By now Pakistanis must have gotten used to seeing dossiers and special reports on their country by esteemed Western publications like the RAND Organisation or the Brookings Institute, not to mention all those Time Magazine covers and embarrassing double-page spreads in Newsweek. But it really is quite a different story when a literary publication like Granta Magazine dedicates a whole issue to writing, fiction, and reportage coming out of the embattled, war-torn country. It might just be my own bias as a Pakistani writer, but stories packed with a blend of human emotions other than simply fear, prejudice, and hatred have a lot more to say about Pakistan to the world, at the same time offering Pakistanis a rare chance to secretly gloat about a budding, yet fragile literary scene in their country.

For every issue that Granta publishes, they hold a series of events and discussions, where the magazine's editors and contributing writers can converse about the significance of the chosen topics. This issue’s topics of discussions are dedicated to writing about Pakistan. Writing about Pakistan not just as a journalistic sound byte or a political phenomenon, but as an actual place in the world, a place which encapsulates millions of vibrant lives. How do you even consider capturing the real living breathing essence of Pakistan as a place? To answer this question the panel on Wednesday was composed of writers and journalists familiar with Pakistan  in conversation with Granta Editor John Freeman.

The panelists at the event in the East Village in NYC, included writer Mohsin Hamid, CNN producer Kiran Khalid, as well as  Ayesha Nasir and Lorraine Adams who contributed a journalistic narrative on the infamous Faisal Shahzad. The conversation immediately sprang into how the nature of journalism is confined to a one dimensional narrative process where places like Pakistan get enmeshed in stereotypical imagery – for instance bombs, bearded people and burqas. Tied between supply and demand in the news/media market, and an unrealisable tendency towards certain objectivity, the media is almost bound to misrepresent and confine the intricacy of people, places, and narratives to key issues. Do subjective explorations, fictional landscapes, and personal anecdotes then have a role in re-humanising the acid-burnt face of a country with a rich but oft ignored literary tradition?

The panel contributed many insights from personal and professional experience of work in the media and experiences of Pakistan. Mohsin Hamid suggested the idea that perhaps journalism was inherently fictitious, where in trying to create the image of objective discourse inventive rhetoric was sometimes essential in putting a “story” together. Loraine Adams shared her experience of working as a reporter where she was exposed to how the media builds template 'background' narratives to which the latest development is simply an appendage, and over time this process constructs an edifice of media consciousness.

I caught up with Mohsin Hamid after the talk to chat with him about how these kinds of events could help add more colorful dimensions to the Pakistani media-image. We noted that there was a lot of interest in Pakistan, and though the crowd was largely desi, a lot of these were first generation American-Pakistanis, expatriates, and sympathetic neighbouring desis and people curious about goings on in the country. Asked if the event would add a positive stimulus to Pakistan's image, Freeman responded that the magazine itself was the centerpiece of the event, and the art contained in the issue was actually what should be the source of change. Whether adverse circumstances and difficult times produced great art, Freeman couldn't answer – perhaps art is always there, and perhaps it reacts to adversity in an adverse way.

Given that the country is going through a seemingly endless period of crisis, perhaps the creatively inclined can somehow absorb the trauma and produce something truly inspiring out of it. Perhaps through sharing our experiences with each other and with the rest of the world we can re-communicate some of the human value which gets stripped away by international conflicts and 24-hour news. The question we should be asking ourselves is: whose job is it to represent us as human other than our own?

Lahore-based Asif Akhtar is interested in critical social discourse as well as the expressive facets of reactive art and is one of the schizophrenic narrators of a graphic novel. He blogs at http://e-scape-artist.blogspot.com/, can be found on Facebook and tweets at http://twitter.com/e_scape_artist.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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