Friday 20 January 2023

Sabyn Javeri (ed.), "Ways of Being: Creative Non-Fiction by Pakistani Women"

About Ways of Being: Creative Non-Fiction by Pakistani Women, ed. Sabyn Javeri

Does writing have a nationality? Are writers defined by geography, language, religion, gender and ethnicity alone, or are there other attributes that identify them? Fifteen of the most articulate and creative non-fiction writers from Pakistan eloquently demonstrate that, as Sabyn Javeri says, "Who you are is more accurately represented by what you stand for, than by where you are from."

Large-scale migration and transnational mobility have rendered national borders porous, while the Internet has internationalised communication in a way that practically erases territorial boundaries. Questions about "being" and "belonging" acquire an urgency that demands articulation: how does a writer relate to her context, whether at "home" or "away," and locate herself and her writing in it? For the purposes of this anthology, Javeri believes that "A Pakistani writer is one who feels a connection to the land either by origin or by sensibility."

This rich and fascinating collection of reflections, reminiscences, musings—and excellent writing—features Taymiya R. Zaman, Hananah Zaheer, Feryal Ali Gauhar, Sadia Khatri, Saba Karim Khan, Soniah Kamal, Kamila Shamsie, Saybn Javeri, Rukhsana Ahmad, Humera Afridi, Muneeza Shamsie, Uzma Aslam Khan, Shahnaz Rouse, Noren Haq and Bina Shah. They are among the best creative non-fiction writers anywhere.

Below, you can read an excerpt from the Introduction to the anthology. 

About the editor

Sabyn Javeri is Senior Lecturer of Writing, Literature & Creative Writing at New York University, Abu Dhabi. She is the author of Hijabistan and Nobody Killed Her, and has edited two multilingual anthologies of student writing, The Arzu Anthology of Student Voices (Vols. I & II). Her writing has been widely anthologised and published in the London Magazine, Litro, Bookends Review, South Asian Review, Journal of Commonwealth Literature and Wasafiri, among others. She has an MSt from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. Her research interests include transcultural feminism, South Asian literature & literary translation, inclusive pedagogy and Creative Writing.

From Ways of Being

Encounters with Life: An Introduction

By Sabyn Javeri

When the idea of putting together an anthology of Pakistani women writer’s creative non-fiction was put to me by the feminist publisher, Ritu Menon, I hesitated. The first question that ran through my mind was, but who is a Pakistani writer? Who has the right to call herself a Pakistani writer? Someone who lives in the country, or someone who carries the country within her? Upon a quick search I found that I was not the only one deliberating this point. The question of who a Pakistani writer is has dominated many a discussion in recent debates on global anglophone literature—but it has raised more questions than answers.  

I found myself wondering who, in this age of mass displacement, when very few of us have the luxury to be rooted in one place, can claim to belong solely and wholly anywhere at all? To complicate matters, the rise of the Internet has shrunk traditional borders, making the question of identity even more fraught. Economic migration, religious persecution, emerging right-wing nationalism and populism, pandemics and lockdowns have forced many of us to reckon with a new plurality of identities, where the boundaries of nationality or a singular cultural identity are no longer relevant in the context of our dynamic times. It is, instead, a question of voice that matters. I found myself thinking: who you are is no longer a question of "where you are from"; rather, who you are is more accurately represented by "what you stand for." A Pakistani writer, therefore, for the purposes of this anthology, is one who feels a connection to the land either by origin or by sensibility.

Although the idea of separating writers by gender does not appeal to me, it is with some trepidation that I admit that there is a tradition of women’s writing in Pakistani anglophone literature that merits a place of its own. It provides the reader with a different point of view, a minority outlook, an underdog history, parallel yet complementary to the historical context and the socio-political journey of the country and its diaspora. Although it fits into the larger tradition of Pakistani women’s writing, it has some distinct features of its own. For one thing, English as a language is equivalent to currency in a country like Pakistan and those who make a choice to write in it, do so consciously. The legacies of British colonialism that manifest themselves linguistically 70 years after Partition mean that many of us grew up in households where English was the norm. For others it is an English medium education that leads to a natural inclination to write in the language they think in. Therefore, the choice and skill to write in English not only changes the readership, it bestows a slightly different lens to the reception. Many anglophone writers have been criticised for the fact that class privilege, global education and an international audience influence their themes, which seem to be more global than local. This criticism is often unfounded as it oversimplifies the subtle subtext of the writing. Writers should not be expected to be mouthpieces or representatives of their ethnicity. They should not be dictated to or prejudiced by expectations for they are artists, not activists, and accountable only for the authenticity of their work not the congeniality of their subject matter. 

In this anthology, the essays reflect the experience of the writers and what matters to them. They represent the diversity of the Pakistani woman’s experience, and they embrace any such differences of topic and language as celebratory rather than flawed. At times they may present a wider political view, and at other times a narrower perspective in the form of the local and the personal. The themes are varied, but what they have in common is that they shatter the stereotype of the submissive Pakistani woman and speak for a cross-section of society, across generations and from around the globe. Another characteristic is the ability of these writers to view the world bilingually. This adds a certain filament to Pakistani anglophone writing which makes it distinct from the vernacular, but still "accented" as opposed to standard English writing. This is because the writing leans towards a postcolonial turn, falling into the category of "other Englishes" as a form of artistic resistance. Many Pakistani anglophone writers do great justice in translating the local flavour and dismantling the exoticism or orientalism of the subcontinent in contemporary English literature. 

Although the anglophone tradition differs from that of Urdu or vernacular women writers in Pakistan, it does not mean that it fits wholly into the tradition of western women’s writing. The starting point for this has to be an acknowledgement that while women all over the world share many universal values and oppressions, not all women are the same. With apologies to George Orwell, "All women are born equal, but some women are more equal than others." Just as class plays a huge part in the experience of gender, so does race. This varies the experience of what it means to be Pakistani, especially as an immigrant. It diversifies their concerns, their self-perception and outlook. For the diasporic or second-generation Pakistani woman writer, who may find English the natural choice of language, the experience of being a minority still places her writing outside the mainstream. For the local writer, pressures of representation add to the dilemma of speaking up and finding one’s true voice. "Criticise your culture and you are pandering to the West, praise your country and you are pandering to the patriarchy…" as the wonderfully outspoken Fahmida Riaz said in an interview once. Like her, many Pakistani women writers find themselves in a situation where their individuality is negated for they inevitably become representatives of their "kind." And if they deviate from the dominant narrative they risk being accused of inauthenticity.  And so it is that the most damning difficulty they face is overcoming an implicit bias—sometimes on the part of critics and reviewers, other times in the form of self-censorship. These factors distinguish Pakistani women writing in English from their counterparts in other parts of the English-speaking world.

To a large degree, Pakistan’s short but complex socio-political history still plays a part in defining a woman writer's identity, her values, her subject matter, and most importantly, the reception of her work. Despite many women poets, journalist and writers, speaking up, we still experience a tradition of silencing. We have gruesome, politically motivated murders like that of Sabeen Mahmood who is credited, among many other wonderful legacies, with having revived the literary scene in Karachi through her initiative, The Second Floor. While social media have provided a forum for many women to speak out from the safety of their screens, they still encounter immense trolling, and we still have "honour-killing" victims like Qandeel Baloch who pay with their lives for publicly raising their voices. But we also have survivors like Malala Yousufzai who carry the beacon of hope for Pakistani women, fighting for female literacy and the right for women to tell their stories through the written word—who can forget that Malala’s writing journey began with a blog on BBC One cannot deny that technology has impacted Pakistani women writers. The outreach of their voices has expanded via easy access to the Internet in urban cities, and through it, a rising feminist consciousness is challenging gendered violence and patriarchal gender norms. Whether through the Aurat March or through social media activism such as the #MeToo and #GirlsattheDhaba movements, they are finding new ways to tell their stories ...

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