Of perceptions and receptions
By Sana Hussain
It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.” –- Anais Nin
The relationship between art and perception is symbiotic; art changes an individual’s perception, and individual perception often changes how art is viewed. The nuances of this change are important.
A literature such as ours, which is slowly maturing and coming into its own, is often hauled over the coals for being elitist, or unrepresentative of the “true” Pakistan. Allegations are also made that writers cater exclusively to foreign audiences, conforming to their perception of Pakistan. Following the global repercussions of 9/11, a process of identity reconstruction has taken place. Consequentially Pakistan, and by extension Pakistani literature has come to be seen in stereotypical ways that leave little room for a wider and more comprehensive interpretation.
Owing to the socio-political events of the past decade, a lot of attention has been focused on Pakistan, which unlike the attention the country usually attracts, has been quite favourable. One may say that these dynamics are a Faustian bargain where writers, in hopes of garnering international acclaim may compromise on artistic integrity, pandering to the perceptions and expectations of their audiences. In an article published in The Telegraph India, Uzma Aslam Khan (author of Geometery of God), feels that the assumption Pakistani authors will speak in the same voice as news anchors, is a dangerous one, but feels that “this expectation is being put on us, at times very overtly”.
The idea that publishers and readers look for a particular kind of writing when they pick up a book by a Pakistani author is echoed in Aslam’s personal experince, which she narrates when recalling a UK published who turned down The Geometry of God, saying there was nothing in the book about sacked chief justices. “He said it was a shame that at a time so much violence was erupting in Pakistan, I was writing about a woman who wanted to be a scientist (and succeeded).” So while considerable attention has been focused on Pakistan, this attention has a rather insular purview, focusing only on what fits the preconceived ideas regarding the country.
Another significant quality of Pakistani literature in English is the inseparate intertwining of the political and the personal, to the extent where journalists and political activists feature in Karachi Literature Festival, the only one of its kind in Pakistan.
Politics pervades our literature much like it pervades our lives. But is this intermingling overdone? Is the portrayal of unstable governments and chaotic times what helps sell books? And do writers feel like they must include the disorderly affairs of state to conform to the perception of Pakistan, in the foreign reader’s mind? To be fair, these indictments may be unwarranted in light of the scarcity of indigenous publishing houses that leaves Pakistani authors with no choice but to take their work to foreign publishers, who in turn have their own criteria for publishing. Readership is arguably among the most primary concerns of authors, and with an insignificant readership in their own country, it may be natural to appeal to the perceptions of a more substantial audience.
Editor’s Note: For the tie-in interview with Muniza Shamsie, download our digital issue.
Sana Hussain is an Articles Editor for The Missing Slate who also co-blogs about books and the publishing industry at Alone in Babel with Jacob Silkstone. She is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature.