Whatever happened to the Pakistani literary boom?

Commercial fiction is becoming the genre of choice for new writers in search of freedom

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A hush appears to have fallen in the west in the past few years over Pakistani literary fiction in English. It may be true that every now and again a novel by a Pakistani author is published to respectable reviews, but the picture is nothing like 2008-09, when a handful of works by Pakistani writers appeared almost simultaneously — and to great acclaim.

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s short story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (for which he became a Pulitzer Prize finalist) was followed by the Booker-longlisted A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel, Burnt Shadows, was heralded as her finest work to date.

Dubbed the “Pakistani literary boom” — with reference to the magnificent South American literary boom of the 1960s and 1970s — this eruption of Pakistani talent seemed to reflect, in part, the literary west’s desire to “understand” culturally a country largely associated with terrorism, religious extremism and other assorted wretchedness. At the same time, there was some adolescent theorising about how “suffering” produced great literature, which didn’t explain why the people producing it were generally the most comfortably off, or why there is still more literary fiction being written in the suburbs of Toronto than in corpse-strewn Karachi.

The most important, and commonly overlooked, factor was the growth of publishing in India, where editors keep a constant eye out for Pakistani talent — India’s love-hate relationship with its neighbour engenders, among other things, an immense curiosity. Indian publishing houses also distribute books in Pakistan, filling the gaps left by an underdeveloped English-language publishing industry’s sketchy and inconsistent efforts there. Western publishing houses have still only published a handful of Pakistani authors — and mostly they want literary fiction and non-fiction.

Second, Indian publishing houses have, in recent years, made another huge leap forward by embracing the lucrative possibilities of commercial fiction. Previously, successful Pakistani authors tended to be privileged graduates of elite universities, writing about the upper echelons of society. Through commercial fiction, Pakistanis writing in English are now in a position to tell stories across a variety of genres and styles, throwing open the doors to a broader cross-section of writers from diverse backgrounds.

In the past few years, we have seen thrillers set in Karachi — perhaps the perfect genre to reflect life in this fast-paced, crime-ridden, gritty but still seductive metropolis — including Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Prisoner (2013) and The Spinner’s Tale (2015). Shazaf Fatima Haider’s How It Happened (2012) took a witty, satirical look at the marriage market, laying into the double standards for men and women and the hypocrisy that goes with them. Saba Imtiaz’s 2014 novel Karachi, You’re Killing Me! — think Bridget Jones with bomb scares — is being adapted as a Bollywood movie. And, published this summer, SS Mausoof’s The Warehouse is a pulpy neo-noir complete with insurance agents duped by femme fatales.

Commercial fiction is judged, as it should be, on its sales. The Pakistani authors writing it find a great deal more freedom and are able to shed, for example, the burden of representation and the need to explain cultural context to a more global readership. For this, they tend to forgo international critical attention. I think that’s a bargain.

Faiza S Khan is the editorial director of Bloomsbury India

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