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Writing on the upside

September 11, 2011

Post 9/11, Pakistani authors were encouraged to tell their stories.

Bemoaning the relative anonymity of her own home country, a Nepalese author recently remarked to me that the “upside” of Pakistan being in the news all the time is the attention being paid by an international readership to the new wave of Pakistani literature in English.

Not quite certain how to react to this very candid though, I’m sure, well-meaning observation, I did nonetheless acknowledge that yes, for Pakistanis writing fiction in English the last 10 years have brought about a sea change. They have gone from being unknowns from “the country next to India” to being feted by the international media, the selection committees of the Booker Prize, Orange Prize and Commonwealth Writers Prize, and many others.

Before September 11, 2001 the English-reading world knew three Pakistani writers: Bapsi Sidhwa, Tariq Ali and Kamila Shamsie. With City by the Sea (1998) and Salt and Saffron (2000) Shamsie was still a relative newcomer, while Sidhwa had a loyal following thanks to her groundbreaking novel The Crow Eaters (1978) followed by Ice Candy Man (1988) and -- my personal favourite -- An American Brat (1993).

Tariq Ali, who is best known for his political activism and the large body of work inspired by it -- Can Pakistan Survive? (1983) and Marching in the Streets (1998) are just two examples -- embarked on what he called the Islam Quintet, a series of historical fiction in which each book is based on a particular Islamic empire. The debut novel Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992) was absolutely mesmerising. It describes in heart-wrenching detail the fall of Granada and the forced conversion and/or expulsion of Muslims from Andalusia. The follow-up Book of Saladin (1998) was equally scintillating, while The Stone Woman (2000) carried the narrative thread up to the Ottomans. Then came 9/11 which quite unfortunately, albeit predictably, disrupted the series. Ali kept his promise of a quintet with A Sultan in Palermo (2005) and Night of the Golden Butterfly (2010) but it is quite obvious to the reader that his heart wasn’t in it.

Ali wasn't the only one who got overtaken by world events. Even as the Twin Towers were falling President General Musharraf was presented with two options: “you are either with us or with the enemy.” Not wanting to see his country “bombed back to the Stone Age” he made the only sensible choice. Sensible but unpopular, both among the general masses who saw it as yet another capitulation to US dominance and also the intelligentsia who acknowledged that the president’s hands were tied but still felt a certain resentment, even shame, at how quickly the country fell to its knees.

This strange mix of emotions has been vividly represented by two Pakistani authors. First by Mohsin Hamid in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named by The New York Times as Notable Book of the Year. Hamid eloquently portrays the dilemma of Changez, a westernised Pakistani who becomes disenchanted with America in the aftermath of 9/11. He sees himself as “a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine” and consciously sabotages his own high-flying career in Manhattan. In the end he returns home to Lahore. Just as Hamid himself did in 2009.

Two years later H.M. Naqvi wrote Home Boy (2009) in which the three young Pakistani protagonists -- AC, a gangsta-rap-spouting academic; Jimbo, a hulking Pushtun DJ ; and Chuck, who is fresh off the boat – embark on a road trip in September 2001 only to find themselves in a much changed America. Naqvi’s narrative is unique in that he employs slang and makes many pop culture references, hereby making the reading of this immigrant story cum coming-of-age tale a truly pleasurable experience.

But no, it hasn’t all been about 9/11. Now that the world was engaged and willing to listen, and international publishers and literary agents were eager to sign them on, Pakistani authors were encouraged to tell their stories. Knopf Canada published Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s The Story of a Widow in 2008. In the following year American publisher Riverhead Books took on Ali Sethi’s The Wish Maker. And in that same year another US company, Clockroot Books, published Uzma Aslam Khan’s Geometry of God.

Nadeem Aslam Khan’s Map for Lost Lovers (2004) and Wasted Vigil (2008) received rave reviews. Both books are, admittedly, concerned with 9/11.

Meanwhile Pulitzer Prize finalist, National Book Award finalist and Commonwealth Prize-shortlisted Daniyal Mueenuddin dwells on the lives of the assorted members of a Pakistani landowner’s household in his debut collection. Titled In Other Rooms, Other Wonders it was originally published in the United States in 2009 by W.W. Norton.

Last, but certainly not the least, is Mohammed Hanif, the former head of BBC’s Urdu Service in London who exploded onto the literary scene with his first novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008). Hanif’s second offering Our Lady of Alice Bhatti has just hit bookstores in Pakistan courtesy of Random House, India.

Which brings me to India.  Any assessment of Pakistani authors – or the “Pak Pack” as Kamila Shamsie once humorously referred to them -- would be incomplete without mentioning the various Indian publishers who have played an important role in encouraging their talent and helped to present their works internationally. Aside from the few well-known authors I have discussed above, there are many in Pakistan writing in English who have sought and found publication in our neighbouring country over the last 10 years.

But the ultimate tribute to this past decade of Pakistani writing was paid by Granta when it dedicated its Autumn 2010 issue to Pakistan. Filled with short pieces of fiction, reportage, memoir, art and poetry by various Pakistani writers, the online version also offers valuable advice from a Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin on How to Write About Pakistan:

“Lying in my bed at 7.48 a.m., laptop on lap. Too much writing in this position over the years has given me neck-aches. I’d do yoga if it weren’t such a non-Pakistani sounding activity. For a Pakistani writer to do yoga feels like questioning the two-nation theory. So I complain, which brings enormous relief and a sense of oneness with my subject matter.

When it comes to Pakistani writing, I would encourage us all to remember the brand. We are custodians of brand Pakistan. And beneficiaries. The brand slaps an extra zero onto our advances, if not more. Branding can be the difference between a novel about brown people and a best-selling novel about brown people. It is our duty to maintain and build that brand.

I know I don’t need to reiterate here what brand Pakistan stands for, but since my future income-stream is tied up with what you all do with it, I’m going to do so anyway. Brand Pakistan is a horror brand. It’s like the Friday the 13th series. Or if you’re into humor, like Scary Movie. Or Jaws, if nature-writing is your thing.

Anyway, the point is that people from all over the world have come to know and love brand Pakistan for its ability to scare the shit out of them. Whatever you write, please respect this legacy. We’re providing a service here. We’re a twenty-storey straight-down vertical-dropping roller coaster for the mind. Yes, love etcetera is permissible. But bear in mind that Pakistan is a market-leader. The Most Dangerous Place in the WorldTM.

It took a lot of writing to get us here, miles of fiction and non-fiction in blood-drenched black and white. Please don’t undo it. Or at least please don’t undo it until I’ve cashed in a couple more times. Apartments abroad are expensive.”

Saima Shakil Hussain is the former editor of Dawn’s Books &Authors magazine