One of the most awaited sessions of the Lahore Literary Festival 2018 was titled ‘MC Activist’, and its star was Riz Ahmed, an Emmy award-winning actor, activist and rapper, in conversation with Mohsin Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and Shahid Zahid.
The session mainly focused on Ahmed as he talked about visiting Pakistan after 13 years, his creative process and stereotypical acting roles that Hollywood mostly offers people of colour. The dialogue between Ahmed and Hamid discussed the anxieties and imaginations that encapsulate the creative process.
Both agreed that creativity is not something which “possesses” an individual, that is you can’t sit around waiting for creativity to ring the doorbell; Ahmed went on to say that, “90 per cent creativity is just showing up every day and sitting down to write in front of a blank page.” The conversation was scintillating because the audience was able to witness the artiste and writer discuss the elusiveness of creativity, while being privy to the struggle of finding inspiration. The dialogue was particularly encouraging for writers and thinkers as both Ahmed and Hamid shared how it’s more difficult to write if you believe that people will be watching or reading your work.
“Coming back to Pakistan after 13 years is like visiting my ex,” Ahmed joked when asked about his relationship with his homeland. The crowd broke into applause and hysterics when he said that Pakistan “is looking good and might have had some work done”, but it’s still playing “hard to get” and acting “a little schizophrenic”. It was surprising to see Ahmed refer to his diasporic relationship with humour, when usually this relationship is described as miserable and conflictual.
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On playing stereotypes for films, Ahmed was thoughtful and understanding about the nuances of identity: “If we can take on the challenge of being ourselves and tackling our complexity then why not?” Implying that people of colour should not refrain from taking South Asian roles, but there should be some complexity in those characters. On Hamid’s request, Ahmed ended the session by performing a moving and poignant rap called ‘Sour Times’, which was themed on being Muslim in the west.
Later in the day, in a session called ‘A Delirium of Stories’, Nigerian poet and author Ben Okri, in conversation with academic Zareena Saeed, relayed lessons about storytelling that he had learnt over the years.
Okri narrated events from his childhood: whenever he made a mistake or was faced with a problem, instead of punishing him or offering him a concrete solution, his parents would relay abstract stories. Once when he talked to his father about western philosophers, Okri Senior responded by saying that Africa itself has so many philosophers. “Where?” asked Okri. “Here”, said his father, while gently rotating his arms around his head – leaving everything to his son’s imagination.
On Saeed’s request, the Booker prize winner displayed his mesmerising storytelling by reading from his recently published book, The Magic Lamp. Each story was based on a painting, and was read slowly by Okri who stated that reading in haste prevents readers from being a part of the story. He further stated that “to read is to imagine and create with the writer’s words”.
“The way we tell stories, is the way we see the world,” he stated, leaving the audience with words they would remember for days to come.