Kiran Nazir Ahmed’s Stories with Oil Stains: The World of Women ‘Digest’ Writers in Pakistan combines ethnography and literary criticism in the first book-length study of, as the subtitle explains, the world of the female writers contributing to the popular form of anthological fiction in Pakistan.

Based on the author’s PhD research, the monograph weaves together interviews with readers and writers, with close readings of the popular digest genre, to introduce an under-explored form of the “digest community”, in which thousands of middle-class Pakistani women participate.

Ahmed argues that we must move beyond the “progressive/conservative” binary in our approach to digest fiction and, instead, focus on the bonds of friendship and attachment between women that characterise this literary sphere. For the author, the digest community constitutes, in some ways, a sisterhood, where the primacy of familial ties is superseded by female friendships that emerge out of the shared experiences of reading and writing digest stories.

She posits that digest fiction, thus, gives rise to a social space that transcends the traditional markers of ethnicity, class, age and political affiliation, centring “the inner world of emotions” based on shared experiences of life as a woman in Pakistan.

The book is divided into four chapters — each of which helps sketch in the contours of digest writing, publishing, circulation and reception — preceded by a theoretical introduction. Ahmed’s methodology takes a much needed interdisciplinary approach, as she melds interviews together with literary analyses of stories, bringing in her own experiences as a reader, as well as her insights as a participant-observer, reflecting on the relationships that she herself developed with writers, editors and fellow readers in the digest community.

The first chapter, titled ‘In Quest of Anonymity: Bonds of Friendship in the Digest Community’, examines the forging of friendships through the shared process of writing and reading digest stories. Ahmed reveals the intense attachment and intimate bonds that spring up between readers and writers, who often speak on the phone every day, yet may not ever meet in person. For example, a digest writer, who Ahmed interviewed, informed the author that she received several dozen phone calls every day, from readers who wanted to discuss her writing with her, while also sharing the goings-on of their own lives.

A monograph on the writers and readers of popular digest fiction presents a first scholarly study of a woefully under-explored literary genre

These friendships often become a reliable source of support for these women in their everyday lives, particularly when it comes to negotiating familial tensions. Further, these bonds are themselves a part of the creative process behind digest fiction, as real-life experiences shared with digest writers often become part of their writing. Thus, Ahmed’s ethnography reveals the concrete link that exists between the stories on the one hand, and the readers’ lives and their intimate friendships on the other.

Thus, in a sense, digest fiction becomes an important site for women’s collective expression, and can provide important insight into both the social and the inner, emotional world of middle-class women in Pakistan. While this genre of popular fiction is often dismissed by scholars and writers alike for being frivolous, “low brow”, and largely conventional, Ahmed presents a strong case for directing critical attention towards digest writing, where, even if patriarchal ideology is not directly challenged, it is negotiated and problematised.

In a context where Anglophone novels dominate the imagination of academics and public intellectuals alike, and male voices are over-represented in both mainstream media and literary circles, Ahmed’s work compels us to consider the marginalised genre of “the digest story”, produced and consumed overwhelmingly by women. It excavates fresh possibilities for research in the fields of women’s studies, feminist theory, postcolonial writing and vernacular publics in Pakistan.

In her last chapter, ‘In Quest of Respect: Engagement with the Electronic Media’, the author expands the study to electronic media — specifically television — documenting the adaptation of digest stories for the screen. She discusses the writing and reception of the popular television series Humsafar [Companion], from the vantage point of the digest community, revealing how securing national fame nevertheless does not guarantee respect for the digest writers’ craft, as their work continues to be seen as “inauthentic” and lacking in artistic quality. It is perhaps its status as a genre dominated by women, for women, which contributes, in part, to its relegation and Ahmed’s work offers a much-needed corrective to this gendered bias within scholarship and literary criticism.

However, while Stories with Oil Stains shines for its sharp ethnographic sensibility and meticulous documentation of the digest community, some of the theoretical conclusions drawn by the author prove unconvincing. A distinction between “the political” and “the emotional” — which maps on to a simplistic separation between the inner self and the social life of women — weighs down some otherwise brilliant insights the book provides.

For instance, the suggestion that identities based on ethnicity and political affiliation take a backseat to women’s inner, affective world, overlooks the crucial manner in which wider political and regional societal realities shape the very fabric of the ‘private self’, which, of course, in turn actively engages with its wider material context.

In fact, Ahmed’s own analysis of a digest writer who was involved in student activism during the Bhutto years testifies to this crucial link, as Pakistani political history often frames the respective author’s exploration of personal relationships.

Further, Ahmed draws on influential theorist Saba Mehmood to posit that “the notion of agency as striving for personal or collective interests against structural obstacles is not universal”, yet the two digest stories presented in the second chapter, titled ‘In Quest of Stories: Writers, Readers and Fiction’, themselves challenge this notion. For instance, the first story that Ahmed presents revolves around a young housewife intimidated by her domineering husband, who constantly belittles her contribution to their family and chips away at her self-esteem with disparaging remarks. Over time, the story charts her journey of gaining confidence and financial independence by pushing back against her husband’s patriarchal behaviour — she takes up work outside the home, expresses and asserts her desires, and compels him to accept her as an equal in their marriage.

Despite the obfuscations wrought by an, at times, unnecessary reliance on certain anthropological theories, Stories with Oil Stains is an important contribution to scholarship in Pakistan, for its detailed treatment of an extremely popular genre that is woefully ignored by critics and academics alike.

The book telescopes women’s perspectives, presenting an important site where middle-class life is both articulated and contested. The book is a must read for those interested in popular print culture, middle-class identity and gendered experiences of Pakistani society.

The reviewer is currently pursuing a PhD in Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Cambridge

Stories with Oil Stains:
The World of Women
‘Digest’ Writers in Pakistan
By Kiran Nazir Ahmed
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199408986
232pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 7th, 2021

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