In the preface to his masterpiece of poetry, Madojazr-i-Islam [Flow and Ebb of Islam], the acclaimed Urdu poet Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali writes that everything — even poetry — gets divided into castes and classes when it reaches the Indian Subcontinent. Initially, this assertion did not seem very well-founded, or applicable for that matter, vis-à-vis Pakistan’s English literature, but the changing dynamics of Pakistan’s society and literary outlook are proving it to be correct. English-language fiction produced by Pakistani writers often finds itself a subject of debates on language, storytelling, target audiences, representation, class and identity.
While numerous Pakistani writers producing English-language writing have garnered international fame and recognition through their published works of prose and poetry, there is still a very large percentage of the Pakistani population that remains unaware of who these writers are and what they have written. The other, smaller, group in the population that is aware of English-language fiction and its authors also has mixed reactions to this literature being produced — some run to literature festivals to listen to their favourite authors speak, while others don’t pay attention to such events and talks even in the news or their social circles.
Author Kamila Shamsie said in an interview that “even the most engaged readers in Pakistan would be hard-pressed to name more than a dozen writers writing in English.” On the other hand, Maniza Naqvi, another Pakistani English-language fiction writer, holds that “the numbers are increasing exponentially and about 100 Pakistani writers have over 150 novels and many anthologies.” Both these observations are nothing but true and, when taken collectively, are indicative of a number of realities.
English-language fiction from writers of Pakistani origin has certainly seen a boom in the last two decades, with more and more novels, short stories and anthologies being produced, but it is not something new. Fiction has been emerging from Pakistanis writing in English for more than 50 years, with authors such as Zulfikar Ghose and Bapsi Sidhwa writing The Murder of Aziz Khan (1967) and The Crow Eaters (1978) respectively. However, it also remains a fact that, to this day, a large portion of the Pakistani population does not know many of these writers or their writings.
English-language writers of Pakistani origin may very well be receiving awards for their books, becoming fellows of literary programmes and teaching writing to students in English-speaking countries, but they remain unknown in the very country whose name they use in their writings as well as in their introductions across the globe. Some analysts also claim that the awards and recognition that Pakistani-origin English-language writers get are more because of their celebrity status and less for their writings.
Why are the country’s English-language fiction writers more celebrated abroad than at home?
What is a Pakistani-origin English-language fiction writer? Who are these writers? Who reads the fiction written by them? Can these writings be categorised as Pakistani fiction? Does this fiction matter to audiences in Pakistan? If yes, to what strata of the population? If no, then to whom does it matter? Who are the intended target audiences of this fiction? Does this fiction give a true picture of Pakistan? Does fiction have to give a true picture of any place? Is this fiction a form of art or a tool for information? Do these fiction writers come from a specific social class? And, most of all, why is English increasingly being chosen as a creative medium by Pakistani or Pakistani-origin writers?
Writers producing fiction in English and getting read in the West but not in their own countries are using narratives that are not purely for artistic engagement, but for portraying a society or a nation in a certain way. When these writers are asked why their writings are overtly dominated by the contemporary or historical, social and political issues of the country and why they are using English solely as the medium of expression, they take refuge in the historical aspect of the language being used effectively to counter narratives, bend stereotypes and act as a bridge. Whether this attempt has been able to simplify the complex realities or has, instead, further complicated simple things remains a question to be explored.
The question of getting to a wider audience appears very simple to Pakistani-origin writers of English-language fiction; they speak of it as a normal phenomenon to want their voice heard by as many people as possible. However, to the readers of fiction in particular and to the people of Pakistan (irrespective of them being avid readers or not) in general, it is not as easy or simple, an issue from which they can shrug responsibility by a wave of the hand. This has numerous intended and unintended causes and effects.
In his book Writing Pakistan: Conversations on Identity, Nationhood and Fiction, Mushtaq Bilal states that “there exists a huge gap between the expectations of Pakistani readers of English fiction and the works of Pakistani writers.” It does not need an in-depth study to tell what Pakistani readers expect and what they get. Pakistan is just another country in the world, with ordinary people living the same lives as others on this planet. They get a morning, they get up, they do their work; they get a night, they sleep and the cycle repeats.
Every country has its own geo-political, socio-cultural, religious and economic realities, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect as frequently and overtly when it comes to Pakistani English-language fiction. Pakistanis read Jane Austen and Harper Lee the same way as people from other countries do and they enjoy the nuances, quibbles, romance and dialogues the same way as other people do. They can relate to the thought processes of Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice and with the lovable relationship of siblings Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. It pains them when they cannot relate to characters in Pakistani English-language fiction.
Karachi, for example, has much more to its city life than robberies and bombs; people from urban places don’t necessarily get involved with the spouses of their best friends; every feudal family does not abuse its female servants and the separation of the Subcontinent, the fall of East Pakistan and the so-called war on terror are not the only things affecting the lives of Pakistanis. The people of Pakistan expect artistic engagements with literature as much as people of other countries do. They also expect their fiction to be relatable to them. They also want to experience fiction as a storytelling phenomenon instead of an information providing medium.
The unintended — and, to some extent, unwanted — consequences of the current wave of Pakistani English-language fiction outnumber the direct benefits of the same, if any in the first place. The only benefits of this fiction being produced have been to the authors in them being recognised and known internationally. Some of the books have been widely translated and some are now part of university curricula in the West and at limited institutes in Pakistan.
The writers claim to have brought Pakistan and its culture, society, politics and people to the international spotlight by writing extensively on them. This, however, is highly debatable if this spotlight has done more harm than good to Pakistan and its people, and if this extensive mention has improved the stereotypes about Pakistan by any degree.
When one looks at the number of writers that have now emerged and the number of years that have passed since the initial Pakistani-written English-language fiction came out, it is a pity that there is still no proper publisher of works of fiction in the English language in the country. None of the world renowned writers of ‘Pakistani fiction’ — after getting all the recognition from the world — worked towards establishing such an industry in Pakistan. Similarly, any and all literary journals to which these writers and scholars regularly contribute are also not available in Pakistan for the Pakistanis about whom the books are being published. More and more writers are looking to Indian publishers and some analysts fear that Pakistan might as well become a colony of India as far as the publishing industry is concerned.
The current production of English-language fiction is resonating with Hali’s words. It is coming from the urban elite of the country who have roots and orientation elsewhere in the global world; it is neither representative of the common people nor is it reaching the general public. There are more literary gatherings, more book festivals, more books and more writing workshops, but the level of speaking, reading and writing English among the general population has not increased, their chances of being part of the literary milieu have not improved and their dissociation and disparity from the elite has not decreased.
Thus, literature — that has, in many cases, served as a binding force for nations and a means of bringing people from different strata of society closer — seems to have been drawn on further division on economic, social and ideological lines in Pakistani society; ie the niche of Pakistani English-language fiction.
The writer works with the federal government, is a Fulbright Grantee and will shortly be pursuing a doctoral degree in creative writing
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 12th, 2020