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Pakistani English Writing 101

by Claire Chambers
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Asif Hassan—AFP

A reader’s guide to the burgeoning field of Pakistani authors who write primarily in English

Pakistani writing in English is attracting ever-increasing attention, both in Pakistan and the West. This might seem to be a self-explanatory category, comprising writing produced in English by Pakistanis. However, the more you examine it, the more complex it becomes. Let us consider six questions: the who, what, where, when, why, and how of this exciting body of literature.

Who?

Who should be called a Pakistani writer? Are there particular criteria that make a writer Pakistani? In my opinion, we should take a flexible and inclusive view of who the Pakistani writer is.

As a point of departure, it may be worth considering a parallel case. The Saltire Scottish Book of the Year is awarded for the best book by ‘any author of Scottish descent or living in Scotland; or for a book by anyone which deals with the work or life of a Scot or with a Scottish problem, event or situation’. If one replaces the word ‘Scottish’ with ‘Pakistani,’ this definition has the advantage of including diasporic and Pakistan-based writers.

Indeed, in her anthology And the World Changed, Muneeza Shamsie argues eloquently that it is untenable to impose a distinction between the Anglophone writing of Pakistani ‘remainers’ on the one hand, and leavers and their descendants on the other. This is because the boundaries between the diaspora and residents of Pakistan are fluid and ever-shifting. For example, four ‘diasporic’ male authors—Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, H. M. Naqvi, and Daniyal Mueenuddin—returned to their home country within the last decade after long stays in Britain and the United States. Does that make their recent writing the work of residents and their early work that of diaspora authors? I would argue that this isn’t a particularly productive question and that it is more fruitful to dismantle the home−diaspora fault line altogether.

Adapting the Saltire definition would also embrace books written by those with Pakistani ethnicity—and those without. This would allow entry into the Pakistani writing in English (PWE) canon of novels such as British writer Peter Hobbs’ lyrical In the Orchard, the Swallows, set in Pakistan’s northern areas.

Compared to the Saltire Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian literature has similarly capacious criteria around ethnicity. Its rules on location are stricter, though, as DSC books have to feature South Asian themes regardless of the author’s identity. Both of these prizes in practice tend to focus on writers from the relevant ethnicities or nationalities (in this case, South Asian and Scottish). Even so, it seems to me progressive to take a pluralist approach to the question of what constitutes a Pakistani writer.

It is true that PWE continues to mostly be understood in the global literary marketplace to emanate from writers educated and published in Britain and America. On these authors is conferred a status not unlike that of the colonial ‘native informant.’ This is a problem, one that can potentially be solved not by closing doors but by aiming at more mixing and an ever louder and more diverse cacophony of voices.

What?

Can translations of fiction or poetry from Urdu or Pakistan’s regional languages be called PWE? It wouldn’t be standard practice to do this because of the emphasis on Anglophone literary production. However, Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi, Siraiki, Pashto, Balochi, Pahari, and so forth tend to get limited exposure at home and abroad. It would, then, be worthwhile to include good translations.

Moreover, some writers are involved in what Indian publisher and critic P. Lal and others call ‘transcreation,’ encompassing the varying degrees to which they rewrite, update, and adapt the original text when they translate it into English. Transcreated texts offer a strong argument for their incorporation into the PWE canon, such as Qurratulain Hyder’s exemplary River of Fire, which was first brought out in 1959 as Aag ka darya. Hyder translated it into the English title River of Fire (1998) almost four decades after publication. In the process she abridged certain sections, but also added new scenes to her possibly unfinished Urdu novel. The landscape of PWE would be barer without River of Fire.

I’ve been asked before on what basis a writer such as Hanif Kureishi, who has little connection to Pakistan, is regularly called a Pakistani writer. The questioner suggested that his avowed atheism disqualified him from a claim to Pakistani identity. I pointed out that Kureishi has been to Karachi thrice, once for an extended visit in the early 1980s which inspired him to write My Beautiful Laundrette and his major Pakistani essay ‘The Rainbow Sign,’ and again for shorter trips in 2012 for the Karachi Literature Festival and 2018 for the Think Fest. In ‘The Rainbow Sign,’ Kureishi makes it clear that he views himself more as a British than a Pakistani writer. This is understandable given his short stays in Pakistan, even if he has family in the country. But he isn’t comfortably British either, and is alienated by the ‘little Englander’ attitudes of racists like Enoch Powell and his contemporary descendants. In his youth he was called a ‘Paki’ and racially abused, so he certainly has a claim to be called a writer of the Pakistani diaspora, if not an author of PWE.

As for religious elements, or lack thereof, I think it would be a mistake to accord too much attention to this. Some of Pakistan’s most influential authors were of course members of the Progressive Writers Association and atheistic or agnostic in their beliefs.

If particular writings are disqualified for not being Muslim enough, then Pakistan will have to lose its religious minority authors too, most notably Parsi writer Bapsi Sidhwa. That would be a tragedy, for in novels such as The Crow-Eaters and Ice-Candy Man Sidhwa was to inaugurate sustained comedy and biting satire in Pakistani fiction, a legacy that would be inherited, consciously or not, by many other PWE authors.

Where?

Another important question to consider is whether it is right to include literature by South Asian Muslim writers who never migrated to Pakistan but wrote about Partition and had their works printed in Pakistan. This is especially relevant if these writers had family members who remained in or migrated to the territory that became Pakistan. In that case, I would be keen to incorporate them in the corpus of Pakistani Writing in English. However, self-identification is also important. Authors like Attia Hosain were vehemently opposed to Pakistan’s creation and strongly identified with India, despite the fact that many members of her family migrated to Pakistan. These migrants included the branch of the family to which her niece Muneeza Shamsie and great-niece Kamila Shamsie belong. In the case of Hosain, then, she is an important figure for Pakistani writers such as the Shamsies, as well as Aamer Hussein, but it would almost be an act of violence to co-opt her for PWE.

We are perhaps starting to see the need for two categories. First, there are Pakistani or Pakistani diasporic writers. Second are literary representations of Pakistan and its diaspora by writers who are not necessarily Pakistani. This second grouping would include Hobbs’ In the Orchard, the Swallows or a text like Hosain’s unfinished novel No New Lands, No New Seas (in Hussein’s edited collection of Hosain’s unpublished work, Distant Traveller), which features Pakistani and Indian Muslims living in London. The two types of PWE have areas of productive overlap, but the one cannot be straightforwardly decanted into the other.

When?

What about fiction by writers such as Feroz Khan Noon and Ahmed Ali, or poetry by Allama Iqbal, written before Partition? Is this literature Pakistani or Indian?

All of these writers had strong attachments to and were greatly influential for Pakistan (even if Iqbal did not live to see the birth of the country he had imagined). As such, they should belong more to the Islamic Republic than to India. But there is no need to draw a firm line on national identification and they can be seen as simultaneously Indian and Pakistani (and each of them also have a claim on the diaspora, especially in Britain).

Kamila Shamsie poses a similar question about temporal boundaries in her non-fiction book Offence: The Muslim Case, which is worth quoting at length,

There is an immediate roadblock, of course, in wanting to discuss the specific case of Pakistan: where to begin? In 1947, with the creation of Pakistan? Earlier, with the demands for Pakistan? Earlier still, with Muslims in colonial India? Or even earlier, with Mughal rule in India? The first two options are hard to discuss without some mention of the latter two, but I’ll confess to some queasiness about choosing the latter and thus giving in to the official version of history in Pakistan which says the history of the nation is, pre-1947, synonymous with the history of Muslims in India.

I share Shamsie’s queasiness about the tendency to privilege trans-historical Muslim identity while ignoring the rich pre- and para-Muslim history of the territory of Pakistan. In the case of writers like Khan Noon and Ali, very few problems attach if we adopt the kind of strategic essentialism Shamsie endorses by choosing 1857 as her starting point. This is because both fiction writers moved to Pakistan soon after Partition and died there, with Khan Noon even becoming foreign and prime minister of Pakistan. However, to create the richest tapestry of texts possible, it is important to go much further back than the early demands for Pakistan. Students of PWE would do well, for example, to scrutinize the Indian Muslim travel writing transcreated by Indian and Bangladeshi scholars Nishat Zaidi, Kaiser Haq, and the late Mushirul Hassan.

Why?

Why write in the first place? There could be a resistance agenda. Poetry has had an essential role to play in revolutionary activity around the globe, from the Arab Spring to the Sandinistas in 1980s Nicaragua. The succinct nature and symbolic power of poems, their richness for adaptation as chants or songs, and the relative speed and in-expense with which they can be written explains their popularity in political movements.

Contemporary literature from Pakistan often speaks out passionately against human rights violations. However, this literature equally regularly works to address the person (real or imagined) whose story it is recounting. I believe that literature can work to build bridges, bringing together diverse people in South Asia and the world. Fiction can function as the ground for new ways of thinking to take root. Imaginative texts enable people to understand that they are not alone in their thoughts and emotions. It makes them realize that others are having similar experiences to them. The growing popularity of PWE in India, as well as the more long-standing interest amongst Pakistanis of Indian Writing in English gives ground for hope.

It remains vital to think about the art as well as the politics of Pakistani writing in English. In his most recent novel, The Golden Legend, for example, Nadeem Aslam has much to say about the Kashmir conflict, America’s machinations in the Raymond Davis affair, and Pakistan’s reprehensible treatment of its Christian minority. More striking, though, is the poetic way in which he presents these themes, and his veneration of the written word. This is writ large in the image of a syncretic book ripped to shreds by a ‘soldier-spy’ from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. With love, the novel’s women sew the book back together with the titular golden thread. They refuse to hide their stitches, out of a belief that ‘Even a deformed rose had perfume.’

In a way, this trope is emblematic of Aslam’s whole artistic project in this novel, as well as others he has written such as The Wasted Vigil. The author defends the fragments of Pakistani society by championing a fractured approach to literary form. As with his female characters, it is love that causes Aslam painstakingly to reassemble the fragments of intertwined histories and disparate texts. No attempt is made to paper over the cracks of uncertainty that run through this novel. Instead, as in a collage or mosaic, the cracks form part of the aesthetic fabric, illustrating the artificiality of a seamless vision.

How?

Writing in the 1920s, Virginia Woolf, in one of her arch essays, hyperbolically argued that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed.’ From our vantage point in 2019, it is also possible to see that there was a change to PWE on or about December 2010. Around that time there was a noticeable flowering of Pakistani writing in English. A cohort of authors, many of them born around the time of the 1971 War, have been striving to understand this cataclysmic event as well as the later repressive regime of Zia-ul-Haq and the post-9/11 political climate. They explore hot button issues with beauty, wit, and great seriousness.

This is not just a literary fiction phenomenon, and we should note the emergence of politicized and literary ‘pulp’, including the weighty romance fiction of Qaisra Shahraz, thrillers by Omar Shahid Hamid and Saad Shafqat, the chick-lit of Moni Mohsin, Maha Khan Phillips and Saba Imtiaz, and dystopian feminist fiction spearheaded by Bina Shah. When it comes to poetry, writers like Shadab Zeest Hashmi, Harris Khalique, and Imtiaz Dharker spread out a world of colors, smells, and tastes using exquisite language.

These writers’ work comes in spite of Pakistan’s woefully deficient publishing infrastructure. The publishing scene has, if anything, declined in the 2010s compared with its small but growing condition in the noughties. To take just one example, Alhamra Press, based in Islamabad, was founded in 2000 by Shafiq Naz. Before the turn of this new decade some critics wrote with optimism about Alhamra, a publisher putting out mostly PWE. The stable distributed three of Bina Shah’s fictional works, as well as Sorayya Khan’s Noor, and a short-lived journal, Alhamra Literary Review (established in 2006). However, around 2010 the press stalled. Nowadays it mostly seems to print texts that are guaranteed to sell, such as Western children’s classics in English, Urdu books and the occasional volume of Anglophone nonfiction.

In almost a reverse phototropism, starved of light these writers nonetheless bloom. As with Aslam’s deformed rose, their books release a layered perfume for readers to enjoy.

Chambers global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays

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3 comments

Zahra Zafar February 22, 2019 - 10:53 am

nice sharing z

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S. Khan February 23, 2019 - 1:26 pm

PAKISTANI ENGLISH WRITING 101 is very good with its six categories as a starting point. “When” however could be enlarged usefully from history books to discuss more contemporary work in different forms. Pakistanis do not write fiction only. How about a seventh category? A category that nobody touches is “For Whom”, to bring out the writer-audience relationship, particularly in Pakistan. Would Miss Chambers Global (who could be a Saltire Pakistani writer from Scotland) like to attempt it?

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exton pa apartments November 4, 2019 - 9:20 pm

Great post.

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