ESSAY: DREAMS OF MY PUBLISHER

Published April 18, 2021
‘Resurrection Points’ by Komal Ashfaq | Image from Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan
‘Resurrection Points’ by Komal Ashfaq | Image from Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan

Usman T. Malik’s Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan is a visual treat of seven illustrated short stories about dark fantasy, horror, the supernatural and the unexplained among the narrow streets of Lahore, the urban jungle of Karachi and the ruins of Mohenjo Daro.

This is Malik’s first collection, his work has been published in several international anthologies, translated into several languages and lauded by the likes of Aamer Hussein, Kelly Link and Nina Allen to name a few. He’s won The Bram Stoker and the British Fantasy awards, been shortlisted for others and is co-founder of The Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction, that nurtures speculative fiction from young Pakistani writers.

Making Midnight Doorways all the more special is the fact that it is locally produced — nine Pakistani artists worked on the illustrations, cover and design — and published in Lahore.

Having had the opportunity of seeing this book go from an idea to a tangible object over a period of six months, of wondering whether anyone would buy it to seeing overwhelming support, has made me question why Pakistan is not publishing more books like it. What’s stopping us from creating a thriving market for sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction?

So I asked Malik about his motivation and experience of putting Midnight Doorways together.

“At the beginning of 2020,” he says, “I began corresponding with Aamer Hussein sahib, who encouraged me to put together a collection, especially now that I’d moved to Pakistan. Pakistani readers should have easy access to my work, Aamer reasoned. Later, Musharraf Ali Farooqi also recommended I seriously consider it. Finally, the pandemic itself was a bit of a wake-up call. It would be nice, I decided, to have something I could leave behind, in case I hit the plague jackpot.”

At that point, Malik’s apprehensions revolved mostly around whether the finished product could match quality standards elsewhere in the world. He also points out how Midnight Doorways, being a short story collection, was a concern in terms of reader interest. “Short fiction, in general,” he says, “gets short-changed in the literary world.”

Is there a readership for Pakistani sci-fi and fantasy fiction? And if so, why are more publishers not publishing it?

But that was back when he started the project. Now, Malik is considering a second print run — “a prospect we most certainly had not entertained before. This has vindicated my belief that artistic labours of love, if planned and executed carefully, are worth the investment, even in a country such as Pakistan, where the prevailing belief is that a consumer will pay 2,000 rupees for a quick, forgettable lunch, but not for a high quality book or painting.”

While short fiction may not have the same commercial value as a novel, Malik suspects it has a sizable, untapped readership. “At the end of the day, we read and write in any genre or form because we love it. We crave the variety, the punch, the ‘kiss in the dark from a stranger’ — as Stephen King once said of short fiction. There will always be some readership for short fiction, especially if it’s done well. Look at writers such as Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado, or Ted Chiang.”

Midnight Doorways’s initial wave of success and Malik’s work with the Salam Award over the years — where he often speaks of the promising future of young writers — prompted me to ask what he thinks the future looks like for non-mainstream genres such as sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction in Pakistan where, it wouldn’t be wrong to presume, these genres remain on the periphery compared to literary fiction. He is hopeful, believing that “2020 was the year Pakistani science fiction truly came of age.”

Pointing out how “between the Islamabad Literature Festival, The Desi Collective [TDC], and Salam Award running panels on sci-fi and several Pakistani writers selling stories internationally, there was an explosion of interest in local sci-fi and fantasy [SFF]. Indus News did a show on SFF writing, Talat Faraz wrote the dystopian novel Seventy-Four, and Aamer sahib discussed Khalida Hussain and Ismat Chughtai’s SFF stories at a Lahore Literary Festival panel. Add to that Arafat Mazhar’s recently released animated film SWIPE about crowd-sourced fatwas, and you’re looking at an astonishingly rich year for speculative fiction.”

Malik also states that shows such as Black Mirror and The Expanse mean that SFF has irrevocably infiltrated the desi cultural space. As the climate crisis becomes an integral part of our lives — whether as Lahore’s smog or Sindh’s water scarcity — the potential for Pakistani speculative fiction is immense. However, Malik does agree that, in order to nurture this potential, local publishing houses and writing workshops need to provide opportunities and support to young writers.

It is true that support for young writers from the publishing industry is rare, but this is partially because the publishing industry itself is sparse in Pakistan. “Publishing in Pakistan has suffered badly,” says Mehr F. Husain, founder of Zuka Books, a new indie publisher of everything from fashion to children’s fiction. “There is exploitation from local market forces, piracy, copyright [infringement] and, of course, very little coaching of writers to hone their skills. Publishers entering the market should be ready for a lot of hard work, but it does pay off. As a publisher you’re responsible for your authors, their work and creating a literary market to encourage more writing to come forth.”

Husain agrees there are few publication avenues for writers, pointing out the lack of infrastructure and investment in the industry, as well as distribution issues. “The biggest problem is finding stockists. When you’re being charged 50 percent commission or more per book, you’ll go out of business. How can you cover print costs or pay royalties? You cannot. So you sell books through your own platform. Obviously that affects visibility, but that’s where marketing and public relations comes into play.”

Safinah Danish Elahi, founder of Reverie Publishers, which focuses on Pakistani fiction, has a similar perspective. “Pakistan has not managed to attract any of the world’s big five publishing houses, while our neighbours have been reaping the fruits. So, most of our literary talent goes to [India to get published]. With the book ban, Pakistanis suddenly realised we don’t have the infrastructure to cater to writers and readers, or distributors, publicist and marketing campaigns, or even traditional publishing working in its, well, traditional form.”

Any kind of fiction is unfeasible to publish, she says, recalling her own experience with her novel Eye on the Prize. “Most small presses weren’t ready for the risk. They were, at the time — and currently are — printing textbooks for schools which have confirmed orders of 5,000 books or so. This is commercial fiction we’re talking about. When we come down to science fiction, fantasy, horror, the readership reduces even more.”

Husain finds the reduced readership for these genres mind-boggling “given how we as a nation believe in the supernatural and jinns are part of our childhoods, whether it is our parents scaring us to behave, or in folklore. The spiritual world in all forms, good and bad, is a huge part of our consciousness, so when people say there’s no interest, it’s more to do with the lack of publishing opportunity rather than lack of interest in reading about it. You just need to look at Shazaf Fatima Haider [Firefly in the Dark] to see how successful a book about these genres can be.”

Arslan Athar, founder of TDC, a Pakistani magazine focusing on new writers, feels the perception that genre fiction such as SFF has limited readership is untrue. “SFF garners a lot of extremely loyal readership. In Pakistan, in particular, there are people [for whom] sci-fi is their entire world. It is such an expansive genre, with so many different levels and subgenres. I, for quite a while, felt I couldn’t get into sci-fi until a friend introduced me to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, and I was hooked! In these uncertain times, sci-fi is a great escape.”

He further says that “younger writers are really pushing the boundary of imagination and creation. All they need is encouragement and a platform. The readership will come along the way.”

However, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, founder of Kitab, the publisher of Midnight Doorways, is quick to state that writers should stop thinking about genres. “The more a writer is conscious of fitting into a particular genre, the greater the chances of them manufacturing an artificial narrative that focuses on ticking boxes rather than telling a story.”

Not ‘seeing’ genre is also something Athar does with TDC, because “there has been enough bias with this genre in previous generations — it shouldn’t carry on. I see a new generation of readers and writers falling in love with SFF and every publication and publishing house should do its part to foster that, as best as it can.”

The writer is a design generalist, writer, and occasional artist from Karach whose writing mostly explores post-colonial speculative and fantasy fiction. She tweets @heymushba

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 18th, 2021

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