On Tuesday, I attended a really fascinating event at the Aicon Gallery in New York City. Entitled, “How to Talk About Pakistan,” the event centered on Granta magazine’s recent Pakistan issue and featured editor John Freeman, as well as Kiran Khalid (CNN producer), Mohsin Hamid (author of Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Lorraine Adams (journalist and author of The Room and the Chair), and Ayesha Nasir (journalist and filmmaker).
For those who don’t know about Granta, it is an incredibly rich and textured publication first founded in 1889 but “reborn” in 1979. According to the website’s About section, Granta “does not have a political or literary manifesto, but it does have a belief in the power and urgency of the story, both in fiction and non-fiction, and the story’s supreme ability to describe, illuminate and make real.” The Observer once wrote of the magazine, “In its blend of memoirs and photojournalism, and in its championing of contemporary realist fiction, Granta has its face pressed firmly against the window, determined to witness the world.”
The Pakistan issue truly epitomizes this goal, containing 18 featured pieces by renowned writers and journalists like Nadeem Aslam, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Declan Walsh, Jane Perlez, and the aforementioned Hamid, Nasir, and Adams. A mix of memoirs, poems, fiction, and “reportage,” the publication strives to showcase the nuances and complexities of Pakistan, a country so often talked about but so rarely understood.
The Tuesday discussion was ultimately important because it addressed this very issue – namely, how can writers be instrumental in closing the perception gap about Pakistan? Can fiction writers play a significant role in supplementing the news information that trickles down about Pakistan? And do writers have to be Pakistani or based in Pakistan in order to be legitimate resources on the country? Hamid, who recently moved back to Pakistan after years of being abroad, noted, “I felt that if I wanted to write about Pakistan, I needed to go back to Pakistan…or else I’d be wondering if my opinions were actually my own, or ones that I had heard that I thought were my own…”
Lorraine Adams, who co-wrote a piece with Ayesha Nasir on Faisal Shahzad, touched on the limits of journalism in her comments, emphasizing that most news agencies produce stories based on a “consensus narrative” decided on by the editors, not the journalists on the ground. Given that the original stories are far more contentious and nuanced than this narrative, a lot gets lost in translation. According to Adams, “People think that if they read non fiction or the news, they know a lot about the country than if they read fiction,” which is an untrue assumption.
The debate over the benefits of fiction versus nonfiction is significant and deserves further discussion. From a personal standpoint, neither fiction nor nonfiction alone will give you a full picture of Pakistan. While nonfiction and news items can give you a snapshot of the current affairs of the country, fiction stories can provide further insight into the cultural nuances and intricacies of Pakistan. Even if you read the work of Pakistani writers, “old” and “new” alike, their treatment of issues and their prose can sometimes be windows into the Pakistani psyche and experience. At the same time, there are obvious biases involved in fiction work, while nonfiction pieces tend to be less emotional and relatively more objective (though not always, of course).
Moreover, the line between both is becoming increasingly blurred, with writers like Hanif and Adams doing extensive research and reporting in order to produce properly nuanced and textured fiction work. Authors like Hamid, Shamsie, and Hanif also straddle both lines, writing novels but commenting frequently on current events in Pakistan. In an article for Canada’s Globe and Mail, Piali Roy wrote,
Fiction writers like Daniyal Mueenuddin and Ali Sethi see literature as a project. They both have said in interviews that they see themselves as explaining Pakistan in all its complexity to the West, not merely as the “failed state” with budding terrorists in every bazaar. It may seem like a hefty burden for any writer to bear, but there is no doubt that Pakistan is a country in need of PR. Is there any wonder that nearly every one of these writers (dare I call them the Pak Pack?) are taking their advocacy role about the humanity of the floods’ victims seriously? Or that they rarely agree with one another?
Do Pakistani writers have a responsibility to always write about the positive side of the country? Yes and no. Writers, by virtue of having a platform, can and should discuss the nuances of Pakistan that often get swept to the side by Western news agencies. But those nuances shouldn’t always have to be about positive topics. As Hamid noted, “There is a notion and expectation that you must write positively about Pakistan, and if you don’t, you at least write hopefully.”
The discussion, as a whole, was fascinating and was further bolstered by the incredible exhibition in the gallery by Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman called, “After All It’s Always Somebody Else Who Dies,” (see above image). Granta’s Pakistan issue also includes fantastic artwork by contemporary Pakistani artists, an effort by the publication to go beyond their typical photo essays and showcase local talent. According to a review by The Independent, “Granta’s Pakistan is a bleak but mesmerizing one that rages with astounding horrors. Yet this ‘immense homeland of heartbreaking beauty’ is not without love, romance, nor hope.” The print edition can be purchased here.