Who do we write for when we write in English?

For journalists, the question of audience is straightforward and answered everyday. But what of poets and writers?

Bilal Tanweer April 07, 2011
So what is the second most oft-asked question of a Pakistani writer writing in English?

Of course, the first most oft-asked one — ‘Why do you write in English?’ — is less of a question and more an insinuation, really meaning: ‘Why do you write at all?’ In its more severe (read: honest) manifestations it’s more like: ‘Why don’t you have a real job?’ and ‘Why are you this way?’

But that as it might be, the second-most-oft-asked question is — ‘Who do you write for if you write in English about Pakistan?’, and it haunts local writers writing in English. (All right, fine, there are many other questions that haunt and harass them, along with mangoes and chutneys, and but let’s just say there’s this one and then there are others.) To be sure, it’s a perfectly valid and nice thing to ask, but if you’re the writer in this situation, there isn’t an answer out there that is not terribly muddled. Curiously enough, this question of audience is not asked of journalists and media men working with English — at least not with such ferocity (or rabidity).

This is with good reason, actually. For journalists, the question of audience is straightforward and answered day after day by people who pay to read them. But if one is writing literary language, and if that happens to be English, then the local market is negligible. The literary writer cannot escape the uneasy self-consciousness that they are mainly speaking to the Western audience (i.e. market), which in turn is paying him to write. The answer to the question, ‘Why not so much great writing in Urdu,’ also lies somewhere precisely there.

So for whom did Taufiq Rafat, arguably the best poet in English from Pakistan, write when he wrote poetry in the staid English temperament that is likened by various critics to Auden and Wallace Stevens? Here’s a poem for you to consider, and decide for yourself:

Bird or Hovercraft, your angling skill

proclaims the confidence

of repeated success; you flash

rainbows as you plunge to kill.


The luckless minnows in their drifting know

only when the beak is home.

No sound or shadow warns that death

is poised and pointing below.


But what about tomorrow? Will they hiss

and boo from the sidelines

as you find, pause, fold and dip towards

the horror of your first miss?


I’ll learn to love you then, for lost

causes link all temperaments.

What drains my speech of sap will blunt

your keen iridescent thrust.

The phrases ‘angling skill’, ‘flash rainbows as you plunge to kill’ capture what is to be admired most in Taufiq Rafat’s poetry: his gift for precise and startling detail. In the hands of a lesser poet, this would be a long-drawn scene, and hardly so evocative. The poem is visual and unselfconscious in its account up until the third stanza, but then a shift occurs: ‘But what about tomorrow’ — and here, we sense the presence of a narrator. He recoils from admiring the kingfisher’s elegance and efficient killing and reaches out to its possible failures in the future. That’s what allows people to empathise and love — sharing weaknesses not strengths. That’s where we meet as humans, he believes.

Published in The Express Tribune.