Interviews

Past, Present, and Future of Pakistani-English Literature-Muneeza Shamsie Speaks to The Prelude

Muneeza Shamsie is a prestigious writer, an Eminent critic, bibliographer, literary journalist and a reputed editor in terms of Pakistani-English Literature. She belongs to a great lineage of activists, authors and academics tracing its roots  from colonial India to modern 21st century Pakistan.Her mother, Jahanara Habibullah (1915-2003) was author of a memoir, first published as an English translation and later, in the original Urdu as Zindagi ki Yadein: Riyasat Rampur ka Nawabi Her aunt was noted feminist and writer Attia Hosain (1913-1998) and Shamsie’s grandmother in Lucknow, feminist and activist Begum Inam Fatima Habibullah was the author of a travelogue Tassiraat-e-Safar-Europe about her journey to Britain in 1924.

This tradition continues to the till date reaching to it’s heights with emergence of Kamila Shamsie as one of the world leading authors and globally recognized faces. Muneeza Shamsie’s Hybrid Tapestries:The Development of Pakistani Literature in English is considered the most important work dealing with emergence and evolution of Pakistani-English Literature. She is a regular contributor to the prestigious newspapers including Dawn, Herald and contributes as a Bibliographical Representative of The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. The Prelude finds an opportunity to speak to Muneeza Shamsie to have a better understanding of contemporary Pakistani English Literature by having a critical look upon it’s evolution and development.

Q: How do you look upon this journey of generations which started from the writings of Attia Hosain and reached to it’s heights with global recognition of Kamila Shamsie’s works?

I find this very difficult to answer because I tend to look at Kamila’s work as a mother, rather than a critic.  That is why in my book Hybrid Tapestries I asked someone else to write the section on Kamila.  Having said that I did write a nepotistic memoir-cum-critical essay on “Sunlight and Salt: The literary landscapes of a divided family” in which I wrote of the division of my family into three – between India, Pakistan and Britain at Independence and looked at the links and differences between the Partition novels Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) and Salt and Saffron (2000)by Attia Hosain, my aunt, and Kamila Shamsie my daughter. 

In a broader context, I think their respective careers reflects the trajectory of South Asian English literature.  Attia Hosain (1913-1998) grew up in Lucknow and started to write English fiction in undivided India at a time when there were only a handful of Anglophone fiction writers in the sub-continent, such as RK Narayan, Raja Rao, Ahmed Ali and Mulk Raj Anand.  She had to address many stylistic and linguistic issues to convey the true experience of her culture, gender and language in English. As such, her fiction made an important contribution to South Asian English writing and diaspora writing: she moved to Britain with her family in 1946.  She went on to publish two works of fiction, a story collection, Phoenix Fled and a novel Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961). Both books were well received, but did not reach a wide Anglophone readership, because at this point of time, the concept of ‘English literature’ was confined to traditional Anglo-American norm.

However the 1960’s also saw a new more inclusive literary discourse that asserted that Anglophone literature from the Commonwealth and one-time colonised countries was equal to any. Then of course you get the influences of the feminist movement, the civil rights movement in America and the voices of increasingly assertive migrant communities in the west, so that by late 1970’s and the 1980’s, the writings of South Asian writers, start reaching out to a much wider global audience.  This included new post-independence writers living in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as the diaspora.

As a result, a new editions  of Attia Hosain’s two books were published by the Virago Press in 1988 with an introduction by Anita Desai. The continuing interest in Attia Hosain’s work led to a selection of her published and unpublished writings in The Distant Traveller (2013) to mark her centenaryand  now the 2021 Virago editions of  Phoenix Fled and Sunlight on a Broken Column haveintroductions by Kamila Shamsie.

 Kamila’s career was very different of course. She was born and brought up in Karachi. She has often said that she grew up with a mother who was  constantly typing away (as a freelance journalist and literary critic) and gave her free access to contemporary novels on her bookshelf. During family trips to London, she would meet Attia Hosain who showed great interest in the fact that Kamila had decided at a very young age that she wanted to be a writer though Attia Hosain did not live long enough too see Kamila’s first book published. Kamila studied creative writing in America and her MFA thesis became her first novel In the City by the Sea (1998).

Meanwhile  Pakistani English fiction had started to draw increasing international attention since the 1980’s. This included the novels of  Hanif Kureishi, Bapsi Sidhwa, Adam Zameenzad, Nadeem Aslam, the creative memoirs of Sara Suleri and the short fiction of Aamer Hussein. Kamila added to this, as a significant new young voice.  She was soon joined, at the turn of the millennium, by a dynamic group of young talented, award winning contemporaries, including Mohsin Hamid and Uzma Aslam Khan who, together with Kamila, would take the Pakistani English fiction to newer broader horizons, as would the growing number of writers who continued to emerge in rapid succession, amid great critical acclaim, ranging from the novelists Mohammed Hanif, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and H.M. Naqvi to the short story writer, Daniyal Mueenuddin. 

In all this, Kamila continued to develop as a novelist, expand her literary horizons and address a wide range of different issues in each of her seven novels: her eighth Best of Friends comes out in 2022.  Her novels have been translated into many languages too.

Q:You are considered an authority on Pakistani-English literature and your contributions in promoting Pakistani-Anglophone literature are more than any one. How would you look upon current scenario of Pakistani-English Literature especially in field of novel?

Well it seems to be going from strength to strength, as mentioned above. Added to that the growing number of award-winning Pakistani  English writers is not only confined to the fiction writers I have mentioned, it also includes dramatists such as Hanif Kureishi, Rukhsana Ahmad and Ayad Akhtar and poets ranging from Moniza Alvi and Imtiaz Dharker to Zaffar. Kunial and Shadab Zeest Hashmi.

Added to that, due to the facility of travel, the internet and global trajectories, the sharp dividing lines between the diaspora and resident Pakistani English writers have blurred which in turn gives Pakistani English literature a much broader scope: it is no longer the literature of an elite confined to the sub-continent but includes writing by migrants in the Anglophone diaspora from many different walks of life, As such, regardless of class, gender, or location, this body of work gives voice to experiences traditionally marginalized in the Anglo-American literature of earlier time.

File Photo:Attia Hossain, Feminist Activsit and Novelist.

Q:Pakistani-English novel has received global recognition and acclaim and we have produced writers like Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie. However, Pakistani-English poetry couldn’t receive such acceptance and recognition despite being a place which has produced great poets in Urdu and other languages. How would you comment on this disparity?

Generally speaking I think Anglophone fiction is more widely read than poetry anyway … and Urdu poetry has the great advantage of having a strong oral tradition, so that it reaches millions in the way that English poetry does not (if you recall there was quite a lot of debate on whether Bob Dylan should have received the Nobel prize for literature).

 Having said that, contemporary Pakistani English poetry did develop much before fiction—and a lot of people attributed to the place that poetry occupies in our culture. This was in the 1960’s and early 1970’s when Taufiq Rafat, Kaleem Omar, Adrian Hussein, Maki Kureishi and Salman Tariq Kureishi and others were forging a new voice in Pakistani English literature. But at this time the whole issue of creative writing in English was mired in a nationalistic debate as many people felt it was no longer ‘relevant” since English was a colonial language and the colonials had left.

Of course much has changed since. In recent years, the Patras Bokhari Award has been awarded to Pakistan-resident poets such as Athar Tahir and Ejaz Rahim. Added to that, the former’s award winning collection The Last Tea is written entirely in haiku. Tahir is among a group of contemporary Pakistani English poets exploring and employing different poetic forms within a contemporary context.  There is a collection of sonnets by the Pakistan-based Adrian Hussein and the US-based Anis Shivani respectively while another US-based poet, Shadab Zeest Hashmi, who frequents Pakistan, writes ghazals and qasidas in English.  So there actually a lot going on  There are also collections about Partition by Waqas Khwaja and Moniza Alvi. 

Added to that Alvi and Imtiaz Dharker, both Lahore-born, ex-patriat poets are now major figures in mainstream British poetry; Dharker is the only poet of South Asian origin to have won the prestigious Queen’s Medal for poetry in Britain.

I think the limited public response to Pakistani English poetry could be rectified if more publishers were willing to publish and promote Pakistani English poetry  they don’t because there are not enough readers, so its a vicious circle.  Added to that, I don’t think this work is particularly well known in schools and colleges, as it should be.

Q: Pakistani-English literature is considered a sub-division of Postcolonial Literature. Do you really feel that contemporary Pakistani-English literature that has crossed the national boundaries and barriers of identity, really represent purely indigenous aesthetics?

Well I think there is a difference between literature and propaganda and I am not sure what the term ‘indigenous aesthetics’ implies or who defines such a category.

 It seems to me that this is simply taking the critical narrative back to the whole issue of ‘a Pakistani idiom’ which was very popular in the 1960’s.  At that point in time, the discussions on ‘idiom’ encouraged Pakistani English poets to express the experience of their homeland, instead of trying to emulate nineteenth century British writers.  But the problem was that this discourse on idiom excluded Pakistani writers who wrote of experiences other than the ‘ethnic’ and so we ended up marginalizing Zulfikar Ghose – not to mention Pakistan-resident writers whose work had a broader dimension.

In later years, of course, even Rafat, who had been a leading figure in the discourse on ‘idiom’ said that yes, it did have its limitations.

  So everything has its time and place.  I don’t think literature can be reduced to classifications such as ‘indigenous aesthetics’ or indeed on ‘crossing barriers of identity and nationality which seems a rather uncertain phrase to me a best of times.

File Photo: Muneeza Shamsie with her daughter and novelist Kamila Shamsie.

Q: Pakistani-English literature is now very much present in academia and the public domain. How do you look upon future prospects of Pakistani-English literature?

I think it will go from strength to strength and continue to diversify into different literary genres—and also reach a wider public in Pakistan through translations into Urdu and other local languages.

About the author/interviewer

File Photo: Aurangzeb Wattoo is a Poet, Columnist, Literary Critic, and Editor-in-chief of The Prelude.
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