Time to evolve conversations

March 13, 2022

KLF ’22 was a celebration of literature but it’s now time to make these festivals more inclusive

Time to evolve conversations

Karachi’s literati have traditionally been known to be a small circle. This year’s Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) made it seem even smaller. Typically, I find myself excited about the very premise of the festival. However, this year, something was different. The excitement, the thrill, the aura that once encapsulated the event, no longer did. We’re all tired of the endless manels, the age-old events that sound like lectures and the old British-yet-Pakistani-literary accent that we can’t seem to get away from. What I did notice this year was a lack of millennial energy. I walked around the crowds, scanning the festival-goers, the ones hunched over books, the ones listening intently as panel discussions went on, the ones there solely for the food and I almost felt oddly out of place. Because if literature was making a comeback in the city – where were the youth?

As a literature major, my relationship with the subject has always been nuanced. I yearn for spaces to talk endlessly about books, dissect discourses and analyse verse and yet, this just wasn’t cutting it. It was nice to be back in the open air but it felt like enough thought had not gone into bringing new voices to the forefront. The festival is meant to be a celebration of literature. That celebration cannot be divisive or exclusionary – it needs to take into consideration things are changing constantly. A perspective of the youth is vital to growing both an audience and an awareness of the current situation.

The session that stood out most to me was Candid Narratives: Contemporary Pakistani English Fiction with Sarvat Hasin, Taha Kehar, Safinah Danish Elahi and Mira Sethi (moderated by Nadya Chishty-Mujahid). The conversation was engaging and interesting. It opened up new perspectives on writing. Each of the writers had a different view of dissecting the process of putting together prose. It felt like in Room 007 there was a different KLF altogether, one that valued new voices colliding, clashing and coming together. The words “when we speak about candour, we do need to recognise authenticity” started off the exciting session and created room for a lot of reflection. Kehar delved into the phenomenon of male writers writing about women and spoke about how he tends to gravitate more towards female characters. Elahi went on to speak about how there is a certain chaos in storytelling that reveals some kind of a process. She said she yearned to write ordinary stories that found a way to become special. Sethi said she had an inherent love for narratives. She said that was what drew her to storytelling. She seemed hopeful about the future of literature in Pakistan. This was her first event since her collection of short stories Are You Enjoying? was launched. Asked about her experience at the KLF, she responded, “I loved interrogating the purpose of English fiction here”. Hasin – who joined the panel over zoom – spoke about her latest novel and how the story had been in her head for seven years. “For the novel, you can’t see all of it at once, but with short stories – you can see snapshots of people’s lives.” Every form of writing has a unique, distinct process. She also highlighted her intimate connection with South Asian music, saying it connected her to the society.

Speaking about the divide between different generations of writers, Kehar said “the canon exists and we’re simply contributing to it”. I think the KLF has the power to be that bridge between two generations of writers – to find a way to hone the new talent and to show our deep appreciation for the older generation.

Another session that resonated with me was Higher Education: Creating Good Citizens, not just Good Students. The panelists were Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Tariq Banuri, Shahid Siddiqui and Arfana Mallah; the session was moderated by Fauzia Shamim. I was drawn to the session by my own history of teaching and the cracks I saw in the education system. Ali started off by speaking about how we need to produce citizens sharing a commonality of views. She said there was a lot of dissension and conflict. She said good citizens and good students were not an antitheses to each other. Dr Siddiqui delved into private good and public good. He said there was a strong emphasis on preparing students “for the market” instead of preparing them to be good citizens. He said this neo-liberal model of education had no room for morality. Dr Mallah said that good citizens and good students were essentially the same things.

Everyone on the panel raised some incredibly interesting and important points. I felt once again that a youth perspective was missing. While experience is valuable, we also need to consider how a new generation of thinkers, the students, can be a part of the conversation. Dr Banuri went for it as he spoke about how “knowledge is produced in a community and knowledge of justice can only be observed through empathy.” Unfortunately, he said, most of the time we find that empathy lacking. The panellists also went into strategy making. There was a consensus that there was a great need for universities to be autonomous. We’ve all seen the lack of good teachers, the lack of discipline and the problems with the education budget. There needs to be a clear strategy in place for progress.

Overall, I left the festival feeling underwhelmed. For the next year, I hope for unique spaces and fascinating conversations. I hope for the festival to change as we ourselves change. The world is no longer what it was a decade ago, so the conversations cannot remain the same.

The writer is a Karachi-based poet and educator. Her novella, Special, was published in 2012. Her work focuses on mental health, intersectionality and social justice. She tweets @maheenhumayun and shares bite-sized writing on Instagram @girloncobblestones.

Time to evolve conversations