The idea of Pakistan instantly conjures clichéd headlines and images: angry bearded men protesting, and questions about how Osama Bin Laden managed to hide in the country. Over the past decade, the discourse on Pakistan has been stuck in a time warp: a nuclear weapon-armed country on the perpetual brink of collapse.
It isn’t surprising then, that writing on Pakistan features the same. At bookstores in Washington, DC and elsewhere, ominously-titled books are a constant: Descent into Chaos, Deadly Embrace, and Eye of the Storm.
In his novel Shame, Salman Rushdie describes the country, newly formed in 1947 when India was split apart after the British withdrew and handed over power to the new India and Pakistan, as “moth-eaten.” Pakistan is, Rushdie writes, “a country so improbable that it could almost exist.”
While no one denies that the country is in a dire state, Pakistani fiction writers are working at making sense of Pakistan, with subtlety, nuance, and colorful tales far beyond the reach of the foreign correspondent.
As author and historian William Dalyrmple puts it, Pakistan has always needed explaining, “When (author) Nadeem Aslam first came to the Jaipur Literature Festival, he said that we need to write about Pakistan as if we are writing with a burning quill. I think that provides the energy that fuels the engine of Pakistani writing. Just like Latin America in crisis in the 1970s produced remarkable writing from authors like Marquez. In Pakistan today, the situation is so fragile, so complex, so much in need of understanding and explanation and clarity.”
A sense of this need for clarity came from the buzz surrounding journalist Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Set in the 1980s, the book provides a fictional account of General Zia-ul-Haq’s reign and his death in a plane crash. The crash was real, as was the iron grip that Zia held over the country. The wry story, with an Air Force officer as the protagonist, made one wonder if Hanif’s version of events was actually true. The author is routinely questioned at book readings if he has written a journalistic account of the events.
The release of A Case of Exploding Mangoes prompted many to wonder if Pakistan was the next hot spot for English-language fiction. But this was far from the first novel that originated from the country. In the 1960s, Zulfiqar Ghose wrote The Murder of Aziz Khan, a heart-wrenching tale of life and death in a village in Punjab. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bapsi Sidhwa wrote a series of novels chronicling stories of the Zoroastrian community in Pakistan, set against the backdrop of the division of the Indian subscontinent in 1947 or in the U.S in the 1970s. In 1997, Mohsin Hamid published Moth Smoke, based on the differences between the haves and have-nots of Lahore, and in 2007 The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a tale of a man who turns to religion. Kamila Shamsie developed a cult following for her poignant tales of characters from the elite Karachi.
Growing interest in fiction from Pakistan appears to have coincided with a tumultuous time in the country’s history: Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the resignation of General Pervez Musharraf after nine years of rule and a war against militants in the tribal regions of the country. A Case of Exploding Mangoes was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and was followed by a flurry of new books that made headlines worldwide.
In 2009, Daniyal Mueenuddin, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, published his collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Mueenuddin, a Yale Law graduate, is a farmer by profession. The short stories, set primarily in rural Punjab, provided a glimpse into life away from the big cities, on farmlands where landowners held sway, and sex was used as a means of influence.
But why is it important to read fiction from Pakistan to understand the country? While books will sell on their own merit, there is an urgent need to make sense of the country and the region as a whole. Foreign correspondents parachute in and out of the country, and are largely limited to the cities, but authors with varied and rich backgrounds have tried to portray life drawn from their own experiences.
However, the release of fiction books from Pakistan has often been termed as a remarkable event at a time when the country is grappling with militancy.
Aysha Raja, a bookseller and publicist based in Lahore, says that in the past few years, the foreign press has viewed fiction from Pakistan through a geopolitical lens. “In addition to being a fallacy it has hurt fiction writing in Pakistan by suggesting the ‘geopolitical context’ as a tantalizing device. There is some evidence to suggest that readers, at least in Pakistan, are becoming increasingly weary of this theme.”
“There are many difficulties to being a writer in Pakistan, but it is also a gift. It provides exciting stuff to writers which more comfortable Western Europeans, and to a certain extent, comfortable Indians don’t have. And there isn’t that great fiction coming out of India at the moment,” says Dalrymple, adding that while India has been producing great non-fiction work, the Pakistani novelist is well ahead of its Indian counterpart at the moment.
But there may be some truth to the cliché that fiction is being produced in a country with near-daily terrorist attacks. “I have now become so hardened that I just need a desk to be able to write, so surroundings no longer matter. But it matters that these surroundings be somewhat peaceful: that is why I have moved from Karachi to Lahore,” says Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Farooqi published his first novel The Story of a Widow, after the success of his translations of two epic tales: The Adventures of Amir Hamza and Hoshruba. He has just published a children’s book, Tik Tik, The Master of Time. His latest novel Between Clay and Dust is a tale of wrestlers and courtesans set in Lahore, once a prominent city in the Mughal empire that is considered the cultural capital of Pakistan. Farooqi’s characters are not exotic; he painstakingly presents them as ordinary people just trying to do the right thing, with base emotions: pride, anger, empathy. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize in January this year. Farooqi says the shortlisting has spurred interest in the book from American publishers He is currently working on two books. “One is about the Anti-Christ launching himself in Karachi (my estimation of Pakistan’s political situation can be read here). The other one is about a group of book lovers spread across the globe who join forces to revive a beloved institution.”
In 2011, Jamil Ahmad, a retired government official, released his debut novel The Wandering Falcon, which he actually wrote when he was serving in the 1970s but was released when he was over the age of 70. Ahmad’s book chronicles life away from the urban centers – in the mountains of Waziristan and the deserts of Balochistan — with stories of people that one can’t access in the mainstream press.
In the last month, both Karachi and Lahore have played host to literature festivals, with authors attending from the U.S., England and India. New novels, Pakistani-born author Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden and Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia are being released this year. A film adaptation of Hamid’s bestselling book The Reluctant Fundamentalist, helmed by Amelia director Mira Nair, is set to premiere in 2013. The New York Review Books has also just published a translation of Basti, Urdu writer Intizar Husain’s novel on the partition of the Indian subcontinent. With these releases, one hopes that more aspiring writers will emerge and open up a dialogue without the shadow of Pakistani politics or terrorism hanging over it.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
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The writing of good fiction requires, among many elusive talents, empathy and imagination. Put another way, the fiction writer must be like a trained actor, inhabiting the minds, emotions, and bodies of people whose essential makeup and experiences are quite different from his own. Write what you know has its limits, and many of us write to discover what we know, or to experience something of what we don’t know. Not to mention the fact that those empathic and imaginative muscles can get flabby; when we stretch them and work them, we stretch and work our whole intelligence.
Lately my reading life has delivered up some interesting examples of empathic leaps; specifically, of writers who dare to leap the imaginative chasm of gender. Are they successful? How does one measure?
Annie Proulx comes to mind immediately. More often than not, her main characters are male. And not just that, her fictional worlds – like the brutal Wyoming plains in her collection Close Range – are distinctly male worlds, where words are few and primal energies prevail. The Wyoming stories are gritty and violent; their central dramatic features include castration, rape, attic-torture, drunkenness, rodeo gore, murder by tire iron. The one “female” story – that is, where the narrator is a woman – ends in a shootout (another woman character shooting her philandering boyfriend and — possibly, we’re not sure — herself). One measure of these stories’ success, you could argue, is that the author’s identity, gender and otherwise, recedes as the characters and the place envelop us.
And yet: I’ll never forget reading “Brokeback Mountain” in the New Yorker back in 1997 (eight years before Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist were immortalized on screen by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall). The reading experience was breathtaking; I thought, my God, Did I really just read a gay cowboy story, rough sex and all? Who can forget:
Ennis ran full throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours, and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked, “Gun’s goin off,” then out, down, and asleep […] They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight, with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.”
At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking. Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman? Or perhaps less? It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption:
The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie. He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls. The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx. The “E” somehow stuck. (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.) The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie.
In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman. Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)? Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier?
Do we ever really “forget” the author? Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works? Do we necessarily want her to?
There is the best-known example of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, the foremother of all women who’ve taken pen names in order to advance as an author. With her first fiction publication in 1858, Scenes of Clerical Life, she recorded in her journal speculations and letters she received regarding the secret (gender) identity of the author:
Jan 2 – “Mrs Nutt said to [George Henry Lewes] ‘I think you don’t know our curate. He says the author of Clerical Scenes is a High Churchman.”
Jan 17, letter from J.A Froude – “I can only thank you most sincerely for the delight which [your book] has given me, and both I myself and my wife trust that the acquaintance which we seem to have made with you through your writings may improve into something more tangible. I do not know whether I am addressing a young man or an old, a clergyman or a layman.”
Feb 16 – “[Mr. John Blackwood] told us Thackeray spoke highly of the ‘Scenes’ and said they were not written by a woman. Mrs. Blackwood is sure they are not written by a woman.”
Only a fellow writer by the name of Charles Dickens suspected:
“In addressing these few words of thankfulness […] I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume […] but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.”
With the publication, and popularity, of Adam Bede, published in 1859, Mary Ann Evans (Lewes) did finally step forward as the woman behind George Eliot.
What about Jean Rhys’s Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea? He is a decidedly revised Rochester, less victim than Charlotte Bronte’s – proud, racist, ultimately vicious; misdirecting his emasculation rage (meant for his father) at Antoinette, Rhys’s woman in the attic. Is there a sense in which Rhys is always there, behind and inside Rochester? Look how a man can drive a woman to insanity, can destroy her life. Look at what goes through his mind, how he does it, let me show you. Rochester’s point-of-view – the majority of the book – is in this sense on some level Antoinette’s point-of-view; Woman’s point-of-view.
A random short list (from my bookshelf) of other notable females-writing-males:
Joan Silber, half the stories in Ideas of Heaven
Ann Patchett, Run
Susan Choi, A Person of Interest
Jennifer Egan, The Keep, stories in A Visit from the Good Squad
Flannery O’Connor, the majority of her work
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, a number of stories
Rachel Kushner, sections of Telex From Cuba
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Mavis Gallant, the Steve Burnet stories
On the converse side of literary gender-crossing, there are a few exemplary stories by male writers I’d like to mention briefly.
In “Family Happiness,” a story about rising and falling romance from the point of view of a young woman who marries an older man, Tolstoy gets the female first-person narrator so right and so true – thought, feeling, and action – there is no doubt in my mind that his disappearance from the reader’s consciousness is the goal, poignantly achieved. (One wonders if Anna Karenina might have been written in the first person, to equal or greater effect!)
Daniel Mueenuddin’s linked collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, features two heartbreaking stories of the Pakistani servant class – “Saleema,” along with the title story – both told from the third-person point of view of women. The protagonists Saleema and Husna are at the mercy of male power, which, in this context, is the same as societal power; both meet tragic ends. What’s interesting to me about having knowledge of the author’s male gender in this case is that, while I wouldn’t cite anything particularly “male” in the telling, there is something in the fact of the male telling that dignifies the women in an important way. The stories are told truthfully, unhysterically; this is how it is, the (male) author posits. There is no guilt, no “message,” just the telling. I somehow have the urge to thank him.
Finally, a most interesting example: Colm Toibin’s “Silence,” from his new collection The Empty Family. The heroine is a fictionalized (though researched) Lady Gregory, an Irish dramatist – married to Sir William Henry Gregory, a former governor of Ceylon and 35 years her senior – who came into her own as a writer when she became widowed. Toibin portrays Lady Gregory as a good aristocratic wife – “She had made sure that she was silent without seeming shy, polite and reserved without seeming intimidated” – yet also sharply observant, quietly ambitious, more concerned with Beauty as a form than its earthly incarnations. In the story (and in real life), she has an affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and is more stimulated by the idea of the affair than the passion itself. This intellectualized intensity results in the writing of a series of love sonnets, which she convinces Blunt to publish under his own name (this is also true to life). At the story’s end, she dines with Henry James and passes on an altered version of her affair as fodder for the great writer’s fiction.
How true to the real Lady Gregory Toibin’s characterization is, I don’t know, but I loved the way in which Toibin, the male writer, endowed the female character of a certain era with “inappropriately” male drives and talents, both confining and liberating her as a woman and artist. In other words, I felt a simultaneous intimacy with the male “frame” and with female intellectual desire within that frame, as observed/admired by a male writer. The layering is distinct from, say, Lizzie Bennett in Jane Austen’s world, where the world is itself seen through a female author’s gaze.
In literary gender-crossings, do we ever really forget the author? Do we necessarily want to? Predictably: yes, and no.
(Image: Male/Female – Jonathan Borofsky from _o_de_andrade_’s photostream)
Because I must read for my work, there are always two book lists winding their way through my life. There are the books that I must read for my job –not that I am complaining, for the most part I love these titles, and anyway, who wouldn’t want to be paid to read? – but then there are also the books that I read for myself.
Very often the books that I read for myself are last year’s books – or older – that I never got around to reading at the time of their release but now cannot bear to leave behind. So I sneak them in on weekends and evenings and during long subway rides.
Among 2010 titles, there were so many winners on my list that it’s hard to pick favorites. But on the nonfiction side perhaps The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier, and The Chocolate Wars, by Deborah Cadbury did the best job of either surprising, teaching, and/or impressing me – all for completely different reasons.
Among fiction titles, I especially enjoyed the cleverness of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein, the enchantment of Ruby’s Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni, and the lovely precision of Tinkers by Paul Harding.
The books that I read for myself this year were mostly fiction. My only real criterion for picking them was that I thought I would like them. For the most part I was right, but there was one particularly good streak when I read three books in a row that turned out to be three of my absolute favorites. These were In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, American Rust by Philipp Meyer, and The City and the City by China Mieville. Maybe someone will see a pattern here but I do not. It seems to me that each one appealed to a completely different side of my being for a reason uniquely its own.
Then there were two more titles that I must add. They were not part of that magic streak, but they belong on this list. One is the linked short story collection Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum which I think I will have to add my list of all-time favorites. Something about it – so simple yet so evocative – appealed to me enormously.
And then there was The Appointment by Herta Muller. I picked it up simply because she won the Nobel Prize and yet I knew so little about her. The edition that I found had her Nobel lecture appended to the end and I’m so glad that it did. I think that Muller’s description of the handkerchief drawer in her childhood home, with her father’s, her mother’s, and her tiny child’s handkerchiefs all lined up in separate compartments in the same drawer – the drawer from which her mother pulled a handkerchief to bring with her the day she was taken away and interrogated – will stay with me forever.
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This year’s Pulitzer winner for fiction has gone to a book from Bellevue Literary Press, an “unlikely” operation that runs out of Bellevue, the famous New York psych hospital (the New York Times wrote up the press in 2007). Rounding out the fiction finalists is an effort from another small press, the venerable Soft Skull, and a much praised short story collection .Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with excerpts where available:FictionWinner: Tinkers by Paul Harding – (excerpt)Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet (Lydia Millet participates in our Year in Reading)In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (a Year in Reading selection)General Nonfiction:Winner: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David Hoffman (excerpt)How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities by John CassidyThe Evolution of God by Robert Wright (excerpt)History:Winner: Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed (excerpt)Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin – (excerpt)Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 by Gordon S. Wood (excerpt)Biography:Winner: The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles (excerpt)Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey (excerpt)Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper, Jr. – excerptWinners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (a most anticipated book)
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (my review, Millions Top Ten book)
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon (a most anticipated book, The Millions Interview with Dan Chaon, Best of the Millennium Longlister)
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (a most anticipated book, The Kakutani Two-Step)
Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson (Jean Thompson on Edward P. Jones)
Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill (Best of the Millennium Longlister)
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (Wells Tower’s Year in Reading, a most anticipated book, my review, Best of the Millennium Longlister, Millions Top Ten book)
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (a most anticipated book, Edan’s review)
Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers (a most anticipated book)
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (Manil Suri’s Year in Reading selection, National Book Award Finalist)
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips (National Book Award Finalist)
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (a most anticipated book, my review, National Book Award Winner)
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Booker Shortlister)
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Lion, The Witch and Ishiguro)
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead (a most anticipated book)
The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips (Anne’s review, Arthur Phillips’ Year in Reading, Arthur Phillips on Kelly Link)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Booker Prize Winner)
Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (a most anticipated book)