Mar 22, 2009

Life’s too short stories

A literary wave is sweeping across Pakistan. In the midst of uncertainty and chaos, a renaissance of sorts is taking place. But, as any good cynic will tell you, when something becomes fashionableÐeven when for all the wrong reasonsÐit draws opportunists keen on making a quick buck. The publishing world is no exception. I was made aware of this when attending what I can only described as a ‘brainstorming’ session designed to assist a visiting New York Times journalist come up with an idea for a novel set in Pakistan.The journalist had done well to surround herself with people well-versed in the history of Punjab, citizens eager to right the wrongs that our beleaguered nation might have wrought on the world; and she was repentant about the wrongs of her own country. And she insisted that one would be hard pressed to find a good book from Pakistan. One helpful participant pointed out Ahmed Rashid’s contribution, but the journalist dismissed his book on the Taliban as ‘a once-in-a-decade phenomenon.’ I could have mentioned a litany of names, but I was getting the impression that we were being spoken ‘to,’ not ‘with.’ Clearly, the journalist harboured colonial and Orientalist sentiments.After patiently listening to details of cultural diversity in Punjab, its Sufi influence, class structure and conflicting religious ideologies, the journalist proudly announced her decision to write a novel set around a wedding. ‘What a novel idea,’ I hear you say. Incidentally, it was a wedding that brought her to this Islamic Republic. ‘What a coincidence,’ I hear you say. The literary wedding, the journalist stressed, would be of a young ‘moderate’ Muslim woman. That Pakistan’s recent literary successes have made this clichŽ a viable prospect is depressing, but it’s a small price to pay for some of the very thoughtful, highly original work we are now producing here. Noble (and possibly Nobel) intentions aside, I would rather that people wrote for the sake of writing and not as a favour to me or my nation. All the Pakistani authors that have gained prominence today have written out of a compulsion to write. Few, if any, wrote with nationalist agendas. The ZZ and Zohra Ahmed Foundation, a philanthropic organisation in Lahore that patronises the arts and literature, has decided to recognise rising local talent and have generously sponsored a project created by a editor and columnist Faiza S Khan. The foundation has decided to sponsor Pakistan’s first independent short-story award, The Life’s Too Short Short-Story Prize offers the largest prize in the region for a short story, with a panel of judges consisting of some of the most prominent voices in Pakistani literature: Mohammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsie and Daniyal Mueenuddin. Each one of these authors has left an indelible mark on our literary trajectory, and each wishes to build on this foundation to ensure a life beyond fleeting literary trends.Kamila, a veteran judge of short-story competitions, recognises the need to create a self-sustaining literary movement. ‘There are too few outlets and opportunities for writers in Pakistan to present their work to a reading public, and for Pakistani fiction in English to really become world class we can’t just rely on publishers and prizes and reviews outside Pakistan.’Daniyal Mueenuddin brought the genre to the fore with the recent release of his short-story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Considering the praise being heaped upon him he may very well bring the short story the kind of prominence not seen since Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Daniyal has another 17 short stories tucked away, in addition to the eight already published. Asked what attracted him to the medium, he explained: ‘When I started writing fiction, it seemed a better discipline for an apprentice, because short stories require more control. A short story can’t have extraneous characters or plot lines Ð it has to go directly and inevitably to its conclusion.’ In many ways the short story does wonders for the confidence of a writer, it provides the opportunity to send work out into the public domain before investing one’s blood, sweat and tears into a lengthy manuscript. Creative-writing courses have also bolstered the short story and given them greater significance. The first work of fiction by Junot Diaz, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was a collection of short stories that formed a part of his MFA programme. The strongly received ‘Drown’ was based on his youth in the politically unstable Dominican Republic, and his life as a migrant in New Jersey. Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel drew from the themes in his short stories and allowed him to pour 10 laborious years of his life into the novel with some confidence. The fact that publishers are falling over each other to publish books on Pakistan should provide all aspiring writers with the confidence they so desperately require. But confidence is difficult when there is no local culture of publishing in English. Our own unique brand of political discord has us living an altered reality we are still struggling to understand. Mohammad Hanif’s compelling A Case of Exploding Mangoes vented a nation’s frustration, providing a context to our current predicament. I now know of five different people who have plans to write fiction involving the military or its intelligence wing. Hanif’s influential work has ignited a spirit of rebellion not seen since the Latin American Literary Movement. The Life’s Too Short Short-Story Prize provides an unprecedented opportunity to aspiring Pakistani writers to kick-start their own literary career. Starting as a short story prize and an online literary journal that hopes to expand to a regional award, the Life’s Too Short winners will be those to look out for when selecting the potential best-selling novelists of the future. Contributions must be no more than 5,000 words and should be sent by June 30 by logging on to
Aysha Raja The writer is the proprietor of The Last Word, a bookshop in Lahore and Karachi. Email: aysha.r.alam@gmail. com.

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