Fiction & Poetry

Of shadows, skins and stones

By Elen Turner

27 March 2017

A review of three recent novels by Pakistani women authors.

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(This is a review from our September 2014 print quarterly, ‘The Southasian Military Complex’. See more from the issue here.)

For a few years, Pakistani English literature has been on the verge of a ‘boom’; not quite an explosion, but what scholar of contemporary Pakistani literature Claire Chambers has called a ‘flowering’. While the hoped for (from the Pakistani side, at least) equation with the Indian English literature boom that began around 30 years ago may be far from materialising, Pakistani writers are consistently bringing out new works, particularly novels, in English. Internationally best-known among them are Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, and if we are to include a British author of Pakistani origin (India claims Salman Rushdie, so why not?), Nadeem Aslam. But, this ‘flowering’ is not limited to male writers. A small crop of successful and acclaimed Pakistani female writers are creating significant work, including Uzma Aslam Khan, Fatima Bhutto and Kamila Shamsie.

With Shamsie’s latest novel, A God in Every Stone, having been published earlier in 2014 and her inclusion in Granta’s 2013 collection of the 20 most promising British writers under 40, the release of Bhutto’s debut novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon in late 2013, and Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin nomination for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, it is a good time to take stock of this ‘growth’ in Pakistani literature by women by looking at these three recently published novels.

The usual caveats to do with language and representation apply: there is no suggestion that these elite, foreign-educated and usually foreign-residing women who write exclusively in English in any way reflect the ‘average’ Pakistani woman, or that their success reflects any broader progression in the lives of Pakistani women. The country does, after all, have some of the poorest gender development indices in the world. But arguments around representation, language and social status, particularly in the Indian context, are oftentimes too academic and limiting, or too populist and simplistic, perhaps suggesting that one should feel guilty for consuming a cultural artefact that can only be enjoyed by a minority. Though entirely debatable, Kamila Shamsie’s words on this topic pointedly and deliberately disavows the sentiment that English as a language of creative composition remains solely an imposition of colonial rule: “Our [younger Pakistanis’] vexed relationship… with English is just not an issue.”

What emerges from The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, A God in Every Stone and Thinner Than Skin are three writers, and a generation, desperately concerned about the injustices prevalent in contemporary Pakistan (though Shamsie’s novel is set entirely in the early 20th century, the commentary on the legacies of colonialism and the state of the modern Southasian region are easy to see). It should not be surprising to readers in Southasia that many of the women represented – whether narrators or other central characters – are, like the creators of the novels themselves: tough, smart and independent. Such representations are, in part, a response to stereotyped Western notions of the seclusion and fragility of Pakistani women. As Uzma Aslam Khan has written,

Since 9/11, a cornucopia of ‘true stories’ from the Islamic world have been consumed, all packaged in identical covers: women behind burqas. The stories universally feature forced marriages, beatings, rape. Clearly, we’re supposed to be wretched.

Indeed, reviews in Western-based publications have commented on the strong, assertive, defiant nature of these authors’ heroines. Aspects of their lives are often wretched, but they do not accept these any more passively than women elsewhere would. What is more subtle, however, is the way all three authors use the margins of their country, the border areas and sites of contest as their settings – areas of physical, cultural and emotional peripherality. Through doing so, they enter new terrain in the search for contemporary Pakistani identity that has little to do with writing back to the imperial centre of Britain, and more to do with writing back to the colonising centre of Pakistan itself. All three of these novels explore the relationship between Pakistani (or, in the case of Shamsie’s novel, Indian, as her novel is set in pre-1947 British India) ethnicities and centres of power. The ‘mainstream’, metropolitan Pakistani is presented as a homogenising, even sinister force in these novels.

Particularly striking in these novels, as in much contemporary Pakistani literature, is what Chambers calls “the comparative ‘Af-Pak’ rather than ‘Indo-Pak’ approach”, which although common in political and social sciences, is under-explored in literary studies. Chambers states that at present, there is “a sense of publishers and academics moving away from the fashionable Indo-chic of the 1980s and 1990s towards grittier, post-9/11 ‘renditions’ of Pakistan as the eye of the storm in the war on terror”. Although treated as a subset of post-colonial, Commonwealth or Southasian literature for a long time, and generally for justifiable reasons, Pakistani literature really is doing its own thing, and the most recent novels by Bhutto, Shamsie and Khan – although by no means without their problems – aptly prove this.

 

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon Fatima Bhutto Penguin Books India, 2013.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon
Fatima Bhutto
Penguin Books India, 2013.

Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is her first novel – she is also a poet, a columnist, and her memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, was published in 2010. The novel is set in a part of Southasia not normally given much attention in English-language fiction: a desolate fictional town called Mir Ali in Pakistan’s northwest Waziristan region, bordering Afghanistan. Following the lives of three brothers over the course of an Eid morning, it narrates their activities on this morning, and delves into their pasts: one brother naively became involved in informing on his neighbours from his hometown while studying in the US; another lost his son in a Taliban attack on a hospital, driving his wife mad; and the other is involved in tumultuous, separatist student politics.

Though entirely debatable, Kamila Shamsie’s words on this topic pointedly and deliberately disavows the sentiment that English as a language of creative composition remains solely an imposition of colonial rule.

The account of the separatist activities in Waziristan is a striking element of Under the Shadow of the Crescent Moon. The characters are alienated from the Pakistani nation, and the heavy-handedness of the army continuously leads them to closer affinity with their Afghan neighbours. Characters discuss ‘Pakistan’ as something separate from themselves; they do not consider themselves a part of it, with little personal attachment to the mainstream, Islamabad/Punjab-dominated national myths. Mir Ali’s residents are inherently good people, desirous of justice. Bhutto suggests:

There were the jumma namaz mosques that specialized in distinctive foreign-policy-based diatribes – lashings of rhetoric against great satans and the little men who did their bidding. These mosques yearned for converts to their cause but they lost them in Mir Ali, where people preferred to go to the houses of God that had taught their fathers and grandfathers about justice. There was no greater cause in Mir Ali than justice.

However, this concern for justice often manifests itself as a form different from that of the nation’s law – which, Bhutto demonstrates, is often not justice at all – and leads some of Mir Ali’s inhabitants into long-term feuds, the pursuance of vendettas that spiral out of control.

Bhutto’s prose is earnest in a manner distinctly Pakistani – or at least, distinct to Pakistani writing in English. It is reminiscent, to some degree, of the writing of her compatriots Uzma Aslam Khan and Nadeem Aslam, though with less of the ornamental flourishes that make the works of those other writers beautiful, and connected to Urdu literary traditions. In fact, Bhutto’s writing verges on flat, not elaborating on descriptions of people and place necessary to evoke strong images of a place that, realistically, most of her readers will have little first-hand knowledge of. The novel is plot-driven, but dispenses with the care necessary to evoke in readers a vivid sense of where the plot is taking place. Mir Ali is a marketplace with butchers’ shops, a barren hill, a street at dusk, a mosque and a muezzin call, but for a reader unfamiliar with the Af-Pak border regions, such banal images overtake what Bhutto is trying to depict because too little is painted on the canvas to enable us to see otherwise.

Yet, however poorly rendered, place is overwhelmingly important in this novel. Mir Ali, though scantily described, is always different from somewhere else, particularly the centres of power. It is unlike Islamabad, where sweeper women in saris can be seen, and Sikh men in turbans, and Bollywood films, and a different security presence:

Islamabad’s checkpoints were different from Mir Ali’s – there were no tanks here, no camouflaged shooters posted at significant angles so that anyone who tried to bulldoze their way through a checkpoint would be taken out with a clean shot to the head. There was no hostility in the soldiers. Here they picked their teeth with matchsticks and folded their arms behind their backs as they paced up and down pavements until a car honked, proclaiming itself ready for inspection.

Fatima Bhutto’s identity as a writer cannot be extricated from her personal, familial and political one. The strident and at times bombastic tone of this novel suggests that Bhutto does not necessarily wish for these identities to be untwined, at least not at this point in her career, for which it might be useful to her. Granddaughter of executed Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and niece of assassinated Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Fatima has a lot of insight into the machinations of Pakistani politics. But, Fatima’s writing can come across as a political tract – not because of who she is, but because of its style, its strident language and turns of event – which is not an attractive feature in fiction. Fiction with strong political messages is best when such messages are subtle, weaving amongst nuanced character development, plot, setting, etc. And, while an author cannot be solely blamed nor credited for the titles of their works, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is the first indication that this novel is a blatant critique of the concept of the Pakistani nation. Such critiques should be encouraged, but I wonder whether the novel is the right genre for Bhutto.

While the story focuses on the lives of three brothers, there is much concern about women too, in this novel. As Bhutto stated in an interview, she considers The Shadow of the Crescent Moon to be about female characters:

In my mind, [the novel] was this story of three brothers and then these women took over, just like Pakistani women do … There is such a singular view of Pakistani women and it’s such a shallow and very unfair view. There’s an impression of how differently we do things, how downtrodden we are. Millions of women suffer but they [also] struggle, they resist and fight. It’s a harsh country, an unfair country, but it also produces women with extraordinary spirit.

Bhutto’s comments are worth interrogating. She is from an exceptionally privileged background (materially, at least; some say, of course, that the Bhuttos are cursed), so is it too easy for her to attribute “extraordinary spirit” to Pakistani womanhood in general? Clearly, she is correct to say that there is a singular, shallow and unfair view of Pakistani women in the world, but how far does her class position enable such a generalisation about a nation of women who may be forgiven for not always being able to muster the spirit she celebrates? And, further, Bhutto’s comment about The Shadow of the Crescent Moon being a novel about female characters may be a case of the author wanting to have her cake and eat it too. Yes, it does contain female characters with strong wills and ambitions, but ultimately things happen to them, however much they try to be mistresses of their own destinies. Yet, to portray otherwise could ring hollow when writing about Pakistani society. It could ring like a Kamila Shamsie novel, for instance.

 

A God in Every Stone

A God in Every Stone Kamila Shamsie Bloomsbury, 2014.

A God in Every Stone
Kamila Shamsie
Bloomsbury, 2014.

Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone starts just before the outbreak of the First World War, a hundred years ago now, when British Vivien Rose Spencer is a 22-year-old archaeology student. She is naive but enthusiastic, particularly to please her father who treats her, in many ways, like the son he would have preferred. But, this preoccupation with pleasing a man who will never consider her quite as strong or as talented as a son would have been, is Viv’s fatal flaw. As her mother – a dull, conservative woman – asks Viv: “Are you to spend the rest of your life making up for my womb’s insistence on killing his sons?”

Viv travels to Egypt and Turkey on a summer archaeological dig, very aware that as a young woman she is lucky to have this opportunity. She is escorted by her father’s long-time friend and colleague, the Turkish Tahsin Bey. Not only is Viv almost as good as a son, but Tahsin Bey is almost as good as an Englishman. The British gender and racial prejudices of the early 20th century are not subtly presented, and are boring in their unoriginality. World War I breaks out in 1914, and after a life-changing betrayal naively carried out by Viv to impress her father, she travels to Peshawar – then on British India’s frontier – to join an archaeological dig searching for the legendary circlet of Scylax.

The second focal character of A God in Every Stone is Qayyum, a Pathan Ypres veteran who returns to Peshawar having lost sight in one eye. Qayyum’s younger brother Najib comes to work closely with Viv, connecting the two narratives. Yet Qayyum and Najib are introduced so late into the novel that the switching of focus away from Viv, never to fully return, is jarring, and makes it difficult to fully immerse oneself in Qayyum’s world.

Particularly striking in these novels, as in much contemporary Pakistani literature, is what Chambers calls “the comparative ‘Af-Pak’ rather than ‘Indo-Pak’ approach”, which although common in political and social sciences, is under-explored in literary studies.

A God in Every Stone progresses several years, and the final, climactic event is the Qissa Khwani Bazaar Massacre of Peshawar in April 1930, a British colonial atrocity similar in scale to the better-known Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar in 1919. A peaceful protest was met with disproportionate violence. The massacre in the Street of Storytellers was another pivotal event in the struggle to drive the British out of India.

As in much of Shamsie’s earlier work, A God in Every Stone attempts to encompass too much plot while taking too little care with character development. She invests far too much in that old writer’s taboo, telling rather than showing. While Shamsie has been praised by reviewers and critics for her ability to span continents, times and cultures (praise that is unwarranted if the convoluted and anachronistic plot of her 2009 novel Burnt Shadows is anything to go by), her ability to tap into the more nuanced and contradictory workings of human psychology and behaviour is limited. The large cast of characters means that too little time is spent crafting plausible individuals. Personalities are flat and one-dimensional, and overwrought and emotionally obfuscatory lines, such as the following, not only exist but are common: “she was an archaeologist, as was he. In the shiver of their spines they were of the same tribe, regardless of wars and kings and sultans.” And, later:

There had been a moment when the child had looked directly at Najeeb, her green eyes bewildered. She couldn’t have been more than three or four years old, and already it had been determined that her life would be filled with cruelty. […] I know the stories of men from twenty-five hundred years ago, but I’ll never know what happens to you.

As literary critic Bruce King has stated, a central theme in the novels of this “writer of political fiction” is the need to look unflinchingly at the past to understand the present. A God in Every Stone is no exception. Shamsie addresses some issues that are as important and problematic today as they were a century ago, and at the forefront of these is gender inequality. The role that cultural myths about womanhood played in the maintenance of empire are well-known to scholars of history, literature and material culture by now, thanks to works such as Anne McClintock’s seminal Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Imperial Context. One of the most successful aspects of A God in Every Stone is Shamsie’s addressal of this topic. As she writes:

Nothing about France or England was more different from India than the women—and from here it was a step some of the soldiers made to declare that if India’s women changed then India too would become prosperous like the white nations, and everything from livestock to the people would have a gleam to it.

A spate of early reviews of A God in Every Stone have remarked positively on Shamsie’s treatment of the burqa. Viv’s perceptions of the garment, which she dons occasionally, are conflicted, perhaps an appropriate way to treat it, given its continued charged presence in the world. At one point, Viv considers it like “the Invisibility Cape she had longed for as a child.” She also notes how putting it on takes away her Englishness, makes her not just a woman but a native:

in making her just another local woman, the burqa took away her very English right to be eccentric. Now she couldn’t stop and stare, point to things that struck her as unusual, ask questions, enter all-male domains, expect to be treated with a certain deference (she’d never known she’d expected this) simply by virtue of her race.

Yet this somewhat nuanced treatment of the veil is the only aspect of Shamsie’s novel that contains any subtlety. It is a shame that her overwrought and mediocre writing has represented Pakistani women’s literature outside of the country for the several years (and with Shamsie’s inclusion in Granta’s 2013 20 under 40 list, this seems set to continue). There are certainly better writers, in terms of use of language, imagery, characterisation and plot exposition. For instance, Uzma Aslam Khan, who has been published widely in India, and although her four novels have been published in the US, she has not achieved the same prominence as Shamsie, or even Bhutto.

 

Thinner Than Skin

Thinner Than Skin Uzma Aslam Khan Fourth Estate, 2012.

Thinner Than Skin
Uzma Aslam Khan
Fourth Estate, 2012.

Khan’s Thinner Than Skin, the author’s fourth novel, (probably unwittingly) combines elements of both Bhutto and Shamsie’s novels, but with greater effectiveness. She creates a vivid sense of place, the mountainous Kaghan Valley of northern Pakistan, through her beautiful and intricate descriptive language, a strength evident throughout most of her novels. She also ponders Pakistani femininity through her female protagonists (though the focaliser is a man), who are a combination of strong, neurotic and unlikable – therefore, quite real.

Thinner Than Skin is largely told from the perspective of Nadir, a Pakistani photographer based in San Francisco, who travels to the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan to try to establish himself as a landscape photographer. It is this type of photography that attracts him most, the beauty of his homeland being as it is, but he cannot find much of a market for it in the US, where hackneyed images of the urban poor are all that is desired from Pakistan. Accompanying him on his trip is his neurotic American girlfriend Farhana, a glaciologist of half-Pakistani origin; her colleague, an unashamedly American man; and a Pakistani friend of Nadir’s. The attitudes towards Nadir’s landscape photography in the US are echoed in Farhana’s attitudes towards womanhood and femininity, both her own and that of Pakistani women. Being disconnected from her Pakistani heritage, she is surprised to learn that more lies beneath the stereotypes of Pakistani women, but does not quite know what to do with that discovery.

It is this type of photography that attracts him most, the beauty of his homeland being as it is, but he cannot find much of a market for it in the US, where hackneyed images of the urban poor are all that is desired from Pakistan.

The group of travellers to the remote region have to rely on the hospitality of the local inhabitants, many of whom are nomadic. This hospitality is readily given, but puts a strain on social interactions, particularly as the trip is undertaken during a politically sensitive time. A devastating encounter with a local family brings forth the cultural arrogance of the Americans in the group and shatters the fragile bond between Nadir and the self-absorbed Farhana. Maryam, a Gujjar nomad who appears part-way through the novel, also narrates some sections, shifting the narrative focus from lying purely with a man. It also means that a non-urban, marginalised, not even literate woman is created by Khan, representing a different way of being Pakistani. The nomadic Gujjar people are not only encroached upon by ‘mainstream’ Pakistan and its mores, but have been subject to the destabilising forces resulting from being on the edge of a country, an ancient place at the crossroads of many cultures.

Khan successfully limns a vivid picture of the region about which she writes. Her language is both sensual and scientific, which may sound like a contradiction. But, when describing something unknown to most readers – such as the language, shape and “mating rituals” of glaciers – the scientific precision results in an authoritative yet mysterious tone that is sensual in its detail. (Such use of language was also evident in Khan’s 2003 novel Trespassing, which describes the process of silk farming in similar ways). If Khan is not a scientist or trained in science, she has done exceptional research, and the world could do with more writers like that. Khan takes great care to evoke senses of taste, touch, sound and the subtleties of sight. As Nadir narrates:

I tore the bread and left it on my tongue, letting the heat dissolve slowly. I added an apricot and rejoiced at my menu. Then I poured the topping: a finger of fresh honey. It tasted of flowers unknown to me, flowers vaguely aquatic. Like honey from the bottom of the lake. No one alive had ever touched the bottom, yet here was proof of life in those depths. Next I peeled a roasted potato with my teeth, telling Irfan that part of the thrill of being away from home was mixing dessert with vegetables.

However, the characters, who start off being built up so nicely into well-rounded, real people, become secondary to the landscape and political intricacies. Khan represents some of the best Pakistani literary talent of the moment, but her ability to move between the micro and the macro is flawed. The intricacy of Khan’s language and her eye for minute detail can sometimes get in the way of all else that is necessary for the development of a novel. I felt the same about Trespassing, which became so caught up in the form of the telling that what was being told seemed to slip away. I was completely sucked into Thinner Than Skin until the pivotal tragedy occurred. After this, the word games detracted from what should have been given precedence, the fallout of the event on the psychologies of the characters. Similar to Shamsie’s novel, the switch between different narrators also leads to a certain sense of disconnect, and lack of focus. The reader is led to believe that one character should be invested in, and then asked to switch, which can lead to diminishing interest in the fate of everyone involved.

 

***


As has been discussed, Bhutto, Shamsie and Khan all examine various dimensions of Pakistani womanhood, or rather, womanhood in Pakistan. Yet, all three actually resist focusing on ‘the Pakistani woman’, they skirt around her even as they look in her direction. Perhaps this is a strength – women are not uniquely qualified nor obliged to write about other women. Some prominent Indian women writers have commented that the younger generation seems to find it easier to adopt a male voice – as all of these novelists do in different ways – than the older generation, who may have been more restricted in their personal experiences or reticent in where their imaginations took them. The same could be said about Pakistani writers. But, the extent to which Bhutto, Shamsie and Khan have mentioned the figure of women in interviews about their work suggests that this theme is forefront in their minds. So why the deflected view? The scale of the Pakistani landscape, history and social and political problems may mean that towing a conservative line – that women write about women, for a female audience – is unthinkable for these writers, who wish to address the public problems of their country. They are making the ‘mainstream’ their own in the process, putting the private back into the public but do not risk ghettoising themselves, as writers, by solely focusing on such perspectives. All three novelists, though not without their technical and conceptual flaws, represent an exciting future for Pakistani literature.

~Elen Turner is an Assistant Editor with this magazine. Her PhD – from the Australian National University – was on contemporary Indian feminist publishing, and she has written widely on Southasian literature and gender issues. She is currently based in Western New York.

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