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Literature in English and politics

May 02, 2013

ISLAMABAD, May 1: Literature is not just good stories, smartly crafted plots, great words and heartfelt words in poetry and prose.

Literature is much more, and genres are many, and even combinations thereof.

In our time, we must include new and social media, in addition to the slightly older visual media of films and TV and the audio media of radio, records, tapes and CDs. Yet, the books remain special even in our multi-media world.

This was underlined by several panelists and many participants on the second day of the large and most successful Islamabad Literature Festival on Wednesday.

In a session about ‘Pakistan in the Western Imagination: What are the Challenges faced by Pakistani English Literature’, the moderator Muneeza Shamsie asked Rashed Rahman if he had considered using non-fiction in his work.

He stressed that he was a journalist, not a writer, but he did mention that he was also writing poems, and he underlined that he read a lot of Pakistani, Indian and other literature.

He explained that when he came of age as a journalist, he took particular interest in reporting about the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

He felt it an imperative to tell the truth and explain what was happening. For some periods and in certain places, he was the only reporter present.

“Even today, it is very important to tell facts and explain facts, yes, and search for the truth,” Rashed Rahman said.

“There is still little knowledge and much misunderstanding among people.”

Later, Rashed Rahman stressed that to write about everyday issues, if we do good or bad to our neighbours, that is also political. Politics is not something that can be compartmentalised.

Poet Ilona Yusuf said that she was never a political person, but that she would also write about political items, such as her interest in writing about people sometimes avoiding seeing the truth.

She also mentioned that she had written about the problems in Swat, and she recalled that when in south-western America, she had been surprised by people’s interest in and lack of knowledge about women’s situation in Pakistan, including violence against women and maiming of women’s faces.

Shehryar Fazli, a political analyst who has also written non-fiction, said that he thought that poetry and the spoken word could travel a lot further than prose does. And Ilona Yusuf then underlined that in Pakistan that would only apply to Urdu, not to English.

And she said that part of the reason for the power of literature is that great literature comes out of what is closest to oneself.

Furthermore, the panelists seemed to agree on the power of the written word, even in our multimedia time.

Rashed Rahman and Shehryar Fazli both underlined that we all remember the books we have read, especially in our youthful years, even more than the films we saw.

Many questions raised were about the image that was created of Pakistan in the West.

Some participants seemed to feel that Pakistan was often given a raw deal, with emphasis on negative aspects rather than the positive and softer aspects.

The journalistic view that was underlined was that reality could not be changed, it had to be reported.

Rashed Rahman said that the messenger, the journalist, should not be blamed. Also Ilona Yusuf also underlined that it was not the duty of the writers to soften images.

Although the impact of the English language fiction writers in the West remained inconclusive at several sessions at the Islamabad Literature Festival, and one would have liked some academic and systematic analysis of the theme, the writers managed to give a good picture of the importance of the broad and varied English language literature at home and in the West, including such written by the Pakistani diaspora abroad.