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July 22, 2005

Muneeza Shamsie on Pakistani Literature in English

From Dawn May 8, 2005 by Muneeza Shamsie, editor of 'Drangonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English' 1997, 'Leaving Home: Towards a new Millenium' 2002 and 'And the World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women' 2005

A personal odyssey
By Muneeza Shamsie

I grew up in a bilingual home where my father seldom spoke anything but English; my mother was truly at home only in Urdu. This world simply did not exist in tales about churails, badshahs and parrots recounted by Bua, nor the English stories of teddy bears and Father Christmas that I read as a child. The only book, which remotely touched on my bilingual inheritance, was Kipling’s Jungle Book. Confusingly, my older, literary cousins in London used the word “Kiplingesque” as disparagement. Much later, I discovered John Masters. Alas the literary cousins did not think much of him either.
In 1961, my chachi, Attia Hosain, published her novel, Sunlight on a Broken Column. There was such excitement in the family. I tried to share it with teachers and friends at my school in England, but no one was interested. Even worse, when I returned to Pakistan for good at 19 (after 10 years) I became aware of another discourse among once-colonized intellectuals — that subcontinentals could not write creatively in English and should not even try! Nevertheless I went on reading and enjoying V.S. Naipaul and others.

In 1967 the expatriate Zulfikar Ghose published the riveting The Murder of Aziz Khan. This was the first cohesive, modern English novel written by a writer of Pakistani origin. The plot about a poor Punjab farmer destroyed by a group of industrialists, though fiction, was so close to the bone, that the chattering classes were abuzz, speculating “who-was-who”. Ghose’s remaining novels were set in South America, his wife’s country and few reached Pakistan. However, his poetry appeared in the first two major anthologies of Pakistani English writing: First Voices (1965) which also included the young Taufiq Rafat; and Pieces Eight (1971) which introduced Adrian Husain, Nadir Hussein, Salman Tarik Kureshi and Kaleem Omar. Soon I began to hear of an exciting new poet, Maki Kureishi. Wordfall (1975) consisting of wonderful poems by Omar, Rafat and Kureishi, remains one of my favourite books. We would all gather regularly at Adrian Husain’s multi-lingual, literary meetings, ‘Mixed Voices’.

In 1980, Bapsi Sidhwa’s first novel, The Crow Eaters was published by Jonathan Cape in England, which caused a tremendous stir. I remember my aunt and my sister chortling out loud because they found it so funny. I still find it one of Bapsi’s best, but I particularly like the accomplished Ice-Candy-Man (1988) which holds a place of its own as partition literature. For me, its special quality lies in the use of an entertaining and canny English-speaking child as narrator, who employs multi-lingual cadences of Pakistani English.

Meanwhile a new academic discourse revealed that some of the best English literature was coming from minority and migrant groups in the West and Britain’s erstwhile colonies. In 1984, the British-born playwright Hanif Kureishi, having won the 1981 George Devine Award, came to Pakistan for the first time. By then I had become a freelance journalist. My interview with him raised many issues of identity and belonging. Hanif had thought himself English, but England has perceived him as Pakistani — and his work tried to bridge the two. He wrote a haunting memoir The Rainbow Sign (1986) about this and his Pakistan trip, which was published with his Oscar-nominated screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette.

Sara Suleri’s creative memoir Meatless Days opened up a new dimension for me: I had never read a work which occupied a space between fiction and non-fiction, with chapters divided according to metaphor. I loved its beautiful tightly-knit prose too, as did my teenage daughter, Kamila.

Over the next few years, the number of Pakistani English language writers grew rapidly. Adam Zameenzad published four novels and won a first novel award, as did Hanif Kureishi, while Nadeem Aslam won two. Tariq Ali embarked on a Communist trilogy, and an Islam quintet; Bapsi Sidhwa received a prize in Germany, an award in the USA, and published her fourth novel The American Brat (1993). Zulfikar Ghose, who had written around 10 accomplished novels, brought out the intricate and complex The Triple Mirror of the Self about migration and a man’s quest for identity, across four continents.

Despite this, in Pakistan, everyone said, “Oh, there are so many Indians writing English, but why aren’t there any Pakistanis?” But I was reading, reviewing and interviewing Pakistani writers, all the time including playwright Rukhsana Ahmad and short story writer Aamer Hussein in England. We also had some rather good resident English language poets, but they had no outlets — Pakistan’s publishing and newspaper industry was in crisis and the international fanfare revolved around South Asian English novels, not poetry or short fiction. Even so, a younger generation, including Alamgir Hashmi and Athar Tahir had emerged.

In 1996 Ameena Saiyid of OUP asked me to put together an anthology of Pakistani English writing to commemorate Pakistan’s Golden Jubilee. The hunt for material was quite challenging, though I found that through interviews I had collected a lot of rare, first hand, biographical information. I chanced upon the Pakistani-born Moniza Alvi’s work for the first time in the British Council Library and learnt that she was a promising mainstream British poet. But the real surprise came from America. I knew of some short story writers such as Tariq Rahman and Athar Tahir in Pakistan and Talat Abbasi in New York, but the real surprise came from America. In answer to my query Professor M.U. Memon sent me a list of Pakistani-Americans including Tahira Naqvi, Javed Qazi and Moazzam Sheikh; Moazzam, in turn pointed me to Sorayya Y. Khan. Suddenly I found I had 44 published writers of Pakistani origin for the book.

The anthology, Dragonfly in the Sun, which took its name from a Ghose poem, was a retrospective of fiction, poetry and drama, which followed the development of Pakistani English writing. In the process I re-discovered Shahid Suhrawardy, Ahmed Ali, Zaibunnissa Hamidullah, Mumtaz Shahnawaz. There was one unexpected problem: many contributors would not give their date of birth! So I had to resort to a loose grouping, instead of a chronological order.

The major event in our lives was that Kamila’s first novel was accepted for publication in 1998. By the time my next anthology was out, Kamila had published her second and my octogenarian mother had written a memoir. Amazingly, our three books appeared in the space of a year.

Dragonfly raised questions of identity: How did I define ‘Pakistani”? Why had I included expatriates? To me it seemed that with globalization, most people have more than one identity. If a writer claims to be Pakistani, that is enough and will influence his/her writing, responses, perspective.

Therefore my second anthology Leaving Home (2001) explored the Pakistani experience of migration in its widest perspective, through fiction and essays. I had discovered that the first South Asian English book, Travels by Sake Dean Mohamet, began with a migration. He had served in the East India Company, migrated to Ireland and written his memoirs in 1794 to explain his homeland to Europeans — and I included an extract symbolically as a prologue.

The rest of the book was divided into three sections. The first “When Borders Shift” opened with an extract from Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel The Bride, about the 1947 train massacres. The second “Go West” took its title from Javaid Qazi’s comic tale of a Pakistani student’s fantasy of America. The third, “Voting With Their Feet” began with Irfan Husain’s essay on why the brightest and best were leaving Pakistan.

In between the book also explored many other dimensions. Hamida Khuhro described the changes she saw in Karachi after 1947; Aquila Ismail’s “Leaving Bangladesh” was a harrowing eye-witness account of 1971; Kamila Shamsie’s “Mulberry absences” was a mediation on exile and language; Zia Mohyeddin recalled his memories of Leela Lean in London; the half German, Anwer Mooraj wrote about pre-and-post-war Germany. All these were juxtaposed between fiction, mostly by expatriates, such as Rukhsana Ahmad, Zulfikar Ghose and Aamer Hussein, but there were also stories by resident Pakistanis including Tariq Rahman, Athar Tahir and Humair Yusuf. I also included two distinguished Urdu writers Intizar Husain and Fahmida Riaz who wrote occasionally in English — and that in itself was a form of migration.

Since 2001, Pakistani English literature has come into its own. Uzma Aslam Khan and Mohsin Hamid have made spectacular debuts too. Saad Ashraf, Sorayya Khan and Feryal Ali Gauhar have published accomplished new novels. However Pakistani women, who chose English as a creative vehicle, occupy a unique space. They must constantly challenge stereotypes imposed on them as women and as writers by the patriarchal narratives and cultures of both English and Pakistani literatures. This is the focus of my new anthology And the World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women, (June 2005) to be published by Women Unlimited. Twenty two writers are represented, including well-known authors and exciting new talent such as Humera Afridi, Hima Raza and Soniah Kamal. Collecting and collating material has been a journey of discovery and surprise and here the oral narratives of my childhood and my bilingual world, all co-exist, held together by themes of a ‘Quest’.

Posted by Soniah Kamal at July 22, 2005 04:41 PM

Comments

Hi Soniah,

Just letting you know, I linked to this post at Sepia Mutiny and my own blog. I would be curious to hear your response to my response.

I gather this article isn't online anywhere -- how did you get it?

Posted by: Amardeep at August 1, 2005 03:54 PM

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