A celebration of diverse literary traditions

February 25, 2024

The fifteenth edition of the Karachi Literature Festival was a celebration of literature in all its unique iterations

A celebration of diverse literary traditions


n an essay published in Overland, Millicent Weber referred to literary festivals as “complex beasts,” at the intersection of writers’ festivals and literary communities. The essay criticised these cultural extravaganzas for embodying the spirit of commercialism and elitism. Weber demonstrated how such literary events were often complicit with the power structures they sought to critique. Be that as it may, Weber also claims these festivals provide an opportunity to discuss vital contemporary concerns and urges audiences to “respond critically and reflectively” to these events.

Weber is well placed to comment on the scope and influence of literary festivals. In 2018, the Australian author published Literary Festivals and Contemporary Book Culture, which situates these festivals in the context of the broader literary culture.

Pakistan, too, is no stranger to literary festivals. Over the last decade, a diverse menu of literary events has dotted the country’s cultural calendar. These events are an integral feature of our creative and intellectual landscape despite being vilified for their neoliberal roots and elitist overtones. Indoctrination would have us believe literature is a niche category in Pakistani society. To attract a wider audience, most of these festivals blur the boundaries between creative and political spheres. While purists have repeatedly decried this practice as a contagion of sorts, literary festivals have often benefited from this heady blend of perspectives by gaining an interdisciplinary focus.

A celebration of diverse literary traditions

Last weekend, the sea-facing Beach Luxury Hotel opened its doors for the fifteenth edition of the Karachi Literature Festival. For many years, the annual event has provided an opportunity for literary enthusiasts to meet writers who have used the power of the pen to capture the complexities of the human experience. At the same time, the festival boasts a range of sessions with experts from other creative domains. Since the festival organisers are operating on a vast canvas, an intricate, often slippery, balancing act is involved in preparing the schedule for the three-day extravaganza. As a consequence, last year’s festival had a much deeper focus on the political quagmires, financial woes and the collapse of the country’s social fabric, even though literary discussions were given priority. This year, the balance tipped slightly in favour of literature. Quite a few panel discussions and book launches still cast a revealing light on political, economic and social themes. The fifteenth edition of the KLF was, therefore, a celebration of literature in all its unique iterations. Most of these sessions were well received.

Planning such a festival isn’t an easy feat; the organisers often encounter stumbling blocks. This year, the KLF organisers faced criticism for inviting Ronya Othmann, a Munich-born author and journalist who espouses Zionist and Islamophobic sentiments. Mercifully, the organisers cancelled Othmann’s sessions immediately after this was pointed out. Such controversies can be avoided if all the stakeholders vet the speakers’ lists. The reaction to Othmann’s presence shows how important a writer’s political persuasions are to the audiences at these festivals.

Apart from this preventable controversy, the festival was conducted without a hiccup. Urdu literature figured prominently in the creative and intellectual discourse. This is a commendable achievement as sceptics have often censured literary festivals for disproportionately concentrating on Anglophone literature and sidelining conversations on creative trends in our national and regional languages. A large number of lively and engaging sessions dealt with the timeless appeal of the leading stalwarts in the realm of Urdu prose and poetry. The oeuvre of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was at the heart of a compelling discussion. In another session, chaired by publisher Hoori Noorani, Urdu poets Zehra Nigah and Kishwar Naheed took a trip down memory lane and discussed the genesis of their creative sensibilities.

A celebration of diverse literary traditions

A concerted attempt was made to include conversations on contemporary Urdu literature. Novelist Rifaqat Hayat launched his novel, Raulaaq. The novel, laced with surrealistic themes, took twenty years to write and finally found a home with an Urdu publisher in the West.

“I wrote the first draft in 2004,” Hayat told the audience. “However, life has a way of interrupting the creative process. I revisited the novel fourteen years later and felt that it lacked substance.”

Hayat shared his manuscript with his friends and writers, including the late Asif Farrukhi. “Asif urged me to bring the setting of the story to life and concentrate on showing rather than telling,” the author said. “His comments led me to drastically rework the manuscript.”

Literary festivals are justifiably criticised for their inherent elitism and commercial focus. However, they are essentially opportunities for debate, which... depends on critical engagement from audiences. Those listening to the conversations at literary festivals cannot be excluded from the debate. They have to have the power to steer discussions towards new and meaningful directions.

The complex art of translation was also the subject of a lively discussion in several sessions. Aamir Jaffarey, the son of acclaimed Urdu poet, Ada Jaffarey, said he had decided to render his mother’s memoir into English to help his grandchildren gain access to her words. His daughter Asra, who has studied English literature in the West, played an instrumental role in bringing her grandmother’s words to life in the English language. In another session, Omar Shahid Hamid launched the Urdu translation of The Prisoner, the novel that catapulted him to literary fame a little over a decade ago.

Anglophone literary traditions in Pakistan were the fulcrum of numerous debates. I was part of an engaging conversation on the subject chaired by writer and critic Claire Chambers. During the session, Muneeza Shamsie, Salman Tarik Kureshi, Maniza Naqvi and I spoke about the recent trends in Pakistan regarding writing in English. The discussion also delved into our motivations for writing in English instead of other languages.

A diverse array of novels by Pakistani authors was also launched this year. In a session with Nusrat Khawaja, author Nadya Chishty Mujahid discussed Timeless College Tales, her debut collection of interconnected stories set in a fictitious yet politically charged business school in Karachi. She spoke about the character of Madeeha Sulaiman, who features in these stories as a well meaning intermediary between the easygoing students and a strict university administration.

Many Pakistani Anglophone writers spoke about why they had decided to put pen to paper. Speaking to journalist Shazia Hassan, banker Ali Rohila drew attention to how writing is “in [his] blood” as his father too was a writer. As a result, he said, he made a conscious effort to take time out from his professional commitments to write his first novel, The Whispering Chinar. “Eastern and Western philosophy as well as English and Russian literature helped me reach a stage where I could write my own novel,” he added.

A celebration of diverse literary traditions

Few Anglophone novels have turned an intimate gaze on the lives of the Pakhtuns. “Ghani Khan once said the Pakhtuns are a complicated simplicity,” Rohila said. “I’ve grown up in an inherently Pakhtun milieu, so it wasn’t difficult to write about it. All I had to do was make real-life characters come to life through the power of exaggeration.”

In a separate session, novelist Aysha Baqir spoke briefly about how one of her teachers at the American School encouraged her to write by offering students in her class a packet of gum for every extra page they wrote. “When I grew up, I could easily find my voice through a vast cosmos of writing,” she added.

Novelists Safinah Danish-Elahi, Nigar Alam and I also spoke about our new books and contrasting approaches to writing in a session titled Woven Words. Unguided by an interlocutor, the three of us were given free rein to carry the conversation in any direction we deemed fit. While we were apprehensive at first, the unusual nature of the panel discussion gave us the opportunity to break away from the narrow confines of our own creative processes and discover other avenues for self-expression. Alam and Elahi spoke eloquently about how they straddled multiple timelines in their novels and shared refreshing insights on their writing processes.

Mukhtar Hussain also launched his memoir, Foundations and Forms: Memoirs of an Architect, a rare feat as very few architects from Pakistan have penned autobiographies. In a conversation with Aliya Iqbal-Naqvi, the author said that he wrote the book to apprise his children of their roots.

The organisers of literary festivals often invite international speakers who are usually at the centre of crucial discussions. This year’s KLF also included a formidable list of foreign guests, including foreign affairs and war correspondent Kenize Mourad. In a soul-stirring discussion with Bina Shah, Mourad spoke about her decision to write fiction after a successful career as a journalist.

“While reporting on the Iranian Revolution, I found it difficult to do justice to the events taking place in a two-page magazine report,” she said. “Initially, I wanted to write a novel about the Iranian Revolution, but something else drew my attention: the story of my mother, who I had lost as an infant.”

Overall, this year’s KLF captured some unique flavours of Urdu and English literature from Pakistan. Informative sessions on Sindhi and Pashto literature were also part of this year’s programme - a testament to an abiding commitment to promoting regional languages.

Literary festivals are justifiably criticised for their inherent elitism and commercial focus. However, they are essentially opportunities for debate, which, as Weber suggests, depend on critical engagement from audiences. Those listening to conversations at literary festivals cannot be excluded from the debate. They have to have the power to steer discussions towards new and meaningful directions.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and the author of No Funeral for Nazia.

A celebration of diverse literary traditions