What is the equivalent of public poetry — verse written at white heat after a momentous event — in literary fiction?

In a blog post about the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, Egyptian critic and novelist Sayed Tonsy Mahmoud turned to literary discussions in France. He proposed the useful term romans d’urgences. These are novels of urgency, emergency and immediacy. Yet, as he suggests, a potential problem with such responsive fiction (which I extend to include the conte, or short story, as well as the novel or roman) is that it simply reacts to current affairs. There is thus the danger of ephemerality.

In this historic year we are living through, Indian writer Ritu Menon has spent lockdown working on Address Book: Memoir of the Time of Covid. It will recount her labours in feminist publishing during the pandemic. But in an online session for the Islamabad Literature Festival, Menon expressed concern about the “perishable” quality of fiction dealing with this strange and fast-moving era. It’s too soon, she argued, to talk about women in the pandemic in novels and stories.

In less privileged sections of society, especially, women (and men) are suffering greatly. According to Menon, it will take a long time for their tribulations to be refracted lastingly in fiction. As a memoirist, she thinks non-fiction (and poetry) can make a more substantial quick intervention.

Yet, I am not entirely convinced by Menon’s assertion that fiction of urgency will soon be forgotten. In July, The New York Times released a magazine issue entitled ‘The Decameron Project’, full of stories by high-profile authors including Margaret Atwood and Kamila Shamsie; this was later published as an anthology.

In the United Kingdom in October, stellar independent publishers Comma Press released Staying Home, a slim volume of four stories. Most recently, Sana Munir and Taha Kehar have edited and contributed stories to a homegrown collection, The Stained-Glass Window: Stories of the Pandemic from Pakistan, for Liberty Books. And happily, much of the volume puts the lie to Menon’s assumption that the conte d’urgence is automatically transient.

What is the equivalent of public poetry — verse written at white heat after a momentous event — in literary

What immediately strikes one as refreshing about The Stained-Glass Window is its inadvertent reversal of the usual gender imbalance. Of the 27 anthologised pieces, there are 20 stories authored by women, with a further poem entitled ‘To Covid-19’ by Mehvash Amin. The latter muses on the psychological journey a person goes on as they think of the worst things that can happen in this pandemic. She gifts us some visceral lines, including: “This hiding at home from/ A protein that bristles with fresh/ Narratives wrenches the older/ Human stories from my guts.”

Several of the pieces reflect on marriages and domestic circumstances under strain amid Karachi’s and Lahore’s smart lockdowns. At a time when many women around the globe find themselves trapped with their abusers, Kulsoom Bano tackles the issue of domestic violence with courage and verve in ‘A Dead Daughter’.

Yet, Bano’s claustrophobic and distressing tale of domestic dysfunction is complemented by others that focus on ordinary matters relating to working from home, the attempt to manage childcare alongside office politics, and the loss of a social life. A diverse montage of experiences is represented. Several of the women writers imagine male protagonists as much ensnared inside the house as their female relatives. In this pandemic, tensions cannot be dissipated by going out. The book vibrantly explores new ways of dealing with problems from within a confined space.

Indeed, the titular image of the stained glass window alludes to how people living under lockdown might be restricted, but can still look outward. As Kehar puts it in his introductory ‘Letter’, “a fascinating play of light alters the ambience and inspires drastic shifts in ... disposition.” Meanwhile, for Munir the metaphor relates to the diversity of the anthologised writers and their literary techniques. As she observes, the book represents “a kaleidoscope in which every hue has a purpose.” These hues include shades of loneliness, despair, humour and uncertainty.

Being technologically savvy has been helpful under the stay-at-home orders. One of Munir and Kehar’s most important achievements is their inclusion of new voices. And it is perhaps unsurprising that the project began with a crowdsourcing of fiction on Instagram.

Two types of story are collected: short-form and flash fiction. Many of the stories, both longer and the extremely economical, are alert to Pakistan’s changing landscape in this digital age. An impressive example comes from the teenaged schoolgirl from Lahore, Mahnaz Mir.

In her story ‘Being Positive’, the young protagonist Zara live-tweets her symptoms and relates the escapades of her cat, Jigglypuff, in a diary format, while the girl is suffering from Covid-19 (as the author had done earlier this year). And in a standout story, ‘Intruders’, Kehar himself writes with characteristic exuberance about a wedding that has to be shifted on to the online setting of Zoom. Amid a gregarious but volatile joint family setting, an ageing matriarch, Mrs Akmal, laments the disruption to her granddaughter’s nuptials because of the “canola virus.” In their switched-on way, the writers gesture to a global connectedness even within quarantine and cultural specificity.

To give further sense of the volume, in his burnished prose, Aamer Hussein explores the lockdown discoveries of the ill and bereaved artist, Mehran. Hussein’s is an extremely moving and stylish story set in London entitled ‘The Garden-Spy: A Diptych’. And from a Karachi setting, Natasha Japanwala writes of the disorientation early in the crisis on seeing broadsheet photographs “of doctors, nurses and technicians intubating Covid-19 patients in unidentified wards while donning alien-like garb: hazmat suits and face visors.”

Several of the authors riff on the conspiracy theories that thrive in the confusion. Finally, in ‘Coming of Age’, Nida Usman Chaudhary channels Imran Khan’s dilemma that vast swaths of Pakistan’s population “hav[e] to choose between death and hunger during a pandemic.”

These personal testimonies may be instant, but they are also cathartic and memorable. The collected stories are like fireworks rather than the novel’s bonfire of the vanities. Although short-lived, these contes d’urgence burn behind the eyes long afterwards.

The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York, and author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 20th, 2020

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