IN this day and age, anyone still insisting that there is no good Pakistani literature written in the English language needs to spend a little more time browsing a bookstore or revisiting their prejudice. This particular complaint — still repeated ad nauseam — has lost what weight it had till a few decades ago. Pardon the cliché, but an ‘explosion’ of writing by Pakistani authors, both living in the country and abroad, long upturned the popularly held misconception about the publishing history of Pakistan.

While most Pakistani writers gravitated in the earlier days to writing about politics and/or religion, desi readers now have the privilege of finding themselves represented in almost all possible genres; well, almost. The most famous of our authors — those whom the mind first thinks of at the mention of Pakistani English literature — played a huge part in paving the way so that those who followed could experiment with various forms and techniques.

Today, we have a range to be proud of. From Kamila Shamsie’s control over her prose, to Sara Suleri’s lyrical approach; from the on-the-spot representation in Omar Shahid Hamid’s works, to the blending of humour and satire by Haroon Khalid Akhtar; from the adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel into a movie, to the Academy award nomination for an adaptation of Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel; and from the Sitara-i-Imtiaz given to Mohammad Hanif, to the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature given to H.M. Naqvi. All of these accolades, nominations and honours bear testimony to the ground we have covered over the years.

To their credit, today’s authors took the opportunity and made it their own. From science fiction offerings, by well-known Bina Shah and emerging talent Sidra Sheikh, to humour as a storytelling tactic adopted by Moni Mohsin and Saba Imtiaz, we can now enjoy the types of literature that are usually only possible to experiment with once you have nurtured a willing audience.

A proliferation of genres has overtaken Pakistan’s English-language literature. ANUM SHAHARYAR explores its progress and concludes that more attention needs to be paid towards securing a robust English-language publishing industry.

Our writers can now proudly cater to all; including the young ones, with wonderfully creative middle-grade fiction from the likes of Aisha Saeed and Saadia Faruqi, as well as those, like Shazaf Fatima Haider and Farah Naz Rishi, who present a teenager’s perspective about romance and growing up.

Poets, too, are presenting offerings in the English language, with Fatimah Asghar following ably in the footsteps of Daud Kamal and Moniza Alvi. Even a really niche genre like medical fiction is finding a place thanks mainly to Saad Shafqat.

In the realm of short stories, the offerings of writers like Daniyal Mueenuddin and Mira Sethi are refreshing. Arguably the biggest winner, however, has been the domain of fantasy and horror, with the brilliant world-building in Sami Shah’s novels, the terrifying creatures in Ayesha Muzaffar’s works, and the marvellous tales in Usman Malik’s collections. The characters are all endearingly local, yet so fantastical in their presentation.

All these authors, and many more, have been supported in no small part by the analytical eye and keen interest of researchers and writers, like Muneeza Shamsie and Mushtaq Bilal, who are critics and commentators without whom no literary industry can hope to flourish.

What all these works have in common, beyond their ability to capture the attention of their readers, is the fact that they talk in no uncertain detail about what can loosely be termed the desi experience. Captured within the covers of such books are characters whose skin colour is brown and eye colour is black; who understand local conventions and engage in regional humour. These characters grow up in settings very familiar to most Pakistanis, and interact with the world in ways that the local reader could imagine themselves interacting.

For the majority of the readers who grew up on a steady diet of American pulp fiction, it can be quite the shock to realise that characters who look like them and think like them can exist within the make-believe realm of storytelling.

From reading about snow during Christmas and prom night shenanigans, to now reading about Eid celebrations and tales of 1947 — an introduction to Pakistani literature can feel a little like discovering a lost part of one’s self. It brings with it the bittersweet realisation that you yourself could be at the centre of someone’s story; a character in the narrative who actually makes a difference. After all, what are these huge, vocal movements about creating further diversity in literature if not to help every person find a reflection of themselves in the stories they read?

Though we have taken many leaps forward, there is still some way to go. There are conversations happening in desi literary communities about how not to stereotype South Asians. There is a healthy criticism about how writing about mangoes, dust, or loadshedding should now be considered cliché to move away from. Debates on how best to represent religion and culture, which are so enmeshed within our societies that it takes an effort just to separate the two, are always ongoing.

Those on the devout end of the spiritual spectrum find faults in various representations. Some argue that showing the worst of society only projects a negative image of the country, while others argue in favour of being closer to reality.

There are further conversations about the very formatting of Pakistani books: why should local words be italicised in books by foreign publishers, or why should mentions of local festivals or foods be accompanied by detailed footnotes? Exoticisation, apparently, is now inciting disdain. Additionally, regional communities are still waiting for their specific lifestyles to get reflected in our works.

It is a matter of satisfaction that our writers are willing to learn and grow. They are emerging from all sorts of professions and backgrounds, and are coming from all age groups and genders to write in ways that capture the imagination of readers both here and abroad. Bemoaning the lack of good Pakistani literature written in English in this day and age just shows a shocking disconnect with reality.

The reviewer is an editor of English course books at OUP.

She tweets: @anumshaharyar

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