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KLF 2014: Identity & literature

By Farahnaz ZahidiPublished: February 8, 2014


In a country where maybe just three per cent of the population can truly read, reflect upon and understand literature written in English, is it worrisome that the best minds of the country are increasingly tilting towards writing in English.
KARACHI: Intelligent looking men engrossed in animated conversations with women clad in crisp pure cottons with motifs inspired by Pakistan’s traditional arts, wearing kolhapuri chappals and sporting white stylised hair, the venue is teeming with Pakistan’s intelligentsia. For once, even if for a short three days, the topics of discussion here are education, language, literature and the arts.
But the bigger issues Pakistan is plagued with, like security and sectarianism, have a way of sneaking into the books being sold and the conversations taking place. For Pakistanis, there is no escape from certain acetone realities.
Inside the room labeled “007” at the Beach Luxury Hotel, the answers to some tricky questions are being handled by the participants. And why not. This particular session at the 5th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF 2014) is titled “Identity and literature: New trends in Pakistani writing in English”.
Pakistani writers writing in English are making a mark globally. Books from the most beautiful minds of Pakistan, arguably, are from names like Muhammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid. A concerned member of the audience says that these books talk about a girl slapping her grandmother, a woman having a full-fledged extra marital affair and detailed accounts of a rape. Are these books depicting the average Pakistani’s thought process? Are the characters of these books ones the average Pakistani can identify with? Are Pakistan’s cultural sensibilities being taken into account here or are we seeing the emergence of literature targeted at a specific readership?
Pakistanis realities are fast changing. This is reflected in the works of its writers. Participant Claire Chambers whose expertise is in Pakistani writing in English, talked briefly about how 1971 onwards, Pakistan saw a surge of literature inspired by the Fall of Dacca, and later by the Zia regime. Not long after came what Chambers explained as being literary works that were pre-cursors to 9/11. These are interesting times for writers, it was discussed, with genre-blending being done.
In a country where maybe just three per cent of the population can truly read, reflect upon and understand literature written in English, is it worrisome that the best minds of the country are increasingly tilting towards writing in English, asks a concerned member of the audience. The moderator, writer Bilal Tanweer, and speaker, writer Rukhsana Ahmed, tend to disagree, debating that some of the best literary work in Pakistan is probably being produced in Urdu and regional languages but the money is in works produced in English, and works in English end up bagging the spotlight.
In the words of Ahmed, writing in English has grown exponentially and these works are not disconnected from the identity and realities of Pakistanis, with young writers like Tanweer handling tough subjects like violence in a visceral manner. There is palpable optimism about works of these writers. But the optimism remains cautious.
Read more: KLF2014

In conversation with Bilal Tanweer: Between literature and life, he’d choose life any day

By Farahnaz Zahidi


When I met Bilal Tanweer for the first time a few years ago, the soft-spoken writer left me a bit nervous. Now, as I read through his brilliant debut novel The scatter here is too great, I know it was his deep observation that intimidated me back then. He doesn’t miss a thing. Having gotten to know him better, Bilal no longer daunts me. His writing still does.
He takes time to open up in an interview. In that sense, the 30-year-old author is a bit like the city of lights itself. His debut novel is Karachi-centric. In the midst of multiple characters leading inter-connected lives, Bilal is the qissa-goh — the storyteller who tells stories that are usually mired in the debris of bomb blasts.
The scatter here is too great shows a love-hate relationship of the characters with Karachi. They accept Karachi with all its battle scars. For Bilal, this city is still home, even though he has been living in the bubble of academic campuses for many years. “I am from Karachi. This book is an outcome of my engagement with the city. It speaks to me, resonates with me. The characters, their languages — all are from Karachi.”
In his words, Karachi is a hard city which has violence and fear but there is a flip side to it. “Because of the large number of migrants, it affords a certain freedom, a certain anonymity. Karachi is a city of contrasts.”
The scenes where the characters travel by bus in Karachi, have clandestine meetings in a Suzuki FX, or go spend holidays with their naani, will speak to every Karachiite. “I am from a middle-class background. That’s the world I’ve known. So it is a conscious decision that I have worded it in this way.”
Launched recently, the book is being received very well. Some of the best publishers in the world have agreed to take on this Pakistani writer’s first literary effort. “My best hopes for this book have been met. I am deeply grateful. Anything more that comes my way would be a bonus,” Tanweer says with humility.
The book comes at a time when anything with the hashtag of Pakistan and terrorism quickly catapults to global attention, yet the book is clearly honest and is not aimed at a particular readership. One can clearly foresee that this novel has the potential to be adapted into a screenplay for a feature film.
“The first reader is the writer himself. As long as my writing is honest to my experience of the world, I am satisfied,” says Tanweer. Almost offended by the idea that someone who writes about the problems of Pakistan may be doing it for instant success, he remarks, “Fiction writers may use these events, but that just means this is a part of their experience, which comes into their work. I don’t think any of them is writing for an imaginary reader in NYC. I am certainly not.”
Bilal does not deny the autobiographical touches in the book. “One big reason I write is so that I can give away a part of myself.”Pouring a lot of one’s self into a work of literature is not easy. “It took me five years to write this novel. The nature of the craft of fiction writing is different from journalism,” shares the writer. Tanweer, who has tried his hand at the latter, and has used that experience to write soliloquies of ‘the writer’ who is one of the key characters in the book. “In journalism, the events are important. But in fiction writing, the writer uses the events to show how they affect the characters. It’s hard but I quite love it. “
Bilal, who is currently teaching fiction writing at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, agrees that this is, in some ways, a good time for Pakistani writers. Apart from international attention which helps get better publishers, there are other benefits. “There is so much up in the air. As writers, we resultantly have a lot more to play around with.”
The book’s treatment of violence and how it affects people’s lives is powerful.
“In times of crisis, we are faced with the possibility of death. That helps us filter the essential from the non-essential. Artists and writers are supposed to take on subjects like war, death and the fragility of the human body.”
While writing is everything to him, Bilal has no ambiguity that living is a far more complex thing than reflection and writing. “The really hard thing is living as a good person. Inside, most of us are petty and insecure. It is far harder to lead a decent life than to write a great book.”
Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2013.

Photo: Aurangzeb Haneef

Book review: The Scatter Here Is Too Great – of guns and roses
By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: December 15, 2013
Available at Liberty Books for Rs795.

As I picked up Bilal Tanweer’s much-anticipated debut novel, each page left me searching for a breather. A break from the profundity. From the cluster of sentences that make one stop, breathe deeper, look away from the book, come back to the page and dog-ear it. Parts that one knows will come up as quotes when one searches for the author’s name on the internet.
But then isn’t that the nature of the city in which his stories are set? Karachi never gives one a break. In one word it is ‘intense’. The Scatter Here Is Too Great, similarly, is not light reading.
The novel reads like a collection of short stories, in which different characters have interconnected experiences — experiences that are born out of the city and an event that affects everyone: a bomb blast. One special treat of the book is that each story has a unique voice and the reader moves from a four-year-old to a romantic teenager to a grieving father to other characters and back.

One cannot help but imagine these stories like the scattered fragments of a car’s shattered windscreen, a metaphor for this city.
Nothing that Tanweer is telling us is new. From Cantt station to Lyari to Clifton Beach, everything is familiar but told in a way which exposes the city to the reader in a new and meaningful manner. One almost wants to take the mini-bus all over again and have chai at a café outside Cantt station. The descriptions are real.
The first chapter in the voice of a small boy captures you instantly, also because of the jarringly simple language, like “I also left school because we had become poor. Baba lost his job at the office where they printed children’s storybooks… The old uncle Baba worked for was shot while walking out of a bank. Two people on a motorcycle tried to snatch his money. When he refused, they shot him.” The writer has not relied on heavy language anywhere. The themes are complex but the language is colloquial, which gives it a human feel.
It tells you the difficulties of young romance which raises its invincible head even in the most difficult of backdrops like an ever-vigilant nani and a lower middle-class setting in one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It displays a myriad of relationships. Particularly noteworthy is the difficult relationship of a father and son, when for the father, his ‘purpose’ becomes more important than his family.

Handling the subjects of violence and sectarianism intelligently, the author has not used the predictable method of using imagery that relies on the ethnic or sect-wise description of the characters. There is, thus, a subtle but strong message that the human experience is a shared one, especially in dark times, irrespective of where one’s family trees find roots.
In a time when violence in Pakistan gets global attention, it is a relief that the book does not seem to be targeted at a certain kind of readership. Tanweer is writing for himself and for Karachi. It is, thus, an honest book which makes the reader connect to it instantly.
The novel cannot be reduced to being labeled as just about Karachi. It tells stories that allow the reader to look beyond the headlines. Tanweer has managed to make us look at what we already know in a new way: “These stories, I realised, were lost. Nobody was going to know that part of the city but as a place where a bomb went off. The bomb was going to become the story of this city.” The Scatter Here Is Too Great is telling these untold and real stories. And we are listening.
Farahnaz Zahidi heads the Features desk at The Express Tribune. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 15th, 2013.

Bullet Points: A session with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy at the Karachi Literature Festival 2012

  • 12th February 2012. Carlton Hotel, Karachi. Day 2 of the Karachi Literature Festival 2012 (KLF)
  • The announced event with Sharmeen is supposed to start at 5 pm. I go to a volunteer at 4 pm to confirm that it is on. She tells me with surety that all sessions in the Theatre have been cancelled.
  • The skeptic in me always needs a second opinion. I ask another volunteer. He tells me it is very much on.
  • I reach the stairs leading to the theatre at around 5 minutes to 5. Many people are returning. “It’s packed. They are not letting anyone in,” they say.
  • Not giving up so easily, I climb up to the door, tell at least 6 people I am a journalist, reach the door, am relieved to find someone I know volunteering (yes, contacts work in Pakistan) who lets me in, and am inside the packed auditorium. I sit on the floor near the stage with many others. I am perhaps the last person, almost, to come in. The doors are shut.
  • Unlike most sessions at KLF, this one starts on time. Moderator Bilal Tanweer and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy are already on the stage.
  • The tone of the moderator’s questions and Sharmeen’s answers is candid. Sharmeen sounds unrehearsed. Spontaneous. But some of her answers remind one of recent stuff about her in print media. Well, it IS the same person. How much novelty can one expect?
  • Clips from 5 of her documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated “Saving Face” have a powerful impact on the audience.
  • Disfigured at the hands of war, the children of Iraq; acid victims of Pakistan; the feminist movement in Saudi Arabia; bombed girls’ schools in Swat; the plight of the transgender community in Pakistan – powerful themes in each of the clips has the audience emoting and engaged. Sharmeen is very obviously pleased at the crowds’ engagement.
  • The tone of the session is succinct. The Q & A session with the audience is interesting. The best question, to me, is the last one, from an ex-pat Pakistani woman, who after expressing admiration for Sharmeen’s work, asks aren’t such documentaries that show the “real but ugly” scars of Pakistani society going to leave a negative impact and promote stereo-typical images of Pakistan, specially to the global audience? I crave to add this to that question: The documentaries are well-made, yes, but should it not be more than the “tsk tsk factor aka sympathy vote” for Pakistan that we need? Shouldn’t the media create global empathy for Pakistan, rather than sympathy? Sharmeen vehemently explains her stance, and talks about how “Saving Face” is not just about acid victims but how real people like a doctor, a lawyer and parliamentarians came forth to help these women, as a community, and how Pakistan can together fight back these problems.

I hope her desired intent comes true, and her documentaries leave the impact that is intended. And I pray she brings home the Oscar.

Here are some of her quotes from the session that were the highlight of the session:

  • “I have no formal training in documentary film making.”
  • “You cannot be taught film-making in a class room. You have to go out there.”
  • “It is important to tell stories.”
  • (When asked why her stories are often told by children as central characters): “Children tell stories without any filters. Children connect to a global audience and break barriers.”
  • “I am an angry person. When I am angry about something I know this will make a really good film.”
  • “We need to cultivate film makers in Pakistan.”
  • (When asked is she ever afraid for her life, as she touches dangerous subjects): “I believe very strongly in fate. One should not take unnecessary risks. But I don’t believe I should stop telling the kind of stories I tell for fear of my life. So yes, I am fatalistic in that sense.”