As each day brings more bad news from the villages and towns of Pakistan and the Indus River surges towards the Arabian Sea, Pakistani authors have answered their compatriots' plea to have the world respond to their plight. Their essays, op-eds and interviews are appearing in British and American media as if part of a concerted effort: Operation Compassion for Pakistan (or Project Kebab, if named by the RCMP) is under way.
It helps that a new generation of Pakistani writers in English, such as Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, and Mohammed Hanif, have emerged onto the international stage, their work gaining attention for its vibrancy as well as for its origins - a homeland described by The Economist as the "world's most dangerous place."
These authors, many of whom are under 40, have created a literature that has finally sidestepped India's much ballyhooed reputation. Although none have had a hit quite like Indian author Aravind Adiga's White Tiger, the works from the Class of 2009, which included newcomers such as Daniyal Mueenuddin, Ali Sethi and H. M. Naqvi, had critics noticing a literary coming-of-age, with narratives at home in both Pakistan and post 9/11 America.
The Granta seal of approval does not hurt either. The upcoming issue of the British literary magazine is simply called "Pakistan", without a single Salman Rushdie commentary in sight.
Fiction writers like Daniyal Mueenuddin and Ali Sethi see literature as a project. They both have said in interviews that they see themselves as explaining Pakistan in all its complexity to the West, not merely as the "failed state" with budding terrorists in every bazaar. It may seem like a hefty burden for any writer to bear, but there is no doubt that Pakistan is a country in need of PR. In the last month alone, the news has included a new cricket scandal, another bombing at a mosque, and a president who preferred his French chateau to returning home to handle the start of this flood catastrophe.
Is there any wonder that nearly every one of these writers (dare I call them the Pak Pack?) are taking their advocacy role about the humanity of the floods' victims seriously? Or that they rarely agree with one another?
Kamila Shamsie may not yet be 40 but she is the grande dame of this group with five novels published since 1998. Her latest novel, Burnt Shadows ( reviewed in the Globe and Mail in 2009), crisscrosses time, cultures and continents, from the blast of Hiroshima to the America after Sept. 11.
The Polemic: As an occasional columnist for The Guardian and living in London, Shamsie's frustration is evident for the people first hit by the disaster, those living in the embattled Upper Swat Valley: "First came the Taliban. Then the army. And now the floods."
Mohammed Hanif is the respected elder, having trained with the Pakistani Air Force and, until recently, was the head of the BBC's Urdu Service. His 2008 debut novel, The Case of Exploding Mangoes, is a satiric look at Pakistan under the late military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, who died in a suspicious plane explosion in 1988.
The Appeal: For the BBC, Hanif is almost elegiac, describing the shock of seeing the refugees as if he were re-witnessing the 1947 partition of the subcontinent "set in Noah's time." For The New York Times, he vehemently argued against the "lazy assumption" that hungry flood victims are automatically embryonic jihadis; they "are too busy trying to chase a charity truck for food or cradling their malnourished child to a slow death."
Daniyal Mueenuddin is the Chekovian figure, and not only because his 2009 short-story collection received stellar reviews. His Pakistan has little to do with the smart set in Lahore or Karachi but instead revolves around feudal-like life at a rural mango orchard. It helps that he lives the life of such a landowner (he was a lawyer in his past life), although he calls himself a "manager" and a "mango farmer."
The Angst and the Plea: Mueenuddin's New York Times essay may warn of the revolutions that come from the hungry, but it is also a meditation on the poor he finds huddled on a levee with their last possessions around them. Yet he can't help but remind his readers that Pakistan is a country on the possible march towards Islamic militancy.
Mohsin Hamid could be called the groundbreaker. He brought a contemporary Pakistan to a world-wide audience with his 2000 novel, Moth Smoke, and his hero, a Lahore banker-turned-heroin addict. He switched gears in 2007 with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an elliptical look at what makes a Princetonian change world-views.
The Analysis: For The Financial Times, Hamid sees a country that seesaws between hope and despair. A former management consultant, he offers a step-by-step guide to solving the state that is Pakistan. For the local crowd, he asserts the flood will neither create a terror growth-opp or a "bloody revolution, but a moment of transformation when the elites finally become responsible and pay taxes."
H.M. Naqvi once worked at the World Bank, but don't hold that against him: He earned his writing bona fides at Boston University. His debut novel, Home Boy, came out in 2009 and is the story of three "Metrostani" lads in search of a missing friend in post 9/11 America.
The Witness: Naqvi visits a makeshift refugee camp on the outskirts of Karachi to tell the story of how local NGOs are working to make a difference, but can't help but fear the possibility of chaos striking.
Ali Sethi is the boy wonder (he's in his mid-twenties), the Harvard-educated son of a prominent newspaper family. Another member of the Class of 2009, his ambitious novel The Wish-Maker tells the story of a matriarchal family from the birth of Pakistan to the present.
The Story: On a trip with a television crew, Sethi writes what the reporter cannot: the link between local landlord-politicians and the diversion of floodwater away from their property. His piece for The New York Times is full of scenes that you would expect from narrative non-fiction.
Fatima Bhutto and Ahmed Rashid may be one or two of those things that don't belong in this list. Fatima Bhutto is the niece of the late Benazir Bhutto and a fervent critic of dynastic politics. She just released Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir about her murdered father. Ahmed Rashid has made a career out of analyzing Pakistan's geopolitical situation in books such as Descent into Chaos and Taliban: The Power of Militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond.
The Threat: They are the fear-mongers. Pay up or the Taliban's gonna getcha.
Bonus track: Check out Alice Albinia's travelogue, Empire of the Indus . Published in 2008, it merges the history of the region with her trip up the Indus River, a world that is, hopefully, just temporarily lost.
Piali Roy is a freelance writer in Toronto with a special interest in the history and current events of South Asia.
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