April issue 2010
Interview: Ameena Saiyid, Managing Director, OUP
“The Karachi Literature Festival will raise the profile of our many wonderful authors and help give them a place in the sun”
– Ameena Saiyid, Managing Director, OUP
Q: Who conceived the festival and what were your aims?
A: I had attended the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2009, and was impressed by the way Indian authors in particular were being promoted and projected, and also by the way visitors were pouring in. I felt Pakistani authors should be similarly honoured. I am conscious of the fact that in Pakistan, writers are not given the attention and recognition their counterparts get in other societies. As a publisher, this saddens me because I believe Pakistan has a lot to offer to the thriving and ever-expanding world of letters. The reality of our writers is different from the impression crafted by our establishment, which has the danger of seeping into our national psyche.
In 1947, Pakistan, a multilingual state, inherited a rich literary tradition. We had authors of high stature who excelled in their own genre and were revered in the entire subcontinent. We had poets such as Faiz and Shaikh Ayaz, and fiction writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto, Khadija Mastoor and Hajra Masroor. Our establishment hardly let them subsist in the margins. I felt that the Karachi Literature Festival will raise the profile of our many wonderful authors and help give them a place in the sun. This is the only way Pakistan can be respected in the world for its intellectual output.
I wanted to launch a soft image offensive from Pakistan because I feel publishers have a major role to play. OUP should be at the cutting edge of the soft image offensive because books are read by the top echelons of international opinion leaders. People in strong decision-making positions are usually readers. Also, students in the many universities of the world are influenced by the books they read. I also wanted to take advantage of the surge of interest in Pakistan after 9/11.
Q: This was the first event of its kind to be held in Pakistan, but it was not very well publicised. Was the low profile intentional?
A: The lower hype about the Karachi Literature Festival was intentional because we wanted to make sure it was well organised and on a scale we could manage, since it was the first time for us and I did not want it to spin out of control. I had learnt this lesson from the Jaipur Literature Festival, which I attended again in 2010. It was overrun by visitors, so much so that it was impossible to get even standing room in the sessions. It had become a victim of its own success. Also, we did not try for sponsorship and therefore operated on a shoe-string budget. We thus had little money for advertising and relied mainly on the internet to put out the word.
Q: What kind of feedback have you received from literary figures as well as the general public?
A: Very encouraging. The literary figures were delighted at the opportunity and said they were well looked after and enjoyed the lively question and answer sessions. Bapsi Sidhwa, in particular, spoke of how much she enjoyed interacting with her readers. The public was also enthusiastic because they said the sessions were managed like clockwork. There were no delays. Everyone got a place in the sessions and most of the time they got seats. I know some people had to stand in some of the sessions, but that was an exception. The only complaint I heard was that, with the parallel sessions, people had to choose whereas they wanted to attend both sessions that were held simultaneously. I took that as a huge compliment. The logistics were good because there was lots of parking space and good arrangements for lunch, and the book fair with tea and seating arrangements was especially popular. Visitors bought books of participating authors and enjoyed getting them signed.
Q: Are there plans to make this an annual event?
A: Yes, definitely.
Q: Some personalities from India were also part of the festival. In future, do you hope to make this a more international event?
A: Yes. Even this year, there were authors from India, the UK and US.
Related article: Literary Life