Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone
â€” Mushtaq Bilal, â€˜Writing Pakistan: Conversations on Identity, Nationhood and Fictionâ€™ (HarperCollins, 2016)
Mushtaq Bilalâ€™s â€˜Writing Pakistanâ€™ is a groundbreaking (in the sense that no book of this kind, focusing solely on Pakistan, has ever been published before) collection of interviews with ten â€œof the most distinguished names in Pakistani fiction in English today.â€ Bilal begins his introduction with what turns out to be a characteristically bold examination of what he refers to as a â€œboomâ€ (his scare quotes) in Pakistani English fiction.
This â€œboomâ€ â€” an apparent â€œflourishingâ€ of Pakistanâ€™s English-language â€œmusic, art and literatureâ€ â€” is, on closer inspection, perhaps more of a publicistâ€™s wilful exaggeration than a reality. As Bilal drily notes, â€œone might consider words like â€˜boomâ€™ and â€˜flourishingâ€™ as overstatements.â€ He proceeds to point out that â€œthere is not a single publishing house in Pakistan that specialises in English-language fictionâ€, while Kamila Shamsie suggests that â€œeven the most engaged reader in Pakistan would be hard-pressed to name more than a dozen writers from Pakistan writing English-language novels.â€ In his interview with Bilal, Musharraf Ali Farooqi rather inadvertently illustrates Shamsieâ€™s point by arguing that â€œat the momentâ€¦ we only have six or seven [English-language fiction] writers. We donâ€™t have thousands of writers whose writings can usher in change. It wonâ€™t happen.â€
If the â€œboomâ€ in â€œPakistani English fiction boomâ€ quickly becomes problematic, so too does â€œPakistaniâ€. No reader should be surprised to discover that Pakistan is, in many ways, itself a fiction â€” Â a country composed of myriad diverse identities. Significantly, â€œidentityâ€ is the most prominent word in the subtitle of â€˜Writing Pakistanâ€™, and identity is perhaps the central connecting thread running through all ten interviews. One of the collectionâ€™s great strengths is its willingness to give a voice to groups that have previously risked being written out of Pakistanâ€™s history: Bilalâ€™s first interviewee is Bapsi Sidhwa, perhaps best-known for writing from the perspective of the Parsee community. In Sidhwaâ€™s own words, â€œBefore â€˜The Crow Eatersâ€™ [her debut novel], Parsees had never been written about in fiction. Never.â€ Foregrounding her interview seems to represent a very conscious decision to explore alternative Pakistani identities.
Continuing that theme, Mohammed Hanif draws attention to the difficulties faced by the Baloch people (â€œIf you are a Baloch young man, your average age is reduced by half automaticallyâ€) and Pakistanâ€™s Christian community (â€œMany Christians over the past forty, fifty years have given their children Muslim names so that they wonâ€™t have to give their identity so easilyâ€). Bilal Tanweerâ€™s interview sheds light on the Pakistani Left, many of whose writings were â€œdestroyedâ€¦ by the Left themselves because the state was coming after them.â€ Uzma Aslam Khan, meanwhile, suggests that there is no one without â€œa hyphenated identityâ€¦ Everything â€” whether it is a language, whether it is a whale, whether it is a poem, whether it is a country â€” is a hybrid. Everything is a mix. And xenophobia stems from an idea of purity, of an identity that doesnâ€™t really exist. There is no such thing as pure identity.â€ Even in the land of the pure.
Mohsin Hamid advises against â€œdehumanizing peopleâ€ by reducing them to an idea. The writerâ€™s real task, according to Hamid, should be to â€œrecomplicate what has been oversimplified.â€ He also discusses the importance of â€œtrying to destroy the binaryâ€ between â€˜the Westâ€™ and Pakistan, and it seems significant that many of the influences cited by the interviewees in â€˜Writing Pakistanâ€™ are not Pakistani. In the collectionâ€™s first interview, Bapsi Sidhwa cites novels by Dickens, Tolstoy, V.S. Naipaul and Mark Twain as the most noteworthy formative influences on her writing. In the collectionâ€™s final interview, Shehryar Fazli mentions Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, plus The Godfather and China Town (perhaps thereâ€™s a study waiting to be written exploring Hollywoodâ€™s influence on contemporary South Asian writing). All ten interviewees have spent significant periods of their lives abroad (in Britain, Canada or the US), and a majority graduated from American or Canadian universities.
This diversity of influences isnâ€™t necessarily a recent phenomenon: Aamer Hussein points out that â€œChekhov was a big influence on Ghulam Abbas and Mantoâ€, with the caveat that both Abbas and Manto â€œare very much located in their own realities.â€ Going back far beyond independence, â€œPakistaniâ€ writing has been engaged in a series of dialogues with other countries and cultures.
What emerges from â€˜Writing Pakistanâ€™, taken as a whole, is a sense of what Kamila Shamsie refers to as â€œthe contemporary complexity of Pakistan.â€ Bilalâ€™s collection of interviews is an admirable attempt to navigate that complexity, succeeding in its mission â€œto provideâ€¦ writers with a space in which to expound and elaborate â€¦ views that have not been articulated in their worksâ€ Â and offering an unparalleled overview of contemporary Pakistani fiction in English.
As with all good books, the questions it poses linger long after the final page. â€œWhat appears strange and complex becomes even stranger and more complicated once you begin to investigate it,â€ as Bilal Tanweer writes in â€˜The Scatter Here is Too Greatâ€™, â€œThatâ€™s the true nature of the world.â€ â€˜Writing Pakistanâ€™ deserves praise for the thoroughness of its investigations into Pakistanâ€™s English-language literature scene, in all its strangeness and complexity.