Pakistanis’ contribution to world literature in 2020

December 27, 2020

With most things taking a turn for the worse in 2020, the year was apparently not too bad for writers of Pakistani origin

This has been an unusual year in which 3.9 billion human beings were forced to experience the kind of solitude that many writers crave. Those who maintain a critical or self-reflexive distance or reluctantly partake in social activities had plenty of schadenfreude. Ayesha Barque and Rizwan Akhtar, two poets who write in English from Lahore, coped very well with the solitude. During the first wave of Covid-19, Ayesha Barque remarked “It seems I have been preparing for this lockdown my whole life” while Rizwan Akhtar penned poems titled In Times of Self-Isolation, published in Glasgow West End, The End of the Pandemic, published in 3 Quarks Daily, and The Other Side of Lockdown appeared in Bath Magg: A Magazine of New Poetry. He also chose to write about Kashmir and called it A Requiem for Kashmir:

“I don’t live in Kashmir/under siege/I am valley’s vicarious denizen/not far but complacently/picking metaphors.”

In the world of Pakistani fiction in English, the most remarkable contribution has come from Ayad Akhtar, a first-generation Pakistani-American writer whose first novel American Dervish (2012) was translated into twenty languages. Akhtar published his second novel, Homeland Elegies, this year. He is well-known as a playwright and has won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Homeland Elegies is a bold and experimental novel which combines fact and fiction. The novel is a nuanced affirmation of the slogan “the personal is political.” The main character’s life is similar to the novelist’s. This reader could not separate fiction from autobiography but if the novelist wants to call it a novel, it is a novel that questions the very idea of the novel. A nonfiction novel is also an established form. Many postmodern writers name their characters after themselves, like a character named Michel in Michel Houellebecq’s fiction. Homeland Elegies is a great read which turns the author’s life into a work of art. He criticises America and, at that same time, feels that there is no other home for him because he has lived his entire life in America. The self is a fiction we all live by and, with this novel, Ayad Akhtar has established himself as a great writer of autofiction.

If reality is stranger than fiction, there are plenty of stories from Pakistan that can surpass the wildest narratives imagined by the world’s best writers. The life and death of Qandeel Baloch has been turned into a riveting read by Sanam Maher in A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honour Killing of a Social Media Star, published by Melville House (2020). In this book which reads like a well-written novel, we can read an intimate account of Qandeel Baloch’s life, from her childhood in Shah Sadar Din, a village an hour away from Dera Ghazi Khan, to her rise as a social media star to her honour killing and burial: “When Qandeel was buried, her mother covered her hands and feet in henna and kissed them before covering her in a white shroud.” Qandeel Baloch’s life and death lays bare everything that is wrong with patriarchy in Pakistan and this book has done justice to Baloch’s life by recording her story.


This year, with plenty of solitude available for writer-ly pursuits, has been good for the writers of Pakistani origin who write in English and seek to globalise their culturally specific experiences of the human condition.

The future of Pakistani writers who write in English looks bright. Kasim Ali, a British-Pakistani author, has secured a deal with 4th Estate for his debut novel Good Intentions, a novel that tells the story of a Pakistani man’s love affair with a black woman. Ali is 25 and, as an employee at Penguin Random House, has the experience of the publishing industry on his side. His novel will be coming out in 2022. Kasim Ali has been shortlisted and longlisted for many prizes as a short story writer and, therefore, was able to secure a good book deal for Good Intentions and a second novel.

The shift away from short story to novel also marks the career of Munib Khan, a fiction writer and a doctoral candidate at Florida State University’s creative writing programme. He has had his short story titled Charity accepted for The Massachusetts Review in 2020. Previously, he has had his short fiction published in Prairie Schooner and The Barcelona Review. This year, he has also started moving away from the short story to the novel and is hard at work on his first novel.

This year, with plenty of solitude available for writer-ly pursuits, has been good for the writers of Pakistani origin who write in English and seek to globalise their culturally specific experiences of the human condition.


The writer teaches literature and critical theory at the University of Lahore.    He can be reached at [email protected]

Pakistanis’ contribution to world literature in 2020