Mightier: A Selection from the Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for Women 2019-2023
Edited by Syra Rashid Vahidy
Reverie Publishers
ISBN: 978-627-7742-0-4-1
265pp.

For the past nearly half-a-dozen years, Syra Vahidy, the enterprising daughter of the late, respected Zeenat Haroon Rashid has been administering a prize in her mother’s name, in order to honour English-language fiction and non-fiction penned by upcoming Pakistani women writers. This endeavour is nothing short of noble and I believe that Vahidy takes Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s famous quote “The pen is mightier than the sword” very seriously.

This not only explains the title of the book — which pulls together some of the Prize’s honoured fiction entries — but also the lovely cover commissioned by Reverie and illustrated by the talented artist Kehkashan Khalid. It depicts a black-and white chessboard with an oversize chess-queen piece of a flaming scarlet colour. Instead of a crown, however, the piece bears the nib of a pen. The text itself consists of 29 stories that were entered, along with many others, into the ZHR competition over the years, virtually all were long-listed and some were no doubt winners.

In order to do justice to the ethics of the competition, Vahidy requested some of the most major names in Pakistani fiction and general literary criticism to serve as judges for the short stories (and occasional brief memoirs). The list is a glittering one, including notable individuals such as Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, her mother the critic Muneeza Shamsie, Moni Mohsin, Shandana Minhas and even the internationally renowned writer Carla Power.

I am sure that, like Vahidy, they too believed that they were contributing to a good cause by promoting women’s writing in Pakistan. However, when taken as a whole, the collection is rather uneven and, alas, the judges have to shoulder more of the blame for the problems that arise from this as opposed to the publisher or even the supervisor of the award.

To be sure, there are glimmers of genuine talent here and there. One of the most moving stories has to do with a woman who has grown tall beyond redemption in her family’s opinion; more than one tale grapples determinedly with the issue of mental illness (be it schizophrenia or something less severe); oppression, harassment, abuse and discrimination are boldly (if often less than skillfully) brought to the forefront; and a satirical piece by Musfira Shaffi does bring a note of much needed humour in order to relieve a book that is far grimmer than one might initially suspect.

In a coming-of-age story, writer Saira Mahmood rather grandly concludes by noting: “This is a global story, because all Pakistani women’s stories are.”

Except that they are not. While Mahmood was not speaking for the other 28 writers, the text is guilty of trying to push a political agenda, whereby women’s voices might be heard, and thus emancipated accordingly. There is ostensibly nothing wrong with this.

However, it often comes across as if many of the writers are underscoring social stereotypes related to Pakistan and its women in order to satisfy an implicit Western expectation that an underdeveloped nation must necessarily be plagued by a laundry-list of human rights concerns. This is nothing short of a shame, because far too few of the stories reflect humour, nobility of spirit, or even genuinely positive male-female relationships.

Some are memorable because they talk of topics as diverse as hirsute ladies and rabbits (I suppose one should be grateful for the fact that such pieces shy away from more big, bad topics). Insofar as the point about relationships is concerned, the apparently happy love-match that Hareem Khan depicts in ‘Material Girl’ is overwhelmed by her mother’s discordant complaints.

‘Najma’ by Alia Ahmed is a promising exercise in character construction, and has some truly gripping moments. However, the writing itself leaves much to be desired. There is no pathos, or even black comedy, in being told that a woman who has hanged herself is “twirling like a sack of potatoes.”

It would be uncharitable to label such moments disrespectful since, without exception, all the women penning pieces for this anthology appear to have taken their writing very seriously. The primary problem is that only a handful of them are good writers when it comes to syntax and sentence construction.

One happily notable exception is ‘Of Places and People: A Memoir’ by Aliya Farrukh Shaikh. This story demonstrates a genuine familiarity with the rhythms of the English language; the writing flows well, and Shaikh displays commendable control of her style and content. Even more than an ability to effectively manage the three Ps that comprise major types of writing — prose, poetry and playwriting — what makes for a truly good short story is control exerted over three other Ps — namely plot, pace and punchline.

‘Covers’ by Natasha Japanwala succeeds in doing a measure of justice to all three of the aforementioned requirements, as does Sofea Khan’s ‘Patience’. Their stories avoid the trap of rambling and meandering into which several of the other writers fall (partly because of lack of skill, partly due to lack of application).

Sakina Hassan’s plot for ‘Bodies in the Air’ is adequate enough, but her writing more than borders on confusing, unfortunately. I appreciate that the stories may not have been thoroughly edited before being anthologised; this is a shame, however, because, in far too many cases, their originality is retained at the expense of quality.

Barring a couple of exceptions, almost none of the authors create male characters that come across as memorable and authentic, although I did find Sofea Khan’s portrayal of Saabir the van-driver intriguing.

To return to a question hinted at earlier which I will now ask in earnest: what were the judges attempting to achieve when it came to making these choices for the ZHR Prize? If they were simply expecting to encourage women to write, they have certainly succeeded; however, if they were choosing fine quality fiction from a multitude of entries, they should certainly have been more discriminating.

This is not to say that the determined and driven women who had the courage to put their work forward should become daunted or disheartened at what I hope will be perceived as constructive criticism. Rather, they need to keep in mind that writing as a craft, especially when it comes to the short story genre, benefits from focus, editing and, often, painstaking effort.

The great sculptor Michelangelo was once asked by a student why he spent so much time on trifles. “Attention to trifles makes for perfection,” responded the maestro, “and perfection is not a trifle.”

The reviewer is associate professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration. She has also authored a collection of short stories Timeless College Tales

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 7th, 2024

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