August 18, 2013

random thoughts: on pakistanis who write in the english language

browsing through the poetry section upstairs last week at london book company in kohsar market - a quiet place now that the cafe is no longer there - i stumbled on three treasures. i was there to see if i could, perhaps, find a copy of the now out of print volume of maki qureshi's poems, misplaced at one of the poetry readings that i organize off and on, and originally bought here. i didn't find the latter but i found the aforementioned. all of them cost me a pittance, since they are old publications and london book co doesn't see fit to sell them at prices equivalent to the current rates, unlike other bookshops. so i bought vikram seth's translations of three chinese poets: wang wei, li bai and du fu, published by faber india, for Rs. 100. azra abbas' autobiographic sketches translated by samina rahman for about the same. this is not a very good translation, and i assume it may have been one of the translator's first, as i recently heard her reading a very good translation of zehra nigah's work at the lahore lit fest. 
The third volume that i discovered and bought was mornings in the wilderness, an anthology of poems, short stories and essays in English as well as translations from the vernacular, edited by waqas khwaja during the late eighties. all of 75 rupees. while i might gloat over these prices, that's not why i bought them. it's because i wanted a record of literary activities during that time, a time of repression under general zia ul haq, when the arts - or rather independent artists and writers - were underground; and writing in english was disapproved of and had few avenues for publication other than newspapers. it was during this time that a group of writers under waqas khwaja created a writing group in Lahore, with the idea to write, critique and translate. mornings in the wilderness contains writing and translations by these writers, as well as by poets who were well known in the nineteen seventies, when the English writing scene, particularly poetry, was active and vibrant; names such as taufiq rafat, daud kamal, waqas khwaja, alamgir hashmi, and athar tahir. 

in reading the introduction to mornings… i realize that the ideas many people have about writing in english today were much the same then as they are now, except that since those years plenty of prose in english by pakistanis here and in the diaspora has been published and lauded, and poetry in english by pakistanis here and in the diaspora has been published quietly to little acclaim in literary journals. most of this has been done outside the country. prose succeeds more than poetry because it appeals more to the general public, and the themes appeal to a western audience. this is not to downplay their literary appeal, because much good writing is coming out of this country. i say this  because i'm not one to read a novel because it talks about displacement or identity or trauma. i want to read the book for the way it's written as much as for its themes. and there are some who certainly meet my personal criteria for good writing. 

to go back to why i began writing this post. i wanted to quote from mornings in the wilderness, because at every literary reading or program over the last few months the question of writing in english has been raised and debated. at punjab university, a Phd student of english literature who was admitted on the strength of the poem he wrote, asked if it was relevant - using the word in the sense of legitimacy - to write in english. 
you will find others critical of prose or novels published in english because they consider that these writers subscribe to the imperialist point of view by writing about their countrymen in their, that is the imperialists’, language. since the themes they treat are often those of which we are secretly ashamed, and since publishing houses want to make money and pick writing on themes that they know will sell the book (i.e. the element of sensationalism), we consider these writers to be playing into the imperialists' hands to portray us as semi savage, or certainly uneducated and cruel.

aside from all this debate, there is constant friction between proponents of urdu and those of english, to the extent that they behave like two opposing camps, resentful of one another and of what each represents, yet not quite willing to engage in full battle. part of this stems from class divisions, which unfortunately divide the country into the wealthy who are fluent in english, and the rest (a measure of this problem stems from the fact that english medium schools are attended by the wealthy; and over the last few years many of these have ceased to consider the national language necessary, advocating instead an 'easy urdu' course which completely ignores urdu literary traditions).
at a literary competition i found the urdu 'camp' critical of what they considered lack of protocol and form (and i refer to form here in a ritual context, the rules referred to being those of formal announcements, timing and discipline) which spilled over into general disapproval of the anglicized elite. the english 'camp,' who were much more informal, considered the urdu camp rigid and unforgiving, and ready to take slight over what they considered as a lack of recognition of their position. Each side came equipped with a set of predetermined attitudes; neither was right, and with a little camaraderie things would have been more harmonious. one member of the english camp was fluent in urdu poetry and had attended mushairas since she was a child, but before she could even mention, let alone talk about it, the barriers had been set in place.

i am sure that those who read this will understand that what i am talking about is a set of stereotypes. beneath the stereotypes, as with many other things in life, there is always a fuller story, which shows the stereotype as the false image that it is.

since this has been a prolonged preamble, i will return to the introduction from mornings in the wilderness by waqas khwaja. He writes:

'Writers who have adopted English as their medium of expression are damned in their very choice of language. They are accused of being anachronistic left overs of the British Colonial period and suffer further from a lack of readership. Not surprisingly, those who are most vociferous in criticizing their choice of language, have only tenuous links with their environment and find it easier to build their reputations on catchy, and misleading slogans than to approach the problem with the kind of seriousness it demands of them. Their sparse knowledge of the language further prevents them from appreciating the achievements of those Pakistani writers who have wrested a new idiom from it and localized it to an extent that it has become both relevant and responsive to our conditions. But the use of English as the medium of creative expression alienates the writers from this society in a most emphatic way and is a classic manifestation of the tension between intimacy and estrangement. Had the writer employed English as a foreign tongue, there would have been a separation or estrangement only, but its use, without queasiness or shame, as a language of one's own, revitalizes the bonds that tie one to the environment. It is therefore not difficult to understand why such writers make special efforts to acquaint themselves with the impulses that motivate the society within which they live, their historical, cultural and social imperatives, and translate or rework them in their writings. Language in this case serves to distance them from their subject matter and helps them to reflect on it before reviving it indirectly as something different, and new. Immediacy is achieved through reflective insight as against precipitate, sometimes conditioned, response.'

doesn't that say a wealth of things? there is criticism of people, politicians and others, who tried to quash developments in english writing. and there is the very correct observation that those who write in english examine their immediate society, that is Pakistan, in depth, using the language as a tool that allows them more objectivity than their own. 

without going into an extensive history lesson, i will reiterate the fact that a body of work written in English by Indians existed before partition. The tradition of using the language was carried on not because writers subscribed to the imperialist point of view, but simply because they enjoyed the language. sixty five years after independence we have a small but well established group of people writing in English. 

but to insinuate that these writers are divorced from their immediate milieu or unable to understand the country is ridiculous. and here i will name a few writers.
i begin with waqas khawaja, editor and contributor to mornings in the wilderness. khwaja studied at government college in Lahore and found in taufiq rafat a mentor when he began writing poetry; a mentor who encouraged the development of a local idiom rather than the one offered by the English canon then taught at colleges and university. khwaja, who is now based in the US and is a dean at emory, writes in English but is fluent in urdu and punjabi. most recently he was the translation editor for a comprehensive volume of modern Pakistani poetry translated from the vernacular a couple of years ago. his collection of poems no one waits for the train is a verse narrative that traces the roots of his subject, who loses his family at partition in the train massacre which left all the passengers dead before it reached its destination in pakistan. but it also searches for the roots of peace and harmony, going back to the teachings of indian mystics of all faiths, before partition. in the coda, 'following bulleh shah,' the narrator finds peace within himself through the latter's teachings.
harris khalique, a poet who writes in urdu and english, confesses that he writes in english because he feels it gives him more freedom than the former. his urdu poems are often vivid character sketches. his english poems are intimate reflections of his personal angst. 
in her most recent novel, burnt shadows, kamila shamsie uses english as a bridge to venture into areas of karachi that she hasn't hitherto explored in her writing - lower middle and working class and the slums - examining characters whose lives are directly affected by the aftermath of war, beginning with the bombing of hiroshima, continuing pre and post partition through to the afghan war and events following 9/11. The novel spans three continents and several nationalities and although it centres on Pakistan it is about how war affects humanity. 
nadeem aslam left Pakistan in his teens and lives in a predominantly Pakistani community in England. but the landscape of his childhood dominates his writing in his earliest as well as in his most recent work, The Blind Man's Garden. this novel is set in the present and describes the terrible pressures and fissures that events after radicalization and 9/11 have brought into the lives of ordinary people. leila in the wilderness, a novella published by granta, is a beautifully written story set in the heart of the punjab. aslam uses the legend of leila and majnu as a leitmotif, but the tale is about the tensions between modernization and firmly rooted tradition and social hierarchy in a village. it also brings up female infanticide (I find that aslam has enormous empathy towards his female characters).
i am currently reading zulfikar ghose's the murder of aziz khan, written in 1962 by an author who spent his early childhood in sialkot and thereafter migrated twice before settling in austin, texas. this long out of print novel has now been reprinted by OUP. acclaimed for its literary quality as for its theme, the book is set in the cotton growing area of the Punjab and is about a peasant whose land – and life – are taken over by industrialists. if you read the opening pages of the book which describe aziz khan, his farm and his relationship to the land, you cannot say that the writer has no consciousness of the Pakistani landscape or understanding of its people.
some critics contend that it's not possible to write about a milieu other than that to which you belong. however, i can't help but recall memoirs of a geisha, an intricately researched novel which i thoroughly enjoyed reading. so perhaps it is possible to immerse yourself in something to the extent that you become it. 

these are only a few examples; there are novels which i have read or know of but haven't read, by novelists such as mohammed hanif and musharraf ali farooqi, both of whom also write in the vernacular. i shouldn't have to justify that they are fluent in the latter. but perhaps it will convince critics that it's not only the anglicized elite who write in english. and that although those who write or wrote in english aren't directly politicized in the way that writers in the vernacular have been, that's not a defect. 

and this brings me to my last contention. a question that constantly arises at readings of poetry by pakistanis writing in english is that the poets aren't directly concerned with socio political issues in the way that urdu poets and poetry, through the progressive writers' movement as well as in direct response to injustice and repression, have been over the last forty years.
 but anyone who has read extensively from english poetry by pakistanis will know that rafat wrote about people from his home town, sialkot; maki qureshi wrote about violence in her home town, karachi. and hima raza wrote about post-colonial angst. 
moniza alvi's poem about partition, based on the experiences of her grandmother and uncles, is a moving, powerful work that links together complex themes: not just the physical agony of partition but the mental and emotional trauma caused by conflict, and the idea of the split self, which have been recurrent motifs in her last collections, how the stone found its voice, and europa and the bull. alvi, incidentally, has lived most of her life in england.
the point being made here is that if you write in english doesn't mean that your imagery doesn't reflect your surroundings or your experience. 
on a final note, with reference to the supposition that poetry must reflect socio political reality, i don't think that the latter necessarily makes good poetry. good poetry is about the image, the image which suggests much more than a mere picture.

here's link to nadeem aslam reading a passage from leila in the wilderness:
nadeem aslam

and a link to his interview in guernica 
guernica magazine

a more political podcast, with mohammed hanif: 
mohammed hanif, the asia society

musharraf ali farooqi on translating amir hamza: 
musharraf ali farooqi

text of europa and the bull, moniza alvi:
europa and the bull

recent poems by waqas khwaja:
waqas khwaja

poem by harris khalique featured in vallum:
black pepper poem

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