Fatima Bhutto
Fatima Bhutto

The global threat of the coronavirus outbreak and the safety measures that followed have had unprecedented consequences on all industries around the world, including publishing. Writers and book publishers have come up with innovative ways to stay connected with their fans using all the digital platforms at their disposal. While many creative literary initiatives are still on the horizon, here is a breakdown of a few that I found the most exciting.

Stay Home, Stay Reading on Instagram is one such global virtual initiative, launched by two of our very own Karachi writers. It is the brainchild of Fatima Bhutto and Sanam Maher, both of whom were in the midst of their own book promotions before the Covid-19 pandemic threw a wrench into their plans.

Bhutto talked to me about the origins of this project. “We [Sanam and I] were chatting one day about this surreal state of affairs — both of us had tours lined up for our books; me for The Runaways which just came out in paperback in the United Kingdom and is out in the United States in August, and Sanam had just come back from Australia for A Woman Like Her: The Short Life of Qandeel Baloch, and had more events to come — and I was wondering what there was to do to help other writers who found themselves at the mercy of this lockdown.”

Their project seems to have become a roaring success in the literary world, getting immense support from globally acclaimed writers who have been contributing videos to this virtual initiative. These include renowned literary names such as Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night), Max Porter (Grief is the Thing with Feathers), Isabel Allende (A Long Petal of the Sea), H.M. Naqvi (The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack), Damian Barr (You Will be Safe Here) and Sinead Gleeson (Constellations: Reflections from Life). “We’ve received videos from writers with massive platforms, such as [poet, illustrator and author] Rupi Kaur, from Ramallah to New York, in Urdu, Italian, Greek, Hindi and English amongst other languages,” Maher said.

Stuck at home? Struggling to write? A virtual world beckons you to stories and the craft of storytellers

She is happy to contribute in some small way to helping anyone in the reading and writing community affected by shop closures, literature festival and event cancellations, and the need for social distancing. Maher especially noted how they have been getting a lot of videos from debut authors who have been unable to promote their book releases because of the lockdown.

Another exciting Pakistani literary initiative is The Author Q&A series — a collection of short video interviews of Pakistani writers by Mariam Tareen and Tamreez Inam. Tareen, who runs the site thewritingroom.co, told me she was inspired by the Stay Home, Stay Reading project. “I’d been thinking about doing a series of interviews with Pakistani writers for a while (even before the lockdown began), but it was always pushed to the back burner. Then came the lockdown and, with it, the disappearance of the front burner,” Tareen said. “I wanted to watch a series of interviews with writers, specifically with Pakistani writers, so I thought, why not create one?”

She reached out to her friend Tamreez Inam, who runs the readingpakistan Instagram page which curates and promotes books by Pakistani authors, to collaborate with her on this project. According to Inam, “Right now, so much exciting writing is coming out of Pakistan and writers are experimenting with so many genres from science fiction to romance to reimagining the qissa and daastan. So, we were excited to capture some of this writing and get to know these writers a little better.”

For Tareen, the focus of these question-and-answer sessions is to get to know these writers better as people. “We asked about their favourite books and their writing lives, but also about their most treasured possessions, their hobbies, their idea of perfect happiness, the best advice they’ve ever gotten. We wanted to keep the interviews short but revealing, and most of all, fun. [This was] a chance to see the writer up close: both metaphorically and quite literally, too, if you’re watching them on your phone.” The writers so far scheduled for these Q&A sessions are Fatima Bhutto, Mohsin Hamid (Exit West), Bilal Tanweer (The Scatter Here Is Too Great), Moni Mohsin (The Return of the Butterfly), Musharraf Ali Farooqi (The Merman and the Book of Power: A Qissa) and Sabyn Javeri (Hijabistan) among others.

Sanam Maher
Sanam Maher

Quarantine is proving to be a challenging time for many people who are struggling with being productive and staying positive. This project aims to address this by showing people “snapshots of these writers at this strange and vulnerable moment in time.”

“We ended each interview by asking them how it was affecting their writing lives, and where they’d want to go the moment it will be over,” Tareen added. An aspiring writer herself, she thinks the writing advice collected in these interviews, in particular, has turned out to be an incredible resource for anyone who wants to write. This was also one of the objectives of the Stay Home, Stay Reading project. According to Bhutto, both she and Maher wanted not only to support writers and booksellers, but also mitigate loneliness in the strange times we are living through.

It is interesting how both these virtual initiatives are Instagram-based — a social media platform usually thought of as limiting because of its overemphasis on visual content. However, Instagram’s latest IGTV apps allow longer videos, which facilitate such virtual projects. Both Maher and Tareen took notice of how they were happy that their virtual projects had taught them all a new skill: video editing.

Globally, there have been many exciting virtual initiatives aimed at promoting the love of books and connecting writers with readers. If you are a dedicated Harry Potter fan like me, rejoice! Music-streaming service Spotify has teamed up with celebrities around the world — including actor Daniel Radcliffe — for a virtual reading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Chapter one, which has been released, is read by Radcliffe, ‘The Boy Who Lived’ himself, as part of Harry Potter At Home.

Other celebrities who will be reading subsequent chapters include Eddie Redmayne (star of the Harry Potter spinoff and prequel film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them); Stephen Fry, who narrated the original audiobook; former football player David Beckham; actresses Dakota Fanning and Claudia Kim; and Noma Dumezweni, who played Hermione in the theatrical adaptations of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. These readings will be free for all Spotify users and video readings can be accessed on the Wizarding World website.

Another rising trend has been of virtual literary festivals. Virtual Con was a one-day online event in April of authors, games and giveaways from Penguin Random House. The line-up included popular names such as author, comic book writer and screenwriter Chuck Wendig (Wanderers), author Kat Cho (Wicked Fox) and comedian and author Samantha Irby (Wow, No Thank You), who participated in Reddit ask-me-anything sessions, cooperative storytelling games and also did live readings. The Virtual Thrill Fest 2020 is also set to take place in July, where authors of books with cult followings, such as Diana Gabaldon (the Outlander series), Veronica Roth (the Divergent trilogy), and Joseph Finder (House on Fire) are all slated to participate.

With a plethora of virtual literary initiatives, the object of the exercise is simple. As Maher put it, “the videos remind you to take a couple of minutes in your day to just pause and listen, while someone does a very simple, comforting thing: they tell you a story.”

The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 28th, 2020