I maintain that, even today, when there are more of us producing literature in English, the best literary talent in Pakistan is still manifested through our native languages — Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto and others. Barring some truly exceptional writers who have made a name for themselves nationally and internationally — Bapsi Sidhwa, Jamil Ahmed, Uzma Aslam Khan, Nadeem Aslam, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, H.M. Naqvi and Bina Shah — the bulk of our creative writing in English, until the recent past, gave an impression of being contrived, affected, borrowed and superficial.
Our writers find it easier to convey thoughts and ideas in their prose, but struggle when the feelings and emotions of narrators, subjects or protagonists are to be expressed. One also feels that the amount of serious non-fiction, essays and papers that we produce remains low.
Undoubtedly, there is an advantage of writing in English, both in terms of its commercial possibilities and global outreach. Hence, a minor writer in English will be recognised more easily than a major writer in any of our native languages.
Owing to a variety of reasons, including the material advancement and influence of certain parts of the world over others, the history of colonialism or even the ease in idiomatic translation because of cultural and linguistic affinity (as in the case of European languages), the global literary scene has developed its own dynamic.
A merely good writer in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, German or Japanese will get instant fame and fortune. That is not the case even if you are a major writer in Urdu or Balochi. Besides, if we compare our English writing with that of India, there is a marked difference in both quantity and quality. Perhaps one reason is that while English has become a major language of intellectual discourse in Pakistan, it is far from being a language of public discourse. Hindi is not the lingua franca all across India, like Urdu has become in Pakistan. The difference in levels of teaching English and overall educational standards also play a role.
Our writers find it easier to convey thoughts and ideas in their prose, but struggle when the feelings and emotions are to be expressed
However, we must acknowledge the fact that English is fast catching up as one of our own languages of literary expression, since it is used more and more, beyond officialese and legalese, by younger generations of urban educated Pakistanis. Writers in other Pakistani languages and readers alike need to appreciate that English is finally finding its roots in the country and it is but natural to produce literature in any language that we speak.
What I also find encouraging is that the new writing that has emerged over the past few years from Pakistan is quietly setting a new direction. For instance, besides novels and collections of poetry being published, the entries in the annual issues of The Aleph Review (mainly edited by significant poets Mehvash Amin, Ilona Yusuf and Afshan Shafi) during the last couple of years, and on the online platform Desi Writers’ Lounge, confirm that our writers in English are in the process of bringing the depth and expanse of our experience and expression similar to what we find in our native languages.
Another way in which some of our English language writers are enriching our repertoire is by continuously producing long fiction. While we can boast of a glorious tradition in writing verse and, to an extent, short fiction, the genre of the novel remains weak in all our native languages.
Of course, there are great names, ranging from Qurratulain Hyder to Abdullah Hussein to some others who continue to write today, but if we look at our overall output in long fiction, it is far less in our own languages compared to the long fiction produced in the languages spoken by much smaller populations. We need more quality novels from English writers to build a solid body of work.
Somehow, poetry comes to us more naturally than prose. While we had fewer names in the initial years of Pakistan when it came to fiction (such as Ahmed Ali), we had a longer list of first-rate poets. To name a few, from Taufiq Rafat and Daud Kamal to Maki Kureishi and Alamgir Hashmi to Adrian Hussein and Salman Tarik Kureshi to Kaleem Omar and Athar Tahir, we have a tradition of producing high quality verse.
The list can be further extended to include those living in the diaspora. From among the newer poets living in Pakistan, it is important to mention Rizwan Akhtar who has made a mark on the literary landscape. Sadaf Halai, Momina Mela and Ammar Aziz have their own unique styles. Many others are composing exquisite verse. The newest arrivals on the scene worth mentioning are two teenaged sisters, Fatima Zahra and Khisal Zainab, whose debut collections show a lot of promise.
Coming to short fiction produced by Pakistanis, it is interesting to note that most of our contemporary English writers have concentrated on long fiction. Among the few who have written short stories are Dr Tariq Rahman, with his riveting collection The Third Leg, and Daniyal Mueenuddin with In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Mueenuddin has made a definite impression.
In 2020, an important addition to the genre of English short fiction produced by Pakistanis is Bushra Naqi’s Through the Cracks. Naqi’s stories are mostly set in Pakistan. She has a flair for writing lucid prose and an ability to seamlessly convey emotions and feelings. There is a unique chemistry that she creates between directness and complexity in her work, reminding me of the pioneering Urdu and Hindi writer Premchand’s earlier stories. She understands the chaos in human nature and has a subtle way of critiquing the current human condition. The variety of her characters and situations is mostly real, but their treatment is purely creative.
One hopes that, in a few years, Pakistan will be able to gather a critical mass of genuinely creative writers in English, both organic and powerful.
The columnist is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse, No Fortunes to Tell
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 31st, 2021