Islamabad Literature Festival 2019: of recollections and memories

October 6, 2019

Recollections and memories constituted a major part of the Islamabad Literature Festival this year

Islamabad Literature Festival 2019: of recollections and memories

Why is it that the literature festival has become so important to the national cultural circuit? How does the literature festival, organised by the Oxford University Press - divided into two chapters, namely the Karachi Literature Festival and Islamabad Literature Festival - do its job now when the principal architects of the festival have stepped down, compared to other such festivals, mainly the Faiz International Festival, Adab Festival, Lahore Literary Festival, Rekhta, Jaipur Literature Festival and Khayal? Are literature festivals telling us more about the state of contemporary writings than about literature itself?

It would seem so if numbers count. Many people who do not read books in general throng to literature festivals to update themselves. Festivals have burgeoned all over the world during the past two decades. While some have lasted only for short periods, new ones keep appearing. In every case, the goal is the same: to show, in a regular, ongoing manner, the latest developments in national or international contemporary literature so as to ‘benefit’ local authors and audiences. This perhaps is the defining aim of a literature festival.

But there is always more to a literature festival than mere literature. There are exorbitantly-priced food stalls, a make-shift art exhibit and dance and music performances, etc. Over the past decade, however, their ubiquity has often been questioned; as has their apparently repetitious, elitist nature. Some charge that festivals of this nature are motivated more by the demands of cultural tourism than their avowed art-world purpose of linking local literary practice and taste to international standards.

A recurrent complaint of authors antipathetic to contemporary trends in literature is that it is an elaborate fraud perpetrated on the public by elitist organisers and critics. These writers object less to the festival as a forum or a platform than to the fact that in recent decades, it has just been a podium for providing entertainment in the name of literary arts. They feel that festivals of this type have taken a disastrous turn away from their ‘original’ agenda towards social and political interests. Rightly objecting to the self-promotional antics, they fail to recognise the irony and desperation in the best works of literature, ignore whole tranches of less sensationalist yet powerful literature and are rather closed to the preference of literature originating beyond the traditional centres.

There is always more to a literature festival than mere literature. There are exorbitantly-priced food stalls, a make-shift art exhibit and dance and music performances, etc. Over the past decade, however, their ubiquity has often been questioned, as has their apparently repetitious, elitist nature.

The sixth edition of Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF), titled The Focus is Tomorrow: Reflecting on the Past organised by the Oxford University Press after a hiatus of a year, closed on September 29 after a run of three days.

Contemporary organisers lavish inordinate amounts of time and energy in an attempt to give each festival a different, novel or ultimately ‘contemporary’ spin - some kind of crushing urgency. Festivals mediate publications and the media mediate festivals. Who would want to know about a new celebration of art that was exactly the same as the last one? All of which might make one think about the nature of the new and the velocity of change in literature, and perhaps more importantly, how these thoughts relate to the velocity in lived life. Perhaps the difference is vocational: the historian versus the futurologist. Though, naturally, the best position is both.

While Reversing the Great Game: Pakistan’s Pivot largely supported the premise that the rise of China and reassertion of Russia has traversed the traditional Great Game - a colonial inheritance, the moderator, Moeed Pirzada, disagreed with the panellists. He insisted that China and the CPEC’s ‘game-changing dynamics’ have urged Pakistan to reconsolidate its links with Washington DC. On a similar political note, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Naeem Salik and Khalid Banuri mulled over the prospect of achieving peace in a nuclear-charged environment.

All the talk today is about limits and boundaries. Geographical ones that are around issues such as the CPEC; the limits of social, moral, sexual and indeed legal modes of behaviour in everything; from the fields of politics to the entertainment industry. Given the nature of transgressions that have generated this discourse, freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harm or exploit others. Nevertheless, all this presents a tricky situation for the media that has traditionally devoted itself to break through boundaries and limits of normative thinking, and at times, normative behaviour. The book discussion on Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan and the open discussion among Haseena Moin, Noor ul Huda Shah and Shehnaz Sheikh on Depicting Women in Literature and Drama expanded notions of the personal and the public potential of women.

Alongside, explorations of the boundary-blurring work of Julien Columeau and Aamer Hussein coupled with Negotiating Different Worlds: Multilingualism in Creative Expression became the subject of conversations with writers who traverse semantic frontiers. Underlying thoswas the dialogue about what unites and divides us, and whether or not it is more productive, socially and aesthetically, to be focused on the former or the latter.

Gender rights are on the agenda globally at the moment. It seems fitting then that writer Kishwar Naheed, who has been fighting the feminist battle in Pakistan and beyond since the 1960s, should preside over Pakistani Adab aur Taneesiat. Or, for that matter, Anna Suvorova over Widows and Daughters: Gender, Kinship and Power in South Asia. Touching upon issues that affect and alter the feminine space, Feminist Dimensions of the Novels highlighted the wonderfully edited/written Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women by Sana Munir in conversation with Taha Kehar, author of Typically Tanya. The two writers compared notes on individual inspirations, and what it took the latter to write in the female voice. Shahbano Alvi posited daughters of the Naqvi clan of Badayun in the first category of writers who started a qalmi risala a century ago. The anthology of their writings, published as Roodad-e-Chaman (1914-1918) compiles staggering works of individual genius.

Recollections and memories constituted a major chunk of the festival this year, whether it was the book launch of Radioactive Decade: An Informal Cultural History of the 1970s or Iftikhar Arif, the poet laureate, talking about His Life and Work. Tributes to those who passed away more recently leaving behind a trail of ideas and a proffering legacy included Bayad-e-Enver Sajjad, Charagh Bujhtey Chaley Ja Rahey Hain: Khalida Hussain and Altaf Fatima, Shanul Haq Haqqee ki Yad Mein, Adab Kar Is Kharabati Ka Jis Ko Josh Kehtey Hain, and Urdu Mein Tareekhi Fiction Nigari: Intizar Hussain, Abdullah Hussain and Qurratulain Hyder.

What emerged towards the end of the festival, above all else, was that there are no easy answers to questions. Different circumstances might call for different understandings of the problem. What is more important, perhaps, is that it is a discussion, however difficult or upsetting, that’s worth having. Sometimes, to borrow a phrase, the friction generated by a clash of different worldviews can be a productive thing. Certainly, in these times, such friction is something about which we should be unafraid.

Islamabad Literature Festival 2019: of recollections and memories