The Bombay Review kick-started the “South Asian Literary Forum 2017” in Srinagar, Kashmir on May 26th. It held its Karachi edition in Araam Gah on July 3rd under the leadership of city head, Zuha Siddiqui – a recent Political Science graduate from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). The idea behind the Forum is to collect voices from six cities across South Asia through panels, workshops and open mic sessions on literature in: Combating Gender Inequality and Resistance on Political Speech.
The Forum, which is scheduled to take place in New Delhi, Colombo, Kathmandu and Dhaka over the summer, will be followed up with a themed issue of The Bombay Review which will reflect the aspirations of South Asian youth through the words of its writers. With the strength of the magazine’s readership, the voices and stories will reach people in 120 countries for the larger interest of public education. The magazine is committed to addressing issues from multiple perspectives, and encouraging free and liberal speech on themes that critically deign our socio-political fibre. Doing so in six cities is a commendable initiative on their part.
The Karachi Edition of the Forum was titled 'Resistance Literature: How do novels become acts of political resistance?' and the esteemed panelists included Omar Shahid Hamid (Author of The Party Worker and The Spinner's Tale) and Sabyn Javeri (Author of Nobody Killed Her).
The moderator initiated the discussion with the question “Should literature be political?” thereby acknowledging that there is an anxiety which surrounds literature being dragged into the dirt and grime of politics. Fiction, poetry and drama are works of the creative imagination that we consider too precious to be mired in politics. But perhaps our anxiety stems from our narrow use of the term "politics". We tend to think of politics exclusively in terms of partisan politics, electoral politics, political leadership and so on, but for Sabyn Javeri, “Politics is not something that happens in the parliament, it’s not just about the ballot box. It’s much more far-reaching.”
To better understand her statement, it is helpful to think of the art of government as “Big P” – the larger politics of the nation, which determines the price of bread or the availability of guns or the number and state of our schools and hospitals. How we lead our lives amidst the “Big P,” and how we make decisions of personal governance, all the while being a part of the larger politics is known as the “Small P”. We are all enmeshed in politics because we are all citizens of somewhere – even writers – and we cannot escape being shaped by political decisions, big and small.[i] To add to Javeri’s response on the same question, Omar Shahid stated, “Politics is all around us, especially in countries like ours. If you’re commenting on society, or events that are happening all over the world, inevitably you are talking about politics. Most writers take inspiration from their society and it is unavoidable in that sense.”
“Small P” to Javeri stands for the people to whom politics happens. “We live in a wounded democracy where the judiciary is not as independent as we’d like it to be. There is an overload of nationalism; there isn’t really freedom of speech. And when you live in a country where you see journalists being picked up, or similar countries where novelists have been jailed for creating characters who have commented on political events; to write a novel in these circumstances is an act of resistance, an act of trying to cross some boundaries.”
Speaking in awe about the central characters in Javeri’s novel, Omar Shahid expressed the view that women who rise to power despite living in a culture that forces women to the confinement of their homes is what “Small P” means to him.
Addressing the question of how different the reception to their novels would have been had they been published in Urdu, both writers agreed that they would have a larger domestic readership but not so globally. They also added that they chose the English language because it was what they knew and the language they thought they could get more creative with, rather than as a means of avoiding state censorship. While denying that Western publishers instructed Pakistani writers as to how they should represent their country in their work, Omar Shahid stated that most Pakistani writers get published in India – which has the second largest English language publishing industry after the US. There is great fascination for Pakistani stories across the border, and less pressure on writers to play to the Western gallery.
The discussion concluded with a comment from the audience that a writer is the product of their reality. Sabyn seemed to agree and added, “…characters are trying to fight oppression. There’s a scene in my novel where Nazo walks out the door and she’s made to feel bad about it. If men see women in public spaces, they either assume they’re sex workers or are destitute. They don’t accept that a middle class woman could be walking on the street. Those are the reflections of my reality that I have tried to put in my book.”
[i] Excerpt from Olive Senior’s 'Literature is political because we are political animals', published in The Guardian, Monday 29 April 2013
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