Mushtaq Bilal discusses ‘free speech’, stereotypes, the Zia legacy, and the ideologies that underpin the idea of ‘Pakistani literature’ with Snehal Shingavi.
What does “Pakistani literature” mean in American academia and popular culture?
In popular culture, “Pakistani literature” means stuff available in English written by people in the diaspora who appear in the media, such as Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie. Inside academia there are Urdu programs that understand the importance of Pakistani Urdu literature, but generally it is exclusively the material produced in English which is accessible.
What are the political ramifications of such a construction of “Pakistani literature”?
Inside Pakistan, literature has a different function. The ideology of Pakistan is predicated on a national language which is not the majority language and a religious identity which is not the way people understand themselves as socially bound. So literature has a double burden of uniting a nation which doesn’t cohere as such.
As Marxists, we are interested in why certain texts are praised in certain media outlets or win certain prizes. Why does the Pakistani state reward certain literatures and what does the national-ness of a literature tell us about the debates within Pakistan? Literature is usually a middle-class phenomenon. These are the people who have the time, energy, and training to produce literature and so it is constantly ideologically divided between its desire for order based on what the state can provide and its desire for critique based on an understanding of what happens to people in the lower-classes or minorities.
What do you think are the dominant modes of representation of Pakistan in this “Pakistani literature”?
Pakistan is lawless, conservative, reactionary, orthodox Muslim, anti-woman, and run by military dictatorships and crazy politicians. It is because people writing in English in the 90s and 2000s grew up under the Zia administration. They are concerned about the state, military, and mullahs and their critique is right. We should be critical of Zia and Musharraf, but they tend to over-emphasize those things and under-emphasize the actual nature of Pakistan, which is also heavily invested in fighting against them. This literature pretends that the fight against dictatorship happens in literature and not in the streets of Pakistan. Unlike in the 50s and 60s when the literary movements and figures like Jalib and Faiz were connected to the mass protest movements. The English literature produced in the 90s and 2000s is completely disconnected from the political protest movement.
How orientalist, in the Saidian sense, do you think these constructs of “Indian literature” and “Pakistani literature” are?
For Said, knowledge is used in the service of empire. I think what Orientalism has come to mean is a kind of exotic stereotype as opposed to a particular imperial project. There is no imperial project in India but it suffers from exotic stereotyping, although India’s exoticism is more about the way it markets a certain kind of a romantic version of itself. Pakistan is slightly different and it seems there is an orientalism in reverse here. A section of the Pakistani middle-class believes that proximity to American empire is good. It promotes the discourse about how important American empire is for democracy, women, and modernization in Pakistan, but it will be done by Pakistanis and not Americans.
What do you think are the major themes and directions of “Pakistani literature”?
Other themes are straightforward: women have a tough time in Pakistan. Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing, Nadeem Aslam’s and Kamila Shamsie’s books, and Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti are about this question. The baseline politics are: pro-democracy, pro-feminism, and anti-Islamization.
You also teach a course regarding banned books. How do you construct and deconstruct the idea of “free speech”?
I ask students to think about freedoms not in terms of freedom and unfreedom but in degrees of freedom. In any context where you have free speech you cannot and will not say certain things and there are always ways to say what you think is important. The state is always interested in clamping down on freedom of speech and in convincing its population that it has more freedoms than others. The state organizes the modes of discipline of our utterances and wants to convince us that it has our best interests at heart while both granting and limiting our freedoms. We talk about how freedoms of speech are not always as good and free as we think they are and unfreedoms are not always as bad or unfree as we think they are. We should also recognize that in the 21st century the free speech notion has also become an imperial ideology. There is no situation in which you have a complete freedom of speech or a complete lack of it. It is always a question of possibilities, ethics, and politics.
Do you think “Pakistani literature” promotes the Anglophone novel at the expense of regional literature?
The education system in both India and Pakistan produces people who are lazy in the vernaculars and equally lazy in English, but they like the English better than the vernacular traditions. This means the literate populations who can appreciate regional literatures are dwindling, which has made the writers anxious that they are losing their market share to the novel in English. It is hard to predict the future of the vernacular novel. The English novel has really taken off but that doesn’t always mean that it is good or complex or interesting. This is an easy binary: English language – bad; vernacular language – good. We ought to figure how to support the various language traditions in Pakistan and India.
How does literary South Asian Islam interact with modernity?
There has been a long tradition of Muslims critiquing Islam that has been at the heart of the Muslim literature. Most literary Muslims have a good understanding of what they would like to see Islam do that it is not currently doing. Deputy Nazir Ahmed’s books have a particular understanding of what is wrong with the way Islam is practiced. He is credited with introducing a conservative bent but it is a rationalist understanding of domestic economics, the rights of women, and there is a very coherent social program that is not what you expect Islam to be. Muslim writings have tried to critique, adapt, reflect, and change Islam for the better. So the idea of Islam being pre-modern and secularism being modern is what I like to undo. If we think of modernity as a constantly changing relationship to the historical present then Islam has since the advent of modernity always been a modern force.
You also teach a course on the literature of Islamophobia. What are the consequences of this literature?
We live in a multicultural society which is tolerant of differences and the West sees itself as anti-racist but Islam is the new acceptable racism. It is considered terrible, violent, misogynist, irrational, anti-capitalist, and people who simultaneously purport to be multicultural and democratic are also Islamophobic. It is a new contradiction within Western democracy. It not only affects Muslims but also corrupts civil rights and democracy. It is not simply the ignorance on the part of the “undereducated” white people about Islam. People like Naipaul, Amis, and Updike reproduce Islamophobic ideas, vocabularies, and tropes. All religions are contradictory and Islam is not better or worse.
Snehal Shingavi has a doctorate in English from the University of California, Berkley and teaches Pakistani literature at the University of Texas at Austin. He has published a translation of Premchand’s novel Seva Sadan and his book The Mahatma Misunderstood was published in March 2013.