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Pakistani English fiction's search for approval and recognition

Updated Mar 05, 2018 01:27pm

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Readers visiting the stalls of the Lahore Literary Festival 2013 | M Arif, White Star
Readers visiting the stalls of the Lahore Literary Festival 2013 | M Arif, White Star

Authors of Pakistani origin writing in English are on fire abroad. And in Pakistan, they are igniting a frisson of excitement and minor pyrotechnics among their readership. It is a moment to celebrate. If this reviewer could create awards, say, the Herald’s Best Novels Awards 2017, these would go to Osama Siddique, for his superb, succinct yet vast book Snuffing Out the Moon, and to Sami Shah for Boy of Fire and Earth. With these exceptional novels, the two writers have changed the texture and tone of Pakistani English fiction.

Irrefutable evidence that possession, and being possessed, is the current state of Pakistani English literature can be found in The Djinn Falls in Love, a captivating collection of short stories edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin. Included in this collection are spellbinding and riveting stories by contemporary writers of Pakistani origin such as Sami Shah and Usman T Malik. Transformative? Yes.

Most of the authors getting attention are those who emerged on the international scene and are on their third or fourth novel. Mohsin Hamid with Exit West and Kamila Shamsie with Home Fire, made it to the longlist for the Man Booker Prize in 2017. Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, too, was shortlisted for the Booker, in 2007.

Pakistani novelists located in Pakistan and abroad – at first mostly women; now increasingly women and men in equal numbers – have been writing in English for 70 years. Getting noticed and unnoticed in unequal measure and owning this tongue of the Empire, they have been telling stories that chip away at boundaries and categories within ourselves and between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the colonised and the coloniser, the post-Empire and the new empires.

The numbers are increasing exponentially. This alone is exhilarating. Over 100 writers have over 150 novels and many anthologies among them. But they have not necessarily written 150 different and good stories which resonate with an audience beyond a small elite group. And this may be because we cannot exorcise our colonial past or rise beyond our vantage points of birth.

There are shimmering exceptions. These are bookended between Azhar Abidi’s two splendid works – his 2006 glorious gem Passarola Rising and 2008 book Twilight – and Snuffing Out the Moon and Boy of Fire and Earth. In between them, Jamil Ahmad’s quiet, gracefully told and powerful The Wandering Falcon, published in 2011, is one of the finest pieces of English fiction from Pakistan.

In the same category is Faiqa Mansab’s This House of Clay and Water that literally embraces the ‘other’. Set in the underbelly of Lahore, it talks about poverty, power and the shimmer of other worlds. It betrays class and social order, as does Feryal Gauhar’s The Scent of Wet Earth in August, a fearless literary gem. If these were to be translated into Urdu, they would probably be banned. They are that good.

Snuffing Out the Moon lays out the most imaginative landscape. It covers the entire breadth and measure of the great possibilities of Pakistani English fiction — ranging from memoir to fantasy. The novel, spread over six eras and arranged like an accordion, contracts and expands in time. It distills the past and the future to highlight the essence of our civilization, reminding us of who we were and are, imagining what is to come and encompassing epochs, saints, sages, monks, priests, fraudsters, frogs, dragonflies, pilots, princes, paupers and predators. If it is translated into other languages, including Urdu, it will still shine.

The writers I would suggest you read, other than the ones I have already mentioned, are Mohammed Hanif, Saba Imtiaz, H M Naqvi, Rayika Choudri, Shandana Minhas, Soniah Kamal, Omar Shahid Hamid, Bina Shah and Humera Afridi. Why? Because they see and show us how to see by making the page come alive with their words. They enrich our imagination. They draw the reader in as if they are practitioners of origami who turn paper into pieces of art. They make the reader see something in a new way or be disturbed by it long after they have read about it. Their writing is introspective. It is evocative.

In the last year, around 20 new Pakistani novels in English were published. Their storytelling has moved on to geographies beyond our homes, to imagined lives: on an island beyond our shores, beyond Earth, even beyond time into centuries that are yet to come. Read The Light Blue Jumper by Sidra F Sheikh and The Curse of Mohenjodaro by Maha Khan Phillips.

The previous year’s bumper crop also includes Those Children by Shahbano Bilgrami, The Party Worker by Omar Shahid Hamid, The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam and, translated from the Urdu masterpiece, The Weary Generations by Abdullah Hussein. Read them all.

Lahore Literary Festival 2014 | M Arif, White Star
Lahore Literary Festival 2014 | M Arif, White Star

Pakistani English fiction’s growth may also be due to a flourishing of journalism as freedom of the press and expression has expanded post-military dictatorships. By writing for newspapers and magazines, writers got a break and an outlet for honing their writing skills. Then the digital and social media revolutions happened and they made writing unstoppable. With dozens of television channels and now a fledgling but promising film industry beginning to blossom, the demand for scriptwriters and copywriters continues to burgeon.

Much is expected from our writers. They are expected to be intellectuals able to map injustices, the logic of war and military occupation and the subversion of truth. They are expected to be well versed in the reality that is the world order. Yet few are. The others could be writing pulp fiction.

The historical growth of Pakistani narratives in English is mapped in Muneeza Shamsie’s labour of love, Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English. Most Pakistani fiction is about Partition, houses and property lost and the civil war in what was once East Pakistan. We also write about feudal families, the martial law years under General Ziaul Haq and the life and times of Benazir Bhutto (while claiming that we are not writing about either of the two).

We write about how British or American we really are. We write as if we are rich people doing rich things without any introspection. We write about those fundamentalists, fanatics and jihadists who are not us. We rarely write novels which open our eyes and hearts to an experience that we haven’t had ourselves. We write what we know: we write of identity and the humiliations thereof, assuaged by fabulous wealth. We write about that time we went to college abroad and were disoriented and unhappy.

Perhaps writing fiction has been the only way to get around official facts in Pakistan. When history becomes unbearable and the telling of it dangerous, then perhaps it becomes necessary to put it down as memoir and fiction, making it about one’s own family. As if to fly under the radar of censorship’s scrutiny, as if to say: look this is harmless; I am only writing about my dysfunctional family; I am not writing about the state; it is just a family saga.

Most writers do not write to shock, shake or change (perhaps the next generation will, or our next novel will). If we ever do so, we will do so between the lines to get past the brutality of dictators who do not take kindly to poets or writers, or to get past the reprisal of the class and society most of us belong to. We write like we are afraid. Fearful. Terrified. Of not being accepted. Or of being punished. Perhaps we are. The kindest thing to say about this kind of writing is perhaps that we write between the lines and in doing so we don’t.

Mohsin Hamid | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Mohsin Hamid | Arif Mahmood, White Star

But scriptwriters, playwrights, poets, novelists and short story writers are holding up a mirror to society and are writing compelling stories. They are writing in Urdu, not in English, though. Someday when their works are translated, the English readership will be better off because of them. These writers are challenging the norms in poetry and in prose, fearlessly taking on tough social issues with considerable humour and rage. Syed Kashif Raza is an example with his poetry and soon to be published novel. Julien Columeau, a Frenchman, with his short stories, Chowrangi Kahaniyan, is another example. Many Pakistani writers of English may not be able to read him or others like him because they cannot read or write in Urdu — or in any other Pakistani language.

That is why they write in English. Urdu, Punjabi or Sindhi poetry they quote or take inspiration from comes to them in English translation from Agha Shahid Ali, Frances W Pritchett, Naomi Lazard, Ralph Russell, Annemarie Schimmel and Victor G Kiernan. That says something. Tragic.

Mohammed Hanif is an exception. His is a controlled rage, though packaged sweetly in a laconic, wry, witty, kind, generous and spirited tone. He is scathingly acerbic, accurate and unforgiving and is as good in Urdu as he is in English. Even better perhaps.

Who reads these works of fiction written in English? Who writes them? Who cares about this fiction? Does it matter? This fiction straddles many worlds and is eloquent in all; it is for all — goes the argument in its favour. This is global storytelling. Not Pakistani per se.

The original sin, the story goes, was when the beloved father of the nation, an England-educated gentleman, announced in English that the official language of Pakistan would be Urdu to audiences who could understand or speak neither. You can imagine how squatting listeners withering in the sun in Dhaka that day or listening to him over thousands of radios a thousand miles away in West Pakistan must have scratched their heads and asked each other, “What is he on about?”

The great gentleman could be forgiven. A native Gujrati speaker himself and comfortable in the English of his schooling and legal training and practice, he might have thought that his Bengali audience was just as likely to understand him in English as in Urdu, especially since he spoke haltingly in Urdu given that it was not his native tongue. He was more at ease, crisp, precise and eloquent in English than in any other language.

Children’s workbooks stacked alongside Urdu poetry | Emaan Rana, White Star
Children’s workbooks stacked alongside Urdu poetry | Emaan Rana, White Star

As are today’s Pakistani writers in English. And that may be a problem.

Our English writers speak to each other and, for now, to a small readership within the country, though they have a larger market abroad and among the diaspora. Educated in private schools at home and abroad, they write from places far away from Pakistan or from cocooned places within Pakistan where the elite congregate, walled away from the country’s reality. Much like Christiane Amanpour reporting about the American invasion of Afghanistan from the rooftop of Islamabad’s Marriot Hotel.

And their novels tell the same story one way or the other as if processing, re-enacting and litigating the many complexities encapsulated in the moment of Partition and displacement — or the moment leading to that moment or the moment after that. At this moment, they cannot seem to dissociate their writing from the vantage point of a passenger in flight out of the country.

Compelling, illuminating and transformational writing is an act of betrayal of the world a writer lives in. Pakistan’s English writers by and large have not been betrayers. Their narratives seem to be received from headlines and remain, to a large degree, oriented towards imagining reality and the world through European and American perceptions. Writing in English but not for ourselves remains our colonial challenge and dilemma, something we cannot seem to overcome.

Statistically speaking, Pakistan is the third largest country in the world where English is a major medium of instruction but only the elite write and read in it. What they write reflects that they look for validation and an audience elsewhere. Perhaps that is fine: those who read and write English, after all, are taking up leadership positions at global forums. Another thing to be proud of. But are they changing narratives about Pakistan?

Pakistan’s literacy rates hold it back from marshalling the power of its numbers to influence intellectual thought globally. Its low literacy rate has a lot to do with elite capture of resources. But even with these caveats, Pakistani writers are in possession of the English language and, at the current rate of their progress, will own it. English is as much ours now as anybody else’s, our demons and our angels.

Pakistan is also the third largest military contributor to the United Nations peacekeeping forces around the globe. Our military footprint is also visible in the Middle East. These facts seem to play an important role in why our elite, a class enamoured by power, is writing and reading narratives that support war. How much of Pakistani fiction in English justifies war and jihad porn? How much of it reeks of orientalism? If Europeans had written these novels would we have screamed accusations of orientalism and white male privilege against them?

International recognition of Pakistan’s fiction writers goes hand in hand with war. In the last 17 years – when wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been ongoing and spilling over and expanding into our own territory – Pakistan’s writers in English have achieved global acclaim. War has been marvelous for them.

Is Pakistani fiction that gets international recognition part of a new world literature that, in turn, feeds a narrative dominant in the current global order? When called out for promoting the dominant narratives of global power or for downright misrepresentations in their fiction, our writers are quick to their own defense, haughtily shrugging off the accusation by glibly pointing out that they write ‘lies’, after all that is what fiction means.

Problematically, however, renowned fiction writers of Pakistani origin also report news and write commentary, posing as Pakistan’s credible voice for a global audience. They are writers of fiction but are regularly called upon as writers of fact, contributing to a global conversation on all things related to war and terrorism and, thus, adding to public records of the ‘Pakistani’ view in American and British newspapers. This only strengthens the dominant narrative in favour of an endless war that is now in its 18th year.

Why are their writings on news judged and bound by their places of origin and national identity while their storytelling is considered world literature and judged without boundaries? In a world of fake news, is the fiction produced by Pakistanis fake literature?

Increasingly, a novel’s merit is judged by it being published in either India or London or New York. Pakistani authors gain validity only after agents and editors there nod their approval. And if this happens then it does not matter if the storytelling tends to be the rich kid’s view of the world — a Harry Potter version of poverty, refugees and migration or a Jane Austen version of everything else.

“Pakistani fiction has come of age. New and emerging Pakistani writers are taking big leaps of faith and venturing into new genres such as literary thrillers, science fiction, fantasy and even graphic novels. The literary fiction from Pakistan is at par with fiction from anywhere else in the Subcontinent,” says Kanishka Gupta, a literary agent in India who has signed up many authors from Pakistan.

Many readers in Pakistan may agree with him — it is wonderful that our writers are winning awards abroad. Often, though, it seems that such praise has been more for the celebrity of the writers than for their writing. People may name a few authors but almost never the books they have written. People may have read articles about certain writers. They may have also perused articles written by novelists of Pakistani origin in such newspapers as the New York Times, Financial Times and The Guardian.

Uncharitable opinions also abound and these term Pakistani writing in English as ordinary things told in ordinary ways, as jihad porn, as parroting western headlines.

Osama Siddique | Courtesy alephi.com
Osama Siddique | Courtesy alephi.com

It may be unfair to expect that Pakistani fiction writers in English write researched histories of their people and their land or other peoples and other lands. But these expectations are owed to the fact that the non-fiction arena in English in Pakistan is dominated by memoirs of retired generals and bureaucrats which readers perhaps treat as fiction.

But fiction of any merit is not entertainment. It does not seek to put a positive spin on travesty and atrocity. It is often not a purely feel-good experience unless it is meant for children or as bodice-ripper romance or as pornography. It does not allow us to escape from introspection or exonerate ourselves from the consequences of our actions. It often has the responsibility to tell the truth in powerful ways because most of the written non-fiction, no matter how well written, tells untruths.

But there is a tendency among Pakistani English writers not to do that. Instead, they have a tendency to be the sole spokesperson for Pakistan, speaking to a foreign power in the way it wants to be addressed and, in the process, strangulating and muffling all other voices. The urgency to be the native informant. Why is this so? The answer is complicated. It may boil down to geographical boundaries and political blueprints imposed on us by our colonial masters and the abused nature of our still-colonised society in a country that, to foreign interests, seems nothing more than a potash mine, a petroleum field or a port — the great plantation and its house slaves yearning not to be free.

Colonisation tends to keep on giving long after the colonisers have physically left. Literary careers are made in the nostalgia for it. The writers who are nostalgic about it are labelled as native informants mostly by those who are bitter about their success. These native informants, the accusations go, tend to continue having the out-of-body experience of never being able to be themselves. They can only see themselves through eyes that are not their own — always imagining and narrating reality in a way that might be pleasing to the colonial abuser. They pick up subjects that are pleasing to the abuser. They create characters that fit the characterisations created by the abuser. They stick to the dominant power’s narrative.

The novels that get praise abroad, and subsequently in Pakistan, promote narratives written in the tradition of taking cues from elsewhere and seeing Pakistan from a foreigner’s eyes. Even the websites for the authors published abroad do not mention reviews and interviews published in Pakistani magazines or newspapers. The opinions of outsiders matter the most because the blueprints for Pakistan’s narrative and its boundaries were, after all, decided elsewhere. This condition confines our writing in English to a constant seeking of approval from the colonial makers of our polity and society.

English remains the language of masters. We are likely to command our dogs in English. To us, it is the language of consequence, of unquestionable authority, and it informs our relationship with those who are below us and those who are above us. We have servants and we have masters and we use two voices to converse with them: the one with which we snarl and bark at servants and the other full of deferential tonal genuflections with which we supplicate to masters. Those who do not have these two choices have their own voices to listen to but we call them ‘the voiceless’.

Pakistan’s literature is far more than the written word. It is also the spoken word that we hear from storytellers. Rapt listeners hear such stories in villages, at chai khanas and in the laps of mothers. These are stories of ordinary things told in extraordinary ways. They talk of fantastic things in even more phantasmagorical but relatable ways. But those of us who write in English seem to have been rendered tone deaf by the din of giving and taking orders and the roar of the jet engine revving up for our flight to success — one that we are so anxious about missing.

The fiction produced by such writers does not reflect the lives and experiences of ‘the voiceless’ — their joys and foibles, their sorrows and mysteries, their triumphs and injustices. This may be because most of its creators rarely rub shoulders with those socially different from themselves and remain cloistered in the enclaves of the well-to-do. Most of the writers are not really rooted in Pakistan. They have stakes in other places outside of Pakistan.

Examples of the world’s great writers who did not live in their own homelands is often given as a justification for this, but those writers were often exiled and they wrote in their native languages to be understood first and foremost by their own people. Their writing was so good that it was worth translating.

The world’s great novels read in English were not all written in English. They include translations into English from Russian, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, Chinese and Japanese. Perhaps Pakistan’s great English novel will be one that is translated from a local language — a few have already been translated.

Urdu literature, both old and new, shines in its own skin. When it is translated into English, it continues to sparkle because it is good. Would Pakistani English novels written so far hold up that way if translated into Urdu? Think about it. Some might. Most would not.

Two major Urdu novels have been translated into English recently — Abdullah Hussain’s Udas Naslain (as The Weary Generations) and Intizar Husain’s Basti. An English translation of short stories by master narrator Ghulam Abbas has also appeared under the title of The Women’s Quarter: Selected Short Stories. These works were written decades ago. Urdu readers read them when they were first published. English readers have only found them now. Translations of Urdu poetry by Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed, similarly, are substantively changing the tone and narrative of Pakistani English literature, vastly improving its quality.

Kamila Shamsie | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Kamila Shamsie | Arif Mahmood, White Star

Such translations are catching on. Ali Madeeh Hashmi recently translated Ali Akbar Natiq’s short stories into English in a volume titled What Will You Give For This Beauty. Urdu to English translations have also been done by Zahra Sabri, Frances W Pritchett, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Bilal Tanweer and Aamer Hussein.

The Heart Divided by Mumtaz Shahnawaz was Pakistan’s first English novel. Its writer died in 1948 before it was published. It deals with Partition’s trauma through the experience of one family. Progressive writer Ahmed Ali wrote Twilight in Delhi in 1940 while he was still living in that city. He became a reluctant Pakistani after Partition as he continued to pine for his home town of Delhi during his forced migration to Karachi. Zulfikar Ghose’s The Murder of Aziz Khan was published in 1967. Bapsi Sidhwa self-published her novel, The Crow Eaters, in the 1980s. She followed it with Ice Candy Man that came out in 1988 and was republished as Cracking India. It has also been turned into an award-winning film, Earth, in India. She went on to write many more novels.

Author and activist Tariq Ali was perhaps the first Pakistani writer to achieve international renown with his controversial book Can Pakistan Survive which he wrote after the 1971 civil war. It was banned in Pakistan at the time. But it was not a novel. His novels came later and included a quintet that started with Shadows Of the Pomegranate Tree.

In 1989, Sara Suleri Goodyear arrived on the literary scene with her novel Meatless Days and Rukhsana Ahmad published her novel The Hope Chest in 1996. My first novel Mass Transit was published by Oxford University Press (OUP), Karachi, in 1998. It was the first novel that OUP published. I went on to write four more.

I would like to consider Hanif Kureishi as being linked to Pakistan (even though he does not identify himself as a Pakistani). Many of his short stories and novels are, indeed, about Britons of Pakistani origin. Aamer Hussein, also based in the United Kingdom, has written several works of fiction including Another Golmohar Tree and Insomnia. Nadeem Aslam, another Pakistan-born writer who discovered his creativity while living in the United Kingdom, has written many novels such as Season of the Rainbirds, The Wasted Vigil and The Blind Man’s Garden. His sorrowful Maps for Lost Lovers, published in 2004, stands out among his oeuvre.

Back home in Pakistan, works of English fiction have been appearing thick and fast in recent years. Bina Shah was one of the earliest writers to come on the scene in the new millennium. Her promising first novel, Where They Dream in Blue, came out in 2001. It was followed by three more — The 786 Cybercafé, Slum Child and, more recently, A Season For Martyrs.

Uzma Aslam Khan’s sensitive and carefully wrought novel The Story of Noble Rot was also published in 2001. She has written a few others since. These include Trespassing, The Geometry of God and Thinner Than Skin. These are all worthy of more attention than a mere mention, as are Sorraya Khan’s Noor (published in 2003), Five Queens Road and City of Spies.

Karachi Literature Festival 2013  | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Karachi Literature Festival 2013 | Arif Mahmood, White Star

Lara Zuberi’s The Lost Pearl, Sana Munir’s The Satanist and Sehba Sarwar’s Black Wings (published in 2004) are all worth more than a reference. Also published during the 2000s were Qaisra Sharaz’s The Holy Woman and Typhoon, Syeda Hina Babar Ali’s Dream and Reality and Javed Amir’s Modern Soap.

Shandana Minhas’s smart and funny novel, Tunnel Vision, came out in 2007. Almost a decade later she published another, Daddy’s Boy. The other writer to follow a similar time pattern is Shahbano Bilgrami. Her first novel, Without Dreams, was published in 2007 and her second, Those Children, came out last year.

By 2010, Pakistani fiction in English had made its mark to such an extent that Granta magazine published a Pakistan issue that year. It included, among many other pieces of writing, the work of such authors as Sarfraz Manzoor and Fatima Bhutto.

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s precisely crafted collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, came out the same year. It is a memorable book of interconnected stories which appear to be based on his family life. H M Naqvi, a gifted wordsmith, also debuted in 2009 with his novel Home Boy. His second novel, The Selected Works of Abdullah (the Cossack), is set in Karachi. Its excerpts promise a brilliant work by an author who has spent a long time researching his material. Bilal Tanweer’s 2013 novel The Scatter Here is Too Great combines both the elements mentioned above — it is about Karachi and it is a stringing together of short stories in the format of a novel.

The speed with which new works of fiction are coming out has only increased in the 2010s. Omar Shahid Hamid has published three novels in five years. His works belong to a new genre of writing in Pakistan. They cover crime, police, security and intelligence. His first novel, The Prisoner, that came out in 2013, took me by surprise. Then he wrote The Spinner’s Tale and The Party Worker, both covering the same ground the first one had. Khalid Muhammed’s Agency Rules and Akbar Agha’s Juggernaut also fall in the same genre.

Saba Imtiaz’s 2014 novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me, an intelligent, light page-turner, offers a funny take on the life of a young journalist in a crime-infested, terrorism-plagued metropolis. Anis Shivani’s novel about the same city, Karachi Raj, came out in 2015.

Many other notable works of fiction came out much earlier. Nafisa Haji wrote her first novel, The Writing on My Forehead, in 2011 (and has written another, The Sweetness of Tears, since then). Shehryar Fazli’s Invitation was published the same year. It is about an impending civil war in East Pakistan and is narrated through a family’s property dispute, set amid a haze of opium and sex. Aquila Ismail’s heartbreaking and beautifully written Of Martyrs and Marigolds provides a different perspective on the victims of the same war. Shazaf Fatima Haider’s enjoyable debut novel, How It Happened, came out in 2012 and is a comedy-romance about an arranged marriage.

Of late, three writers have come from the same family. Moni Mohsin, who has two books, The End of Innocence and The Diary of a Social Butterfly, to her credit, has been followed by her nephew Ali Sethi with his novel The Wish Maker. His sister, Mira Sethi, is also expected to publish her collection of short stories soon.

There have been several anthologies of Pakistani writers too. The one that I found the most exciting, Life’s Too Short, came out in 2010. Edited by Faiza Sultan Khan and published by Ayesha Raja, it included new writings by Mehreen Ajaz, Ahmad Rafay Alam, Attiq Uddin Ahmed, Sarwat Yasmeen Azeem, Sadaf Halai, Michelle Farooqi, Danish Islam, Madiha Sattar, Aziz A Sheikh and Mohammed Hanif (who translated from Urdu the excerpt of a digest story, Chhlava). Another collection of short stories, Break Ups, that came out recently, includes short stories by Imran Yusuf, Moeen Faruqi and Aziza Ahmad among others.

I edited and curated two anthologies, Karachi: Our Stories in Our Words and I’ll Find My Way. These contained writings by 180 mostly first-time writers. The Festival, another book that I curated, includes the work of 40 writers of Pakistani origin. It carries translations of the Urdu poetry of Kishwar Naheed and Fahmida Riaz and Sindhi poetry of Hassan Dars (translated into English by New York-based poet Hasan Mujtaba and Mohammed Hanif) as well as writings by Tahira Naqvi, Phiroozeh Romer, Umbreen Butt, Ayesha Salman, Ishaat Habibullah and many more.

Lahore Literary Festival 2014 | M Arif, White Star
Lahore Literary Festival 2014 | M Arif, White Star

Muneeza Shamsie, too, has edited two anthologies: And the World Changed and A Dragon Fly in the Sun. Fawzia Afzal Khan’s anthology Shattering Stereotypes and Indian writer Rahkshanda Jalil’s collection Neither Night Nor Day also feature a large number of Pakistani writers. Bapsi Sidhwa and Asif Farrukhi have compiled and edited collections of English writing respectively about Lahore and Karachi.

Women writers outnumber men in Pakistani English fiction. Yet, bewilderingly, their work is often referred to in dismissive terms – often by women reviewers – even though most English fiction writers, English language editors and journalists as well as teachers of English are women. Most of these writers are fearlessly feminist and many of them are socialist to the core. They suspect that some sort of patriarchy and clubby elitism is at play against their writing.

New writers are appearing on Pakistan’s English writing scene every year. The more writers there are, the more powerful the stories will be. They will be interrogating the past, the present and the future in more ways than the existing and previous generations of writers have done. They will stem the tide of revisionism that seeks to cast the world in the moulds set by a new colonialism, and in doing so, they will influence the global discourse in meaningful and constructive ways.

These new writers are showing up in newspaper columns, in feature stories on issues of consequence in magazines and newspapers. They are not living in pristine isolation. They are waiting for their buses during rush hour and they change transport three times to commute between their homes and their workplaces. They live and work far from the quiet and solitary world of air-conditioned SUVs and foreign-funded residential enclaves.

They are not buying into the older narratives anymore. Chasing, filing and editing stories in newsrooms, they are the most exciting writers out there. They will effect change. At least that is my hope. Someday soon, amplifying the received truths churned out in war rooms and concretised as fictionalised truths will not hold. These writers will defy conventional wisdom, bust myths and show us realities beyond anything they have been capable of showing so far.

I can hear the susurrus of that change already. Soon it will become a swirling, at a dizzying rate, faster than fast. The new generation of writers will challenge, as well as change, the narrative and the perspective — not only for Pakistan but for the world.

If I were asked to imagine Pakistani writing a decade on, I would imagine it this way: questioning everything, honest, sizzling, sparkling, saucy and impudent. It will be crazily creative, leading the world in intellectual domain and ending the failure of imagination that engulfs us now in a long dreamless night.


This article was published in the Herald's February 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is the author of four novels, 'Mass Transit', 'On Air', 'Stay With Me' and 'A Matter of Detail'.