by Soonha Abro, Associate Prose Editor at Papercuts magazine
Desi Writers’ Lounge (DWL) and Liberty Books recently organised an evening of readings and conversation in Karachi with the renowned short story writer, Aamer Hussein. The event was held on March 24, 2015, at the Liberty Books outlet next to BBQ Tonite. The discussion was moderated by our very own Farheen Zehra Jaffar, DWL’s Karachi representative.
The discussion kicked off with questions about Hussein’s experience in writing in both English and Urdu, and whether aspiring writers should focus on writing in a certain language. It is the language that chooses the writer, he replied – a fitting response for a writer like him, who is known for the multilingual abilities that have always manifested themselves in his stories.
As a child, Hussein was taught to read and write in English, and spoke Urdu at home. Later, he mastered Urdu and Persian by taking a degree in these languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, gaining exposure to the lesser-known writers and their works in these languages. Meanwhile, he read voraciously in Italian, French, English, Urdu, and Persian, as well as the English translations of Arabic, Russian, and several other European and East Asian literatures.
Although Hussein initially wrote in English, experimenting with his matter and form for many years, much of his most recent work has been in Urdu. He published four short stories in a 2012 issue of Dunyazaad, a literary journal that comes out of Karachi. These stories materialised on paper only because he attempted to write them in Urdu instead, as he had been unable to write them in English.
Much of Hussein’s literary influences have come from his extensive readings of English translations of a large variety of regional literatures from all over the world. His own stories have also been translated into many languages, including Italian, Arabic, and Japanese.
For Hussein, translating a literary text from one language to another makes that text more accessible to people who do not read, write, or speak the original language, as indicated by his own case. However, a translation of a literary text must encapsulate the essence of the story, even if certain aspects of the original need to be changed, he added.
Hussein also read some passages from his book The Swan’s Wife, especially from the title story, which was translated from Urdu. Farheen then read the corresponding passages from the Urdu original Maya Aur Hans.
The readings not only acquainted us further with Hussein’s literary craft, they also demonstrated how the appeal of a story changes with language during the process of translation. This was, by far, the best part of the evening – a great chance to observe the theory of translating a literary text being put into practice.
At the end of a stimulating, insightful discussion on language and writing, the floor was opened up for questions from the audience, which comprised of young writers, students, and general readers, as well as a few renowned Pakistani authors from Karachi.
An audience member asked Hussein about what inspires him to write so many strong female characters in his stories, to which he replied that it is because he believes that women demonstrate incredible courage every day in small ways, much more than men.
It felt particularly good to see the audience also contributing to the discussion at hand with several relevant, perceptive questions about language and the writer. One seldom sees such an occurrence in Karachi nowadays.
This was the second author meet-up in March. Earlier, DWL met with Laurent Gayer, where he chatted with Sabin Agha about his book Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City. DWL will continue to organise similar events on a regular basis in the future.