THE Pakistani novel in English occupies a space of contestation and confusion.
There are those that believe that it must be a response to global articulations of Pakistan. Others insist that it must be a defence of a culture and context widely misunderstood.
Just as vehement are detractors, who insist that the novel as an art form must focus on stories that lie at the recesses of mainstream discourse, the ones that remain untold, and hence forgotten. Considering the Pakistani novel in English begs the question of whether writing of any sort must have an agenda.
Such questions about the Pakistani novel were the basis of one of the discussions held at the Karachi Literature Festival last weekend. The timing of the conversation was apt, occurring as it did in the echoes of those at the Jaipur Literature Festival where Indian authors grappled with similar conundrums.
Similarities between scribes on either side of the border seem to end there. As the glitter and drama of the much larger, far less beleaguered, and far more feted Jaipur Literature Festival amply illustrated, literary culture in India falls neatly into a widely marketed and globally embraced larger trope of ‘incredible India’.
Among the country’s exotic offerings are literary narratives in English that duly explore its complexities, amplify its romanticism, and are varied enough to give voice to its gritty innards. Add to this an English-speaking and increasingly hungry-to-read Indian middle class, and you arrive at a dream destination for authors and publishers alike.
Against the joyful hugs Indian writers receive from local and global audiences, the Pakistani writer receives at best a limp handshake. The first challenge is simply one of a miniscule local reading public. Add to this the transformation of the Pakistani public sphere in a way that literature in general and particularly literature in English bears the burdens of inauthenticity and foreign-ness.
The consequence bred by these twin constrictions is a politically sustained anti-intellectualism that considers creative, cultural and literary pursuits as inherently suspect. Its fomenters are not simply the most visibly hostile — the Pakistani Taliban and their ilk — but also those who coddle populism and use the gray areas between anti-colonialism and a brutish intellectual isolation as centrepieces of their political rhetoric.
If literary production fits neatly into the picture of an incredible India, unique and yet globally engaged, a bookless Pakistan — one particularly shorn of English books — fits into one of a Pakistan in petulant times.
These larger tropes of both global and local suspicion were all reflected in the conversation between H.M Naqvi, Uzma Aslam Khan, Shandana Minhas, and Bina Shah last Saturday.
In her reflection, Khan — most recently the author of Thinner Than Skin — presented a heap of challenges in addition to the above. The vagaries of the creative process, the task of surviving on the meagre and unpredictable revenues of a writer’s life, and the prerogative of developing bonds with the stories birthed from the pen further add to the precariousness of the fiction writer’s pursuit.
Minhas, as prescient in person as she is in her prose, gave a frank casting of more personal pains — the smallness of the Pakistani literary pond and the inevitable predation that results for those who must swim in it.
Then there is the global sob story. As Shah aptly put it, “there was a lot of pressure after 9/11 for the Pakistani writer to produce the 9/11 novel.” Her words are a summary of where Pakistani writing in English stands in a global literary canon dominated by Anglo-Saxon narratives.
In the global reader’s imagination, hence, the little piece that belongs to Pakistan is one that will inevitably focus on terror, the complications of extremism, angry Taliban threats, corrupt dictators, and perhaps a deposed judge or two. If the local readers blame the Pakistani writer in English for being caught in a bubble, the global audience demands its own typecasting.
All these constrictions leave a small inhabitable space for the writer. Local readers want the writer to sell Pakistan as they want to see it, replete with cosy images of locally hewn heroes who never go abroad, an aspirational Pakistan that would exist in fiction and provide a kinder, gentler reflection of reality.
On the other side, global readers, if only implicitly, demand a verification or even an exaggeration of their own fears, an affirmative cast of characters that features adequate numbers of subjugated women and demonic men, existing in singular moral dimensions, devoid of complexity or ambiguity.
It’s a tall order on either side, and its frustrations were well represented last week. As Naqvi said in response to a question that treaded on similar accusations, perhaps the problem lies not in the Pakistani author writing in English but rather the Pakistani reader.
A lot of truth lies in those words, and it goes beyond the literal. It may well be that Pakistani readers find Pakistani authors inadequate or unaccomplished in reflecting the reality they want or the reality they would wish for. In doing so, however, they may be representing just as well their own confusions, the unfulfilled distance between what Pakistan is and what they wished it to be.
In this sense, then, the reflections of the country in prose can only be lacking, because the reality on which they are based is similarly, achingly, and quite tragically also wanting.
The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.