Thursday, January 5, 2012

Granta 112: Pakistan - or does Pakistan have a literary scene?

Voices from Pakistan
Reading the Granta Publication on Pakistan - a collection of fiction and non-fiction works by Pakistani writers - I was reminded of an event on Pakistani literature I attended a couple of years ago. It was a talk at the Asia Society in London with three new rising literary stars from Pakistan: Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie and Daniyal Mueenuddin.

At one point, the moderator commented on the recent rise of the Pakistani literary scene. The garrulous Ms Shamsie pounced excitedly on the subject stating how and why it was Pakistani-English writers' time in the sun. After she had gabbed on for a while, Mueenuddin, who had been remarkably taciturn throughout the evening, suddenly quipped that to say Pakistan had a literary "scene" was an exaggeration. If it existed, he certainly hadn't come across it. The room erupted into embarrassed titters and Ms Shamsie looked decidedly put-out.

After reading the Granta collection, I am inclined to agree with Mueenuddin.

The first sign of a lack of a vibrant literary scene is that all the three above-mentioned rising stars appear again in the collection. Obviously, the editor of the collection wasn't exactly spoilt for choice.

But more curious is the strange uniformity of voice that emerges from the collection. Barring two pieces - Leila in the Wilderness by the British-Pakistani Nadeem Aslam and Butt and Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif - the rest seem so stridently liberal. Don't get me wrong. I have no sympathy for fundamentalists. But how can all the writing arising out of a country so steeply diving towards fundamentalism sound so confidently, one-sidedly liberal?

Of course, the writers acknowledge that Pakistan is the gripped by a violent Islamization movement. But they can clearly see whose fault it is: Zia, America, Jinnah, military and ISI. And they can clearly see who all are affected by it: everyone. But how have the writers remained untouched by the phenomenon? Are they untouched by it? It is the absence of the voices from the middle that strikes me as strange.

Could the uniformity of voices be a result of the rather similar background of all the writers? Either, they moved to Britain or the US early on in life (Nadeem Aslam, Sarfraz Mansoor) or they all seem to belong to the incredibly privileged Pakistani elite. Ms Shamsie writes of visiting her cousins in London every summer and Aamer Hussein of spending childhood summers at Hyde Park. Daniyal Mueenuddin's family still owns huge farmlands in Pakistan. And Fatima Bhutto, well we all know where she stands in the Pakistani social hierarchy. Almost all of them have had long exposure to Western universities and cultures.

How representative are they of the culture they write about? Moreover, do the writers in such a collection need to come from diverse backgrounds?

Either way, writers with very similar backgrounds and attitudes becoming representative of the country's literature reek more of a clique than a literary scene. Of course, if you are inside the clique, it often appears like a scene to you, which may explain Ms Shamsie's enthusiasm.

Here's an interview with Daniyal Mueenuddin in which is comments on how most of his peers do not have access to rural Pakistan, where his own stories are set. Perhaps, that is why he holds different views on the existence/non-existence of a Pakistani literary scene.


Anonymous said...

Enjoying your blog.

Just a comment here, that perhaps the literary scene in Pakistan is liberal because rural Pakistan speaks Urdu among many other languages. Look at Farhat Ishaq. She writes wonderful Urdu literature, which is quite popular in Pakistan. But you might never have access to it during Pakistan Literary festival because it's in Urdu. And so far, no great Urdu novels have been translated into English.

globalbabble said...

Yes, I did think that to be the case. Somehow English literature seems to dominate world publishing industry, which is a shame. In countries where English is not the main language, a lot of works never reach a wider audience because they are not in English.