AT the inauguration ceremony of the sixth annual KLF, noted academic and drama critic, Framji Minwalla, conveyed the choice for the French Embassy literary prize for the best Pakistani fiction to the audience. In his preamble, he claimed, “Pakistani fiction both at home and in the diaspora is alive to the complexities of our interdependent pasts and present, fashioning imaginative realms … that give us faith in the capacity of stories to shed light on the murkier corners of our lives.”
The winner this year was Shandana Minhas’s children’s novel, Survival Tips for Lunatics, though the notable mentions of the shortlist included worthy competitors such as Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, Aamer Hussein’s The Swan’s Wife, and Soniah Kamal’s An Isolated Incident.
It is a tribute to the KLF that a major creative intellect such as that of Hussein’s is able to engage with a receptive audience as part of the festival’s sessions. In a talk moderated by writer Bilal Tanweer, Hussein spoke with disarming frankness about various authors that have helped to shape and influence his work and development alike. These include James Baldwin and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as Edward Said. The latter determined Hussein’s choice of texts when it came to reading, since, as many would agree, Said is instrumental in determining how we are perceived in the eyes of others.
Over the years, Hussein has made numerous contributions to the field of Anglophone literature in general, and that authored by Pakistanis in particular, so his audience was intrigued to find that he has considerable command over a number of languages other than English and Urdu, including Persian, French and Italian. Although most of his major work is in English, he has also written short stories in Italian, and commented on how the Romance languages lend themselves to smoother translation into Urdu than do less emotive languages such as English.
Based on his session, Hussein’s attitude towards his craft appears refreshingly apolitical. Aptly titled ‘Mirror of the Mind’, his talk enabled his audience to appreciate the mental divides that arise from speaking and thinking in different languages; indeed, the author perceptively noted that many writers think predominantly in images as opposed to words. Whether this accounts for the strongly visual aspect of Hussein’s own work is a fascinating point; regardless, he displayed a great sensitivity towards the interface between words, images, sensations, and meaning.
Seasoned writers such as Hussein, Rukhsana Ahmed (who was also present at the above-mentioned session) and Bapsi Sidhwa all authored collections of short stories last year. However, those interested in more recent Anglophone Pakistani authors found the book launch of David Waterman’s 2015 text, Where Worlds Collide: Pakistani Fiction in the New Millennium, to be an equally rewarding experience in its own way. In discussion with his fellow panellist, the renowned Muneeza Shamsie, Waterman implied that his text was original in its approach primarily because it linked and connected themes concerning identity and expression that are common to all nine of the relatively recent texts he has chosen to examine. These include books by Mohsin Hamid, Uzma Aslam Khan, and Sorayya Khan amongst others. Muneeza Shamsie opined that Khan’s Noor was an especially welcome inclusion because it examines aspects of the traumatic 1971 war that severed East and West Pakistan, thereby resulting in a past that “we dare not forget”. Waterman agreed, and the panel respected the fact that while more obviously famous books such as Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist appeal to readers globally, novels such as Noor help Pakistanis themselves connect more fully with vital aspects of their own past.
This important issue of a necessary dialogue between the literature of South Asian countries was further explored in a panel moderated by Shamsie titled ‘The English Language Literatures of South Asia: Do They Interact with Each Other?’ India-based publisher Ritu Menon, who has over three decades of experience in the world of publishing, lamented that due to strict bans on the exchange of printed material between India and Pakistan (and restrictions between India and Sri Lanka), South Asian countries have to rely on Western publishing houses in order to gain access to books authored by their own neighbours. She emphasised that Arundhati Roy was the only Indian writer of recent years who had “forced her publisher to release her book in India prior to having it released in the West.”
Menon acknowledged (as did her fellow panellists H.M. Naqvi and poetess Sadaf Saaz) that the availability of English translations of South Asian works, as well as the literary efforts of Anglophone writers, promoted a valuable linguistic inclusivity that bridges countries and cultures in spite of divisive politics.
Naqvi was part of a panel (moderated by Christopher Merrill) on the Iowa Writers’ Residency Programme. This commendable endeavour, founded in 1967, brings together talented upcoming writers from many different countries for a three-month long residency in Iowa City that enables them to interact with each other and fosters a stimulating, creative environment. Novelists such as Dr Kavery Nambisan and Bina Shah spoke about how, in spite of the inevitable culture shock, they found the programme — which is overseen by Merrill — to be a productive one, with some memorable humorous moments. Certainly the programme must be doing something right since several of the panellists/former Iowa residents are now prize-winning authors — Naqvi won the DSC prize a few years ago for Home Boy, Shah’s novel Slum Child won an Italian award, and the feather in Minhas’s creative cap has already been mentioned.
Returning full circle to Minhas and Minwalla, they were also part of an interesting panel (along with Reshma Barshikar and Mira Sethi) that grappled with what now seems to be the age-old relationship between women and fiction. Although moderator Minwalla did his best to elicit some truths about the patriarchal tensions and discrimination that underlie how women authors are perceived by others, and indeed how they perceive themselves, no general consensus was reached on these matters by either the panel or the audience.
The three female panellists did, however, seem understandably reluctant to pigeon-hole themselves into gender-based categories, especially Minhas, who gently but firmly asserted that one’s craft and writing should ultimately matter more to the integrity of an author than externally imposed conceptions. Titled ‘The Legacy of Scheherazade’, the panel operated under the overarching theme that storytelling is an art at which women naturally excel.
Be that as it may, most writers, regardless of gender or nationality, would do well to keep in mind Minhas’s wry, but wise, comment on receiving her KLF prize: that neither praise nor criticism should be taken too seriously. Underlying this point is the truism that ultimately one’s writing can and should speak for itself.