Centre of literary excellence

June 28, 2015

The International Centre for Pakistani Writing in English housed in Lahore aims to archive, project and invite publicity to Pakistani writing done over the last six decades

Centre of literary excellence

International Centre for Pakistani Writing in English (ICPWE) established in Lahore in August 2014 is a dynamic venue dedicated to preserving, promoting and propagating Pakistani English literature. The centre located inside the post-graduate block of Kinnaird College for Women serves as a global repository of critical and literary works by Pakistani authors, poets, academics and scholars. The initiative of M. Athar Tahir, a well-known Pakistani poet, the centre was endorsed by the principal of Kinnaird College, Dr Rukhsana David, following the growing national and international recognition that Pakistani writing in English has been receiving.

The small centre is laden with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stacked with rare collection of books, magazines, articles and journals bearing fascinating titles. Though not huge in area, there is enough stuff there to easily stock up a couple of small bookstores.

On the left wall are hung seven portraits of leading Pakistani English writers. Next to it, on a large bulletin board are some interesting literary posters and newspaper clippings arranged in order. Lying scattered on the desks are piles of old mementos, magazines, random annuals, cartons of archival collections.

"I was invited as a guest lecturer at a university to speak on Pakistani writing in English. I had put three names on the white board before a class of thirty students. I was shocked that none of them had heard about Taufiq Rafat, Kaleem Omar and Maki Kureishi, the finest three writers who were pioneers of English writing in Pakistan, two generations ago." says Tahir, the director of the centre.

"I felt sad because unless you know where you are coming from, how would you know where you are heading?" he says.

Tahir says that since independence, English -- that is the language of government, judiciary and education -- has been widely adopted by individuals for personal expression. The literature is rarely studied despite being available in print form. Several academic institutions have held seminars and introduced short courses but unfortunately not a single private or public institution offers degrees focusing on Pakistani English writing largely due to unavailability of material in any one place.

"That is why the idea of the centre was born -- to archive, project and invite publicity to the quality of Pakistani writing over the last six decades," he says.

ICPWE accepts any writing that the author feels is Pakistani. "Ours is a broad-based definition. It is not concerned with any particular political, ideological or religious aspects of being Pakistani," Tahir claims. Going by that definition Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life is considered Pakistani writing as she is locating it in Karachi. "The centre is open to any form of literature as long as the author feels the ambience is Pakistani."

The ICPWE acquired its first collection from Taufiq Rafat Foundation. This collection consists of over two hundred items including the poet’s personal typewriter, books, valuable unpublished material, manuscripts, visual images and objects from the Trustees of the Taufiq Rafat Foundation. "We recently launched the translation of Taufiq Rafat’s Bulleh Shah printed by Oxford University Press," tells Athar.

The ICPWE acquired its first collection from Taufiq Rafat Foundation. This collection consists of over two hundred items including the poet’s personal typewriter, books, valuable unpublished material, manuscripts and visual images.

Speaking to TNS, media person and advertiser Seerat Hazir, who is Taufiq Rafat’s son, says: "We are hoping to bring out annotated complete works of poetry by Taufiq Rafat later this year with the help of ICPWE. I have donated several books from Taufiq Rafat’s library which include general readings, literary critiques, books by Western authors and his own works including his play Foothold." This play was performed at Kinnaird College last year for the second time after its first ever performance at the APWA auditorium in 1960.

The next big collection at the centre is that of Kaleem Omar’s donation of about 160 books and 47 cartons of archival material, personal papers, notebooks, articles, letters, and photographs.

The books by Zulfikar Ghose, a professor at the University of Texas, adorn the bookshelves inside the centre. Ghose, who is a distinguished poet, novelist and critic, has donated signed, first editions of all his works, according to Tahir. Apart from these rare publications, Ghose is also pitching in another set of 500 books from the US.

Currently, the centre has announced three main initiatives sponsored by private individuals. Three prizes for poetry, essay writing and fiction will be awarded annually, provided that the entries fulfil the merit determined by the judges. "Students registered at any Pakistani educational institution can send in their entries to compete for the prizes but no later than September 2015," Tahir informs.

The ICPWE would be holding the First International Conference titled "Pakistani Literature in English: Past and Present" in October 2015 which will provide a forum to academics, scholars and literary critics.

Similarly, Lahore Review would be launched by the ICPWE as an international literary magazine acknowledging Pakistani writings in English. Ilona Yusuf, the editor of the poetry section of Lahore Review says that while English prose writing has received its exposure in Pakistan, it is crucial that poetry by Pakistani English poets too gets recognition.

Tahir confirms the centre is not just focused on Punjabi writers. In fact, it is supporting English writers from other provinces.

Stressing the importance of translations from Urdu or other regional languages into English, Tahir says that through translations the local and indigenous culture is introduced to a worldwide audience. Similarly, he argues, that Intezar Hussain was shortlisted for Man Booker’s Prize because his work was translated and Abdullah Hussain is considered a modern living legend for the same reason. The centre is, therefore, striving to translate poets from Punjab, Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Tahir has donated complete works of Khushal Khan Khattak printed by Pakistan Academy of Letters hoping the centre will someday translate the work into English. The older translation needs to be rewritten so it makes sense to people rather than wrapping them in archaic expressions.

As technological development is taking control over individual lives and the reading habits are changing, the centre aims to revive the book-reading culture among the youth. "Unfortunately, it’s human nature to take the easy way out. Very few will exert themselves and try to acquire things that require effort. By and large, students are not reading as much as they should be," Tahir laments. The Urdu literature students are better-paced as there is a tradition of memorising verses of poetry. English has a more written tradition but it is pertinent to incorporate important things from Urdu and Punjabi literature into English so as to localise it and adapt it to our own cultural norms and traditions in a way to generate interest, suggests Tahir.

While ICPWE is doing a laudable work in archiving and promoting important Pakistani literature in English, what can be observed missing from the bookshelves is the essential and valuable works by progressive Pakistani writers.

Centre of literary excellence