Literature festivals have been with us now for a long time, not only as major and increasingly frequent sites, but also as organising structures for contemporary writing. It is surprising how little is known about their inner workings or their links to international sponsors and domestic literary scenes. The latter is highly charged by local political situations, cultural constraints and curatorial working practices, all mitigating against the so-called ‘international’ nature of the festival exhibition. Festivals of this nature are not easy to understand, engaging as they are in a kind of marketing of one country or organisation’s literary art to all those considered to be international curatorial peers, or to non-domestic litterateur otherwise worthy of emulation.
In Pakistan, literary festivals emerged as a way of changing internal contemporary discourses. Originally of oppositional nature, they are now increasingly co-opted by the state to encourage more constructive forms of international interaction, and also as the cultural edge of wider restructuring.
Today Pakistani history — the story of the nation recast by nationalists and politicians alike, has a well-defined narrative form: established origins, narrative watersheds, national gods and an agreed-upon chronology of significant events. Liberal freedom is also under threat from the forces of bigotry and hate, in the guise of language marchers, religious rioters, and the many-headed mobs.
In Pakistan, not long ago, it was inherently understood that stories had no beginning or an end. Instead in a continuum of various beginnings and various ends, people appropriated and retold their own histories.
The history of Pakistan, as a history of violence would produce a very different kind of history than the narratives found in the canonical texts. It would produce a people’s history where violence and community constitute each other; and the repository of memories are triggered and fuelled by trauma.
With its free admission, brace of prominent writers, percentage of well-known moderators and major sponsorship from the foreign missions in Pakistan, Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF 2017) in its fifth year, organised as always by Oxford University Press (OUP), responded forcefully to local critics, who have depicted such festivals as little more than the avant-garde’s regressive conversations with its own coterie.
A relatively small selection of writers — but each generously represented — convened a succinct summary of diverse strands of writing practice. The brief given by the keynote speakers, A G Noorani and Arfa Sayeda Zehra, suggested that both India and Pakistan shared a common heritage and that peace could not be restored to the region unless the Kashmir dispute was resolved. Likewise, they stressed that to keep the culture of the region alive, its language(s) must be kept alive. Challenging the status quo, challenges faced by ordinary people in the search for justice were discussed in the opening session entitled, ‘Judiciary and the Common Man’ by Ashraf Jehangir Qazi and Bushra Gohar. The latter added that the judiciary is engrossed in a few high-profile cases at the expense of hundreds of thousands of common litigants whose cases keep getting delayed.
In the adjoining room, Mohammed Hanif probed the challenges faced by translators in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner, impelling Bilal Tanweer and Hoori Noorani to confess to a sceptical spirit of a different kind in choosing the texts they had translated.
While in a befitting tribute long overdue, Masood Ashar and Nahid Qasimi paid homage to the genius of Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi — the late poet, editor and short story writer. Interspersed with quips recalling anecdotes from the writer’s life, the speakers shed light on his illustrious career as editor of Imroz; on how he groomed Gulzar into becoming a household name by setting his earlier free verse to rhyme and metre; and on being the foremost proponent of Punjabi cultural landscape in Urdu literature, after, perhaps, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Balwant Singh.
To think of writing practice as being suspended in relations — whether dutiful commitments or surreptitious entanglements — disrupts notions of autonomy and the individual, requiring an articulation of alternative social formations. While visibility and voice — description — are seen as essential to recognising and transforming reality, they can also be used to absorb, contain and reform that which needs radical change. Such was the message of Akhtar Baloch’s Prison Narratives launched at the festival. Based on her memoirs of incarceration at Hyderabad and Sukkur jails, she had her voice heard protesting against Yahya Khan’s regime of 1970.
What do writers and institutions owe the places, ideas and people with whom they collaborate or make material of and give form to in books? ‘Friendship’ is perhaps a veneer for unequal relations that are cordial, though it can also imply intense exchange and reciprocity. For Amardeep Singh — an IT engineer based in Singapore turned author of the book Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan, legacies are larger than religions. Emphasising the importance of Sikh sites in Pakistan, he revealed that 80 percent of the Sikh Empire existed in modern-day Pakistan; 70 percent of it crumbled to dust, and the rest requires governmental intervention to be owned as a part of its own culture to be conserved. As a corollary, F S Aijazuddin stated that those who forget their history are condemned to revisit it.
With a concentration of book launches, it is all too easy to knock the experience, which leaves the visitors shuttling in a daze from hall to hall. ILF 2017 hosted the launch of two books by Ali Akbar Natiq simultaneously: Hyat-e-Shayr, a book of criticism, and Sur Mandal ka Raj, an offering of poems. Based on how Allama Muhammad Iqbal would turn an idea into a poem, and on how he would formally structure his verse on principles that govern the art of poesy, the former is an appreciation and a critique of the poet-laureate’s style — what Hanif, the moderator, in his tongue-in-cheek manner again, referred to as an ‘industry’. In a befitting tribute to the young poet, Iftikhar Arif proclaimed that no one, at least in his opinion, is capable of toying with the language the way Natiq has.
While tributes ruled the roster triggering poignant memories and rekindling lost associations, Nimra Bucha and Sarmad Khoosat personified Amrita Preetam and Sahir Ludhianvi, respectively, reading out letters and excerpts from Raseedi Ticket. In another room, Jürgen Frembgen, the German ethnologist, launched The Arts and Crafts of Hunza Valley: Living Traditions in the Karakoram. The author took the audience by hand down the memory lane to years when under Karl Jettmar’s influence, he first visited Hunza and Nagar, and how his travels up north since have come full circle with the unveiling of his latest tome.
Dialectical analysis observes or constitutes the relations between three terms, which change according to circumstance: going from conflict to alliance and back again. This in the presence of the world, to the extent that it features relations of past-present-future, or of possible-probable-impossible, or even knowledge-information-manipulation. Engagement, although often tied to a specific place, assumes a relationship measured across time. On this note, English language in its myriad manifestations and nuances was explored to the fullest in multiple sessions, comprising readings, debates and discussions, and musings. From the launch of Muneeza Shamsie’s much lauded Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English to the launch of The Aleph Review – Taufiq Rafat: Defining the Pakistani Idiom to moderations on the language by Ilona Yusuf, Blaine Marchand, Mehvish Amin and Waqas Khwaja, the sessions nailed the balance between pursuit and excellence.
No serious conversation around contemporary short story writing is complete without invoking Khalida Hussain. At ILF 2017, it was her interpretation of the figure of the angel of history and how it relates to the practice of writing prose that was called to mind during the launch of Intikhab: Khalida Hussain compiled by Asif Farrukhi. Hameed Shahid, the moderator, referenced that one could reverse the direction of the angel of history and give it a more forward looking, optimistic spin, guide us rather than retrospectively look onto the ruin of modernity.
Overall, ILF 2017 was a reasonable representation of current writing practice, and a quite varied presentation of contemporary Pakistani writing. Attempts had been clearly made to select works by American, Canadian, Indian, German, French and English writers, and also to represent works concerned with political issues.