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An arduous task

An encyclopedic summing up of Pakistanis writing in English

An arduous task

It was about time that a comprehensive critical review of Pakistanis writing in English was written with a mode of seriousness and this was exactly what Muneeza Shamsie has assiduously undertaken.

Assiduous because the size of the volume itself betrays the hugeness of the task. Although the size of a book should not be a marker of the importance it deserves, in this case, the thickness of the book is a good indication that all sorts of English writings have been produced by a large number of people.

While English, as Shamsie rightly said, has been the language of power and governance, consequently much non-fiction was also written in the language especially when the writing was meant to be directional and functional in character. There has been a prejudice of sorts against writings in English especially if it relates to poetry, prose, fiction or drama because it is always said that it only led to a second-hand expression.

But over the years this perception has changed and more and more people have been writing in English simply because English as a language probably has greater outreach than it did even during the height of the British empire.

The language of digital technology is also English. At the same time, due to the effort of the poets and writers themselves, as well as the passage of time and greater interchanges, exchanges and fusions, the distance between languages has started to dilute, become fuzzy and evolve into a more international matrix.

The final chapter includes the critical writings of those concerned with the growth of literary expression and the development of the language. It creates much-needed distance between the writings and the writers.

The best way to see what distance literary expression has covered and to be in a position to evaluate it can be done by a framework, putting everything or a major portion of it in one volume, at one place. Though, this may have more quantitative value than qualitative, the exercise is the beginning of a step towards qualitative understanding as well as ideological positioning; because all analyses should be based on ground realities rather than be snatched from the air and made to rest on some derived framework.

It was thus a very studious effort and to get the project going demanded patience and hard work, and at the very outset this has to be appreciated. This book can now become the playground on which the strictures and canons can be applied. Some of this has already been done by the editor who has taken directions by placing the text solidly in front of her.

She has mentioned almost all major writers that have been published in the country. This was significant because collecting the work in one place is a tedious job that many shy away from. Those that didn’t bother collecting the data have based their analysis on fancy or a whim rather than a solid understanding of the work in hand.

It is even more commendable in Pakistan where editors and compilers do not have resources that one expects or hopes for to complete such tasks.

Hybrid Tapestries has paved the way for more anthologies of Pakistani writing in English in various forms. It has provided the right sequence to understanding writings through various forms and sensibilities. Shamsie is no stranger to taking up such big assignments. She is currently working on The Oxford Companion to Pakistani Literature and has edited the pioneering anthology of Pakistani English Literatures, And the World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women.

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The first section of the voluminous work is dedicated to pioneers who started to write in English and then got noticed. These included Atiya Fyzee-Rahamin, Samuel Fyzee Rahamin followed by Hasan Shaheed Suhrawardy, Ahmed Ali and Mumtaz Shahnawaz. In the same category she also included those who were not stationed in Pakistan but lived abroad like Zulfikar Ghose, Tariq Ali, Bapsi Sidhwa, Hanif Kureishi and Sara Suleri. The section also includes Taufiq Rafat who many think is the leading Pakistani poet in the English language; he remains in Pakistan and has inspired many a rookie to write in English and be proud of it.

As Shamsie points out, Pakistani writing in English began with creative writing which meant poetry or non-fiction. Other forms lagged behind, but gradually writers explored them as well. These included the short story, novel and drama.

Almost at the end of the book, in the second last chapter, Shamsie touched upon letters, columns and memoirs – strictly speaking, they fall out of the scope of the book but nevertheless they provide the roundness that was needed for a proper assessment of the work done in the English language.

An important chapter, placed very well right at the end, is about how the literary canon grew in Pakistan. This chapter included the critical writings of those concerned about the growth of literary expression and the development of the language in the years after independence. This final chapter creates a much-needed distance between the writings and the writer, with the entire corpus being viewed from that perspective.

The downside of this chapter is that it is neither detailed nor comprehensive, but it provides a bird’s eye view of various influences that have been at work in the writings of both prose and poetry. These influences were from the west as well as other societies struggling with finding their authentic voice in English in the post independent era, in a world where English has become the dominant language.

There may, however, be some omissions in this widely sweeping book which is an encyclopedic summing up with critical asides. Of course, all the books and all the authors could not be mentioned; only those that the author thought contributed to the growth of the literary sensibility of the English language.

Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English
Author: Muneeza Shamsie
Publisher: Oxford Univeristy Press
Pages: 667
Price: Rs2500

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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