Fiction from the subcontinent cannot be insulated from cultural and political influences. On the contrary, it is difficult to find a literary work which is not inspired by the history and politics of the region.
Novelists who have capitalised on this trend inevitably find themselves in the global spotlight. Jhumpa Lahiri, Mohsin Hamid, Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohammad Hanif and many more have managed to carve a niche for themselves on the strength of their work.
Be it a heart-rending portrayal of partition or a sceptic’s view of the political climate, such fiction has set the literary scene on fire. However, there are a series of challenges associated with producing novels which have a finger on the pulse of the region’s past and present.
A writer’s perception of the publishing process is based on compromising their work at the altar of marketing tactics. These standards are not fixed and predominantly change to suit the needs of readers. As a result, the selling points of these have been adjusted. For most publishers, the marketability of the novel lies with its political and cultural context. This adds to its popular appeal and ultimately boosts sales.
However, some novelists have interpreted this in a different light. They have focused on taking a moral stance on politics rather than documenting its impact on people.
More often than not, the pace of the narrative takes a back seat to accommodate these tactics. As a consequence, the reader is drawn into a narrative crammed with boring history lessons and frequent diatribes on the state of politics and culture. While it isn’t wrong to weave political or historical themes into a novel, the art of storytelling should not be forgotten. On the contrary, such perspectives should be incorporated into a narrative without interrupting its flow. This trend is common among even the best novelists in the region.
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things has reflected the harsh reality of caste politics into the lives of her character. Moreover, Kamila Shamsie’s depiction of life in Karachi in her novels is not isolated from the story.
And yet, these works of exceptional genius have also fallen prey to brief spells of moralising. At a time when fiction from the region is lauded for its contribution to global literature, publishers should encourage writers to tell a story rather than use their work as an excuse to give a sermon. The excessive use of novels as a platform to vent, preach or vilify undermines the value of fiction.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2015.