingua franca of our times. Both fell somewhat short: River of Fire and The Weary Generations are pale facsimiles of the original texts.

I have often maintained that we have not yet produced a translator of the caliber of say, Gregory Rabbasa. After all, if it weren’t for Rabbasa, we might have not known A Hundred Years of Solitude, or even the works of Nobel-winning Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, Jorge Amado — veritably the pantheon of South American literature.

It’s a shame that Asim Butt’s Daira or Rafaqat Hayat’s Meerwah ki Raaten have not yet been translated. But I am hopeful: Bilal Tanweer’s Love in Chakiwara, a translation of Muhammed Khalid’s stories, is absolutely delightful, and I am excited to get my hands on Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s Lenin for Sale, translated by the prolific Durdana Soomro.

Siddique: To be able to successfully grapple with insights and ideas that are universal and write for an international audience is actually fantastic. However, arriving at the juncture where one has the ability to recognise and communicate the universal ordinarily requires, to my mind, the ability to first meaningfully appreciate the local and the particular. You have to, I would imagine, truly understand your own context and milieu before gainfully extending your gaze and embracing other landscapes and realities. I acknowledge that in this age of globalisation, there are genuinely cosmopolitan people but I would venture that you would still have to be anchored somewhere. Consider writers such as Noon Meem Rashid, Qurratulain Haider and Faiz and you will see how deeply grounded and yet universal they are — I should say, grounded and hence universal.

There are increasingly diverse voices emerging from Pakistan now and hence it is difficult to typecast them. However, the observation about marketing abroad being the paramount imperative is not inaccurate as there has been a tendency on the part of some to tell their stories and describe their locale as if they were hired local guides for visiting foreign tourists.

Worse still, some have even been culpable of uncritically perpetuating myths, stereotypes and even prejudices that pander to certain rather bigoted sections of foreign audiences. The sad reality is that stuff like that sells and is even acclaimed for a whole host of perverse reasons. It is a case of showcasing Pakistan merely as Terroristan, or a tribal patriarchal dystopia, or a neo-orientalist exotica, or a surreal backwater for which an apologia is in order rather than [writing about] the actual place in all its complexity, richness and diversity which may, indeed, partially respond to some of the aforementioned descriptions but are by no means fully encapsulated by these descriptions.

It further occurs to me that to write authentically and engagingly about a place and a people – even if critically or sarcastically – requires a certain level of genuine association. Some empathy, a little ownership and some sense of belonging. It also requires a lot of honesty. Thus, such writing can never be a mere laundry list of rants and complaints but something much more complex, subtle and nuanced. It is not that a Marquez, a Mistry or a Mahfouz do not critically deconstruct their surrounding worlds but that they also observe the rich texture, the paradoxes and the shades of grey that they capture and convey. [Such writing cannot merely be] pastiches or fancy words surrounding the latest castigatory headlines that are passed off – and lapped up by foreign audiences because they reinforce existing bigotry and enhance the ever so warm glow of superiority – as ‘the’ Pakistani reality. Like anyone else, writers too should aspire to the virtue of honesty.

Hamid: I don’t know if I can say that any of the writers who are published abroad have necessarily catered to [a foreign audience]. Although, yes, it is a critique you often hear at literary festivals where people say that writers living abroad follow a certain agenda. I don’t know if it’s correct but there are a lot of reasons for [this impression].

Looking at a lot of Pakistani writers, this criticism is not incorrect in the sense that if someone left Pakistan, let’s say at age 17, and spent the next 10 to 15 years in the US, the UK, Hong Kong or wherever, their images of and mental flashpoints about Pakistan are different – even when they may have kept in touch regularly with people back home or visited Pakistan often – from those living in a society and experiencing it on a day-to-day basis. So, sometimes there is this criticism that their reflection of things is dated or coloured by their world view [as expatriates] because they are not based here.

But I wouldn’t say that any writer starts writing a book keeping in mind a certain stereotype or focusing on a certain audience. I don’t think anyone does that. People who are reading your books in Pakistan want to read them to get an insight into how things work and happen in this country. [Writers based] abroad [offer] the same [insight] for the same purpose; but they apply a different angle. But, of course, your writing will be coloured by where you are and your personal experience. To give you a very small example, if I am writing about an incident involving the police department – which is a very common thing in a lot of books of fiction – but I have not been inside a police station, I’ll have a stunted type of take on that which will be based on hearsay and on a generalised kind of interaction. Whereas if I live in Pakistan, if I have been to a police station, if I have bribed a cop, then my impressions and understanding of that particular [experience] as an indigenous person will be very different [from those of others who have not done these things].

Themes are another [important reason for this criticism]. It is no surprise that following 9/11, interest in themes of terrorism and radicalisation has increased the world over. The number of books coming out on these themes has increased over the last 16 years. Pakistan is no different. Some of the boost that Pakistani writers got in this period was due to the central place that Pakistan got in [the post-9/11] conflicts. The international audience wants to understand the problems [of this country]. So, obviously they pick up books authored by writers of this country who are writing about those things.

Omar Shah Hamid. Credit: YouTube

A language barrier separates those writing English fiction and a Pakistani audience not very fluent in that language. How best can Pakistani writers of English fiction cross this barrier?

Shamsie: The language question, of course, is a real issue. I know most readers in Pakistan can’t read my work because I write in English and, of course, I feel a sense of loss as a result. It’s not a problem particular to English language writers. If you write in Pashto or Sindhi or indeed in any of the languages of Pakistan, most readers in the country will not be able to read your work. The only way past this is a translation industry within the country that translates Pakistan’s writers into as many different languages of Pakistan as possible. Whenever questions of translation arise with my work, I’m aware of how sad and absurd it is that my books are translated into more than 20 languages – from French to Chinese to Arabic to Marathi – but none of them is translated into Urdu, let alone Punjabi, Balochi, Hindko, etc. Of course, I’m delighted that they find homes in all those other languages but I wish they’d find more homes in the languages that I grew up surrounded by.

Siddique: I think writers do have a responsibility to be more intelligible and readable. Obscurantism is not great art. It is simply obscurantism. But one also hopes for great improvements in standards of education and literary appreciation that in turn require a much larger state and societal effort at multiple levels. One can’t just look to the writers to bridge the gap. The readers too will have to raise their game.

Hamid: Previously it was thought that the [local] market for Pakistani fiction was small but now we are very confident that there is a sizeable market [within Pakistan] for Pakistani [fiction]. It is spread over the Pakistani intelligentsia and middle classes. There are also learned people among the Pakistani diaspora across the world. You don’t necessarily have to write for a western, white audience. [But] this [market] has not really been explored. I keep having this argument with publishers in the United Kingdom — that they fail to tap into it.

[The language barrier, however, exists and] I have read books [in English] in which many things are explained – like what a jai namaz is – which takes away the fluency of the book. But because of the emergence of [a local] reading public, you don’t need to do that anymore. You will find enough readers who understand the cultural context. And, of course, you will always attract new readers, just like Gabriel Garcia Marquez is not read by Colombians only but [by people] all over the world.

Is there such a thing as ‘the Great Pakistani Novel’ in English? Is popularity and being on best seller lists the criteria for the greatness of a novel?

Shamsie: No, there isn’t such a thing. But then again, there isn’t actually a Great American Novel either. There are just a number of white, male American writers who every now and then write a book to which someone likes to attach that label. The fact that the writers are always white and male tells you how hollow and meaningless the title is. Nations that are truly varied – as Pakistan certainly is – can’t really be represented within a single novel because there’s only so far a novel can sprawl before it becomes an unwieldy, unworkable mess.

But, also, as I alluded to earlier, I think the idea of the nation-state as the defining framework of a novel has less and less relevance in this interconnected world. At the very least, I seem to have become incapable of imagining a novel that is restricted within the boundaries of a single nation

Naqvi: The Great Pakistani Novel or the Great American Novel or the Great French Novel are ideas, interesting ideas. We can argue, dispute, refute any possible contender. I tend to think that the Great French Novel was penned hundreds of years ago, that Moby Dick is the Great American Novel, that perhaps one day the Great Pakistani Novel might emerge.

Siddique: No! Not yet at least. Also, I don’t really believe a single novel can represent a whole society. Though it can provide brilliant snapshots of important episodes or phases in its history, and some of its peculiarities perhaps. Especially not if we are speaking of a complex, dynamic, multi-tiered society with a long history. A particular perspective, politics and ideology would always colour any such all-encompassing attempt, whether it is Les Misérables, Doctor Zhivago, A Tale of Two Cities or The Grapes of Wrath or any one of hundreds of such classics. If you start looking for the Great American Novel for instance, there are so many candidates given the tumultuous history of that great and multifarious nation. There is no way you could pick one. Perhaps that is why Philip Roth decided to put the debate to rest and unilaterally title one of his own outputs The Great American Novel. I am sure not many agree.

It’s also incredibly difficult to answer what denotes greatness. There is much that is great – to my mind – which is also popular and also much that is anything but great – to my mind – and yet very popular. And if it’s not popularity that denotes greatness, it’s not necessarily obscurity either. Longevity, universality, readability, profundity, multifariousness, distinctiveness, wisdom, insightfulness, etc are perhaps some of the attributes people look for while gauging greatness. Some simply say that in order to be great, a book has to work. And that books either work or they don’t. If one knew what worked, we would all be writing all-time greats. So what constitutes truly great writing remains a tremendous mystery. After all, books that are utterly different from each other in every possible way have been anointed by the critics and the masses as great.

On the other hand, what constitutes truly abysmal writing is arguably much less of a mystery.

Hamid: I think the Great Pakistani Novel is very western-centric terminology in the sense that it bears the idea that if you want to know everything about a country, just read this one book. It doesn’t work like that. There are writers all over the world, however, who try and attempt to write this kind of novel, but I don’t think it works. Different novels give you an insight into different elements of a society, but you can’t say that if you read this one book, you will know all.

There is no such thing as the Great American Novel or the Great English Novel either. You can read any of the classics of literature but they don’t tell you [everything]. War and Peace may tell you about Russian society and Russian psyche at a particular point in space and time, but that doesn’t mean it covers everything or is comprehensive.

The measure of a writer’s success is durability. A lot of the written word captures the readers’ imagination for a year or so and then it fades away. You will not even remember [it]. Great books are those that stand the test of time. If someone is reading and commenting on my books twenty years from now, that will be fantastic.

What has been the most exciting or promising work of English fiction written by a writer of Pakistani origin in 2017?

Shamsie: ‘Exciting and promising’ are terms that I attach to newer writers whose worth we haven’t already been aware of. With that definition in mind, I’d single out Sami Shah’s Boy of Fire and Earth which combines djinns and the Karachi underworld in a terrifying, thrilling, fabulously imaginative mix.

Naqvi: When I write, I rarely read, and as I wrap up my opus, The Selected Works of Abdullah (The Cossack), after a five-year slog, I have not been able to pick up anything new. But I believe that Pakistani literature in English has come of age. There was a time when I could count the number of novels on one hand. Now I have lost count.

Siddique: For its sheer imagination, shock value, wit and inventiveness, I quite enjoyed Boy of Fire and Earth by Sami Shah. There are aspects of it that one can debate and quibble over, but on the whole it is refreshingly novel. He is a storyteller and that, to my mind, is an essential prerequisite. People do many amazing things in novels – the sociology, the ideas and the politics of a novel are very important to me – and that is great, but first and foremost they have to be able to tell stories. Interesting stories that are also interestingly told.

The diversity of themes and sub-genres on offer [in Pakistani fiction being produced now] is very heartening to observe. I think we should expect and welcome many exciting new voices in the coming days.

Hamid: I haven’t read a lot of stuff this year but the book that I probably enjoyed the most was Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. It is very readable and has a great story. If I have to pick one, this will be the book.

This article was originally published in the Herald.

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