By Anam Haq
In an effort to accommodate a variety of literature and reading interests, the LLF had a session devoted to children’s literature. Even though this did not attract throngs, it was one of the better moderated and more productive sessions, not least because the three panellists were actively involved in children’s literature in diverse and significant ways, and also because Afia Aslam, the moderator, was on top of her game.
Panellists included Baela Raza Jamil, director of programmes at Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi; Nina Fite, the US consul general in Lahore; and Musharraf Ali Farooqi whose children’s book Tik Tik, the Master of Time has recently been published. Aslam began by asking the panellists what the general landscape of children’s literature in Pakistan is. Jamil’s active engagement with children was apparent when she spoke about the successful children’s literature festival which has been held annually for three years throughout Pakistan, and said that children are all awaiting an outlet to express themselves. She quoted examples of children who, in the festival, had chosen to write on themes that affect the entire nation — missing people, families torn apart by war and poverty. Children, she said, deserve literature which addresses these issues because children do not live in an insulated world and can respond to complex situations just as adults can.
Fite mentioned that the USAID has rebuilt over 900 schools in areas affected by war and is focusing on implementing literacy programmes throughout the country. She also spoke about the role played by children’s literature in building bridges between cultures by giving the example of a children’s story set in America in the early 20th century, which she had read to school children in Pakistan. She pointed out that the themes of family bonds, parental love, the importance of education and so on are relevant to each child no matter what his/her location in the world.
When asked how he addresses conflict in his writing for children, Farooqi said that he chooses to address healing instead. Drawing on his own memories, he said that children do not read to be reminded of all that is ugly in their world but to break free of it and use their imaginations to find a way to reconstruct their lives. His writing, he said, provide escapism of sorts as he focuses more on relationships and their role in the healing process. For instance, the relationship a character from another galaxy has with his grandfather can be instructional not just in providing fertile ground for a child’s imagination but also in teaching children about friendship and respect in different circumstances. He encouraged parents to allow their children to read even if it meant that they weren’t doing outstandingly at school.
The discussion then veered towards a central component in children’s learning — storytelling. There is a strong tradition of storytelling in the subcontinent and it is the most effective way of informing children about the world in a way that piques their interest. The romantic stories of paris and jinns, as well as the comic exaggerations of Chacha Chakkan and Haji Baghlol have been around in the South Asian cultural fabric for decades and the fact that children are now secluded from that rich and fun learning experience is regretful. Farooqi recalled the tamashas of yore where storytellers would play out entire stories to an enthralled audience of children and adults alike. Jamil ended the session on the note that education in Pakistan needs to utilise these existing local pedagogies which requires a process of unlearning and re-learning on part of teachers and parents.
LAHORE LITERARY FESTIVAL: UNDER EVERY STONE
THE dreamy title, ‘A Sense of Place,’ suggested an emphasis on the role of place in writing and the session gathered writers in whose work place plays an intrinsic part: Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms Other Wonders is rooted in southern Punjab and Lahore; Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is a Bombay bhaji through and through; H.M. Naqvi’s Home Boy is played out against New York in the aftermath of 9/11; and Ebba Koch, the art historian whose passion for Mughal architecture has defined her work for the past 30 years. The choice of moderator though, was bewildering — Omar Waraich, a senior journalist whose main interests are politics and current affairs.
The session started out encouragingly, with speakers talking about how the process of understanding a place has informed their work. Koch examined her study of Mughal architecture in both India and Pakistan and its echoes in the social fabric of society. She declared the Mughal era as being a “utopia of the past” for the present generation of South Asians — a legacy of religious peace, intellectual learning and sophistication — a heritage that lives on in any retelling of Mughal history. Naqvi recounted his all encompassing research for Home Boy, absorbing New York in every way his characters could imagine, as well as helpfully naming the best place for nihari in the city on a homesick day. Thayil mentioned how Narcopolis came from his unconsciously stored memories of Bombay from the past 30 years. The unwrapping of such personal processes offered insights into not just the craft of these writers but also into the craft of writing itself and its profound relationship with the author’s world.
Thereafter though, the session went awry, not least due to the moderator’s inability to keep the panellists on topic. Of course, writers love to speak about their work (and themselves) and so the discussion rambled. In reply to a question about whether the plot is constructed fully before the actual writing process begins, Mueenuddin said that stories choose the author, hence even the author is trying to find out where the story is going. This uncertainty within the writing process, he said, keeps the author motivated and usually translates into interesting reading for the audience. Naqvi further elaborated by saying that characters are individual voices with agency and so to tell them what to do would be peculiar.