Interview: John Freeman

Published October 15, 2010

Literature is not a direct representation of life or reality, it's a refraction. It magnifies the anxieties of people who live in a country beyond what they actually are, but it's a way of turning that into narrative and drama: John Freeman. - Photo by David Valesco
In an exclusive interview with the Herald, Granta Editor John Freeman talks about the magazines issue on Pakistan.

Q. When and how did the idea of a Pakistan issue come about?

A. One weekend I was having lunch in New York with [Australian writer] Peter Carey, who is one of our contributing editors and a friend of mine. He said you know what you really should do? Pakistan. This was in early 2009, just before the New York Times' Magazine ran its cover story on the country. I had been a book critic for ten years so I had read Kamila [Shamsie] and Nadeem Aslam and I had interviewed Mohsin [Hamid]. And all those writers I wanted in Granta. Daniyal [Mueenuddin] had been in there before but not the others. So when Peter suggested this I thought absolutely, we should do it.

Q. How did you go about putting it together? How does curating work for a country-specific issue?

A. Well it's usually about the writing. It gets kind of unwieldy if you try to think of it as a country. It's a process of figuring out who we really, really want in the issue and then using them and other people to tell us what we don't know, because we certainly don't have the budget to travel to Pakistan to look for writers. I started talking to Mohsin very early and met Nadeem at Edinburgh [International Book Festival] in August 2009 on a short story panel. I didn't know he wrote short fiction and told him I would love to publish some of his. His piece ended up being the first one to come in and at that point I thought ok, we're off and running. Once the word starts to get out through agents and editors people start coming to us, and we also sought out the British Council and the Oxford University Press.

Q. There's a pretty even mix of fiction, reportage and memoir here. Given that Pakistan already gets written about in the news everyday, did you think about how much non-fiction to include?

A. I just wanted good reporting. Kamila and several other people recommended [Guardian correspondent] Declan Walsh and Pakistanis kept saying he knows more about Pakistan than we do. It turns out he was working on something that was perfect for the issue, because you can do things in 10,000 words that you can't do in a newspaper, and I think that's the one benefit we have. The memoirs we run also tend to be a little bit longer than anything you see in a typical magazine supplement.

Also, our goal is to get someone to write about something they haven't yet written about or might be avoiding or that's sensitive or very close to the bone. So Sarfraz [Manzoor's] was perfect. I was worried when he took on the assignment. I asked him if he really wanted to publish it right before getting married...

Q. There's a lot of militancy and fundamentalism and violence here. In fact, the only two prose pieces that don't include at least one of the above are located outside Pakistan. Are we saying it's not possible to write about the country without writing about these things?

A. I was worried about making an issue that would fall into all the representational traps that Pakistanis feel and that you see in the media. On the other hand, when we ask people to write we don't always tell them what to write about, and in some ways I feel that's the way to get the truest representation of the country. And literature is not a direct representation of life or reality, it's a refraction. It magnifies the anxieties of people who live in a country beyond what they actually are, but it's a way of turning that into narrative and drama.

Also, the situation is deathly serious. And what's very exciting is that Pakistan now has a generation of writers up to the task of writing about that in a way that's interesting as literature, that makes for good short stories and novels and is not just politically or socially concerned. That's the big reason we did the issue. I found Mohsin's piece particularly powerful because it's about violence but also about his desire to avoid it, about what it means to write about it and the fear that it puts inside of him, what the costs of it are.

It's a catch 22 for many of them because it is in some ways what makes them marketable. I think they write about it because they're deeply concerned, but to be marketed based on something that's very close to your heart and very serious raises all sorts of questions. That's why we didn't want a cover with a Kalashnikov or a mullah. Because as much as this issue is addressing things that are of deep concern, it's also a chance to celebrate all this talent that's coming out of the country.

Q. What's your sense of how Pakistani fiction is stacking up internationally? As a reviewer you must have started seeing more of it at some point...

A. Yes, it feels like it happened about three or four years ago. It was probably around the time that Mohammed [Hanif's] book came out, then Daniyal's. Mohsin and Nadeem and Kamila had been publishing for a while but suddenly you had all five of them, and I really wanted them all in the issue. They're clearly a generation - they're all about 10 years apart - and yet are writing in very different modes, which is very exciting. There's all this hunger for a generation of writers and sometimes they're right in front of you, just not in an expected place. Of course some people will ask why this issue isn't full of brand new writers and argue that these names already get plenty of attention. But they're really good writers and that's why they're in it.

And yes, they're all writing in English. But in a lot of countries early in the development of their literature - I'm thinking certainly of the United States - people who were writing were well-to-do, Henry James and Edith Wharton for example. And they left the country and went to Paris. The migratory instinct is not just about being noticed, it's about getting out into the world. I think it helps in some ways to be away from what you're writing about and all of these writers have benefited from that. Writing a work of fiction is not about reconstructing reality, it's about building a new one that has sort of an oblique reference to the real world, so sometimes having the real world so presently in front of you can be an obstacle.

Q. You have Jamil Ahmad, but are there no other new writers here because it's hard to find them from a distance?

A. Actually it's never easy anywhere. The fact is that 99.8 per cent of what we look at is not something we're going to publish. We got loads of submissions, a lot of them translations from Urdu, which we especially asked for, but it was very hard to find something contemporary that made sense.

Q. What surprised you, if anything, while you were putting this issue together?

A. I was surprised by how many love stories there are. Some of them might be slightly mixed up love stories, like Mohammed Hanif's. We just did the Sex issue and there were almost no love stories, and here's the Pakistan issue which is full of violence but also full of love.


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