Year in review: Book Talk

Clockwise: Bilal Tanweer; Aysha Raja; HM Naqvi; Shehryar Fazli; Rakshanda Jalil

Clockwise: Bilal Tanweer; Aysha Raja; HM Naqvi; Rakshanda Jalil; Shehryar Fazli

The hype – some might argue, hullabaloo – surrounding Pakistani fiction in English persisted for a short few years when interest in Pakistan was at its height — could it finally be subsiding? The Herald put together a panel of five littérateurs to debate the topic: literary agent and book publicist,
Aysha Raja; fiction writer, poet and translator Bilal Tanweer, selected as one of Granta’s New Voices for 2011; Shehryar Fazli, author of Invitation; HM Naqvi, author of Home Boy which won the inaugural DSC Prize for South Asian Literature; and Indian blogger, writer, and critic, Rakhshanda Jalil. They were joined by Faiza Sultan Khan, critic and editor-at-large for Random House India, writer and critic Raza Rumi and book critic and radio show host Mahvesh Murad. Together, they argued that, hype notwithstanding, these aren’t entirely disheartening times for the state of the written word in Pakistan.

Herald. “There’s a collision of talent and interesting times — something is really happening in Pakistan in terms of writing.” This is what John Freeman, editor of Granta had to say about Pakistan’s literary ‘boom’. And indeed, there was an almost morbid interest in Pakistani writing post 9/11 — how has that changed (if at all) and does quality writing count for anything anymore?
Shehryar Fazli. Good question. It does sometimes feel as if people are more interested in the phenomenon of this ‘Pakistani boom’, if you want to call it that, than in the individual works themselves. Pakistan is a hot story, so an important concern is whether the books written from and about the Pakistani experience will still be of interest when Pakistan is no longer daily news.
Aysha Raja. Just to make it clear, the use of the words ‘hype’, ‘boom’ and ‘literary renaissance’ are marketing ploys, and as long as there are Pakistani books to sell, we will continue to hear these. So in my opinion, hold that obituary.
Faiza Sultan Khan. From what I understand of this question, it seems to suggest that ‘quality writing’ is somehow connected to the interest in Pakistan’s ‘affairs’. I’d like to think that quality writing has little connection to hype.
Mahvesh Murad. I’d personally like to see Pakistani literature reach a quality where it would be wanted for being good, not for being from Pakistan.
Fazli. Well, I think the primary effect [of the so-called ‘hype’] is positive: people here have been encouraged to write. And hopefully that will continue. And, mostly, I’m curious about what kind of books we’ll see in the future.

Rakhshanda Jalil. My question to the writers on this panel is: when will Pakistani writers stop writing for Western audiences and start writing for Pakistani or South Asian readers?
Bilal Tanweer. Rakhshanda, it is a strange question to face as a writer. I would like to think writers are writing for themselves, first and foremost. But as a writer, one cannot escape the uneasy self-consciousness that you are mainly speaking to a Western audience (i.e. market), which is paying you to write.
Khan. Rakhshanda, I’m afraid I see Pakistani writers increasingly writing about things that interest them as writers, but publicised and reviewed from a viewpoint of how it will interest the Western reader — which is hardly their fault.
Raja. I agree with Faiza, I can’t see an entire novel emerging from a need for someone from the West to understand us. Also if you take [A Case of Exploding] Mangoes as an example, I would say it spoke more to a Pakistani than it did to a non-Pakistani.
Jalil. I end up reviewing a fair bit of Pakistani writings for the Indian media. My sense is, more often than not, there is a self consciousness. The only exception I can recall is in the collection edited by Faiza and Aysha [The Life’s Too Short Literary Review], which was remarkable for its inclusion of fresh voices. I think it is the new voices – with no literary pedigree – that are not looking over their shoulder at Western audiences.

Raja. Maybe the concern here is the post-9/11 Pakistani novel: the fact that the need to understand where we are with the war on terror, our national identity, etc. intersects with what the West is interested in. Why for instance was Between Clay and Dust not published in the UK and USA?
Fazli. Nevertheless, with publishing still dominated by Western publishers, it is a good question to ask: what kind of work reaches a global readership? For example, Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon is a beautiful book, but I understand it was published many, many years after he first wrote it, at a time when there’s great (non-literary) interest in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands. Would it have seen a market had there not been this interest? One would hope so, but I don’t know the answer.
Tanweer. Yes, the books that get published and promoted in the West are the ones where the Western publishers/agents realises immediate relevance to their contexts. But I won’t be so cynical to think that writers have written those works keeping those agents in mind.
Khan. I think one also has to keep the orientation of the writers themselves in mind, how many writers writing in English today do genuinely think of Pakistan as a foreign country, looking for explanations not just for their potential Western readers but also for themselves…

Raza Rumi. The imperatives of markets, potential readers cannot be ignored. Which leads to the larger question: what is the relationship of Pakistani writers with readers of fiction in Pakistan?
Raja. I don’t think a writer can have a relationship with an audience. We all interact with works of fiction in our own way. Asking a writer how he buckles down to produce 10 pages a day is not a relationship.

Herald. But when you want to sell, and sustain yourself financially as a writer, you need to ‘connect’ with the audience. It’s a business at the end of the day. Wouldn’t you agree?
Khan. As a publisher, I’m afraid there’s a very boring answer to this, which is that a good story engagingly told is a coveted thing in this business. The next Pakistani book as far as I know being released in India is a comedy-drama about a wedding, nothing to do with terrorists, just a pleasant read.

Herald. But would you agree that writers these days have been commodified? That must put a constraint on writers.
Tanweer. You know as far back as the 18th century, we have Samuel Johnson saying, ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’
Fazli. They were certainly working for money. But right now, if you ask publishers in the UK whether they’re still in the business of finding and cultivating new talent, they’re likely to tell you that they’re following ‘trends’ — going with the safe bets, much more so than even 10 years ago.
Khan. I’d like to add here that the ‘Pakistani literary boom’ consists of about five people and a bored feature writer who dubbed it thus. I feel the problem to begin with was the analysis of a coincidence, which it still is. People wrote some good and some bad books and continue to do so … I can only hope they’re not discouraged from writing further because fewer write-ups now appear on the novelty of Pakistani writing in the Western press.
Herald. Linking trends to Faiza’s comment, consider this: the books that have done best (at least on an international platform) are the ones dealing with terrorism, militancy, etc. (in a fictional context).
Fazli. Yes. Which is not to say that those books don’t have value – and the fact is that it would be a very conscious decision to write about/from Pakistan today and not mention security – but again the test will be if the book survives when no one cares anymore (here’s hoping) about terrorism in Pakistan.
HM Naqvi. Adaab, adaab. What’s the conclusion?
Murad. That we didn’t start the fire.
Jalil. Lull before the storm?

Pakistani fiction in English — is the hype over?*

Yes 40%
No 60%

*The above question was posed to online readers during the two-hour live discussion

Herald. Let’s talk about publishing: despite the fact that so many of our writers are being published, our publishing industry is fledging at best. No big publishing franchises come to Pakistan. Why?
Omar Waraich. There aren’t enough readers to sustain Pakistani imprints of the big publishing houses. And often the Indian arms of the publishers take care of the Pakistani market well — HM Naqvi (Harper Collins India), Mohammed Hanif (Random House India), etc.
Jalil. The Indian publishing houses are mopping up the best and brightest — that’s obvious, but publishing is still not a viable industry in Pakistan: smaller reading market, higher costs, etc.
Raja. Costs are not that high. Kitab has launched in Pakistan and it’s doing very well.
Waraich. It’s also worth noting, for example, that when Hanif wrote A Case of Exploding Mangoes, he abortively tried to find a Pakistani publisher. It was his Indian publisher that allowed his book to become widely read in Pakistan.
Raja. He had a publisher in Pakistan but they pulled out at the last minute. They thought the book would be censored.

Herald. Aysha and Faiza, you’ve only published one edition of the Life’s Too Short Literary Review, though. Was that due to a dearth of quality fiction or were there other reasons involved?
Khan. Short stories are difficult things to get right, we were very lucky the first year. We shall keep trying till we get others of similar quality.
Waqas. Aysha and Faiza: How often do you get manuscripts from Pakistani English fiction writers wanting to get published?
Khan. I’ve read about five manuscripts from Pakistani authors this year. It was pretty much the same as the number last year and the quality was extremely mixed.
Naqvi. We tend to divorce ourselves from tradition – it is a national malaise – and the tradition of writing in English in the subcontinent extends back almost two centuries, almost to the genesis of the Urdu novel. Deen Mohammed might have been the first to try his hand in this mode and then there was Mulk Raj Anand, Ahmed Ali, Atiya Hussain, Zulfikar Ghose, and so on. Our generation might be new but the traditions that inform us aren’t.

Guest. Tradition and the individual talent — I wonder, Mr Naqvi, what your thoughts are about how much that applies to Pakistani writers in English?
Naqvi. I think there are some very good writers in Pakistan and there are also some bad writers. There is an objective criterion for writing. As far as I am concerned, it has to do with a compelling story, with compelling characters. Those of us who write novels that feature compelling stories, compelling characters will persist. Those who don’t, won’t.
Tipu. Where is (or will we ever see) Pakistan’s answer to The New Yorker, Salmagundi, Granta, etc — a publication that consistently publishes fiction/ creative writing/ poetry/ reportage by Pakistanis in English?
Tanweer. When you have readers, you will have Granta etc in Pakistan. It’s happening in India.

Waqas. What about alternative avenues for young, emerging English-language fiction writers in Pakistan? There was a workshop held at LUMS earlier this year. We [at the Desi Writers Lounge] published a few pieces in Papercuts, the magazine, but we cannot afford to pay the writers. So is there any support for contemporary fiction writers?
Jalil. Blogging is a great alternative venue for young emerging writers. What’s to stop anyone from virtual publishing? If it’s good, it will be read; if not, there’ll be none the wiser!
Naqvi. IBA plans to hold a creative writing module. Plans are afoot at the Aga Khan as well. But I think medicine is more substantive, meaningful.
Khan. Waqas — do you think someone was bashing down Tolstoy’s door with literary incentives? If you want to write, write. I’m a publisher of short stories in Pakistan and largely of novels and non-fiction in India, I’m happy to take manuscripts from anyone but they have to be halfway decent.
Tanweer. I think we are in a bit of a hurry to produce more. The whole literary thing is only beginning right now. I work with young writers, and it will be at least, half a decade before they produce something publishable. So, let’s please give them some time.
Raja. I agree with Bilal, but I think a lot of students of creative writing will need to read more other than what they encounter during a course.
Tanweer. They will need to read more as well as engage more with the world outside. Creative writing classes can give you a sense of language but they are not a substitute for life’s experiences.
Khan. Creative writing isn’t going to give you an imagination. People need to read. That is your literary incentive. It is also what will get publishing houses to open up here.
Naqvi. One attended the International Urdu Conference over the weekend, Faisal mian, as well as the Karachi International Book Fair. The halls were packed. There was no place to move. Thousands of literary enthusiasts flocked to the word.
Tanweer. I was there too. I can testify.
Naqvi. You would agree then, Bilal mian, that the sort of literary culture we have in this city is rare. You don’t, for instance, have it in Vienna. They have Mozart but they rely on their storied past. We, on the hand, offer certain promise. The best, I would like to believe, is yet to come.
Tanweer. I endorse everything you say, janab-e-HM.
Murad. There’s a book out there for every kid — for every person. It’s just a matter of finding it.
Raja. Mahvesh, I think that is what Musharraf Ali Farooqi has identified when he writes for young adults and children — and also why he embarked on a gruelling book tour among schools.
Khan. I have one last question — there’s something about this debate that disturbs me, that Pakistanis step in for the West. The very nature of ‘is the hype over’ (you mean hype in the West), what does it really matter for us here? I noticed at Ravi Shankar’s death yesterday a lot of desis writing about his greatness in introducing Indian music to… the West. If Aysha and I had published say, HM Naqvi’s Home Boy and you’d read it without rave reviews from… the West, would you lot still love it?
Jalil. Why don’t we see more translations — from Urdu, Punjabi, Balochi, etc.? The few that come out from OUP [Oxford University Press] are patchy and indifferent. What’s stopping ‘established’ writers from taking a jab at translations? A bit like Musharraf Farooqi’s translation of the Tilism-e-Hoshruba…. think of it as khidmat-e-khalq?
Tanweer. I am not established, maybe that’s why I translate — about to finish Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s charming Chakiwara Chronicles.
Jalil. According to Herald’s poll, 60 per cent think the hype is not over. That’s depressing. We could do with some hype-less respite!
Raja. Well do we have a conclusion for the discussion?
Naqvi. Rumi once said: ‘There are no answers. There are only questions.’ And he also said, ‘Give me more wine/ Or leave me alone.’ I think it’s time for Murree’s Rarest. Cheers?
Murad. Miles to go… but to quote another (lesser known) poet — there is thunder in our hearts!

Herald’s Best Books for 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Katherine Boo (non-fiction)

The Yellow Birds
Kevin Powers (fiction)

Bring Up the Bodies
Hillary Mantel (fiction)

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid
Shani Boianjiu (fiction)

Christopher Hitchens (non-fiction)

John Jeremiah Sullivan (non-fiction)

Zadie Smith (fiction)

Peter L Bergen (non-fiction)

This Is How You Lose Her
Junot Diaz (fiction)

Silent House
Orhan Pamuk (fiction)

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
Robert Macfarlane (non-fiction)

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution

Samar Yazbek (non-fiction)

Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan
Rajiv Chandrasekaran (non-fiction)

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
Anthony Shadid (non-fiction)

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret wars and surprising use of American Power
David Sanger (non-fiction) 

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