For quite some time, Pakistani poetry written in English has been eclipsed by its more popular counterpart, prose. However, recently, it has started to garner some of the attention it so richly deserves both locally and internationally, with publications and magazines taking keen interest in highlighting the work of Pakistani poets writing in English. Waqas Khwaja is one such poet. Apart from being published widely in magazines and literary journals, including The Missing Slate, the professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at Agnes Scott College has written three collections of poetry, a travelogue, and two anthologies of translated Pakistani literature.
In an exclusive conversation with The Missing Slate’s Sana Hussain, he shares his ambivalence about the abundance of literature festivals in Pakistan, and comments on the impossibility of translations, his experience guest editing the Atlanta Review’s issue on Pakistani poetry and his passion for literature and poetry.
Let me start off by saying what a treat your sessions at the Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) 2014 were. And I could see by the crowd that gathered to meet you following them that the sentiment was shared by many others. Seeing as we met during the ILF, and that you were a session panelist, I would like to know what your impression is of the growing interest in literature festivals in Pakistan?
I am glad you enjoyed the sessions, and appreciate your saying so, though, I must confess, I had more mixed feelings. As to the growing interest in literary festivals in Pakistan, there are many positives, of course. Presumably, it is their interest in reading that brings them out to such events. Not only may they get reassured, in these volatile times we live in, that reading and writing are worthwhile activities, they may indeed get inspired to write on their own. And those who do write, or are perhaps closet writers, may find the motivation to share their work by the examples they see before them, aspiring to be published and praised like the writers they admire.Some go to these events specifically to see in flesh and blood the writers whose work they have loved and appreciated. Others may go for the fun of it, but get hooked on to reading and writing. Then all the displays of books, old and new, from a wide range of publishers, offers the opportunity to find works one may have been looking for without success, or had wanted to possess but was prevented by lack of energy or time to go look for them, as also the chance to get acquainted with fresh titles, both by writers presenting at the festival as well as by others who may not be a part of the event. It’s a bit of a circus in the end, isn’t it? For after all it is a “festival,” with all the flippancy and frivolity associated with affairs of the kind. Every writer wants to be a part of it, and would feel slighted if ignored. Those that are on the outside look at the insiders with a touch of envy, longing to be in their place.
It seems to me, then, that there are a couple of (mistaken) assumptions that are motoring this drive to organize literary festivals. One, it is somehow believed that having literary festivals will divert people’s attention from the extremism and intolerance that has swept over society, forgetting, however, that these events themselves are a product of misplaced elitism and may further the sense of alienation in the masses. For, it may be noted, that there is a hierarchy of languages (and writers) that is in play at these festivals. English, for instance, is accorded preeminence, as are writers who use it as their language of composition, and Urdu, patronizingly, admitted as next in importance. Local languages are outside the pale, with one or two marginally acknowledged here and there, if at all. At ILF, for instance, there were no sessions with Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi, or Barohi writers, and only one that focused on Pashto. At the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), a few sessions with Punjabi writers were included to supplement the marquee English and Urdu celebrities, but the other languages were entirely neglected. This illustrates both language politics at work and the language-based breach between the “elite and the privileged” on the one hand, and the “ordinary and dispossessed” on the other—a divide that has become politically endemic in Pakistani society and that the festivals appear to have embraced.
Secondly, sponsoring publishers reckon that literary festivals are a good way of promoting their merchandise. Instead of expending large amounts on print and visual ads which no one pays much attention to, literary festivals named after the specific city where they are held offer the likelihood of galvanizing the attention of a very large number of people, especially when local media is brought into play by holding well-publicized information sessions and press conferences. People may also be enticed by the sense of distinction it gives them to see their city hosting a large cast of foreign and local writers. Whether, in the end, this is really going to increase readership or book buyers is still an open question.
Thirdly, imitation and mimicry appear to be the hallmarks of our age. If literary festivals are being held in other places, why not have one in Pakistan? If there is the Edinburgh Literary Festival, the London Literary Festival, the Berlin Literary Festival, the Jaipur Literary Festival, and the like, why can’t Pakistanis have literary fests of their own? After all, melas (carnivals) are popular everywhere, so why not have book melas in Pakistan? Whether or not Pakistani authors and their readership are able to sustain so many festivals is not something that may have been very carefully considered. So you have the phenomenon of the same writers going on the same circuit over and over, and pretty much the same people who attended the literary festival in their city when it first started will be seen again from year to year, give or take a few score who may be new one year or may drop out in another.
In conclusion, I would say that literary festivals will be meaningful and significant if they are not overdone, and only if they are more inclusive and equitable in the languages they showcase. Hybrid sessions, where writers from different language traditions come together to discuss literary matters and other related issues, could also be enormously useful in providing an opportunity of a conversation as equals across linguistic divides and in cross-pollination of ideas. An offensive eagerness to ape everything “English” or “Western” was on display at the ILF, while the Urdu writers remained confined to their own world, “separate but equal,” but anxious, nonetheless, to get their works translated into English, and it left me wondering, do these writers, both those who use English as their medium of expression and those who write in Urdu, have no self-respect, no pride in creating art out of their own environment and are keen only on the mimicry of representing for foreign readers and foreign audiences?
How do you see the increasing presence of political sessions and discussions in a literature festival? Or if I were to rephrase the question, what is your view of the foreign and local media’s assertion that literary activities in Pakistan serve a higher symbolic purpose of battling extremism. I am referring to headlines such as “Making Art Despite Crises” or “Pakistan, Under Cultural Siege, Is Buoyed by Book Festivals” that are commonly seen in newspapers covering such festivals.
These are two separate questions, or perhaps more than two. Every watershed age, period, or generation brings with it a new dimension of consciousness. Once and wherever this is introduced, it leaves an indelible mark on the discourse and, thereafter, obligates attention to and engagement with its implications. There was a time when it was one of the inalterable assumptions of literary study that a literary text was independent of all external factors—a complete, self-referential, object of art—and it spawned the formalist approach called “New Criticism” in the 1930s, focused essentially on “close reading” and textual analysis, while ignoring socio-cultural, historical, and political contexts, variations in reader response, encoded biases against race, class, gender, and the like.
“Political sessions,” then, to take it a step further, should be out of place entirely in such settings, in that it would be paradoxical to expect serious discussions on vital issues of human rights, social and economic problems, sectarianism and religious intolerance, international diplomacy, war, and terrorism in a “festive” (read also, here, “a celebratory creative”) environment. But one may also argue that a “political session” negates the idea of literature’s pluralistic engagement with various forms of knowledge and attempts to circumscribe it into a strictly disciplinary mold. Literature routinely utilizes and deploys insights, themes, and materials from a variety of disciplines, and other disciplines too may sometimes use literature (fiction, poetry, creative essay, drama) to supplement, or illustrate, a point, but no one claims that the physical or social sciences, for instance, are literature in the sense of a literary product, or a work of art. Disciplinary boundaries are porous and diffuse between literature and other forms of learning and discourse, but there still are core differences that set it apart from other forms of engagement with life, its materials, and its processes and brings it in the realm of Art—imaginative recreation, for instance, the innovative use of language, the concern with style and form, deployment of literary devices, and so on.
Nonetheless, literature festivals themselves remain intensely political in what they represent and the “statement” they make (or are expected) to the society at large. This is obvious from the protocols of inclusions (and exclusions, it follows), but also from the kind of headlines you mention, which are examples of little else than sensational journalism. Tall claims to justify and endorse the structures and hierarchies of power in the country, to gratify the privileged, and to reassure the donors and credit masters in the West that work of enlightenment of the masses continues.
Historically, compelling art, however, has often been produced in times of crisis, and one may legitimately ask, “When has the world not been in a state of crisis?” People paint and write, compose music, and make films no matter what the conditions. And writers worth their salt write in the spoken language or languages of the people among whom they live and work and bring up for reflection that which is hidden, or swept under the carpet, things their society doesn’t wish to see. For what would be the point of affirming only the obvious and the acceptable?
But that doesn’t make the writers “heroes.” They speak to us and invite reflection and conversation, create beauty and let us decide whether we see it as such or not. Just make the world a little different each time, a little more beautiful, a little more intriguing, perhaps even enticing. They don’t change the world in any physical sense. They don’t have the power, thank goodness, to formulate laws, to implement policies, to dispense punishments, to indulge in actual social engineering. They just exist, and sing, or sigh, read, or recite, and go about their ways. But they also, sometimes, more frequently than one imagines, end up supporting the establishment, the existing structures of inclusion and exclusion. And literary festivals of the kind we see in Pakistan, I am afraid, go a little in that direction–witness, once again, the marginalization of the local languages and the local-language writers. So, politics is not ever far from literature, or literary festivals, but bringing in “political sessions,” with agendas of social restructuring and narcissistic self-praise for what is being done, is quite another matter. That is laying it on with a trowel!
You said something in your ILF session (“New Words, New Worlds: The Art of Translations”) that stuck with me. You said that you work on the premise that translation is impossible. How do you reconcile this impossibility with your craft as a translator who has successfully translated several works of poetry?
That something is impossible (to perfect) doesn’t mean that one does not attempt doing it. In my introduction to Modern Poetry of Pakistan, which includes translations of nearly a hundred-and-fifty poems from seven Pakistani language traditions, I discuss in detail why it is so, and how poet translators attempt to overcome it. It is difficult enough to convey the rasa, or flavor, of the original poem even when it is translated from a cognate or closely-related language-and-culture system, as, for instance, from French into English, and vice versa, or from Urdu into Persian, or the other way around. But when the language-and-culture systems are widely divergent, this becomes virtually impossible.
Poetry, and literature, for that matter, thrives on allusion, symbolism, the connotative charge, peculiar linguistic expressions, puns, and the like. To think that this can be conveyed exactly as it is the original text, and exactly as it would be received and processed by a native reader, is not just a delusion. It shows an appalling lack of appreciation for the special means, ways, and possibilities of perceiving the world and formulating expression that may be peculiar to a language. Often, translators may know only one of the languages well enough to express themselves with cultural nuance, tact, and pertinence. Sometimes, even this may be lacking.
But, let us say, that language is the text’s original language of composition. When translation, then, is attempted into a target language, of which one has only passing and passable understanding, they translator may end up choosing words that may outwardly seem appropriate but have cultural and literary connotations that undercut the intended purpose, or take the text in quite another direction. You can go through any number of permutations and combinations of awareness, knowledge, and tact, in one language or the other, to see the complex kinds of difficulties that the act of translation throws up for the hapless translator.
And, keep in mind, the translations are not meant for readers of the text’s original language. Their purpose is to convey the aesthetic effect of a poem, or a work of literature, in the target language, to the speakers and readers of that language. So it’s like transplanting a whole cultural experience with all its nuances within another rich and vibrant, but largely or entirely different, culture. Some ways of seeing and feeling will go well with one culture, but not so well with the other. They may even appear as trivial, jejune, or sapless in their new home and environment.
It is not something I am making up to have translation work appear more difficult than it is. Seasoned and highly-regarded translators across the world face this problem and talk about it. Some of these I quote on this theme in my introduction. Partly because not much emphasis is placed in Pakistan in learning a range of foreign languages, people here, aspiring writers, let us say, but also some well established ones, read their world literature in English translation, and fall into the assumption that the translation actually reflects the literary and aesthetic features of the original.
Now this is not necessarily true, but, a good bit of “creative” work is produced based on this misconception. If this work, then, is translated, or encounters an informed reader, it will immediately be found out to be secondhand. So Pakistan and Pakistani languages need a cadre of trained and imaginative literary theorists and critics, who, by examining literary productions in an informed and rigorous way, may dissuade writers from taking the easy way out and provoke or inspire them to deliver at a higher, more original, level.
You have also edited the Atlanta Review’s recent issue on Pakistani poetry. What can you tell our readers about this issue and the poetry that it features?
Atlanta Review is one of the mainstream poetry journals in the States, and its editor, Dan Veach, himself a fine poet, is tireless in his drive to bring poetry from across the world to American readers. Each year, in one of his regular issues, he focuses on the poetry of one particular region or country in the world. He has done issues on Iraq, Iran, Ireland, India, Turkey, and so on, over the years. And just over half the issue, about 70 odd pages, is allocated to the international segment in these numbers. I wish there was a journal of this kind in Pakistan too. He approached me over a year ago with a request to guest edit the issue and I was happy to accept his offer. My experience in seeing Modern Poetry of Pakistan through publication as translation editor and contributing translator was obviously useful. I had my own ideas about selection of material, and here was another opportunity to present Pakistani poetry to American readers.
Given the limited space I had, it would have been foolish to entertain any grand ideas. I had to make my selections carefully and make sure that everything that was included counted. Taking out one page for the title, four for the introduction, and six for notes on contributors, I was left with a bare 57 pages! It surprised me that I got to include 53 poems by 32 poets, and was able to present poems from Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto, and Urdu, in addition to English. Sixteen of the poets are women. There are younger, lesser-known voices, like Naheed Sahar, Soniah Kamal, Mehvash Amin, Mina Farid Malik, Shireen Haroun, and Bilal Tanweer, and, of course, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Nasir Kazmi, Munir Niazi, Moniza Alvi, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Zehra Nigah, Parveen Shakir, Fahmida Riaz, Mushtaq Soofi, Yasmeen Hameed, Ahmad Faraz, and Maki Kureishi. Nasir Kazmi’s son, Basir Sultan Kazmi, who lives in England, and recently received an OBE for his contributions to literature and culture in the UK, is also included, as are Atta Shaad, Tanweer Anjum, Hasina Gul, Ilona Yusf, Shadab Zeest Hashmi, Hasan Dars, Adrian Husain, Sarmad Sehbai, and that fine modernist Urdu poet Javed Shaheen. I had material for another 30 pages or so, and more poets that I wished were represented, but ultimately the limits of space had to be respected.
How important do you think it is, to acquaint global readers with regional voices from Pakistan? Who are the regional poets that you would recommend to readers, both inside and outside Pakistan, to read?
Oh, it is absolutely imperative that the works of what we call “regional voices” are introduced to the world at large, and in really worthy translations, translations that do justice to their writings, for some of the work that is being produced in the regional languages is absolutely outstanding. Sindhi poets Sheikh Ayaz, Pushpa Vallabh, Sehar Imdad, and Hasan Dars; Ata Shaad, who writes in Baluchi and Urdu; Pashto poets Ghani Khan, Hasina Gul, Nahid Sahar,Gul Khan Naseer, and Amir Hamza Khan Sinwari; Janbaz Jatoi for Seraiki; and Ustad Daman, Sharif Kunjahi, Ahmad Rahi, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Najm Hosein Syed, Mushtaq Soofi from the Punjabi tradition.
You are not just a teacher, poet and editor, but also a lawyer. How did the shift from law to literature come about?
Literature had always been my first love, but the family profession was law. It was a question of finding the right opportunity and time to transition from law to literature, so no one in the family got offended that I had rejected their ancestral profession. I first came to Emory University as a Rotary Foundation fellow for graduate study in English literature, then returned in 1982 to practice law for the next 11 years.
But during that time, I and a couple of my friends, Mahmood Gillani, now sadly gone, and Chaudhry Shaukat, started a Writers’ Group that met fortnightly, mostly at my place, to share and discuss work that group members or guests had written. Young aspiring writers as well as celebrated literary figures came and read their work for us, and then had to sit in silence and listen to the criticism, analysis, and assessment of the audience. This did not please a couple of the celebrities, like Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, for instance, who had come with a full entourage of admiring devotees, among them Amjad Islam Amjad and Ata ul Haq Qasmi, and was most upset when listeners pointed out some obvious problems with one of his stories. But others, like Munoo Bhai, Javed Shaheen, Shuaib Bin Hasan, became regulars and greatly enriched the discussions with their contributions. Kishwar Naheed came and presented her work too, as did Taufiq Rafat, Athar Tahir, Kaleem Omer, the list goes on.
So, anyway, this led to my first foray into translation, and we produced a small anthology of original and translated work titled Cactus. The idea was to publish it as a semi-annual journal on a regular basis, but we never had the means to support it after the first issue. Meanwhile, I continued to publish my poetry, and when Six Geese from a Tomb at Medum was issued in 1987 there was some recognition of the work in the national papers. A year later, I published Mornings in the Wilderness, an anthology of Pakistani literature, one section containing works originally written in English and the other short stories and poems I had translated from Urdu. This too found an audience and a bit of critical recognition.
It was at this time that I was invited to participate in the semester-long International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. So, I got my adjournments, shut down my lawyer’s office for three months, and off I went to Iowa. Another book came out of that experience, Writers and Landscapes, and I knew then that I would be closing shop very soon and going away for a full-fledged career in literature. It took me another five years to make that happen.
Having translated short stories, written poetry, political and social commentary, a travelogue, and even economic analyses reports, which writing style comes most naturally to you?
A degree in English Literature has come up on many lists of “most useless degrees/majors”. Hanif Kureshi has also recently said that creative writing courses are a “waste of time”. What is your take on such dismissals as someone who has studied English Literature and is teaching both literature and creative writing courses?
If one takes up a field of study only because it is “useful,” in the sense that it provides a means for making money, then one doesn’t really love the subject. It is the material benefits that person wants, and there are many ways of obtaining these. On the other hand, if you love a subject, whether you study it academically for a degree or on your own, the joy and satisfaction that provides is recompense enough. Having said that, being involved with the academe now for twenty years, I have seen English majors go on to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, economists, entrepreneurs, editors with major publishing houses, you name it. And I have also seen them go on to graduate school and become reputable scholars and outstanding teachers.
As to creative writing courses, I am openly critical of them and yet I teach them and see their benefits. I want my creative writing students to know their field and their craft well, but be bold enough to break the rules, all of them, if their creative impulse propels them in that direction, as long as they are able to produce work that avoids being inane, and flat, and predictable, and sloppy. And some of these students have gone on to do stellar work, have published in well-regarded journals, and read their work at the most sought after venues. After all, in the pre-creative-writing program era, aspiring writers read the literature that was available to them, because this is what brought them joy and satisfaction, this is what they wanted to do, and attached themselves to a some prominent literary figure to learn the craft and seek feedback on their amateur exercises. A creative writing course pretty much functions on the same principles, except that there are several students to deal with and they all meet at the same time as a class. Yet there are several individual sessions during the semester with each student as well.
As a teacher, what would be your one piece of advice to students studying English Literature in Pakistan? I am asking specifically about Pakistan because I myself have studied literature at a local university and have found the experience lacking in some ways.
A lot of English literature programs in Pakistani universities that I know of are ill-conceived and shallow. This may gradually change, but it appears Pakistan does not yet have enough trained specialists in this field to deliver a decent education in English literature. This is a fast evolving area of study and the titles of courses as much as their descriptions are under constant revision. So is the name of the discipline itself. Shall we follow colonial practice and continue calling it English literature, or shall we recognize our changed political status and the developments that have already taken place in the world of former British colonies and rename it Literatures in English? Shall we continue to pay obeisance to the same old canon that was established to keep women, minorities, and colonials out of its hallowed ranks or shall we recognize the problems of canon formation and devise a curriculum that would be more in keeping with the world we actually now live in? These are crucial questions and need serious and urgent attention by qualified experts if they are to deliver an education that truly meets the demands of the modern world and the needs of the fresh young students who are being prepared to take on the responsibilities of the future. I strongly suspect that Pakistani professors of English literature may have actually failed their students in this regard.
Finally, you were a part of a magazine called Cactus. What place do you think such magazines and journals have in promoting new voices in literature and fostering a literary culture? And what in your opinion is the future of such publications, given that we live in an age where reading and writing habits are fast declining?
Such magazines are crucial to the health and vibrancy of a literary culture. In fact, they are the index of a lively and dynamic creative environment. Reading and writing habits may or may not be declining, but they are indispensable for personal growth and collective development. With the digital media, the options for acquiring, enhancing, and practicing these skills are greatly enhanced. So also are the possibilities of publication and dissemination of one’s work. I refuse to be pessimistic about the future. Each generation finds its own way of overcoming difficulties and setbacks, and charts out its own avenue for accomplishment and success.
Sana Hussain is Features Editor for the magazine.