The thing with marginalized communities and their respective literatures is that they will ultimately bleed out through the fault lines of silence and oppression with a sudden burst of impatience and exhilaration. The past few decades have seen a literary boom in Pakistan, and every empty bookstore now houses open mic poetry nights, every major city has its own annual literary festival and a localized literary community writing and publishing furiously as if to prove a point.
I conversed with Maryam Piracha, the Editor-in-Chief of The Missing Slate, one of Pakistan’s most diverse and esteemed literary journals, and also one of the founders of Desi Writers Lounge – an online platform for writers, with their own publication, Papercuts. Pakistani women now run and write for magazines, getting published all over the world, breaking all sorts of stereotypes and prescribed gender roles. We talked about all things writing, the Pakistani contemporary literary culture, how easy or difficult it is to get published today, and the question of authenticity which eventually seeps into any conversation about a postcolonial literature.
Momina Masood: Desi Writers Lounge has come a long way since its inception. What started it off, and did any of you foresee the success that it has, since then, come to enjoy?
Maryam Piracha: I should point out here that I’m no longer with DWL as it’s affectionately called, but I can speak to the experience it was like for me. When the platform launched, I don’t think it entered the realm of our imaginations that it would go as far as it did. Make no mistake, there was the hope and the success it’s currently enjoying feels like a hard-won journey.
MM: In our times of online journals and ezines, do you believe it is now easier to get published than it ever was before? And is that an exclusively good thing?
MP: Not necessarily. The plethora of journals out there might mean there’s something for everybody, but the wide population also means most publications are very self-aware, with discerning editors on the lookout for material that adequately represents their journal. But yes, perhaps it is easier to get published. But then one has to ask the question ‘is it about getting published or being published in a specific journal?’ Because a writer’s reputation is ultimately built upon the magazines and journals their work is published in and inevitably the reputation of the magazine itself factors in things.
MM: Could you tell us something about the process which led to the birth of The Missing Slate?
MP: The Missing Slate arose from a dialog I had with my creative collaborator and the magazine’s Creative Director, Moeed Tariq on the importance of showing Pakistani readers the wealth of literature beyond its borders and at the same time, presenting a softer image of the country internationally. I’d been involved with DWL for five years before that and we’d focused exclusively on South Asian writing and the diaspora. At the time, there was no magazine in the country that was publishing poetry, fiction, essays, and one of the most important elements, art (in all its incarnations) with an international bent or for that matter, a local bent. When the magazine published its first issue in October 2010, I was told at the time that Hadiqa Kiyani (the pop singer) was apparently a fan. Fast forward five years and we’ve published work from over 90 countries and in over 18 languages – we’ve been fortunate to publish Pulitzer Award-winners, Man Booker Prize winners and nominees, among other award-winning writers. Jhumpa Lahiri, Amer Hussein, Kamila Shamsie, Jeet Thayil, Rahul Soni, Ilya Kaminsky, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and others come to mind.
MM: What are your thoughts regarding the current Pakistani literary scene? Does it still leave much to be desired even after the renaissance of recent years?
MP: The lit festivals have done a lot to develop an interest in the country and the region at large, but our publishing sector is still nascent. You only have two real options: Oxford University Press which is a bureaucracy and then smaller presses like Al-Hamra, Ferozsons etc. and most emerging writers are looking across the border to the literary agencies and publishers in India which, while excellent for building dialog and interest between the two peoples, still depicts the myopia of the Pakistani publishing culture.
The question of whether the myopia can be overcome depends on the forcefulness of the generation of writers writing today; the more Pakistani writers are published by other countries, one hopes it’ll encourage both established publishing houses and young upstarts to climb out of their limited perspectives and encourage the publication of material which is blatantly non-conformist. But I have hope when I see the next generation of writers veering away from the historical fiction genres of the writers who went before them and writing more widely about life in Pakistan – Sofia Khan’s Yasmeen, Shiza Fatima Haider’s How It Happened come to mind.
MM: There is a tremendous divide, or so I perceive, between contemporary Pakistani fiction written in Urdu and English, both in their thematic concerns and their intended audiences. In the face of this, do you think a truly representative Pakistani canon is even possible?
MP: That divide has always existed. I run writing workshops under the magazine’s offline activities and this recently came up in one of our discussions. The piece in question was written in English with a heavy reliance on Roman Urdu to depict a lower class social situation that’s been written by Urdu writers like Manto, Ismat Chugtai etc. years and years ago. We talked about how uncommon it was to see this subject tackled by Pakistanis writing in English without – as with Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – coming off sounding oddly disconnected and pretentious. And yet this issue doesn’t exist (much) in international literature at large.
I think Pakistanis writing in English have a Western audience in mind because of the wider readership and to make that writing digestible, certain sacrifices seem to be necessary. But I’m not sure how much I believe that because if you read emerging Pakistani writing from the next generation of writers, you can see the shift in the themes they’re picking up which are so often human themes, as opposed to separating ones which I feel really adds to the inclusiveness of literature.
From the writing we’ve published, you see poets like Kyla Pasha who writes about gendered identity, faith, and spirituality; Hira Azmat who writes about body image; Yusra Amjad writing about cultural misappropriation of religion; Rakshan Rizwan writing about identity and social hypocrisy. These are all themes that seem missing and at odds with writing like Moth Smoke, Kartography, The Cloud Messenger, et al.
MM: And then there is much talk of “cultural appropriation” and “elitism” in English-language Pakistani fiction. How true are the claims of such critics? As an editor publishing English-language Pakistani writers for years, do you think most of their writings are, somehow, socially-exclusive?
MP: The claims aren’t untrue for an older generation of writers, but again in new writing and in poetry especially, you see a wide range of themes and emotions being explored. Look, at the end of the day, it has to be about the quality of the prose. Uzma Aslam Khan’s writing, for instance, is exquisite and she’s somehow sidestepped the entire debate entirely with the diversity of her novels.
I can tell you, however, that it is an issue that most emerging writers are very much aware of and channel that awareness into their work. The talent in the country is stupendous and the wider publishing avenues, at least online, supports the dream that their words will reach the audience they deserve.
So, from the younger crop of writers, some exceptions notwithstanding, there is a clear desire to separate from the writing that has, of course, put Pakistan on the literary map, but that has still limited itself to focus on a finite class of themes.
But and this is an unfortunate truth: the English-speaking public in Pakistan is a very tiny percentage of the population. And then there’s the issue of the country’s staggering illiteracy. I think, if we are serious about inclusionism, there ought to be an increased focus on translating the literature produced in regional languages into English and Urdu. Because you see, we are still limited by our experiences and for better or worse, we’ve allowed ourselves to be trapped by our Colonial history which is tragic considering that most other countries have managed to excavate themselves from that mentality.
MM: The written word has power; no one can deny that. What role can the arts play in the mutual understanding and empathy between India and Pakistan?
MP: The arts at large – beyond literature to include both visual and the performing arts – are a great unification tool across multiple cultures. By highlighting the human element at large, the focus shifts from the geographical differences and toward the humanistic similarities which should really be the aim of all art. In my own reading habits, I’m increasingly finding myself more drawn to ideologies that focus on depicting the human experience. Of course, it’s difficult to truly separate the cultural perspectives from its interpretations in the arts, but the subjectivity of the mediums allows for greater debate and conversation and isn’t that where empathy and tolerance take their roots? From the desire to converse as opposed to folding your arms, pouting your lips, and determinedly looking away?
India is already opening up its literary borders to Pakistani writers which means, of course, the proliferation of Pakistani writing into the country which, one would naturally conclude, means there are now channels for those dialogs. One already senses a degree of camaraderie and respect between artists and writers of the two countries and there is clear fascination and desire to learn more – as the recent inclusion of Indian literary celebrities like Shobba De into Pakistan’s literary festivals reflects. Who’s to say that dialog hasn’t already begun?
MM: South Asian fiction is still maturing – any advice to young writers out there, especially if they seek publication?
MP: Read. Somehow that advice isn’t considered real advice judging by how often it’s ignored. Reading is to writing what breathing is to life. So read. And read widely. Read everything and anything. I remember reading an essay of Ray Bradbury’s and passionate writer that he was, he advocated reading everything from cereal boxes to medical journals. Just because something isn’t “literary” or genre-specific, that doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to learn.
Also, seek placement in magazines but always read their previously published work to understand the sort of writing they publish. Should you choose to simultaneously submit your work to different magazines, be sure to include that in your cover letter (and write a separate one unique to each magazine). The importance of respecting the time of others can never be underscored enough – respect the time of the editors who are reading your work.
MM: Finally, any Indian writer you are particularly fond of?
MP: Shikha Malaviya who’s an absolutely divine poet. I’ve fallen in love with Anita Desai’s work. Rohinton Mistry is another favorite. We’ve published some fantastic Indian writing in The Missing Slate: Jeet Thayil, Minal Hajratwala, Rahul Soni, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anuradha Roy, and many others.
MM: And one Pakistani writer you believe should be read on either side of the border?
MP: All of the writers I mentioned in this piece. They’re poets and damn good ones! Soniah Kamal is a novelist who isn’t as recognized as she should be. Mehvash Amin who’s currently at work on a novel. Sofia Khan, whose debut novel (published by Harper Collins India) I recently read. There isn’t just one writer to uphold, fortunately – the country, like India, is brimming with talent!
For all Indian and non-Pakistani readers of the Open Road Review, get a dive in to The Missing Slate (TMS) for a better exploration of Pakistani sensibilities, and perhaps in the midst of today’s difficult political times, it will be obvious to intolerant hearts that the divide between India and Pakistan is at best only illusory.