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Harris Khalique, Athar Tahir and Ilona Yusuf -- Photo by Tanveer Shahzad

By Haseeb Asif

The festival included a number of discussions on poetry and prose written in English by writers of Pakistani origin. Fittingly, much of the dialogue was lead by the Shamsie clan, and as one of the finest proponents of English-language literature about Pakistan, Kamila Shamsie was one of the main attractions for literature lovers at the two-day event.

It was her mother Muneeza, however, who started things off with a delightful discussion on English-language poetry with the wonderfully articulate Ilona Yusuf, Athar Tahir and Harris Khalique, which was almost immediately followed up by her presentation on “Pakistani English Novels in The New Millenium”.

Here she mentioned over 50 English-language Pakistani authors and their works, a number that served to both dispel and reinforce some of the myths about English fiction from Pakistan. It’s not as limited in number as people would like to believe, but the readership is not very large as many in the audience did not recognise a lot of the writers mentioned.

Literature in English seems to perennially battle inquisitions about purpose, usefulness and appeal to the general public. Muneeza Shamsie and Yusuf however, both argued persuasively that the market is not as niche or tiny as it’s made out to be, especially since English is not confined by nationalistic boundaries and ownership of the language and interest in Pakistan extend far across the globe.

One recurring theme of course was whether this global interest is too politicised, and only exists as an otherising, imperial gaze into a hostile territory. In a year where Intizar Husain’s translated works have been nominated for the Man Booker International prize, it was important to address the perennial tensions of writing in ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ languages.

To do exactly that, Muneeza Shamsie moderated a session called “Pakistan in the Western Imagination: What are the Challenges Faced by Pakistani Literature in English?” It focused on how literature shapes ideas about Pakistan. The panelists included Yusuf, novelist Shehryar Fazli and journalist/author Ahmed Rashid.

Rashid was of the opinion that English literature about Pakistan is a way for us to actively engage with the West, instead of just being passive recipients of research. For him, the act of writing is creative, but also intensely political and this translates into a dialectical process between writer and reader, no matter where they’re located geographically.

Yusuf picked up this trail of thought to talk about English fiction by the Pakistani diaspora, and how it’s rooted in a search for identity and the immigrant angst, and how it always comes back to the homeland itself. Examples are The Murder of Aziz Khan by Zulfikar Ghose and Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie.

Fazli has written a novel called Invitation that is set in the ’70s in Karachi. As an English-language journalist it made sense to him to use that language. It’s a medium of expression he’s evidently honed over the years, and his book has attracted a lot of attention because of subject matter that has rarely been touched upon in popular narratives, like the oppression and eventual independence of East Pakistan/Bangladesh.

According to Fazli, English Pakistani fiction doesn’t just challenge foreign imagination about Pakistan; it challenges the local imagination too, by questioning the dominant narratives.

It was repeatedly brought to light that people do experience Pakistan in diverse ways, that ours is not a homogenous culture, not even linguistically, and that people experience the idea of Pakistan in different languages. Exploring that in fiction and literature can thus never be relegated to any one language as no single language has hegemony in this country.

Kamila Shamsie explained that the writer should understand that they come from a point of ignorance, and writing is as much about learning as it is about expressing. While English fiction continues to entertain accusations of pandering to western audiences, it does bring interesting facets and new dimensions about Pakistan to a wider imagination.

Rounding up the literary sessions and the ensuing debate about language were Mohammed Hanif and H.M. Naqvi. Naqvi said that he started writing at the age of six, but it still doesn’t come naturally to him; he’s had to sweat over it. The decision of what language to employ while telling his story remains an important one in his mind. In the end he writes in English because that’s what’s more convenient for him, what he has more command over.

But regardless of choice of language, he said the writing itself takes great discipline and commitment to some idea, whether it’s exploring Pakistan or just telling a riveting story. He said he writes a minimum of 300 words every day, a small manageable amount that helps him push through the dry spells of inspiration, and potential writer’s blocks. He likens writing to an experiment of sorts, like being a carpenter who doesn’t know yet how to make a table. It took him five years to write Homeboy, for instance, and he’s still marinating his next book, which is going to be set in a metropolis much like Karachi.

Hanif echoed many of these sentiments, about slaving over his work, about having to pick a language every time he writes. He writes BBC columns in Urdu, poetry in Punjabi and literary fiction in English. He does this consciously, he said, because all three languages shape his Pakistani experience and because he finds expression in all three of them, and sometimes chooses only on the basis of what satisfies his own aesthetic sense while talking about a certain subject matter.

Writing fiction started off for him as a break from the pressures and exposures of journalism while still doing something he enjoyed — writing, telling stories. He’s also written a play, The Dictator’s Wife. Starring Nimra Bucha, the one-woman English-language play about the domestic life of a despotic military general turned out to be a huge hit at the closing ceremony of the festival.