Claire Chambers is a Senior Lecturer on Global Literature at York University and co-editor of The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. She also contributes to Eos and is the author of British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers and Britain through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations 1780-1988. She is currently working on its sequel.

Her new book, Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays, brings together a wide range of incisive, critical writings and looks at literary production in Britain, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa to illuminate some of the burning issues of our day.

Chambers first came to Pakistan aged 17, in her ‘gap year’ prior to university. During 1993-94 she taught at the Fazlehaq College in Mardan and later the Islamia Public High School, Peshawar. This experience translated into her interest in South Asian English literature. At university, she found Indian English writing was the rage, but soon discovered writers from other South Asian countries such as Hanif Kureishi and Michael Ondaatje. By 2000 she was caught up in excitement over new Pakistani English writing, too. This engagement informs Rivers of Ink, as does her interest in writing from the Muslim world.

A lucid, diverse and critical collection of essays that look at literary production across the globe to illuminate some of today’s most-discussed issues

In the essay ‘Writing Beyond Borders’, Chambers discusses the demarcation of literature into categories such “South Asian literature”, “Pakistanis writing in English” and “British Muslim fictions” and stresses the importance of using these terms judiciously and with a degree of elasticity. She adds, “We must aim for an accommodating, fluid world (of) literature. In this ideal world, distinctions are constantly challenged, mutating and overlapping.”

One of the finest essays in the collection is ‘To Love the Moor: Postcolonial Artists Write Back to Shakespeare’s Othello’. The essay begins with attitudes in Elizabethan England towards the Moroccan ambassador on whom the character of Othello is said to have been based. Chambers’s exploration of William Shakespeare’s original and postcolonial reinterpretations includes Tayeb Salih’s intertextual engagement with Othello in his 1966 Arabic novel Mawsim al Hijra ila al Shamal (translated into English as Season of Migrations to the North). She goes on to discuss Toni Morrison’s feminist, Afro-American adaptation, Desdemona — a stage drama in which Desdemona has a much stronger voice than in Shakespeare’s original. Morrison fleshes out other women characters too, particularly Desdemona’s maid Barbary (the Elizabethan word for Africa) who is restored to her pre-slavery name, Sa’ran, and speaks of Africa. Chambers leads up to the several Indian versions of Othello, particularly Vishal Bhardwaj’s film Omkara in which the Othello-like title character is the dark-skinned son of a Dalit mother and higher caste father. He is scorned as a half-caste/half-breed, while Desdemona is translated into Dolly, the pale-skinned daughter of a Brahmin father who is outraged by her elopement with Omkara the “swarthy gangster.”

In Rivers of Ink, Chambers continues to seamlessly interweave and interlink different literary texts with translations discussed alongside Anglophone writing. She focuses on Pakistan in particular in a sequence of essays, each set in a different region or city, including Rawalpindi/Islamabad and Kashmir. In ‘Lahore Lahore Hai: Bapsi Sidhwa and Mohsin Hamid’s Urban Fiction’, she interprets different aspects of the city through the work of both these writers. Sindh is presented through fiction-writing by women including Fahmida Riaz, Qaisra Shahraz and Shaila Abdullah and leads up to Bina Shah’s A Season for Martyrs which welds politics, history and Sindhi literature. Balochistan and Peshawar are discussed as the subject of colonial writing by Rudyard Kipling and others, which has been challenged, in turn, by Pakistani writers. Chambers devotes considerable space to Jamil Ahmad’s novel The Wandering Falcon and its rare insights into Baloch life. She analyses Kamila Shamsie’s novel A God in Every Stone, which portrays and celebrates Peshawar and its history and antiquity and also refers to the lyrical writings of Peshawari poet Farid Gul Momand and the English-language poet Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s ‘Passing Through Peshawar’.

In her book, Chambers often uses topical incidents or events to give context to her literary discussions. She addresses human rights in ‘Torturing the Other: Who is the Barbarian?’ by exploring several related texts including J.M. Coetzee’s attack on Empire titled Waiting for the Barbarians, Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the Nazis in Eichmann in Jerusalem and Moazzam Begg’s memoir Enemy Combatant: The Terrifying True Story of a Briton in Guantanamo. She looks at the horror of acid violence in the South Asian novels of Manohar Malgonkar, Feryal Ali Gauhar, Mohammed Hanif and Monica Ali, and also refers to Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s documentary Saving Face and Kabori Sarwar’s telefilm Ayna, set in Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively.

She also takes a look at the travelogues of Atiya Fyzee and Shahbano Begum Maimoona Sultan of Bhopal. The independent, unveiled and unmarried Fyzee was at a teacher’s training college in London; the newlywed purdah-nasheen [veil observant] Sultan was governed by her formidable mother-in-law, the Begum of Bhopal. But both women write of stereotyped British notions of ‘Mahomedans’.

Chambers uses a wide selection of work by Arab writers and filmmakers to illuminate ‘Culture and the Arab Spring’ and related protests against tyranny. This includes Egypt-born Ahdaf Soueif’s memoir Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. Chambers expands the discourse on dictatorship and repressive regimes to the Anglophone novels of Libya-born Hisham Matar and Syria-born Robin Yassin-Kassab, who focus on their respective homelands, but their writings foreshadow the Arab Spring. In ‘The Reality and the Record: Muslim Refugee Stories’, she tackles a particularly topical subject, referring in particular to portrayals in the fiction of Iraqi refugee Hassan Blasim, Jordanian-British writer Fadia Faqir and Zanzibari-British novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Chambers’s essays on the Muslim response to Britain (which is also the subject of her book Britain Through Muslim Eyes) are particularly rewarding as she describes works that are little known or little discussed today, such as Marmaduke Pickthall’s short stories and two novels: he is, of course, the famous convert to Islam and best known for his celebrated English translation of the Holy Quran.

She also takes a lively look at the early 20th century travelogues of Atiya Fyzee and Shahbano Begum Maimoona Sultan of Bhopal. Both books were written in Urdu and later translated into English, but their authors were very different. The independent, unveiled and unmarried Fyzee was at a teacher’s training college in London; the newlywed purdah-nasheen [veil observant] Sultan was governed by her formidable mother-in-law, the Begum of Bhopal. But both women write of stereotyped British notions of ‘Mahomedans’ and both are committed to the education and empowerment of their fellow countrywomen.

Chambers also attacks the present times’ growing racist, right wing rhetoric in the West in essays such as ‘Islamophobia: Orwellian Newspeak or Racially Inflected Hatred?’ and ‘Fight the Bannonality of Evil’ (a reference to White House advisor Steve Bannon). The many other subjects she addresses range from feminism, young adult fiction and Bengali writing in English to the influence of Frantz Fanon, Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak on critical studies.

Rivers of Ink is an immensely readable book. It is a lucid, diverse and comprehensive work that has much to offer to both general readers and scholars alike; it also introduces many books that need to be much better known in Pakistani academia.

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

Rivers of Ink: Selected
Essays
By Claire Chambers
Oxford University Press,
Karachi
ISBN: 978-019940662
390pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 3rd, 2018

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