Hybrid tapestries: Why Pakistani writing in English is thriving
Indian authors writing in English were the rising stars of the anglophone literary world in the 1990s, notes Muneeza Shamsie in the preface to her groundbreaking and exhaustive book, Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English.
At the time, she writes, many in Pakistan would ask her why there weren’t any English language writers in Pakistan. But, contrary to general perception, Muneeza recalls, she was “meeting and writing about Pakistani-English authors all the time”.
This disconnect between perception and reality served as a catalyst of sorts for A Dragonfly in the Sun, the 1997 anthology she went on to compile. The anthology included the works of several writers of Pakistani origin living abroad, raising important questions of “identity and belonging”. In Hybrid Tapestries, Muneeza addresses those questions and defines what it means to be a “Pakistani” writer: “anyone who claims that identity,” she argues.
She asserts early on in her remarkably well-organised, thoughtful and extremely readable book that Pakistani English literature is unlike other Pakistani literatures in that it is a “direct result of the colonial encounter”.
She uses a “historical trajectory” to trace the development of Pakistani English literature: the starting point of the trajectory are the “founders” of Pakistani English writing — writers who became Pakistani at the time of the Partition, whose writing cannot be separated from the “colonial encounter”. She, however, avoids using what she refers to as the “academic labels” of postmodern and postcolonial.
Muneeza is also ever mindful of the “cultural intermingling” and the “hybrid influences” that have resulted in the “tapestry” of a complex, if not complicated, history of English literature in Pakistan.
English may have been introduced to South Asia by British imperialism but those writing in it wanted to challenge the narratives of the Empire. Pre-Partition writers of fiction and poetry in English were, thus, faced with the formidable task of “finding the true expression of the subcontinent in the English language, which did not, or seemingly could not, accommodate the nuances of South Asia and its many cultures”.
Hybrid Tapestries is divided into two sections: Pioneering Writers and Developing Genres. The former includes Atiya Fyzee-Rahamin (1877-1967), Shahid Suhrawardy (1890-1965) and Ahmed Ali (1910-1994) – who all started writing much before 1947 – and Zulfikar Ghose, Taufiq Rafat and Sara Suleri — who embarked on their literary careers immediately after Independence.
Muneeza contextualises their work with the ideological and political reality of the times and places in which they lived and worked. She does this, in part, not just to provide a historical account but also in order to “convey the measure of their struggles and their successes”.
In a detailed section on Ali, Muneeza discusses many aspects of his diverse body of work: his Urdu short stories, English plays, fiction and poetry, and his translations of Chinese poetry.
He wanted to go beyond subcontinental sounds and words to convey the essence of traditional Indo-Muslim culture in which poetry plays an important role — in conversation as well as in songs of both celebration and of mourning.
She praises the “courage” of his undertaking: his attempt to translate the vernacular of one language into another while shouldering the burden of writing in the language of the coloniser.
Ali’s first book in English, Twilight in Delhi, was published in 1940 and traces the decline of the upper-class Muslim merchant Mir Nihal and his family, and the parallel waning of Mughal Delhi. Muneeza states that, though Ali’s writing is, at times, “stylized” and “flowery”, he is undoubtedly the “forefather” of modern South Asian writers. “[He] prefigured the more successful linguistic strategies of several post-Independence writers, including Salman Rushdie,” she notes.
Muneeza portrays all those included in the section on Pioneering Writers with the same painstaking approach that she employs in the appraisal of Ali’s life and work. In this respect, Hybrid Tapestries is an invaluable resource for researchers and academics.
But it is also a pleasurable read: the small but significant details about writers bring their personalities to life.
Muneeza, for example, draws a fascinating portrait of Atiya, who was possibly the first Indian-Muslim woman to publish a full-length novel. A firebrand, revolutionary in her politics and radical in her views, she was muse to both Allama Iqbal and Maulana Shibli Nomani. She attended Maria Grey, the London teacher training college, on a scholarship in 1906 and married artist Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin who adopted her family name into his in “a rare assertion of gender equality for that time and age”.
The second part of the book, Developing Genres, comprises five sections: Poetry, The Novel, The Short Story, Drama and Literary Non-fiction. In the section on poetry, Muneeza chronicles how the early Pakistani poets, such as Ghose and Rafat, were succeeded by a “new generation” of poets, including Athar Tahir and Waqas Khwaja.
She mentions a multilingual literary forum of Pakistani poets called Mixed Voices. It was set up by Adrian A Husain in Karachi and was attended by poets like Maki Kureishi and Salman Tarik Kureshi, among others. Despite the sense of community fostered by such gatherings, however, English poetry, she points out, has “continued to exist on the margins of Pakistan’s intellectual life and its academic circles”.
The section on the novel is a thorough examination of the evolution of this genre in Pakistan. Muneeza explores the implications of writing from or about the difficult place that Pakistan has come to be and analyses how the “brutalization of Pakistani society against a backdrop of geopolitics” has profoundly influenced the early works of Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie and Uzma Aslam Khan.
Her subsequent discussion of the writers, who made their debuts between 2000 and 2011, paints a detailed picture of the many changes that fiction has undergone in Pakistan. According to her, new talent such as Azhar Abidi, Mohammed Hanif and H M Naqvi, among many others, has ensured that questions about otherness, historical identity and belonging remain more relevant to Pakistani novel writers than ever before.
And now, thanks to Hybrid Tapestries, one can find answers to some of those persistent questions.
This article was originally published in the Herald's June 2017 issue under the headline "The book of genesis". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is an author and poet whose work has appeared in international publications such as Ploughshares and Granta