A review of Pakistani Women Writers
"Words for me are just balm - they soothe me when the anguish is too deep," mused Lahore-based writer Feryal Ali Gauhar. "In an increasingly insecure world, a woman speaks of conflicts generated, engendered and perpetrated by men." Gauhar studied Political Economy at McGill University, trained in documentary film production in Europe and teaches film at Lahore's National College of Art. Her first novel 'The Scent of Wet Earth in August' was published by Penguin-India in 2002 and she has recently completed a second novel 'No Place for Further Burials', which focuses on the American presence in Afghanistan.
Gauhar was one of four women writers speaking in the basement Lecture Room of New Delhi's India International Centre on September 22. The occasion was the release of 'And the World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women', a collection of short stories by 24 Pakistani women writers, published by Women Unlimited. The other three writers present were Muneeza Shamsie (the editor of the volume), Humera Afridi and Sabyn Javeri-Jilani. While Shamsie and Gauhar live in Pakistan, Afridi is presently based in New York and Sabyn in London. In fact, of the 24 short story writers in the anthology, half live in Pakistan while the other half are based in the West.
Gauhar was particularly eloquent about being in India: "I traversed the narrow alleys of Chandni Chowk as a child. I remember the family packing a few belongings and travelling by train to Amritsar, from there to Bharuch, then a tonga and a bullock-cart...I'm still travelling. Coming here is very difficult, because it is like being home and yet not being home."
Afridi traced her urge to write to the state of virtual exile she has been in since childhood: "My family left Pakistan and I grew up in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). I don't know whether I would have become a writer if I hadn't been torn from Pakistan. I began writing poetry when I was 16 and, ever since, writing has become a sort of home. The UAE was a hostile and alien environment, where my identity was always being questioned. The desire to compensate for my dubious identity became an impetus for my writing."
Afridi went to America to study English at Mount Holyoke and Carnegie Mellon universities, and is presently completing her Masters in Creative Writing from New York University. She has taught English in Jeddah, Dubai, Dallas and New York City. Having lived in six places during the past 10 years, she feels her writing "is neither here nor there. Moving so much, I have taught myself to appropriate cities. The novel I'm writing is situated in six places. Moving can, finally, be liberating..."
Sabyn Javeri-Jillani was born and studied in Karachi. She moved to England five years ago and writes for Pakistani and British publications on culture and entertainment. "In South Asia, we come from such rich traditions of storytelling. All of us have many stories within us," adding, "Karachi remains central to my work. I find that physical distance enables you to reach out to those nooks and corners of your mind and unravel memories. My writing explores the question of being suspended between different cultures. I write about home, but is home the place where you have your roots or the place where you take wings and fly?"
Muneeza Shamsie was born in Lahore, educated in England and lives in Karachi. She noted that the theme of 'quest' runs like a thread through all 24 stories in the collection. She recalled that as a student in England, "I couldn't find a context for myself in geography, history, science or literature. South Asian writing attracted me because it challenged the Empire." Having edited two anthologies of Pakistani English writing - 'A Dragonfly in the Sun' (OUP, 1997) and 'Leaving Home' (OUP, 2001) - Shamsie feels that Pakistani women writers are at the "extreme edges" of both English and Pakistani literature.
While Shamsie is 'regrettably' monolingual, Gauhar speaks and writes in Urdu, Punjabi and English. She writes a column on political economy in the newspaper 'Dawn', but much of her creative writing is in indigenous tongues. "I wrote 'The Scent of Wet Earth' in Urdu and Punjabi, and later translated it into English," she reveals. "Instinctively, I find it contrived to write in a language so distanced and not even adequate to convey the emotional landscapes of a people. How can I write of the degrees of sadness mingled with joy in the month of saavan (monsoon) in the English language...?"
Gauhar believes that the process, and not the product, is important for her. "The process of writing keeps me sane." Gauhar described three years spent making a film on four colorful characters in Shahi Mohalla (literally 'royal neighborhood', as Lahore's red light area is euphemistically called). She felt privileged to have met and got to know such people. She notes that traditions like 'dastaangoz' (literally, storytelling) are to be found in regional languages, but not in English - "globalization has destroyed a lot". When asked whether she would like to write a novel in half-English and half-Urdu, Gauhar quipped, "Yes, par aap publish karenge?"(Yes, but will you publish it?)
All four writers reflected on their state of being 'hybrid', as South Asians who write in English. Afridi noted that she writes for a multi-ethnic Diaspora, as much as for herself. Gauhar acknowledged there are pressures on the writer today. Her novel 'No Place for Further Burials' features deaths of Afghans and Americans in Afghanistan and was considered too sensitive for publication in America, because the American public has been deliberately misinformed about the number of American militiamen killed in Afghanistan. It is a test of integrity whether a writer succumbs to such pressure or remains true to the essence she wants to share. Gauhar noted, "For me, any death is a death too many, whatever the color of the corpse." Afridi wryly noted that you don't usually earn from writing fiction, so it can sometimes be difficult to justify such writing to one's own self!
On a question on women's writing specifically, Gauhar remarked, "Writing may be the only avenue of expression for many women. Men may whistle, saunter around and behave badly. In Pakistani society, we women do not whistle, wink or make salubrious noises. Women who were courtesans discussed sexuality over the centuries, and strung words together to compose songs. But those who composed at home were not recognized. It is the positioning of women - performing is out of bounds for us, as it was for middle-class Indian women a hundred years ago. You cannot sing and dance without being noticed, but you can write quietly."
The evening succeeded in bringing about a deepened understanding and awareness of the concerns of contemporary Pakistani women writers. Indian writers share many of these concerns. Clearly, direct cultural and literary exchange across our borders is an idea whose time has come.