October Issue 2007

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 13 years ago

This year, Mohsin Hamid became the first English language novelist from Pakistan to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his sophisticated novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamid’s success illustrates the increasing confidence and skill that a younger generation of Pakistani writers have brought to the English novel since 2000. But what has happened to Pakistani English poetry? Are there any talented new poets on the horizon?

This summer, Oxford University Press (OUP), the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Goethe Institute held a competition of poetry and prose for writers aged 18-30. The judges, Amberina Kazi, Ghazi Salahuddin and Shaista Sirajuddin were simply bowled over by the quality of the work. The first and third prizes were given to accomplished short stories by Mira Sethi and Saadia Zahra Gardezi respectively: Sethi’s was a particularly fine, sensitive and original piece of writing.

The judges sifted through some 600 entries and selected the 20 best writers to attend a creative writing workshop this November, conducted by German and Pakistani writers. Later, OUP is going to publish the work of these writers in an anthology. The 20 writers included only two poets, Sahar Rizvi and Sadaf Halai. More importantly, Sahar Rizvi received the second prize and Sadaf Halai submitted such an exceptional poem, that a Special Juror’s Prize was created for her.

Halai’s poem, ‘Laughter for the Living,’ is a work of great skill and poetic complexity. Ghazi Salahuddin was clearly as spellbound by it as I was. He told me that the problem the judges faced was that the poem did not address any of the competition’s three stipulated subjects, ‘My First Love,’ ‘My mother, me and my daughter’ or ‘Aspirations’. Yet the poem was clearly much above the standard of most English poetry produced in Pakistan, even by established poets. “How could we not honour a work of such quality?” Ghazi Salahuddin said. “Hence the idea of giving a Special Juror’s Prize.”

Halai’s poem, a contemplation of life and death, revolves around three great 20th century writers and philosophers: the American poet, critic and Catholic monk, Thomas Merton (1915-1968); the French-Algerian novelist and communist Albert Camus (1913-1960); and the French philosopher and critic Roland Barthes (1915-1980). All three suffered accidental deaths. Merton was electrocuted; Camus was killed in a car accident, having said once that it was an absurd way to die; Barthes was run over by a laundry van. Halai appears to turn this into a black comedy. She writes:

I doubt you took off / For heaven in a bright flame, Thomas Merton, / Even if you were 220 volts in a hotel bathroom.

The poem is embedded with intricate, multi-layered resonances with the lives, writings and philosophic debates of Merton, Camus and Barthes. Halai writes ‘Merton wrote about that man Mersault/the stranger on the beach.’ This is a reference to Merton’s re-appraisal of Mersault, anti-hero of the Camus novel The Stranger — a tale which begins with Mersault’s indifference to his mother’s death. Thus she links Merton with Camus and later Barthes, who couldn’t cope with the loss of his much-loved mother.

At this point Halai addresses and accuses the reader: Death by household appliances and laundry vans/ You know you should laugh only at/ Yourself for not fearing the other things that happen/ Quietly: quixotic dreams that disappear once/ You look away, the miscellaneous leave-takings/ Smaller than death, the morning you wake up changed / And know there’s nothing you can do about it. She leads up to a metaphorical, unobtrusive, threatening briefcase lurking in the street.

The Young Writers Competition certainly opened a window to some truly shining talent. Sahar Rizvi’s prize-winning poem, ‘Shikari’, tells of a girl who learnt to hunt with the father she longed to emulate. Her gender is revealed half-way through:

I was learning with the hands of a woman
to become
a well-primed hunter

In the next verse, she laments:

I never became the shikari
but you stole your son at a tender age
from his mother while she slept
wrapped him in a Pashmina shawl
and taught him to hunt in misty
Kirthar mornings

Her thwarted aspirations embody the lives of so many women and their belief that they can fulfill their own ambitions, one day, through their sons.

The desire to write English poetry is clearly very strong in Pakistan. The problem is that it has such a small audience that it is difficult for good Pakistani English poets to find publishers and outlets.

Instead, every year reviewers are inundated with amateurish, self-published books. Certainly the internet has played an important, positive role in the networking of young writers and the access to contemporary literature and workshops, which would simply not have been available for earlier generations. Websites such as www.chowk.com and www.desilit.org publish some really good, lively work online.

In Pakistan, any discourse on Pakistani English poetry harkens back to the ‘golden age’ of the 1960s and 1970s, when OUP published three poetry anthologies, and lively poetry gatherings revolved around poets such as the late Taufiq Rafat, Daud Kamal and Maki Kureshi in Lahore, Peshawar and Karachi respectively. Their generation developed home-grown contemporary Pakistani English poetry of a high standard before Pakistani English fiction. But four decades later, we need to move on.

In Britain, there is Moniza Alvi, an important poet of Pakistani origin. She has published six poetry volumes, won or been shortlisted for major British awards and is one of the very few South Asian writers to have forged an important place in mainstream contemporary British literature. The first sequence in her recent book How the Stone Found Its Voice, inspired by Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’, was written shortly after 9/11; her poem ‘How The World Was Split in Two’ begins with the lines:

Only this is true
there was an arm on one side
and a hand on the other,
a thought on one side
and a hush on the other

And a luminous tear
carried on the back of a beetle
went backwards and forwards
from one side to the other.

Very few Pakistanis know of her. Her lyrical sophisticated poetry ought to be taught in Pakistani academia as indeed should the work of resident Pakistani English poets. In 1997, OUP brought out an excellent series of new collections by every major Pakistani English poet, including Adrian Husain and Salman Tarik Kureishi. Most of these writers have not published second collections. In the past few years, among established poets, Alamgir Hashmi brought out a rather fine volume, The Ramzan Libation: A Selection (2003), and Athar Tahir has consolidated his reputation further with Body Loom (2006). However, all these writers will appear in an anthology, Contemporary Voices from the East, edited by Ravi Shankar, to be published soon by one of America’s premier poetry publishers, W.W. Norton & Co.

Hima Raza (1975-2003) embodied the voice of a new generation of Pakistani English poets educated in Pakistan as well as American, Australian, British or Canadian universities. Sadly, her bright talent was cut short tragically by her untimely death in a car accident. She left behind two collections of experimental poetry, Memory Stains (2000) and Left-Hand-Speak (2001). She broke new ground with two bilingual poems that were written in English and Urdu to particularly good effect. Visually, the appearance of the Arabic script next to the Roman suggested a hidden inner world. At the same time, her Urdu verses spoke directly to the bilingual reader.

Howevever, Harris Khalique keeps his two languages quite separate. He has brought out highly praised Urdu collections, but says that writing free verse in English liberated him from the “historical baggage and the structure of the Urdu ghazal.” His third poetry volume, Between You and Your Love (2005), a mix of earlier work and new, shows a great development, though some poems are still slight.

Picture This by Illona Yusuf (2001) is a first collection with much to offer, including many finely observed images of Karachi’s violence, its street characters and its grinding poverty. Yusuf and Bina Shah are co-editors of the Alhamra Literary Review, a literary journal established by Shafiq Naz. So far only two editions have appeared — some 18 months apart — but the journal does showcase new talent. I was really excited to see a number of new names in poetry. I was particularly struck by Samina Shahid Macdonald’s ‘It was Her First Raid of an Iraqi home’, which plays with words, images and their echoes to move seamlessly in and out of time. Constructed around quotes from a report in the New York Times, it tells of an American woman soldier “Pvt Safiye Booth, aged 21,” searching Iraqi women for weapons, only to find past and present colliding. Macdonald writes:

‘While her male colleagues searched for weapons and questioned the men there, her job as a female soldier was to put the women at ease and, if necessary, search them.’

A hand of your hair curled in your sister’s fist. Your mother tightening the measuring tape around your hips. Your best friend pulling her arm through yours.

Your hands are in the hollows beneath a woman’s arms. She is wearing a blue scarf, you ask her to remove it. Her hair is defenseless, doll soft. From it, rosewater, soursalt.

Pakistani Literature, the bi-annual journal of the Pakistan Academy of Letters, has Iftikhar Arif as editor-in-chief; its excellent new issue is devoted entirely to Pakistani English writing, edited by Khurram Khiraam Siddiqui. The poetry section is substantial, with really fine work by several distinguished poets including Zulfikar Ghose. Alongside there are several poets who are not so well known and have not yet published full-length works, but are writing with great skill nevertheless. This includes Tehmina Ahmed, Moin Faruqui, Mona Hassan, Shireen Haroun, Shadab Zeest Hashmi. I was also interested to see noteworthy poetry by Bilal Tanweer and Mina Farid Malik. They were among the five winners of the British Council’s ‘I Belong’ short story competition in 2003 and had attended a fiction workshop tutored by Kamila Shamsie. Perhaps what we need next are poetry workshops: a welcome development is that young writers such as Uzma Aslam Khan, Mohsin Hamid, Sadaf Halai and Kamila Shamsie are regularly sought out by local schools and universities to conduct creative writing programmes, as was the late Hima Raza.