Pakistan on My Mind

Pakistan has been on my mind rather a lot today. First, I helped publish (edit) a great article over at Inside Himalayas on a solo woman’s motorbike trip along the Karakoram Highway. Then I got listening to some Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Then, I discovered that Himal Southasian, my dear old employer, republished an article of mine from 2014 that had originally appeared in print. Now you can read it online, for free. It’s called “Of Shadows, Skins and Stones“, and is a literary essay on Pakistani women’s literature.

I’ve been saying for years that I will make it to Pakistan soon, but it hasn’t happened yet. I know, I do actually have to make it happen, but I’ve been very busy making all sorts of other things happen. So, the closest I’ve still been to Pakistan is the Wagah Border Crossing in Indian Punjab, in 2008. Although Pakistan is near Nepal, this part of the world isn’t very well connected, transport-wise, and I don’t trust Pakistani or Nepali airlines all that much. Plus, getting a Pakistan visa in Nepal seems like rather a headache. But, these are just excuses. I don’t think this year will be my Pakistan year, but next might be.

You can read an extract of my Himal Southasian article below, or the full article on the site.

‘For a few years, Pakistani English literature has been on the verge of a ‘boom’; not quite an explosion, but what scholar of contemporary Pakistani literature Claire Chambers has called a ‘flowering’. While the hoped for (from the Pakistani side, at least) equation with the Indian English literature boom that began around 30 years ago may be far from materialising, Pakistani writers are consistently bringing out new works, particularly novels, in English. Internationally best-known among them are Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, and if we are to include a British author of Pakistani origin (India claims Salman Rushdie, so why not?), Nadeem Aslam. But, this ‘flowering’ is not limited to male writers. A small crop of successful and acclaimed Pakistani female writers are creating significant work, including Uzma Aslam Khan, Fatima Bhutto and Kamila Shamsie.

With Shamsie’s latest novel, A God in Every Stone, having been published earlier in 2014 and her inclusion in Granta’s 2013 collection of the 20 most promising British writers under 40, the release of Bhutto’s debut novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon in late 2013, and Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin nomination for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, it is a good time to take stock of this ‘growth’ in Pakistani literature by women by looking at these three recently published novels.

The usual caveats to do with language and representation apply: there is no suggestion that these elite, foreign-educated and usually foreign-residing women who write exclusively in English in any way reflect the ‘average’ Pakistani woman, or that their success reflects any broader progression in the lives of Pakistani women. The country does, after all, have some of the poorest gender development indices in the world. But arguments around representation, language and social status, particularly in the Indian context, are oftentimes too academic and limiting, or too populist and simplistic, perhaps suggesting that one should feel guilty for consuming a cultural artefact that can only be enjoyed by a minority. Though entirely debatable, Kamila Shamsie’s words on this topic pointedly and deliberately disavows the sentiment that English as a language of creative composition remains solely an imposition of colonial rule: “Our [younger Pakistanis’] vexed relationship… with English is just not an issue.”’

Top image: Shah Jahan Mosque, Thatta, Creative Commons/umairadeeb