Pakistani women’s writing

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone. Bloomsbury, 2014.

My review essay of three recent novels by Pakistani women–Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone and Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin–has just been published in the latest print edition of Himal Southasian. This isn’t available online for free–although many other great articles are on the Himal website–but hard copy and digital issues can be purchased on the website.

The same issue also includes an excellent review of Kaushik Barua’s Windhorse, a novel about Tibet, written by my friend and ex-colleague, Scottish writer Ross Adkin. Ross’ fiction has featured in an earlier issue of Himal.

Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. Delhi: Penguin India, 2013.
Fatima Bhutto, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. Delhi: Penguin India, 2013.

Below is an extract from my review. I have also reviewed two of these novels, Bhutto’s and Khan’s, on this blog.

“For a few years, Pakistani English literature has been on the verge of a ‘boom’; not quite an explosion, but what scholar of contemporary Pakistani literature Claire Chambers has called a ‘flowering’. While the hoped for (from the Pakistani side, at least) equation with the Indian English literature boom that began around 30 years ago may be far from materialising, Pakistani writers are consistently bringing out new works, particularly novels, in English. Internationally best-known among them are Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, and if we are to include a British author for Pakistan (India claims Salman Rushdie, so why not?), Nadeem Aslam. But, this boom-set is not limited to male writers. A small crop of successful and acclaimed Pakistani female writers are creating significant work, including Uzma Aslam Khan, Fatima Bhutto and Kamila Shamsie.

With Shamsie’s latest novel, A God in Every Stone, having been published earlier in 2014, her inclusion in Granta’s 2013 collection of the top 20 British writers under 40, the release of Bhutto’s debut novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon in late 2013, and Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin nomination for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, now is a good time to take stock of this ‘growth’ in Pakistani women’s literature by looking at three recently published novels: Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, and Khan’s Thinner than Skin.”

Uzma Aslam Khan, Thinner Than Skin. Delhi: Fourth Estate, 2012.
Uzma Aslam Khan, Thinner Than Skin. Delhi: Fourth Estate, 2012.
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The Story of Noble Rot, Uzma Aslam Khan, New Delhi: Rupa, 2009 (2001)

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Having read Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing and Thinner than Skin, two of the author’s later novels, I thought I knew what to expect from her: beautiful, ornate yet precise language combined with a complicated yet ultimately somewhat flat plot. (I’m still holding out hope that her great novel will be her next book, she’s building up to something big.) However, The Story of Noble Rot is a very different book. It’s easy to say in retrospect that this is clearly a first novel, in which the Khan found her voice and set herself on the writing path. But the style of this first novel is so very different from her later writing that it is actually difficult to see the connections.

The Story of Noble Rot is comical, in a bleak way. As one reviewer from The Indian Review of Books put it, it’s “pleasantly quirky”. This is a world away from her other novels (the two that I’ve read), which are uniformly serious, earnest even, in the way that a lot of Pakistani writing in English seems to be (OK, not Mohammed Hanif). There are elements of the fantastical and the fable in this novel, making it vaguely reminiscent of some of Githa Hariharan’s earlier writing, or even Aravind Adiga.

The Story of Noble Rot is essentially a tale of class inequalities and the middle- and upper-classes’ sense of entitlement in contemporary Pakistani society. It is the type of tale that has been told frequently in Indian English literature, because it is an issue that is just getting worse in the region. A house-servant witnesses the corruption of her mistress and a complicated game of blackmail ensues, in which the grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous.

The title is intriguing, enigmatic and clever, as it sums up so much of what this book is about—or, rather, what it explores, because it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing. But, as a thread running through the novel is the enjoyment of wine, the title is actually connected with that: “The sweet taste of the wine comes from the muscadelle grape, and the grayish mould that it attracts. The fungus sucks water from the grape, leaving it with an unusually high quantity of sugar and glycerine. We have lovingly named the mould pourriture noble, noble rot.” (p. 121).

Poisoned Arrow, Ibne Safi, 2011 (original Urdu 1957)

Poisoned Arrow, by Ibne Safi, translated from Urdu by Shamshur Rahman Faruqi. Chennai: Blaft, 2011. Originally published in 1957. Purchased for Kindle.
Poisoned Arrow, by Ibne Safi, translated from Urdu by Shamshur Rahman Faruqi. Chennai: Blaft, 2011. Originally published in 1957. Purchased for Kindle.

I have just been reading an interesting article by Will Evans in The Brooklyn Quarterly, entitled ‘I Want You to Start Your Own Publishing House‘, which discusses the terrible lack of translations of world literature into English. The following passage made me think of Poisoned Arrow:

“It’s an awful process for foreign writers to try to crack the English-language market, there are only so many publishers who publish any translations at all, and there are precious few who will publish beyond the confines of the most commercial or the most highbrow of world literature.”

This is where Chennai-based Blaft comes in. Publisher of a number of titles common in bookshops throughout India, including two volumes of Tamil Pulp Fiction, The Obliterary Journal and Stupid Guy Goes to Indiathey go push these boundaries. Not that Evans is wrong to write what he does–quite the opposite, if Blaft is a fairly isolated example of a publisher willing to take risks. They translate pop/pulp fiction from a variety of languages–Tamil, Urdu, Japanese, Hausa–so yes, one could say that they are sticking with the commercial, but the genres and the themes of the books they publish could hardly be considered mainstream-popular to Anglophone readers, so their publishing practices really are commendable.

But, to the book in hand: Poisoned Arrow by one of Urdu literature’s best-selling authors, Ibne Safi, who had a large following in both India and Pakistan. This short crime novel was originally published as Zahreelay Teer in 1957, and was translated into English by Urdu scholar and writer, Shamshur Rahman Faruqi (whose enormous The Mirror of Beauty I am trundling my way through at the moment). I find the production and dissemination of such a massively popular Urdu author from the mid and late twentieth century into English fascinating, but I’m afraid that’s where my interest in this book lies. Not only was the genre not to my taste–sensationalist crime–but I just felt it wasn’t very well written, my personal disinclination towards the genre aside. Poisoned Arrow is not a long book, and is written in accessible English, but the plot was so fast-paced that there was no time for detail, meaning I couldn’t visualise what I was reading about, couldn’t concentrate on the plot, and didn’t enjoy it much at all.

Not Blaft’s best publication, but I life what they’re doing. I’m glad to see there’s a second volume of The Obliterary Journal out now, and I’ll look out of that next time I’m in India.

Year of Reading Women

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(Bookmarks by Joanna Walsh)

2014 has been designated the Year of Reading Women on a couple of fronts: Critical Flame journal has designated 2014 a year in which they will only read and publish in women writers and writers of colour; Joanna Walsh has started the #readwomen2014 campaign.

I am probably in an opposite situation to many readers out there: for the four years that my PhD lasted, I read books almost exclusively by Indian women (apart from a few scholarly books), so when I’d done with the PhD I promised myself that I would read a bit more broadly, including plenty of men!

But I’m aware that the literary and publishing establishment the world over still favours men, white men at that. Not always deliberately or consciously, but nevertheless (statistically speaking, anyway) books by women authors receive less attention than books by male authors.

Unlike the Critical Flame journal who got the ball rolling, and some other readers and bloggers out there, I’m not going to pledge to read more female authors of colour this year, because I really do think I read plenty–ie, the majority of what I read. But I read a good piece on the Arabic Literature (in English) blog recommending a book by an Arab woman author for every month of the year, as a way in for those readers who perhaps don’t know where to start.

So here are my recommendations for South Asian women’s books to read this year:

January: Manjushree Thapa’s The Tutor of History. I’m not of the opinion that women should always write exclusively about women, as even feminists of some persuasion do. Thapa writes cleverly and humorously about the political and social turmoil of contemporary Nepal, showing that women writers can have enormous breadth of experience and imagination.

February: Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man/Cracking India. This Pakistani author’s fictionalised account of her experiences during the Partition of India in 1947 is published under two different titles. It is a brutal account of the horrors of communalism.

March: Anjum Hasan, Lunatic in My Head. This young author from India’s Northeastearn Meghalaya state wittily brings together small town and metropolitan India.

April: Mahasweta Devi, Breast Stories. You can’t go wrong with anything by Mahasweta Devi, but this powerful collection from the fierce Bengali author is a good place to start.

May: Yasmine Gooneratne, A Change of Skies. This Sri Lankan-Australian author wrote about the immigrant experience before Jhumpa Lahiri et al made it fashionable (one could even say passe…)

June: Sorayya Khan, Noor. Khan was one of, if not the first Pakistani English-language novelist to address (West) Pakistan’s crimes in East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971.

July: Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day or Baumgartner’s Bombay. This prolific Indian author has many short novels to her credit, and has been nominated for the Booker Prize several times, though she has never won. Her daughter, Kiran Desai, won the Booker in 2006 though, with The Inheritance of Loss. Many consider the mother the better writer, and these two suggestions, amongst her best loved, are good places to start.

August: Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel. Hariharan is also a prolific author, with many good novels. This recommendation is a retelling of the classic Thousand and One Nights.

September: Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. The only work of non-fiction to make this list, Butalia’s work of oral history is a stunning and groundbreaking work of feminist oral history.

October: Qurratulain Hyder, My Temples, Too. This Urdu-language Indian author translated her novels into English herself, which many critics say altered them enormously in the process. Several of her novels are sprawling histories, but the English translation of her first novel, My Temples, Too, about India’s Independence, is quite accessible.

November: Meena Kandasamy, Ms Militancy. The only collection of poetry to make this list (I don’t read much poetry), Kandasamy’s fierce anti-caste and anti-patriarchy poems live up to the collection’s name.

December: Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. If there’s one novel by a South Asian woman that the wider world is likely to have read, it is this Booker Prize winner. If you haven’t already, you can still fit it in in December!

Jaipur Literature Festival 2014- Day 4

Day 4 of the JLF 2014 brought sunnier skies, meaning that sitting around outside became much more pleasant. It was also a Monday, so much of the throng had returned to Delhi (or wherever else from whence they came), making movement between venues at Diggi Palace less of a scrummage.

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(Vikram Chandra and Adrian Levy)

At every festival there are people who you’ve penciled in to see, and those who you end up listening to because you have a free hour and have managed to secure a seat. Sometimes these latter prove to be revelations, introducing you to writers not otherwise on the radar. Adrian Levy (in conversation with Vikram Chandra, whose epic Bombay gangster novel Sacred Games I am a big fan of) was one of these finds for me, not least because I had a long chat with him over dinner this same night and he proved to be a thoroughly nice man. Levy, with his partner Cathy Scott-Clark, has most recently written The Siege, a non-fiction work on the 26th November 2008 terrorist attacks in Bombay. Most of the session was spent discussing his main ‘protagonist/antagonist’ (my term, not his) David Hedley, a fascinating and complex creature. As Vikram Chandra described him, “If I had made him up and put him in one of my novels, nobody would have believed him.”

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(Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours)

My Himal Southasian colleage, Aunohita Mojumdar, appeared in the next session, ‘Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours’, along with representatives from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. The chair, a former Indian diplomat, opened by saying that while India might be an elephant, elephants are widely loved, gentle creatures. Aunohita rightly pointed out that they also have a tendency to crush things in their path, indiscriminately.

This afternoon was also spent at the Bookmark event for publishing professionals. As I wrote yesterday, this was industry-related, so while it was interesting and important for those in the industry, I don’t think it needs South Asia Book Blog’s special attention. Being our last evening in Jaipur, we stayed for the entertainment at Clarks Amer hotel, and I’m glad we did: the fabulous Tuarag band from Mali, Tinariwen, played for about an hour. After some lovely conversations with writers over dinner in the delegate lounge, I was sorry to be leaving the festival a day early, having to travel back to Delhi and then on to Kathmandu the next day. Despite the excellent networking opportunities for work, there were so many interesting people I didn’t get to see. Gloria Steinem! Nadeem Aslam! Robyn Davidson! But, we woke up the next day to torrential rain and thunder storms, which lasted all the way through Rajasthan and into Delhi, so in the end praised our own good foresight at calling it quits when we did.

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Thinner Than Skin, Uzma Aslam Khan (2012)

Thinner Than Skin
Thinner Than Skin, by Uzma Aslam Khan. New Delhi: Fourth Estate, 2012. (Purchased in India).

I started off loving this book, thinking it was the best thing I’d read in a long time and was poised to add it to my favourites list. But then the story petered out, losing its grip over me. It was not so much that the plot lost its way: this remained unpredictable, tense and interesting. It was that the characters who start off being built up so nicely into well-rounded, real people, became secondary to the landscape and political intricacies.

Thinner Than Skin is largely told from the perspective of Nadir, a Pakistani photographer based in San Francisco, who travels to the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan to try to establish himself as a landscape photographer. Accompanying him is his neurotic American girlfriend Farhana, of half-Pakistani origin, her colleague, an unashamedly American glaciologist, and an Pakistani friend of Nadir’s. The group have to rely on the hospitality of the local inhabitants of the region, many of whom are nomadic. This hospitality is readily given, but puts a strain on social interactions, particularly as the trip is undertaken during a politically sensitive time. A devastating encounter with a local family brings forth the cultural arrogance of the Americans in the group and shatters the fragile bond between Nadir and the self-absorbed Farhana.

Uzma Aslam Khan is a remarkable writer with a unique flair for language, and unlike her compatriot Fatima Bhutto who tries and largely fails to evoke a sense of place in the reader (and whose The Shadow of the Crescent Moon I reviewed last week) Khan successfully limns a vivid picture of the regions she writes about. Her writing is very sensual, which so much care taken to evoke senses of taste, touch, sound and the subtleties of sight:

“I tore the bread and left it on my tongue, letting the heat dissolve slowly. I added an apricot and rejoiced at my menu. Then I poured the topping: a finger of fresh honey. It tasted of flowers unknown to me, flowers vaguely aquatic. Like honey from the bottom of the lake. No one alive had ever touched the bottom, yet here was proof of life in those depths. Next I peeled a roasted potato with my teeth, telling Irfan that part of the thrill of being away from home was mixing dessert with vegetables.” (p. 70)

However, the intricacy of Khan’s language, and her eye for minute detail, can sometimes get in the way of all else that is necessary for the development of a novel. I felt the same about her 2003 novel Trespassing, which got so caught up in the form of the telling that what was being told seemed to slip away. I was completely sucked into Thinner Than Skin until the pivotal tragedy occurred. After this point the word games detracted from what should have been given precedence, the fallout of the event on the psychologies of the characters.

I like Uzma Aslam Khan’s work, and I think she represents some of the best Pakistani literary talent of the moment, comparable to British-Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam. But I think her ability to move between the micro and the macro is flawed. Thinner Than Skin is her fourth novel, and I do think it shows improvement from her previous novels, so hopefully there is a fifth in the pipeline that will come nearer to perfecting this balance.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Fatima Bhutto (2013)

Shadow of the Crescent Moon
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, by Fatima Bhutto. New Delhi: Penguin, 2013. (Borrowed copy)

Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is an interesting but disappointing book, set in a part of South Asia not normally given much time in English-language fiction. It follows three brothers in Mir Ali, a small town in Afghanistan-bordering Waziristan, over the course of an Eid morning. It not only follows their activities on this one morning, but delves into their pasts: one brother was naively involved in informing on his former neighbours while studying in the US; another lost his son in a Taliban attack on a hospital, driving his wife mad; and the other is involved in tumultuous student politics which, like in most of South Asia, is not the rather insular and tame activity that western-based readers might assume. The account of the separatist activities in the Waziristan region is the most interesting part of the novel. The characters feel alienated from the Pakistani nation, and the heavy-handedness of the army (a South Asian issue encountered again and again) leads them always closer to affinity with their Afghan neighbours.

Bhutto’s prose is earnest in a manner that is distinctly Pakistani–or at least, distinct to Pakistani writing in English. It is reminiscent, to some degree, of the writing of her compatriots Uzma Aslam Khan and Nadeem Aslam, though with less of the ornamental flourishes that make those other writers beautiful, and connected to Urdu literary traditions. In fact, Bhutto’s writing is verging on flat at times, not elaborating on descriptions of people and place necessary to evoke strong images of a place that, realistically, most of her readers will have little first-hand knowledge of.

Following the lives of three brothers, and the women in their lives, as it does, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon packs a lot into a relatively short book (230 pages). The jumping between characters, places and times is not disconcerting so much as alienating: it takes a long time for the strands to come together, and when they do, the result is quite underwhelming. Non-linear, circuitous or fragmented narrative structures often seem to be used when a story lacks some other crucial aspects, such as character development or subtle explorations of shades of grey (Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed is a case in point). Unfortunately, this is also the case in The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.

I like fiction with a strong political edge. It would be impossible to enjoy South Asian, and especially Pakistani, fiction without an inclination towards this type of writing. However, I think Fatima Bhutto is in a difficult position. Granddaughter of executed Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and niece of assassinated Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Fatima has a lot of insight into the machinations of Pakistani politics. But her writing can come across as a political tract, not an attractive feature for fiction. Fiction with strong political messages is best when these messages are subtle, weaving amongst nuanced character development, plot, setting… While an author cannot be solely blamed/credited for the titles of their works, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is the first indication that this novel is a blatant critique of the concept of the Pakistani nation. Such critiques should be encouraged, but I wonder whether the novel is the right genre for Bhutto. But, this is a debut novel from a young writer (she is only 31), so it will be interesting to see whether she can hone her enormous knowledge, insights and passion into more nuanced fiction in the future.