Pakistani authors of English literature are making a mark on the global scene.
Pakistan came into existence in 1947 and for all technical reasons this is the year that should be marked as the root year for the country's literary history. The genesis of a national identity in Pakistan took some years to develop, so the reflection of this identity in the country's literature was also not immediate.
Urdu, Pakistan's national language retained its sovereign position in society for some years. The tremendous upheaval that was caused by the largest migration of people in modern time was also mirrored in the literature of the new state.
The word realism could best describe this early phase in Pakistan's literary history. One of the writers whose work best depicts this phase is Saadat Hassan Manto who is best known for his short stories and who, because of the controversial topics that formed the main themes of his stories, is often compared to D.H. Lawrence.
Over time Pakistani authors evolved their own distinctive style in the major languages of the country including Punjabi, Balochi, Sindhi and Pashto. Initially, English was in no way the language of choice for a country built on all things patriotic, but the British Raj left as its legacy its language, now considered the lingua franca of the world. The English language's influence on Pakistani literature cannot be ignored.
Attia Hosain published her novel Sunlight on a Broken Column in 1961 that portrayed life for a young Muslim woman in pre-partition India. This was followed by what is considered the first cohesive English novel written by a Pakistani author — Zulfikar Ghose's Murder of Aziz Khan that was published in 1967.
Ghose's poetry was also present in the first two major anthologies of Pakistani literature in English: First Voices (1965) which included the young Taufiq Rafat and Pieces Eight (1971) which introduced Adrian Husain, Nadir Hussein, Salman Tarik Kureshi and Kaleem Omar.
Urdu writing was seeing a resurgance in Pakistan during the period, leading to a lull in creative English literature.
The '70s saw the emergence of the young and dynamic Tariq Ali who as a student was elected President of the Oxford Union debating club and whose voice began to be recognised more widely when he engaged in debates with high profile figures such as Henry Kissinger and Michael Stewart against the war in Vietnam.
With a strong socialist/leftist conviction Ali has become known for his precise perspectives on politics in Pakistan and an unwavering strong stance against imperialism. Ali's first book, Pakistan: Military Rule or People's Power, was written in 1970. He has written a series of historical novels about Islam: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992), The Book of Saladin (1998), The Stone Woman (2000) and A Sultan in Palermo (2005). His latest works include Conversations with Edward Said (2005); Rough Music: Blair, Bombs, Baghdad, London, Terror (2005) and Speaking of Empire and Resistance (2005).
Books to celluloid
The accomplished Bapsi Sidhwa published her first novel, The Crow Eaters in 1978. This wonderful novel describes the life of the Parsi community and has a staid realistic tone to it. Her other novels have taken up different themes altogether: there is The Bride (1983) which explores the conflict between the male-dominant values of agrarian and urban societies while An American Brat tells the story of 16-year-old Feroza who travels to the United States from Lahore and illuminates the difficulties that arise when the search for self-definition and one's cultural upbringing are not aligned.
Bapsi Sidhwa's ground-breaking novel remains Ice-Candy-Man (1988, later titled Cracking India) which highlights the terrible cataclysmic events of Partition as seen through the eyes of a young observer. The story was beautifully told and was later captured on celluloid by famous director Deepa Mehta in her movie Earth.
It was also in this decade that British-born Pakistani playwright Hanif Kureishi won the George Devine Award for Outskirts (1981). Kureshi visited Pakistan in 1984 and wrote of his struggle in self-identification in the shape of a memoir The Rainbow Sign (1986) — an attempt to reconcile the two worlds he lived in.
His most famous work is My Beautiful Laundrette, a screenplay about a Pakistani-British boy growing up in 1980s London for a film that won the New York Film Critics Best Screenplay Award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. One of Kureshi's books The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) won the Whitbread Award for best first novel, and was also made into a BBC television series with a soundtrack by David Bowie.
In 2000-2001 a novel he wrote (Intimacy) was loosely adapted to movie format by Patrice Chéreau - which won awards at the Berlin Film Festival including a Golden Bear for Best Film and was also translated into Persian by Niki Karimi in 2005. The movie adaptation of Kureshi's drama The Mother won a joint First Prize in the Directors Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival.
The '90s heralded a glowing new chapter in Pakistan's history of English literature and it started with Sara Suleri. One of the most gifted writers of this period, Sara is the daughter of renowned journalist Z.A. Suleri, Sara, who has been professor of English at Yale University since 1983, wrote her first book in the shape of a memoir.
The book titled Meatless Days (1989), is a haunting one that stitches together intensely private biographical moments with national history.
She followed this with a non-fictional work, The Rhetoric of English India (1992) and a final farewell to her father, Boys Will Be Boys: A Daughter's Elegy (2003).
Another name that is now well known in Pakistani literary circles is that of Aamer Hussein — a short story writer and critic. Hussein's early work appeared primarily in journals and anthologies in the late '80s and early '90s. His first collection of stories, Mirror to the Sun, was published in 1993. Since then, he has published four other collections - This Other Salt (1999), Turquoise (2002), Cactus Town (2003), and Insomnia (2007). He has also edited a volume of stories by Pakistani women titled Kahani (2005).
One writer who tends to portray the lives of social outcasts, loners, losers, the deprived and the dispossessed is Adam Zameenzad. The writer was born in Pakistan and spent his early childhood in Nairobi. Adam attended university in Lahore and became a lecturer there. He has had five novels published: The Thirteenth House (winner of the David Higham Prize); My Friend Matt and Hena the Whore; Love, Bones and Water; Cyrus Cyrus and Gorgeous White Female. His latest work Pepsi and Maria, a novel about the lives of street children, was published in 2004.
Nadeem Aslam started writing while quite young. Born in Gujranwala, Pakistan, Aslam was 13 when his short story got published in Urdu in a Pakistani newspaper. He moved to the UK with his family a year later. His debut novel Season of the Rainbirds was published in 1993 and won two awards and his second novel Maps For Lost Lovers was published in 2004.
Animal Medicine was the name Bina Shah gave her first collection of short stories. It was published in 2000 and followed by a novel, Where They Dream in Blue (2001) and The 786 Cybercafé (2004). In 2005 her essay titled A Love Affair with Lahore was published in an anthology called City of Sin and Splendour — Writings on Lahore (Penguin India — Pakistani title Beloved City — OUP) that was edited by Sidhwa. Bina published her second collection of short stories — Blessings — this year.
Another name that often crops up in Pakistani literary circles is Kamila Shamsie. The writer grew up in Karachi, a city that was the focus of her first novel In The City By The Sea (1998) and which was short listed for the John Llewelyn Rhys/Mail on Sunday award in the UK and earned the author the Prime Minister's Award for Literature in Pakistan in 1999.
Her second novel Salt and Saffron, was also well received and in 2000 she was selected as one of Oranges 21 Writers of the 21st Century. Her third novel, Kartography and her most recent work, Broken Verses have won the Patras Bukhari Award from the Academy of Letters in Pakistan.
Mohsin Hamid, author of the famous novel Moth Smoke was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Indian actor and director Rahul Bose has plans to adapt the book for his film.
Hamid's second novel (published this year) The Reluctant Fundamentalist was on the New York Times bestseller list and explores the effects of 9/11 on a Pakistani man in New York.
In the same vein there is a whole list of new writers who have recently been published including Saad Ashraf, Sorayya Khan and Feryal Ali Gauhar, Uzma Aslam Khan, Sehba Sarwar, Suhyal Saadi and many others.
There are many more writers worth a mention, but who could not be accomodated due to the usual excuse... No space! But let it be known that the new world order has also heralded a time when English literature in Pakistan has finally come into its own.