SHANDANA Minhas speaks at the Alliance Francaise on Thursday.—White Star
SHANDANA Minhas speaks at the Alliance Francaise on Thursday.—White Star

KARACHI: Readers of literature were treated to an interesting exchange of ideas between writer and publisher Shandana Minhas and writer Bina Shah at an event titled The Light Blue Jumper at the Alliance Francaise de Karachi on Thursday.

Shah set the ball rolling by introducing Minhas as a maverick of writing and asked her to encapsulate herself as a writer. Minhas said she was a writer first and then a Pakistani. She considered herself as part of a long tradition of storytellers. “I don’t think the story has any boundaries.”

Minhas argued there were two distinct strands of English language fiction: one, the fiction written by people who lived here [in Pakistan] and wrote in Pakistani English; two, those who wrote in a different kind of English which was not Pakistani English. “I would identify with the first one. The argument could be backed up by the choice of our vocabulary and use [of] our imagery.”

Shah’s second question was about her transition from being a writer to a publisher (she has a publishing house, Mongrel Books). Minhas replied somebody brought her a manuscript a few years ago and she thought it was good; but the writer couldn’t find a publisher for it because the manuscript wouldn’t have ticked any of the boxes that, say, an Indian or European publisher would’ve wanted.

She couldn’t find a publisher locally as well, so Minhas thought that she (and her husband Imran) should do it. That was the first book but unfortunately the writer hired a corporate lawyer that was why Minhas said “thank you” to her because “part of independent (publishing) ethos was that you cut out all those layers between you and author”.

Minhas then said one should not use the word ‘independent’ (publisher) because there were such publishers who were huge, and “we are a small press”. When Shah quipped what was her plan for success, she retorted “survival would be a good start”. She said her publishing house had acquired four manuscripts and they began with an anthology featuring 21 writers. It was launched at T2F.

Minhas remarked that in the past 15 years we had fallen into this sense of low self-esteem that we were incapable of original thought or speech. “That is not the country I was born in.”

Coming back to the question of facing difficulties as a publisher, Minhas told the host she didn’t have time to think about it; every day there’s so much to do. But, she pointed out, there were aspects of publishing that she was completely blown away by. She was surprised by how ignorant Pakistanis were about publishing. To date she received emails and calls of people saying “publish my book, publish my book”. Also, when she rejected some material for the anthology, their writers got aggressive and started stalking her.

Talking about the first novel that her publishing house published, The Light Blue Jumper, Minhas said it’s a sci-fi book, written by Sidra F. Sheikh. It’s about a little alien lost in space. She said before she gave her views on science fiction, she needed to speak about technology. She said, “Technology is how you manage the interfaces with the material world. So the teapot is technology, my glasses are technology, what we eat is technology…” Once we started to think like that our idea of science fiction expanded. Science was not just physics, chemistry, biology; it was also anthropology and psychology etc. Sidra’s “book is about what it means to be alive today. It’s about a little blue alien who has this ability that every time he faces a moral or physical threat he disappears and ends up in another place. Sidra has a bit of Douglas Adams in her.”

At that point, both Bina Shah and Shandana Minhas discussed what ‘dystopia’ meant. They also picked each other’s brains on Shah’s upcoming book that is on the same subject, inspired by George Orwell’s 1984.

Speaking on the literary trends in Pakistan, Minhas commented, “Writers should demand to be paid.” She said writers submitted their material to magazines who instead of paying them gave them a sample copy of their magazine. She insisted that the magazines should give writers a cheque instead of the sample copy.

In between the discussion, Minhas read out an excerpt from The Light Blue Jumper and Shah read a poem from the anthology.

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2017

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