When I attended the first Islamabad Literature Festival a few days ago, I felt nostalgic. It reminded me of the autumn book fares and seminars we had in Oslo when I was a young editor with the Norwegian Universities Press. I wish we could have done as well as Oxford University Press did with its event in Islamabad.
Now the shamianas have come down, the display tables have been folded, and the moderators and authors have gone home, or maybe to a retreat in the hills of Murree to read and write more - and be away from the hustle and bustle of the general elections on Saturday.
But writers should not be aloof and above everyday issues. Good writers are in the middle of it all, giving voice and reflection to our everyday lives. That was what the Norwegian world famous poet and dramatist, Henrik Johan Ibsen, did; he was the father of the social realism a 134 years ago. He wrote about local Norwegian politics. Yet, the themes were timeless: women’s issues, poverty, corruption, environmental issues, morality, hypocrisy and more. Pakistani writers can do the same, and some of them already do, such as the journalist whose latest non-fiction book is entitled “Pakistan of the Brink”.
In this article, I shall present a few reflections and thoughts about literature in society, beginning from where the Islamabad Literature Festival ended with an English literature session called “Pakistan at the Crossroads”.
One of the panelists said: “We have always been at the crossroads in Pakistan; otherwise, we would feel unwell. After 65 years, we have not decided what to be.” And then, to add more wood to the fire, or salt to the wound, other panelists and participants gave further details of gloom and grief, influenced too by the slogans and discussions just before the general elections.
It is easy to paint negative pictures when writing about social and political issues. Journalists are best at doing that, since that is what the media thrives on. In our time, we are obsessed with ‘news’, with facts and figures, that fuel the activities of those who want attention, including the messengers themselves, the media men and women. Sometimes, all the quantitative data comes in the way so that we don’t see the reality.
We should focus less on gloom and more on glory in future. No, we should not hide the truth. We should seek more of it, but in different ways. We need to know how people live and manage to move on, especially in such a class-divided land as Pakistan, where it is likely that class and money will turn out to cause conflict and turmoil in future, not religious fundamentalism and extremism.
Fiction writers, novelists, poets, short story writers, dramatists and filmmakers have a huge responsibility. We need to encourage them to do more, have better work conditions and earn a living. It is the writers and the other artists, who will find our soul, to put it in solemn language, even more than scientists and politicians.
In our technologically sophisticated time, why can artists not make multimedia presentations, or at least a mixture of genres in the same printed books, films, audio books and so on? That way, there would be a better chance to reach more readers, viewers and listeners - indeed, the youth, who constitutes more than half of the country’s population.
Sometimes the writers are snobs, more so than journalists. They want to write about what they ‘feel’ they should write about. We all want to do what we think we should do, without being told by anybody. But some projects should also be utilitarian and writers can be a mouthpiece for people.
I propose a major, joint project of “Presenting Pakistan to the World”, with objectives and aims, plans and sub-projects, outcomes and results. It could be coordinated by the Ministries of Culture, Foreign Affairs, Tourism, the Academy of Letters and other bodies, with private sector and foreign embassy funding. The writers would be given tasks and slots and some headings for what to write about. Not all things have to be new or reinvented. Materials can also be translated into English from diaspora writers in other countries, including Norway where several young writers do well.
Incidentally, I read Mohsin Hamid’s book, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, which has now been made into a film, in Norwegian first. He is a great craftsman with his individual styles; his latest novel, which just came this year, is in another unique style. I believe he is a world class writer. And so may well Daniyal Mueenuddin become, although I personally find his style a bit old-fashioned. His book, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”, is in the social-realist tradition, revealing deep insights of the feudal Pakistan.
But style is not really the most important, as was evidenced by the writer and actor Zia Mohyeddin at the Islamabad Literature Festival last week. Young and old thronged to the packed room to listen to his elegant readings of stories that were sometimes quite politically incorrect and formalistic, in old, almost Victorian English and atmosphere. But we all enjoyed them tremendously because they were so human and well crafted, and so well read. Maybe, there is still room for the correctness and formality in a time when so much is informal and casual?
I would like to acknowledge the excellent work carried out at the Islamabad Literature Festival by the moderator of several sessions, the literary journalist and editor, Muneesa Shamsie. You could not wish for anyone better in the role. Besides, she must be a very happy mother now when her daughter Kamila Shamsie does so well, with five acclaimed books translated into over 20 languages, including her latest book, “Burnt Shadows”. Let this be a tribute to female writers.
A separate, follow up Children’s Literature is being planned. Children, parents, teachers and schools must always be involved. It is important that good habits and the pleasure of reading can and must be instilled in us when we are young. I also hope that publishing houses and bookshops can continue to play an even more active role in it, in the years to come.
When I worked in the university press in Norway a generation ago, we used to flatter ourselves by saying that bookshops and publishing houses were like ‘stock exchanges and cathedrals’. The stock exchange and money making part is for the few, not for most publishers, booksellers and writers. For them, it is more like being under the Alhambra or cathedral columns.
When the elections are over, I hope some of the great Pakistani writers can write books about our politicians, their relationship with the voters and more. And also stories about the politicians’ good work and dreams for a better Pakistan for all. May the elections be free, fair and peaceful.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.