Anglo-American critics’ recent attempts to analyse the perspectives of Pakistan offered by its contemporary fiction authors in English — my own included — have tended to focus on exploring how, in Amit Chaudhuri’s words: “Pakistani writers are interestingly poised: implicated in both the unfolding and the unravelling of our age”. That is, the age of capitalist meltdown, supposed civilisational clash and the global ‘war-on-terror’. In Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English: Idea, Nation, State Cara Cilano, Professor of English at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in the United States, returns her readers’ attentions to the national implications of Pakistani English narratives.
In choosing to focus exclusively on Anglophone Pakistani fiction, Cilano picks up the baton from Tariq Rahman, whose A History of Pakistani Literature in English (1991) has been the sole attempt to present a comprehensive overview of the subject. However, Cilano asserts that her “contribution maintains a strong interest in history but diverges from Rahman’s project in how it envisions the connection between historical events and literary narratives”. As she stresses in chapter one, her emphasis is on exploring how “contemporary” (mid-20th to early 21st century) Anglophone Pakistani fictions convey a sense of “what happened” at certain times in Pakistan’s history, rather than “continuing to focus intently” on what they may tell us about “why” specific events took place. Rather than “finding fault” with Pakistani English writing’s apparent lack of direct, political engagement and “failure to fictionalise” supposedly identity-shaping moments in the nation’s history (as Rahman does), Cilano focuses on how the narratives she examines choose to represent certain occurrences or eras, such as Partition or the decade of Zia’s “Islamisation”. She endeavours to explore the ways in which these literary texts “imaginatively probe the past, convey the present, and project a future in terms that facilitate a sense of collective belonging”. The ambivalent perspectives that emerge from reading them exist, she argues, in complex relation to the intersecting notions of Pakistan as “idea, nation, and state,” which may “attract or repel” identitarian attachments among the country’s diverse constituents.
Cilano’s study spans the period from 1947 to the present, and is divided into four parts. The first, ‘Idea to Nation,’ focuses on India’s Partition and the Bangladesh war as key moments in the country’s creation and re-conception. It considers how fictions by such founding authors as Khushwant Singh, Mumtaz Shah Nawaz, and Bapsi Sidhwa, as well as other less celebrated and younger writers, such as Mehr Masroor, Moni Mohsin, Sorayya Khan, and Saad Ashraf, illuminate a range of attitudes — nostalgic, optimistic, cynical, compliant, passive, and resistant — to unequal experiences of “belonging” in East and West Pakistan during its strained transition from colony and anti-colonial concept to postcolonial nation.
The second part examines notions of Pakistan as ‘Islamic Nation? Islamic State?’ through the historical novels of Tariq Ali, which explore Islamic syncretism before the birth of Pakistan, and through the fictions produced by a generation of writers who came of age largely in the Zia years, including Mohammed Hanif, Uzma Aslam Khan, Ali Sethi and Kamila Shamsie. In considering works by this younger group, such as Shamsie’s Broken Verses (2005), and Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), Cilano makes a particularly persuasive claim that their inquisitive narrators, often spurred by a desire to unravel “official” conspiracies, “challenge the dominant definitions of the ‘good Muslim’ along significantly gendered, indeed, outright queer lines” thus collectively reimagining “a more inclusive nation”.
‘Multicultural Nation, Privileged State,’ the book’s third section, involves a more grounded consideration of how novels set in Karachi — characterised by Cilano both as a pre-Partition space of religo-cultural diversity, and mythic “safe haven” for Muslim migrants who sought to “re-establish their lives” in the “nascent” postcolonial nation — “identify new terms with which to articulate belonging both to the city and the nation” that “rely heavily on the concept of mobility”. Yet, as she demonstrates, they also reveal the potency of a “nostalgic stuckness” in an idealised, syncretic past, which would challenge the cohesiveness of such “modern” visions. Her readings of Maniza Naqvi’s 2008 novel A Matter of Detail are particularly perceptive in this regard. Turning away from Karachi, Cilano focuses in section three’s latter half on an examination of the debut novels and short stories of Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid and Daniyal Mueenuddin. She argues that their novels “locate” neither the sprawling megalopolis, where new flexible modes of belonging within Pakistan may be (self-) made; nor the bureaucratic and legal structures of state; but rather the “feudal” zamindari class (whether city-dwelling or rural) as the “affective centre” of the state. Nevertheless, Cilano’s imaginative analyses show that such literary fictions also can identify weak spots. She suggests that they demonstrate how the zamindar’s seemingly all-pervasive authority may be subverted through the use of excessive language or “gossip,” and may even offer up a “voice railing against injustice and corruption [that] can serve as an alternative affective centre”.
The final part of Cilano’s study focuses on those post-9/11 “migrant” fictions by Aslam, Hamid, Shamsie and H. M. Naqvi such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), with which readers in the West are likely to be most familiar. These narratives, which unfold largely in spaces beyond Pakistan, such as America and Afghanistan, are included because, the author asserts, they “amplify and complicate their characters’ relation to collective national attachments and to the workings of state,” and “variously assert revised definitions of the nation or attempt to reach beyond that concept’s definition parameters” to other, global, human identities.
What is missing from Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English, it seems to me, is a consideration or acknowledgement of who Cilano considers these novels to be aimed at: for whom do these Anglophone texts, predominantly produced by transnational authors, explore concepts of idea, state and nation, why, and to what end? As she moves into a reading of the more internationally-engaged and oriented novels in the final chapter, Cilano’s language may betray a critical bias: she, like other western ‘commentators’ is interested in how these “migrant” fictions restore a sense of context to, and revise and reshape the more limited perspectives of contemporary Pakistan which — in what she terms “our post-9/11 era” — are prevalent in the US (my emphasis). However, the general implication in her study seems to be that the novels she examines are important for readers within Pakistan — Cilano asserts in her Introduction that “the Pakistani novel in English ... complements Pakistani multi-lingual imaginaries by presenting alternatives to standard versions of history” and “require[s] ... a reckoning with the realm of foreignness within the nation as within the self”. She establishes her consciousness that “Literature and other forms of artistic production can promote collective identifications, ... culture can help bind nation and state just as much as it can stand in opposition to one or both”. Yet a sense of the authorial, as opposed to the narrative voice, seems peculiarly absent from her readings. It is almost as if these texts were produced out of thin air; although Cilano is sensitive to the challenging perspectives that are contained within their pages of “what happened” historically, little attention is paid in her study to the contexts of their production and dissemination, or to their (political) import as texts that circulate both among English-language readers in Pakistan, and in wider worlds.
Another slight frustration relates to structure. The summative paragraphs following the discussion of each novel are useful in recapping of the arguments expounded in relation to that text, but do little to link between the chapters or draw together the readings of the different novels considered within them (particularly noticeable at the end of chapter seven, where ‘Pakistan’ seems to fall off the radar). Hence the reader loses sight of an overall argument. This problem is compounded by the fact that there is no conclusion offered at the close of Cilano’s text. Readers are forced to return to the opening Abstract and Introduction in search of a thesis. When we do so we find the following perfectly legitimate disclaimer: her “literary analyses do not forward a single definition of Pakistaniness nor construct a theoretical model that applies across the ... fictions examined”; rather, “they offer readings that conjure a myriad possibilities” which may “challenge ... assumptions about Pakistan’s ‘failure’ as an idea or a nation or a state” and “present an ‘opportunity to dream of alternative modes of association’” with these formations. But the frustration remains, and it would be useful to have some kind of restatement of aims, intentions, and what has been demonstrated to bring to a close an otherwise stimulating and impressive survey text.
Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English is a substantial critical endeavour and will provide rich material for the reader who seeks to explore more deeply the ways in which Anglophone literary texts may contribute, literarily, to Pakistan’s (re-) conceptualisation. It provides a welcome shift away from the recent critical fixation on the lurid portraits transnational Pakistani English fiction may paint of the ‘bombs and mullahs’ aspect of the nation’s face in the decade after the ‘war on terror,’ and towards a more nuanced appreciation of the diverse affective attachments to — and detachments from — the country as an idea, nation and state which such writings, historical and contemporary, may continue to illuminate.
The reviewer has a PhD in English with a focus on contemporary South Asian literature
Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English: Idea, Nation, State (Literary Criticism) By Cara Cilano Routledge, US ISBN 978415682763 263pp.