Redefining history through fiction

David Waterman’s exploration of contemporary Pakistani and Kashmiri literature

September 17, 2023


“I

don’t approach literature in a literary way. I do it in a much more political way, in a much more social representation sort of way. Not just macro histories, but pure historians will work on micro-histories, and we don’t necessarily have traces of those in the archives. That’s where fiction fills those gaps,” David Waterman told Pakistani writer, critic, bibliographer and editor Muneeza Shamsie, who moderated the launch of his book, History, Memory, Fiction: New Dimensions in Contemporary Pakistani and Kashmiri Writings on the last day of the 14th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) in February this year.

Waterman, who teaches at La Rochelle University in France, said, “I’m a big believer that fiction, especially historical fiction, if it’s really done well, in good faith, then it should become part of historical archive even though you can’t necessarily prove it the way a physicist proves his work.”

In contemporary literature, the convergence of history and fiction has given birth to a compelling genre known as historical fiction. In this captivating genre, David Waterman’s book, History, Memory, Fiction: New Dimensions in Contemporary Pakistani and Kashmiri Writings, unravels the intricate relationship between reality and imagination. Through examining various works by leading Pakistani and Kashmiri writers, Waterman invites readers to explore the fascinating world of “possible worlds,” where history and fiction merge to create narratives that challenge our understanding of the past and, by extension, the present and future.

Waterman’s work serves as a literary compass, guiding us through the rich tapestry of contemporary Pakistani and Kashmiri literature. He presents these novels and memoirs as historical fiction, emphasising their unique ability to transcend the boundaries of fact and fiction. By doing so, he suggests that these literary creations offer fresh perspectives and moral guidance, compelling readers to reevaluate their understanding of history and its significance in shaping a better future. These authors become active social critics, enriching our historical consciousness and broadening our worldview.

One of the primary themes that Waterman explores is the exchange of interconnected histories, exemplified in Soniah Kamal’s An Isolated Incident. Kamal’s novel intricately weaves the histories of Pakistan and Kashmir, highlighting the complex relationship between these regions. Through her narrative, she invites readers to question conventional historical narratives and consider the possibility of alternative histories.

Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator delves into the contested history of a place, blurring the lines between fact and fiction to shed light on the tumultuous history of Kashmir. Waheed’s work challenges readers to confront the uncomfortable realities of a region marked by political strife and conflict, inviting them to ponder the subjective nature of historical accounts.

In Rafia Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife, the personal and political displacement of characters becomes a lens through which to examine the broader narrative of migration and diaspora. Waterman underscores the significance of life writing and cultural memory in this memoir, emphasising how individual experiences can contribute to a collective understanding of history.

Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night further reinforces the idea of cultural memory and its role in shaping our understanding of history. Peer’s personal account of life in conflict-ridden Kashmir underscores the power of storytelling in preserving the memory of a place and its people.

In History, Memory, Fiction, David Waterman takes us on a literary odyssey that challenges our perceptions and leaves us with a deeper appreciation for the power of storytelling to shape our understanding of the world.

Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia takes a different approach, exploring the neoliberal concept of ‘self-help’ and its impact on individuals and societies. Waterman highlights how this novel engages with themes of economic development and the commodification of resources, offering a thought-provoking critique of contemporary society.

Throughout the book, Waterman carefully examines each work’s historical and literary context, providing readers with valuable insights into the broader themes and social critiques embedded in these narratives. He encourages us to view these texts as fictional stories and as windows into complex historical and societal realities.

Waterman explores the intricate relationship between history, legacy and contemporary literary representations in the subchapter titled Pakistan during the Afghan War. He sheds light on how these novels and memoirs provide a unique perspective on the Afghan War and its enduring impact on Pakistan and the wider region.

In Cultural Understanding as Military Strategy, Waterman delves into Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil and its portrayal of cultural understanding as a vital component of military strategy. Aslam’s work highlights the importance of cultural sensitivity in conflict zones, challenging conventional military approaches.

In Historiography and the Question of ‘What Happened,’ Waterman engages with Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali. This subchapter delves into the complexities of historiography and how Khan’s novel raises questions about the nature of historical truth.

The final chapter, focusing on migration, serves as a fitting conclusion to Waterman’s exploration of these contemporary works. In subchapters such as Exit West and Snuffing Out the Moon, he discusses the themes of displacement, politics and the state of exception, all of which are pertinent to our contemporary world.

In Eventful History, Movement and Social Mutation, Waterman explores the concept of possible futures, emphasising how these works invite readers to envision alternative paths for societies marked by conflict and upheaval. He highlights the transformative power of literature in shaping our collective imagination.

David Waterman’s History, Memory, Fiction is a thought-provoking and illuminating journey through contemporary Pakistani and Kashmiri literature. Through meticulous analysis and insightful commentary, Waterman invites readers to transcend the boundaries of historical fact and embrace the potential of fiction to provide fresh insights and moral orientation. These novels and memoirs, as historical fiction, serve as powerful instruments of social critique, enriching our understanding of history and offering a broader perspective on historical consciousness. As we navigate the intricate web of these narratives, we are reminded that the past is not confined to history; rather, it is a living force that must be imbued with meaning in our present to shape better possible futures.

In History, Memory, Fiction, David Waterman takes us on a literary odyssey that leaves us with a deeper appreciation for the power of storytelling to shape our understanding of the world.


History, Memory, Fiction

New Dimensions In Contemporary Pakistani And Kashmiri Writings

Author: David Waterman

Publisher: Oxford University Publishing, 2023

Pages: 995

Price: Rs 850


The reviewer is a print, broadcast and online journalist associated with Jang Group of Newspapers as Editor, Special Assignments