The following are excerpts from the Introduction to Mushtaq Bilal’s upcoming book, “Writing Pakistan: Conversations on Identity, Nationhood and Fiction”, which will be published later this month by HarperCollins India.
The book is a collection of long-form interviews with 10 English novelists from Pakistan — Bapsi Sidhwa, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Uzma Aslam Khan, Aamer Hussein, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Bina Shah, Bilal Tanweer, and Shehryar Fazli. Writing Pakistan is available for pre-order on Amazon and will be available for purchase soon at the Readings bookstore in Pakistan.
A vast majority of general readers and academics in Pakistan tend to assume that Pakistani writers producing English fiction consciously address and/or appease the West in their works and contribute to stereotypical representations of Pakistan. The question of whether or not this is the case leads to productive tensions in the field of postcolonial literary studies. It also shows that there exists a huge gap between the expectations of Pakistani readers of English fiction and the works of Pakistani writers because most of these writers, in their respective ways, are trying to problematize and complicate the commonly held stereotypical views about Pakistan. If we were to assume that Pakistani writers are addressing the West we would also have to take into account the possibility that these writers could also be addressing Pakistan – its state, religious institutions, and civil society.
Dovetailed with the assumption of Pakistani English fiction writers addressing the West, or Pakistan for that matter, is the issue of representation. Are these writers consciously representing Pakistan or a certain section of Pakistani society or culture?
Another question is if these writers are acting as cultural intermediaries between the West and Pakistan.
The choice of using English for one’s creative expression remains a highly political undertaking for a variety of reasons.
Given the tiny English-speaking minority in Pakistan, another question that comes to mind is that of the intended audiences of Pakistani English fiction writers. What kind of audiences do these writers have in mind when they are writing?
In order to proceed towards a more nuanced debate on these and related questions I asked these writers what they thought of their own works. This was one of the motivations for compiling this collection.
“most of these writers are indifferent to labels like ‘postcolonial literature’ or ‘commonwealth literature’ that are frequently used to categorize their works not only within academia but also by literary prize juries.”
Since I tend to focus on the identity of my interlocutors mainly as a function of their citizenship of Pakistan – a postcolonial nation state – I have asked almost all of these writers as to what they think of labels like postcolonial literature and how they would feel if their works are studied as samples of postcolonial literature.
Pakistan is an extremely conservative Islamic country and it remains very difficult to exercise free expression in Pakistan without jeopardizing one’s safety and security. Therefore, I have asked all of my respondents about their views on selfcensorship. This question often leads to quite interesting discussions in which these writers not only debate the reasons of self-censorship but also describe the various narrative strategies to, as aptly put by (Mohsin) Hamid, ‘speak as honestly as possible and [to] include in that speech the announcement that we are not allowed to speak freely.’
(The) practical linguistic hybridity (of the writers interviewed for this book) has obvious political ramifications. After all, what would be the first language of someone like Hamid or (Aamer) Hussein or (Shehryar) Fazli who were born into families that spoke Urdu but who grew up speaking English? (Mohammed) Hanif’s case is even more complex. He was born into a Punjabi household but was subsequently educated in Urdu and English – the languages in which he now writes. While growing up, (Bapsi) Sidhwa spoke Gujarati, Punjabi, and Urdu but could only read and write in English.
During the course of conducting and compiling of these interviews, I have noticed certain commonalities in the works and worldviews of these Pakistani writers. Writers included in this collection belong to diverse backgrounds; however, there are certain recurring themes not only in their fictions but also in the interviews collected here. For instance, most of these writers are indifferent to labels like ‘postcolonial literature’ or ‘commonwealth literature’ that are frequently used to categorize their works not only within academia but also by literary prize juries. Writers like Hanif and (Bina) Shah recognize that these labels represent a kind of colonial gaze, which is still used to look at Pakistani literature.
Another thread that runs across the views and works of this batch of writers is the exploration of the world view of the Pakistani urban middle class. It is probably because of the fact that most of these writers were born and raised in cities like Karachi and Lahore. Although (Daniyal) Mueenuddin’s collection of short stories explores Punjabi rural culture and (Jamil) Ahmad’s novel deals with tribal Baluch people, Pakistani English fiction predominantly remains an urban-centric enterprise.
Self-censorship with regards to political, religious, and sexual practices is another issue foregrounded in these interviews. Since Pakistan is an extremely conservative and intolerant society in terms of religion, rights of women, and one’s sexual orientation, exercising freedom of expression remains a perilous undertaking. Some of the writers interviewed here feel they are relatively freer to express themselves in English unlike their colleagues who write in Urdu.
However, it would be wrong to assume that the medium of English provides these writers with a considerable freedom of expression. Freedom of expression for Pakistani writers writing in English is only a shade more than those who are writing in Urdu as has been shown by Mohammed Hanif in his article about the Urdu magazine Nia Zamana (whose editor Shoaib) Adil particularly asked Hanif, ‘Is it possible that you write this in English because if it comes out in Urdu and those people [religious fundamentalists] read it they’ll be even angrier.’
“How do these writers see themselves as citizens of a postcolonial state who are using the language of the erstwhile colonizer to express themselves?”
Another motif in these interviews is that of exoticization of Pakistani writers in the West. Writers like Hamid, (Kamila) Shamsie and (Uzma Aslam) Khan who have been publishing in the Anglophone world for more than a decade and half observe that they are still exoticized. These writers also share the strategies they adopt to negotiate with their exoticization. Khan is of the view that Pakistani writers are complicit in the process of exoticization and as far as she is concerned, she ‘has not allowed it to happen.’
Identity politics is another theme which runs across the works as well as the interviews of these writers. Shah, Hanif, (Bilal) Tanweer, Khan and Sidhwa have often written about the lives of Pakistanis who are marginalized either because of their religious or political identities. In these works, one finds an attempt towards devising an alternative to the jingoistic and fundamentalist mainstream narrative of the Pakistani state and society. By writing about working class Christians, indigenous peoples, and Pakistani leftists, these writers explore a Pakistan that is unfamiliar to many a Pakistani.
Contemporary Pakistani English fiction is often looked at in terms of how works of fiction produced by these writers try to address Western stereotypes of Islam, Muslims, and Pakistan. However, unsurprisingly, this is not the only concern of contemporary Pakistani English fiction writers.
What are the Pakistani stereotypes these writers try to subvert in their fictions? What are the political undertakings of these writers, which result in the kind of works they end up producing? How do these writers see themselves as citizens of a postcolonial state who are using the language of the erstwhile colonizer to express themselves? And to what extent does the Anglophone publishing market influence the literary concerns of these Pakistani writers?
These are some of the questions that are discussed in these interviews. The intention is to provide these writers with a space in which to expound and elaborate their views that have not been articulated in their works.
Mushtaq Bilal is pursuing a doctorate in postcolonial studies. His work has appeared in such academic journals as Postcolonial Text, Contemporary South Asia, Journal of South Asian Studies, and the Annual of Urdu Studies. He lives in Islamabad, Pakistan.