Why is Pakistan alienated by the global literati?
Arundhati Roy once said:
“[…] Writing is an incredible act of individualism, producing your language, and yet to use it from the heart of a crowd as opposed to as an individual performance is a conflicting thing.”
Roy, like many other authors of Indian descent has won a multitude of literary prizes, including the esteemed Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Which is why when India wasn’t nominated this year, it came as a blow to the world. This consternation, in my opinion, represented something far deeper for Pakistan: the alienation we face from the global literati, a sentiment the writers from this side of the border have come to accept.
On the 25th of October, the Booker for 2016 was awarded to the USA’s Paul Beatty. And with the announcement of this year’s awarding ceremony, it’s saddening to note that India’s troubled neighbour has never won a single international prize for literature - let alone the Man Booker.
Perhaps it is a paucity of distinctiveness in the Pakistani voice, or maybe it’s the deficiency of branding that our contiguous counterpart finds in abundance, but Pakistani novelists never seem to strike any chords with the literary intelligentsia. The aforementioned quote is evidently accommodating for this thought; somewhere along the way, our writers lost their sense of individualism. This, coupled with Indian fictionists’ continual plenitude of literary laurels, begs the question: will we ever win an international literary award like the Booker?
At this rate, I think not.
Since its inception in 1969, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Booker-McConnell Prize) has been open to all Commonwealth, Irish and Zimbabwean citizens. In 2013, the prize extended its eligibility and began to include any English Language novel. And yet, in the length of this epoch, Pakistan has been shortlisted a mere two times. On the contrary, abutting writers are nominated more than frequently for their work - winning the accolade a triumphant three times. Additionally, Rushdie’s Midnight Children, along with its Booker Prize in 1981, won a special award dubbed the ‘Best of the Booker’ in commemoration of the ceremony’s 25th anniversary in 1993, and again in 2008 for its 40th anniversary.
With such approbation regularly associated with Indian novelists, one wonders what diminishes Pakistani literature from the same appraise. The default conjecture is to denigrate Pakistan for its weaknesses and provide false adulation towards India. In fact, owing to a number of factors, some would deem a comparison between the literary scenes of both the nations quite unfair. Such thinking is an amalgamation of the sheer indolence incidental to Pakistani literature as a whole. Why can a state, rich in history and liberated for the same length of time, not participate in an artistic event with the same rigour as its neighbour? The answer goes farther than the shortfall of a certain je ne sais quoi affluently reflected in our sub-continental peer - it is the deprivation of an indianness that burdens us.
The Collins and Oxford Dictionary cite indianness as the quality of being or feeling Indian physically or spiritually. Really, it goes beyond that. Indianness is the opulence in global representation provided to India as a mirroring image of a cultural individuality that is celebrated wholeheartedly, not just by Indian authors, but also by others (evidenced by Martel’s Life of Pi). Juxtaposed by this entirely lies an identity – one of radicalism and scrutiny – commonly correlated to our homeland. It’s not that we, by any means, have a scarcity of good writers in our nation - we have great writers; it is the self-destructive nature of their writing that poorly depicts our sui generis culture by limiting it to become esoteric in its functions. When we do write about our land, we write with an eye of a foreigner, one that does not seem to care about our patent or the bigger picture. This, I believe, is what separates us from the Indian branding painted through mystical creativity and ethos that gets nominated year after year; we have not established a particular trademark that autonomises us.
Pakistan is a labyrinth of an interwoven socio-political selfhood that spans across more than four regions of unique languages, miens and means of livelihood. A mere commentary on this distinct setup would suffice global acclaim in an ideal world. Alas, for a lack of an ideal world, we must urgently come to terms with the role of our words, spoken and written, in bringing the world closer to our bittersweet realities - not reported negatively by media outlets - about our lives, trials and celebrations by poets, writers, playwrights and artists.
Even after having resident wordsmiths such as Kamila Shamsie, Mohammad Hanif, Mohsin Hamid and HM Naqvi, it baffles me that our work has not been nominated before (with the notable exception of Hanif, of course). However, I am hopeful that after Hamid’s upcoming novel Exit West, slated to release in 2017, we may perhaps begin a journey toward literary distinction, and maybe even win the Booker.
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