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Books In Pakistan, a national literature struggles to be born

The Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif at home in Karachi.

Stephanie Nolen/The Globe and Mail

Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif was walking his dog on the beach in the wealthy Karachi neighbourhood of Clifton one day not long ago when he found a crowd of people gathered around the decomposing corpse of a 60-foot beached whale.

"People suggested it was the nicest thing that had happened here in a while," Hanif observed deadpan, eyelids at half-mast, in a recent chat in his garden. Slight and slim, with a mop of grey curls, Hanif mutters in both English and Urdu, and has a tendency to swallow half of each sentence, leaving a listener convinced she may have missed the crucial part.

A few days before he reluctantly welcomed a visitor, Hanif's upscale neighbourhood of palm-lined streets was the site of a massive car bomb that killed 13 people, one in a series of bloody events that prompted Pakistan's leading psychiatrist to observe that the whole city has a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Hanif doesn't buy it. "You can only have post-traumatic stress disorder when you know it's behind you," he said. "Anyone in Karachi will tell you, regardless of their position in life, the worst is yet to come."

The unsteady state of Pakistan is the backdrop for Hanif's new book, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (to be released in Canada in May), and political turmoil was the overt focus of his much-heralded first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangos, a thriller about the assassination of the dictator Zia al-Haq. When that book was published, Hanif, who used to head the BBC's Urdu service, would find himself at receptions in Islamabad where army generals would sidle up to him, slide an arm around his shoulders and say, "You've written a brilliant book. But tell me, what are your sources?"

"We're the kind of people who believe everything: If I put a tab that said 'true story' on the cover [of the magic realism-tinged Alice Bhatti]people would believe it – the things that happen here are so over the top that you can't …" Hanif trailed off and lit another cigarette. "Anybody living here has a huge challenge – your imagination can't go places where your reality has been."

A hunger for access to that reality has, in the past few years, created an opening for Pakistan's English-language novelists: Intense Western interest in the country has vaulted the work of a handful of Pakistani writers on to prize lists and foreign bookstore shelves. "There's a collision of talent and interesting times – something is really happening there in terms of writing," said John Freeman, editor of the British literary magazine Granta. The issue focusing on Pakistani writers was the bestseller of the past three years.

"The fact that we're reading their books means they're successful literary books, but they are also a window to the world, and that is an important aspect of reading them, especially for people for whom Pakistan is normally just a news story," Freeman said. "You see numbers of people killed in a suicide bombing, you read about the Pakistani military, but you don't see actual Pakistani people in their lives. It's not why they're writing, but this aspect is incredibly important."

South Asia is suddenly awash in literary festivals – from Dhaka to Kerala, from Jaipur to right here in Karachi, next month – and Pakistani authors are headlining all of them, and pulling the big crowds. As a consequence, there is a dawning sense here among young writers that "novelist" might be a viable career aspiration.

Of course, the element of risk that lures the international market also tints the one at home: These writers are rarely translated into Urdu, and Hanif prefers it that way. If the Taliban isn't reading his mocking fiction, well, that's just fine. Karachi has a couple of blond-wood-and-good-lighting English bookstores – Hanif launched Alice Bhatti in one – but the homegrown fiction on its shelves has all been put between covers by divisions of Random House and Penguin over the border in India, or even further away.

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In the coffeehouses of Karachi, the literary boom that has lured this foreign interest prompts some acid talk of cashing in. Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which tells the story of a young man's gradual embrace of radical Islamism, has sold more than a million copies and is being made into a film starring Kiefer Sutherland. That makes the stylish, acerbic Hamid a particular target of that accusation.

But Daniyal Mueenuddin, who won wide acclaim for the story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders in 2009, points out that the morbid Western interest in Pakistan will only get a writer so far.

"Because of this interest, readers perhaps are willing to give my book a quick second glance, willing to read the first paragraph of the first story: Writing about Pakistan gets me in the door," he mused in an e-mail from his mango plantation outside Lahore. "However, if the writing is bad, no other quality will keep the reader interested."

Given the uncertain security situation, the Karachi literary festival is unlikely to draw book lovers from very far afield, unlike India's Jaipur, with a big international following. But Pakistan's writers appear to have supplanted India's as the focus of interest.

"When I moved to India [last year] I looked around and thought, 'I've read better books from Pakistan despite the fact that many more things are being produced here – somehow stuff coming out of India is really flat and bland in comparison," said Faiza Sultan Khan, a Karachi native now based in Bangalore, and an international agent and writer who edits a regional literary review called Life's Too Short.

With the arrival of Ahmad, there are now five Pakistani writers with a considerable following outside the country (the fifth is British-based Nadeem Aslam, best known for Maps for Lost Lovers and now at work on a trilogy set amid the recent political upheaval in Pakistan).

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Their work, however, is wildly different, from Hanif's ribald, satirical tales to Hamid's pared-back prose. Mueenuddin, whose stories are often called "Chekhovian," noted that, as a group, the writers share a liberal, westernized worldview, but little else by way of experience. He, for example, tells dark stories about power and its abuse in the heart of Pakistan that is still a feudal farming society; Hamid seduced Western readers with his evocation of the louche drug and farmhouse party scene in Moth Smoke.

Another point of commonality is that few of these novels have been read in Pakistan. (An exception is The Reluctant Fundamentalist; after Moth Smoke was massively pirated, Hamid had his publishers do a cheaply bound edition of his second novel in order to undercut the pirates, and the book caught on on campuses.) The other writers echo Hanif that not being translated into Urdu makes them feel slightly more secure.

Hamid earned a bit of private mockery from some of his colleagues with a short story he published two years ago about a writer kidnapped and beheaded by radicals; but each acknowledged the stress that comes with living in Pakistan today.

"It seeps into all aspects of my life, my dreams and desires and expectations," Mueenuddin wrote. "Living on the lip of a volcano focuses the mind in peculiar ways, makes a man fatalistic and pessimistic. It also I think makes me somewhat carefree – what do I have to lose, my country is going to the dogs, all the trends are down and down – might as well play, for tomorrow everything I cherish may be blown to kingdom come."

Hamid was recently in New Delhi to watch the filming of director Mira Nair's adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which could not be made in Pakistan for security reasons. H,e was chipper and breezy in India, but his shoulders drew in as he talked of the daily shadow over life in Lahore, and his fear for how it affects his work. "Self-censorship is one thing, but if you start taking evasive action without being conscious of it …"

Hoping to build a publishing industry in the image of the one that thrives next door in India, Hamid worked hard last year to woo the head of a major international publisher to come to Lahore with a view to opening a Pakistan branch office. He took the publisher to meet Salman Taseer, provincial governor in Punjab, who personally guaranteed the safety of the new operation. Days later, the governor was assassinated – putting at least a temporary stop to Hamid's dream of a domestic literary publishing house.

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These days, Hamid gets a manuscript in the mail every week or so from an aspiring writer; the success of this quintet has inspired a new generation. "I didn't know anyone who was a writer when I was growing up, so I thought, I have to figure out what job I'll do so I can write novels," he laughed. For the past three years, he's made a living writing. "The benefit of this [outside]interest is more people can do that."


All the writers I talked to are men. Mohammed Hanif and Faiza Sultan Khan call that coincidence. But Daniyal Mueenuddin suggests it might be more. "Most of the male Pakistani writers that I know are pretty metrosexual," he joked, before adding another wisecrack built on a kernel of truth: "It's perhaps because women are not expected to undertake daring and dashing acts – like writing short stories."

Still, there is writing from Pakistani women worth seeking out:

Bapsi Sidhwa Her Cracking India, about partition in 1947, was filmed as Earth by Deepa Mehta. She's an overtly feminist writer whose novels offer a view into the usually-shrouded private struggles of Pakistani women.

Sara Suleri Many current Pakistani novelists cite her lyrical memoir Meatless Days as the book that opened doors for them to explore their own voices. It's also a quietly feminist book, which gives it a different tone from the big books by male authors currently getting attention.

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And for further reading:

Bilal Tanweer This up-and-coming author of short stories is newly on the festival circuit; Faiza Sultan Khan calls him her "one to watch."

For a broader taste, you might begin with A Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing, edited by Muneeza Shamsie. This book introduced readers in the West to Pakistani fiction in English.

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