Literature of one’s own: Whose story is it?

April 2, 2023

A giant leap towards developing new platforms to promote writing and publishing opportunities in Pakistan

Literature of one’s own: Whose story is it?


o be a new writer in Pakistan today can be as thrilling as it is disheartening. Positioned as we are on the fringes of a global literary culture, where the selective, nominal role of representation is favoured over the myriad stories that are lived and told. Enriched by a vast tradition of fusion and transition, we keep witnessing a new indigenous literature emerging in newer, more powerful, more confident ways – yet the majority of local talent remains lost to the world.

In the midst of such gaps and dissonance, writers often take it upon themselves to find ways of creating new platforms to promote writing and publishing opportunities in Pakistan through committed and impassioned endeavours to counter the absence of structural reach and support in existing cultural-literary spaces. The Salam Award Writers Workshop has been one such endeavour – a writing residency for science fiction, fantasy, and speculative writing that took place in Lahore earlier this month. It was hosted by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). The writing workshop was organised and fuelled by the passion and dedication of Tehseen Baweja, Usman T Malik, and Nur Nasreen Ibrahim, furthering the vision of the Salam Award that Tehseen and Usman co-founded in 2017 to promote imaginative fiction in Pakistan.

The workshop was an intensive week-long exploration of the nuances of craft and creativity, the first of its kind in Pakistan, interspersed with panel discussions and sessions modelled on the Clarion/ Milford method, which involved an in-depth and rigorous exchange of critique between students over their work, along with one-on-one sessions with the instructors – writers Elizabeth Hand and Mary Anne Mohanraj, who had flown into Lahore from the US.

What is the purpose of a writing workshop? The question haunts the minds of many readers, writers, students and teachers: Is the writing impulse something that can be taught? Can that elusive, amorphous state of receiving and conceiving a story’s spark of inception be grasped well enough to be relayed through an academic exercise? No, it cannot. But keeping the unique mystery and intangibility of the writing act intact, can an environment be created that eases the transition of that solitary act into an engaging, sensitive and vibrantly receptive space of public sharing? Yes, by all means. And that is something that the Salam Writers Workshop achieved.

Tehseen, a Microsoft professional with an enduring love for speculative fiction, told me that the thing he cherished most about his experience of the workshop was the sense of community and togetherness engendered among the fourteen participants and the instructors over a span of seven days – an association that will continue long after this workshop, and grow into a sustaining bond to encourage, promote and celebrate one another’s work. I agree with Tehseen. Community is key, even for the most indrawn and retiring writers among us. Elizabeth Hand, an instructor of the workshop and the bestselling author of eighteen novels and five collections of short fiction and essays, shared the same sentiment. “I think the most amazing thing for me was to witness the creation of a community of writers,” she told me. “Here you have fourteen people who, on Day One, were complete strangers to one another. Yet, a week later, they’d formed a family of artists bound by a shared love of and commitment to their work, not just their individual visions but a broader notion of what they and other Pakistani writers could create: a literature of their own, centred on their own experiences but, like all of the best speculative fiction, with great resonance for the wider world of readers.”

For writers living and writing in Pakistan, the question of publishing is never an easy one to answer. It was assessed and revisited throughout the workshop.

A literature of one’s own: but whose story is it? Where are we in a literature incessantly in search of itself? A protean literature still picking up the pieces, still adjusting between the fractures, the silences, of a pre- and post-Partition identity, still throwing off the yoke of an all too simple post-colonial nomenclature – to discover, understand and dismantle a universal colonialism? That’s where our literature resides. When we re-map our physical realities through personal landscapes and mythologies, giving flight and form to our vulnerabilities, experiencing new topographies of the mind to break the fourth wall of language – that is where a literature of one’s own can be found. Between the shifting lines of craft and creativity, that is what this workshop sought to explore through the permeative and genre-bending truths that speculative writing allows.

Literature of one’s own: Whose story is it?

“Every day, I felt as though I was entering a new world after another, worlds I could not have imagined before reading these stories,” says Hand. “The writers were extraordinary… with an entire range of creative styles, from fable-like stories to dark humour to noir-esque cyberpunk to dreamy utopian fantasies, and everything in between. I was struck by the high quality of the writing – I can honestly say I’ve never encountered a group where the submissions were so strong. I was also struck by a certain stylistic elegance that informed all the stories, along with a spiritual depth that one doesn’t encounter in most Western fiction. It was exhilarating to read so much work that, to me, felt utterly new and exciting.”

The sentiment was reciprocated by the students: “The instructors blew my mind with their level of care, attention and investment. To be able to learn from them was such a gift. More than craft, they taught us the value of generosity and kindness in teaching and critiquing, the art of persistence, to keep going, to give ourselves the permission to keep doing this thing that we love.”

Literature of one’s own: Whose story is it?

Where do we take our stories from here? For writers living and writing in Pakistan, the question of publishing is never an easy one to answer. It was assessed and revisited throughout the workshop. The choice to seek foreign publishing remains a contentious one – where the divide between a literature produced at home and its representation abroad signifies a wide precarious leap. But this is where the need for more writers’ workshops of this kind makes itself felt: to bridge the gap between reading communities across diverse regions and experiences. To create an eclectic, inclusive, individual space where the aim is not to seek validation of one’s work, but to gain the necessary right of self-representation, decentralising all assumption of a singular literary identity. Only then can our stories truly find the home they deserve – as Hand rightly says, “In Pakistan first and foremost, and then the rest of the world.”

The writer is a teacher and the founder of the publishing house Àla Books and Authors. She is the co-author of The Night In Her Hair. She tweets @BibaT_Abbas

Literature of one’s own: Whose story is it?