Should Pakistani authors continue to seek Western validation in order to be considered significant?
In the Spring of 2018, I got a chance to teach a novel by a Pakistani writer to a group at a jail in Austin, Texas. Let me first begin by recollecting how this undertaking came about.
In the summer of 2017, while studying French at Alliance Francaise de Karachi, I attended an exhibition titled Bastille to Karachi Jail which showcased artworks by inmates from Karachi’s Central Jail. The exhibition was impressive and I began thinking about the meaning and purposes of art and aesthetics. The following fall, back in Austin, I met an acquaintance, K, who had initiated a programme some time ago, called Reading World Literature a few years ago (which has since been renamed to Inside Literature or IL).
I began thinking of what I could possibly do with such an opportunity. But my intrigue had an underlying unease also. I have a Muslim name, a Pakistani passport, I am clearly brown, and I have my anxieties. Therefore, stepping into an American prison, even for the purpose of discussing literature didn’t seem to be a comfortable idea.
I eventually settled for Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. There were several reasons for my decision – I wanted to teach something quintessentially Pakistani, I had already read this novel many years ago and was reading another novel Exit West by the same author, and there was a movie adaptation of the novel that would allow for visual engagement while creating room for comparative interpretations of the text.
The scheduled venue wasn’t a typical classroom where we were joined by around 15 men in a uniform. Even with some personal discernment that comes with age and a bit of travel, I hadn’t ever felt, what I felt in that room in that instance, being in the company of those who happened to be on the wrong side of the law. We began with introductions and a brief discussion about what had brought us to that room that day.
To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect but I was immensely overwhelmed by the way the first class went. The experience exceeded my expectations. Some great exchange of ideas occurred; it was a phenomenal class and when it ended it felt like it ended too soon. What’s more is that a couple of my students, while they were leaving, told me that they were grateful that we were there. In my almost two years of teaching up to that point, I hadn’t experienced such a moment with a student before.
I wanted to take up The Reluctant Fundamentalist mainly because of the many diverse themes in the novel. I first came across Hamid some 10 years ago at St Andrews in Scotland where I was studying at that time. Our entire new class of undergraduates was supposed to read A Reluctant Fundamentalist over the summer prior to the beginning of the semester.
The experience exceeded my expectations. Some great exchange of ideas occurred; it was a phenomenal class and when it ended it felt like it ended too soon.
I am not the biggest fan of most Pakistani Anglophone literature. I have always been more inclined towards Urdu literature. Yet, when it came down to choosing between A Reluctant Fundamentalist and the English translation of Intezar Hussain’s Basti to teach in the Texan jail, I chose the former. Academics in the West traditionally prefer to choose literature in English when it comes to teaching about cultural objects from certain countries. The common presumption is that certain writers from a country who choose to write in the English language eventually become authorities on that specific culture, as Zain R Mian correctly suggests in an article in Herald.
As Aijaz Ahmad remarks in relation to Edward Said’s reception in the West, it is as if, ‘the retribution visited upon the head of an Asian, an African, an Arab intellectual who is of any consequence and who writes in English is that he/she is immediately elevated to the lonely splendour of a ‘representative’ of a race, a continent, a civilization, even the ‘Third World.’
It must strike as somewhat disturbing, as is mentioned in another article in The Toronto Review of Books, in reference to the Karachi Literature Festival. “On May 20th, the annual KLF was held outside Pakistan for the first time as part of Alchemy — a South Asian cultural festival. London is a logical choice for an offshoot. Many Pakistani writers, including Hamid, have called it home, and the city has a sizable Pakistani diaspora of several hundred thousand. Pakistani literature can find large audiences in Britain, and if a book or an author makes it in London, success at home is sometimes an afterthought.”
Such guaranteed success that ‘naturally follows’ after a local author’s book becomes a hit in London should be a matter of concern. Should Pakistani authors continue to seek Western validation in order to be considered significant, for their works to be taken as substantial? In the same article, Hamid admits, “I don’t really believe entirely in nations or religions or genders. I am a man who speaks English and lives in Pakistan, but part of me is American and I spoke Urdu before I spoke English, even though my English is better than my Urdu. Do I feel entirely male-gendered? Not all the time. I don’t really buy these categories; they are not helpful.” Obviously, however, Hamid’s sincerity, in dismissing any kind of parochialisms and rejecting delimiting binaries is not in question here.
But be that as it may, as far as teaching for the Inside Literature programme goes, I wouldn’t mind doing The Reluctant Fundamentalist again.
Or maybe I’ll go with Home Boy next time.