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In Search of the Pakistani Author

By Momina Masood.

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Annual literary festival in Pakistan–where American YA fiction is sold, and discussions are held in English.

“Yes, but what does it mean,” sighs the Reader flipping through the pages the Author left behind. There is silence in the cemetery, as a delicate autumnal breeze caresses the hardbound manuscript, brushing past the dandelions growing from the Author’s remains. Yes, with the New Critics of the 60s, the Author, reduced to a name bearing no relevance to the meaning of the text usually dies right after the genesis of the text, leaving the chore of hermeneutics (or the art of interpretation) to the Reader. No ties to the socio-historic milieu in which the Author was located count very much; details of his personal life as reflected in the text become trivial and misleading. The text morphs from being autobiography and documentation to an artwork — self-composed, self-referential, and hermetically autonomous.

In the academia, this stance is still upheld as it generally opens up the path of experimentalism in fiction writing, and encourages critics to be creative in their interpretations. But things in the East are slightly different. For writing to be an artwork, it must be divorced from its most immediate social parameters — it must not be a commentary on the metropolis and its workings — rather it must transcend the confines of the local to tap into something more universal, something more timeless and identifiable for all. When Oscar Wilde and his contemporaries espoused the idea of “lying” in fiction and claimed magnanimously that “all art is useless”, they referred to this very idea of art for art’s sake — the artwork cannot possibly be a means for social reformation/documentation, and if it becomes so, it is mere journalism. True art does not moralize, rather shows without forming value judgments, without being normative in any way possible. Its function remains the expansion of aesthetic sensibilities, not historiography, certainly not memoir. The Author dies, as well as the world around him. The Reader is born, and confronts the text as rootless and wayward as the autumnal wind brushing through his hair.

I am sure if someone had told Iqbal “the nature of true art”, he would have shaken his head in disdain. The 19th century quintessential poet of the East dedicated his entire poetic oeuvre to the independence of Muslim Indians during the British Raj, and for Iqbal the medium of verse was as powerful as a gun. And Faiz, another Pakistani poet born a century after Iqbal, who turned verse into a form of social discourse; one of the true representatives of the post-Partition disillusionment, as thousands of migrants traversed the broken Indian land still believing that the grass would definitely be greener on the other side — what do we call his work? If “true art” is apolitical, where does that leave the giants of Urdu literature who saw in their pens the power to transform their world, or at least vocalize the deepest concerns of their generation? Is their art simply documentary, then? Goodness no!

The Orient, like other parts of the world with a colonial past, is still discovering its voice. Having been translated for so long by the powerful discourse of the settlers, it is still trying to find a way back to its vernacular, to the experience of the native. The writer of today cannot simply overlook its most immediate surroundings for transcendental experiences, for doing so would be an act of treason, or at least that is how Chinua Achebe would call it. The writer of the celebrated Things Fall Apart, Achebe along with his African contemporaries saw writing as a “means”, a powerful means which they had desperately longed for, having been reduced to voiceless mannequins throughout the years of colonial oppression. Orwell went so far as to claim that “all art is propaganda”: echoing the Marxist dictum of literature being a part of the superstructure that stems from the base of socio-economic conditions — a concomitant that is always predetermined, and always conforms to an ideology or agenda. Art as politics — now this is where the Orient kicks aside the self-indulgent verbiage of the West, and slams open the recesses of its collective consciousness, silenced for so long. The subaltern has learned to speak, and speaks with a vengeance.

Perhaps, this is why the need for documentation has become a burgeoning necessity in subcontinental literature. Hardly will a Beckett or a Joyce appear in the midst of the cornucopia of published fiction — the Sidhwas of our time have scores to settle with prescribed gender roles, memories of Partition, or the lives of the marginalized diaspora in their exile. A writer of the Parsi diaspora living along the margins of modern day Pakistan, Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India is a reminiscence of the Great Partition, and despite being a powerful one, is completely disengaged with the present world and its concerns. The Kamila Shamsies of our time cannot possibly talk about the stars without watching their steps but Shamsie stands guilty of celebrating the Pakistani bourgeoisie rather than those closer to the history of the region and their culture: the natives whose stories are worth telling rather than those whose “cultural interests” are not their own, who do not speak the language of the soil. But even though these authors’ contribution to modern Pakistani English literature cannot be denied, they have yet to achieve something which Indian writers like Girish Karnad have: the popularization of a truly native folkloric literature. What the Iranian filmmaker extraordinaire Bahram Beyzai achieved on film with Bashu, Karnad achieves with Hayavadana on stage — allegory and myth serving as means for social commentary — a truly Indian way of self-expression.

Modern Pakistani writers like Saba Imtiaz, brought to the limelight through her recent Karachi You’re Killing Me, can learn from Karnad’s embracing of heritage and ritual in the art of storytelling, and even though Pakistani writers today have become more aware of their environment and outraged at what they find there, a truly Pakistani canon is still under development. Writers either seek to Americanize their fiction so as to reach a wider audience and to shirk the tag of “conservatism” or take naturalistic verisimilitude too seriously as to sound like news reporters instead of novelists. Poetics, in terms of modern Pakistani fiction, still seeks maturity and authenticity; the modern Pakistani Author is caught between the memory of its colonial past and a subliminal aspiration towards the colonist’s ideals. Our postcolonial situation has severed our ties with our heritage and tradition, so it is no surprise that the literature of our time stems from this very existential dilemma: to be authentic natives against the pull of popular Western culture.

Contemporary Pakistani Urdu literature has few advocates, and despite the fiction of Umera Ahmed which can hardly be considered anything more than pop literature, very little is being written in the Urdu language. Those who do choose to represent their country in the written word show a considerable aversion to their own language which makes the situation even more farcical. It is ironic that the stories which recently came out of Brandon Stanton’s Pakistani edition of his photoblog Humans of New York were perhaps more authentic to native experience than much of contemporary Pakistani literature. It would not have been so painful a situation if choosing the English language for literature was a planned tactic to get attention and create a stir; it is painful because the choice stems out of aversion and apathy to what is our own culture, and a fascination of what is considered more “civilized” and “foreign”.

But perhaps there is no such thing as a truly Pakistani experience. Perhaps what we have is the cornucopia of disparate cultures bound together — a multiculturalism of sorts, and the problem of representation only worsens in this case. A Pakistani Writer must first be a Punjabi or a Balochi, and thus what it means to be a native changes along cultural lines. All essentialism in the case of countries made out of migrants is a doomed project. But even so authenticity can be attained no matter which cultural sphere the Writer inhabits — the question will always be to fight existing oppressive and silencing narratives. Multiculturalism is not a singular phenomenon, and must not lead one to conclude that Pakistan in itself is a nonentity; an argument one often hears from anti-Partition Indian Muslims. Even if it does borrow from the history of the Indian subcontinent, it has an identity of its own, and if not, then it is because Third World countries born out of imperialism and warfare are often reified into being a no man’s land where nothing exists and nothing thrives. It is perhaps for this reason mostly that an authentic literary canon is needed desperately to define anew what it means to be a Pakistani amidst the cacophony of histories, languages and religions.

The Pakistani Author cannot die, for a truly universal artwork, apolitical and ahistorical in nature, is not and should not be his endeavour, at least not yet. His aim ought to be to tell the immediate truth about his surroundings so as to effect a much-needed change, and to give voice to those inhabiting the margins: the dispossessed and the displaced. The death of the Author can only take place once he is born. To merge the local with the timeless, the global with the cultural, the past with the present — we are still finding our way back to Iqbal and Faiz, to Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, to the Author of the truly Pakistani experience — what it means to share in the heritage of the subcontinent, and what it means to partake in it in the face of modernity. The Reader still waits patiently, midst the heaps of manuscripts all around him, for the genesis of a truly Pakistani voice.



Momina Masood is an unpublished, unemployed literature graduate, a self-proclaimed bubble burster, and a devout believer in the power of the written word. She lives in Pakistan, and writes for the absolute necessity of it.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 9th, 2015.