May issue 2009
Interview: Aysha Raja Alam
“To me, a good read is something that changes you in the end and you are affected at a deeper level” — Ayesha Raja Alam
Tucked away on the first floor of Hot Spot, an ice cream parlour in Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium, is Aysha Raja Alam’s quaint and novel bookshop — The Last Word. The little retreat shelves a small but selective collection of the latest English writings by international as well as local authors. A prolific reader herself, Alam is aggressively promoting critically acclaimed bestsellers — but not of the Sidney Sheldon kind — as well as exquisite coffee table books. Music, film and design are disciplines that she is hoping to add to the shelves in The Last Word. She has also introduced the graphic novel to Pakistani audiences.
Going directly to publishers abroad, Alam hopes to make the best in contemporary writings available to the readers. She is all set to revive the love of reading in Lahore, as well as in Karachi where the second outlet of The Last Word has opened recently.
A: I was a lawyer for seven years. Then I had my daughter and I took a vacation. This turned into a reassessment of my career choice and in 2007 I decided to put my small savings into starting a business: selling books from my house.
Books were the only love I had, apart from my daughter. I decided to sell only high-end art or architecture books and thus create a market for unique books that are very hard to find in the market. So I went on to meet publishers, striking deals, tracking import routes and, finally, selling them. A year-and-half ago, Omer Khan of Hot Spot encouraged me to set up The Last Word on the first floor of the eatery. Here, food and books make a great combination. And recently we have set up a similar bookshop in Karachi, in the basement of the Hot Spot premises. Now I call myself a bookseller. I find it to be a wonderfully romantic term and it is everything I ever wanted to be in terms of my professional life.
Q: In this age of conflict, when issues need to be resolved at the interpersonal level, how would you grade reading which is essentially an activity in isolation?
A: Yes, we are becoming increasingly isolated so I think it is incredibly wonderful to have a window to the rest of the world with lots of books from the international scene. That way one knows what is going on and one is on top of things. The Last Word is creating a culture of reading — and eventually writing — by stocking up the latest literature. Books like 2666 by Roberto Boland, Sea of Poppies shortlisted by 2008 Man Booker Prize, and Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth are just a few examples. We also stock the New York Times Editor’s List books.
Q: What is a good read?
A: To me, a good read is something that changes you in the end. So you become more tolerant, more understanding and are affected at a deeper level. Even if a book makes you incredibly angry or precipitates any strong emotion in you, it is a good read. The test of a really good book is that it should change the way you talk, change your ability to connect with a person or make you more politically aware. I don’t stock self-help books or business books because I feel that if you really want to help yourself, then there is nothing better than literature.
Q: What are graphic novels?
A: These are basically comics for adults with themes revolving around isolation, discovery and a sense of identity, exploring relationships or dysfunctional families, to name a few. So they deal with things at a more personal level, rather than talk of superheroes flying in the air. This is a whole new genre of comics in a stricter sense. It is a lot grittier and in many ways, brings in a lot of popular culture into a graphic format. They are exceptional books, action-packed, with a lot of analyses and also a lot of fun. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Palestine with a foreword by Edward Said are just two exceptional examples of the kind of work we stock.
Q: How are graphic novels helping to promote literature on a general level?
A: I feel that they are bringing people back to reading. If one is not inclined towards reading, these novels are a step towards the right direction. There are entire generations of children who have been brought up on video games or media that cater to shorter attention spans.
Q: How is The Last Word different from other bookshops in Pakistan?
A: We labour over our stock. We read it, review it and, in some cases, arrange book readings. We have also done book launches, interviews of authors on radio and published articles to create awareness of the latest in literature among readers. We recommend a book if it is actually worth it, not because it has a sensational appeal. We don’t sell commercial books, so you won’t see Sidney Sheldon or John Grisham on our shelves.
Q: What role is The Last Word playing in the age of the internet?
A: I believe that we are becoming a paperless, possession-less society with a couple of contraptions and no collections. However, we continue to have a strong ongoing love affair with books. Reference/non-fiction books may eventually be the domain of the internet. But the net leads to a very superficial understanding of issues where, in the end, no one has a studied perspective. Moreover, no one will ever read a whole novel sitting at the computer. The net will never be able to do anything to the graphic novel because the medium is so exceptional since it relies on illustration, and the beauty of holding a graphic novel, owning it and admiring it, is so much more powerful. Similarly, coffee table books on art and architecture are exceptional works of art and a collector’s pride. The net can never give this experience to its readers.
Q: You mentioned that you would also like to promote writing. How are you planning to use The Last Word for this purpose?
A: I feel that writing, just like reading, can be very cathartic. We need to express ourselves. So we have planned “Life’s Too Short,” a short story competition, which is as yet the biggest competition in the subcontinent. Sponsored by the Z.Z & Zohra Ahmed Foundation, it has been conceived by critic, columnist and editor, Faiza S. Khan. With the increasing success of short story collections in the global publishing market, we feel confident in bringing forth local talent to the international literary scene. We have managed to rope in three of the best writers as judges: Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie.