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COLUMN: MONGRELS AND REBELS

September 03, 2017

While observers and analysts of Pakistani Anglophone literature focus exclusively on writers and authors, they almost completely ignore the issue of publishing in Pakistan. Perhaps because there have been no significant players in the last decade. Yet the dearth of well-established publishers in Pakistan creates a vacuum that drives most serious writers towards India or English-speaking Western countries, and newer writers try to break through with self-publishing or vanity publishing.

In order to thrive, Pakistani literature needs Pakistani publishers, and Pakistani author Shandana Minhas decided to do something about this dismal scene. “International interest in Pakistani authors has not translated into any difference in the state of local publishing,” she says, “and the conversation around the alchemy of literature is not evolving.”

This year, the award-winning writer set up a small press called Mongrel Books. Known as a woman who doesn’t bow to the conventions of the writing industry, Minhas exhibits the same spirit in refusing to accept that Pakistani publishing is a foregone conclusion. “An entrenched elite has created the self-serving perception that this is because it can’t be done. I went into publishing to illustrate the difference between ‘can’t be done’ and ‘don’t want to do it’.”

But how to attract Pakistani authors to a local publisher? “We got so many submissions within the first couple of months, from all over the world, that we had to close them till our next reading period in February 2018, so clearly there is interest,” says Minhas. “As a small press in a country where people will spend thousands on clothes or a meal, but quibble over a few hundred rupees for a book, we’re clearly not driven by profit, so we’re interested in publishing work more commercial publishers might not touch.”

Minhas juggles her publishing responsibilities with nurturing her own writing career. This takes its toll on her day-to-day life — she’s the mother of three boys — and finding time to write can be a struggle. But the transition from writer to publisher has had its own rewards. “I’m learning that I have even more to learn than I thought I did.” Her novella Rafina is being published next year by Picador India, and the revision process will take on a vastly different tenor now that she knows what it’s like on the other side of the desk.

Mongrel’s second publication, The Light Blue Jumper by Sidra F. Sheikh, was published in June 2017. Minhas recognised the potential of the book — a sci-fi story of a small blue alien — as soon as she read the manuscript. “It takes the darkness of our times and transforms it into something palatable, using sophisticated literary technique and plain, old-fashioned banter.”

When asked what the relationship between an author and editor is like, Minhas turns droll — her sense of humour is caustic, delivered with a deadpan expression and flat voice that belies her delight in shocking people out of their polite apathy. “Instant attraction. Intimacy. Then you both move on to other books. But I’m hoping Sidra and I will always have a little something between us.”

It’s that intense working relationship between writer and editor, as well as the joy of discovering great writing, that Minhas draws energy from, even as the work is back-breaking and risky. Is Pakistan ready for a Pakistani work of science fiction, though? Minhas thinks it is. “There’s a need for more imaginative fiction. We live in a world that can no longer be satirised. There is no horror we are not actively exploring. The reason more people are turning to reading and writing works of more inventive imagination is that those works are closer to reality than the grittiest of the gritty realism bookshelves are beset by.”

Minhas herself is a science fiction and fantasy enthusiast whose tastes range from Frank Herbert to Ursula K. Le Guin, Terry Pratchett to J.G. Ballard. Still, she is realistic about the potential of genre fiction that isn’t crime or noir-related in a place such as Pakistan. “I can’t speak with authority about the market because booksellers here won’t share their numbers and I haven’t been a publisher long enough to take a shot at patterns myself. I can tell you, though, that it’s even smaller than you think it probably is.”

But when it comes to teaching a new generation of writers the ins and outs of publication, Minhas turns serious. She’s emphatically clear about what she looks for as a publisher: “The test when considering a manuscript is: do we want to keep turning the page?” She believes in professionalism at all stages of the writing process, urging that writers insist they be paid for their work. She doesn’t look kindly either on writers who ignore the etiquette of submitting to agents or publishers. “Things not to do include not researching the elements of a good query, calling instead of emailing, being abusive or aggressive or acting like we’re going to work for you instead of with you.” It’s that sense of Pakistani entitlement that might just be Pakistani writers’ biggest obstacle in their own success.

Even more serious for Minhas is the economics that drive the industry. According to a printer’s association, there are over 15,000 printing units in the country employing over 1 million people, making them the second largest labour employer after textiles. Minhas points out that it’s not just Mongrel, but other clients who could benefit from tapping the industry’s capacity to be competitive with other regional players.

Here’s where Minhas turns publishing activist, urging all the stakeholders in book production to come together to lobby for less hostile business conditions. A lack of quality paper is a big problem, with huge tariffs levied on the raw materials needed to make good paper, while books can be imported tax-free. According to Minhas, other policies in place also suggest the interests of a few are being protected over the needs of the many. “As a citizen of this country, I would be very interested in hearing why something that factors into my access to book making and reading is so prohibitive.”

While Minhas remains cynical about the literary establishment in general — “Culture pages can review our books, to start with” — she looks to the underdogs as the determining factor for Mongrel Books’s success. “So far our little indie has found the most unlikely champions: radio stations, bloggers and papers that are often dismissed as ‘frivolous’. I’ll take the frivolous over the pretentious any day. They’re open to change. They understand ‘change’ is just another word for fashion.”

The columnist is a Karachi-based writer, author of six books and also writes for The New York Times

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 1st, 2017