word about letters
Anis Shivani is a fiction writer, poet, and critic, based in Houston, Texas. He studied at Harvard University and is the author of the short story collection, Anatolia and Other Stories. The collection has been long listed for the Frank O”Connor Short Story Award and one of the stories–Dubai–was awarded Special Mention for the Pushcart Prize. He has just finished a novel, The Slums of Karachi, about an American anthropologist conducting fieldwork in Pakistan. Recently TNS got a chance to interact with him over email.
By Bilal Ibne Rasheed
The News on Sunday: Although your characters come from a variety of cultures and time periods there is a similarity among them: most of them are uncomfortable with the societies they live in, they resent the kind of people around them and yet they are not frustrated to the extent of taking any radical decisions. What were your motives in constructing characters like these?
Anis Shivani: I think this may reflect my concern with the unwinding of the liberal consensus in recent times. Torture and other positively medieval practices, have made an explicit comeback. The Western countries are choosing security over freedom. In the East, benevolent authoritarianism, rather than the open democracy we thought was in the offing after the fall of communism, seems to be ascendant. Where is a free-thinking person to go? This may be a momentary condition. In the long run, I still believe cosmopolitan democracy will prevail all over the world--and this time, the instigation will likely come from the East, rather than the West.
TNS: How much of Anis Shivani the critic is critical of Anis Shivani the fiction writer?
AS: It is very difficult to be Anis Shivani the fiction writer when you”re also Anis Shivani the critic. I”m extremely harsh on all my fiction--although I have a special fondness for Anatolia, because this book is where my confidence first emerged full-bloom. What you have to do to write fiction is let go of the internal censor at the time of composition. Later you can squabble with your own choices, but when you write it must almost be as if you were taking dictation from a higher source, and your ego, the critical sense, must be completely in suspension, as you go with your better instincts.
TNS: Did you travel to places like Dubai and Tehran before writing about them? Or did you rely on books and other sources for information about places like these?
AS: I didn”t travel to any of the places depicted in the book. I never went to the sites of any of the Japanese internment camps, and my experience of Indiana--in the story Gypsy--is extremely fleeting. I”ve never been to Turkey or Iran or Dubai, and you might be surprised to hear, even India. I read the histories, looked at pictures, studied the art of the different places and eras, and used my imagination. I”d rather not become too constrained by the sense of reality. In future novels, I want to take up Russia immediately after the fall of communism, Afghanistan in the seventies, East Pakistan at the time of the civil war, Malaysia in the nineteenth century--all these projects have been percolating for a while, but I don”t think I want to visit any of these places. The reigning writing dictum holds, “Write what you know.” I say, “Write what you don”t know.”
TNS: Among all the characters in Anatolia and Other Stories which one did you feel the most challenging to create?
AS: Hmm. I think perhaps Jim Hosokawa in Manzanar. It took a while before I could execute his peculiar blend of reticence and extreme self-confidence. That”s as far as the psychology goes. As far as setting individual development within a specific geographical milieu, I might have to say Noah in Anatolia. I had to get just right how a cosmopolitan traveller like Noah might feel toward his Ottoman friends. Despite his Jewish faith, he had to feel a great sense of belonging to the empire as well. Then also the lead character in Gypsy. I had to do it without simplifying gypsy culture to the series of clichés it generally is in the public imagination.
TNS: Some of your stories deal with immigrants who usually are more comfortable in their adopted societies and countries than the natives. What was the inspiration behind exploring this paradox?
AS: Yes, this is an important point and thank you for pointing it out. In the age of globalisation--we should really take it back, in America, to the opening of the doors of immigration in 1965--the cliché about the immigrant being less educated or sophisticated than the majority of those in the host culture no longer holds true. Yet ethnic writers continue to feed the publishing industry with stories of immigrants having difficulty “adjusting” and “assimilating.” Assimilating to what? It”s the host culture which often stands to benefit from the immigrant”s greater ingenuity. Even when ethnic writers like Jhumpa Lahiri give us immigrants at the professional level, the learning is one-way; the hierarchy of intelligence and accomplishment is clearly established. This is a false picture of reality, and this kind of writing only exists to comfort bourgeois readers who want to believe in American exceptionalism. The natives, in fact, are getting pretty stupid; their time on the world stage may well have come and gone, though most don”t realise it yet. They”re seeking escape in any number of emotional tyrannies, while immigrants at every socioeconomic level are seeking freedom, more desperately than ever. And today middle-class immigrants don”t just give up everything and move to the host country, but maintain links back home. The paradigm has changed, but writers have generally refused to keep up with it.
TNS: What is the difference between good writing and bad writing in your opinion? (I am talking about fiction, of course).
AS: Good writing expects a lot from the reader, and the writer delivers by creating a convincing alternative world, shaking the reader”s assumptions in the process. As a result of good writing, the reader is changed--if only slightly. Bad writing leaves the reader where he was. It replicates existing assumptions and beliefs, so that the reader feels comforted and valued for who he already is. Good writing may come packaged in very conventional style; bad writing may be embodied in apparently experimental style. If it indulges the reader”s prejudices, it”s not good writing.
TNS: You have used many foreign words in your stories. What do you think about its impact on the texture of English language? And what about the readers who do not understand these foreign words? Don”t you think the employment of foreign words can be detrimental to the interest of the reader? Is there any political comment you want to make by adhering to this practice?
AS: Yes, thank you for noting that. This was very intentional. I find it offensive that American readers are expected to make the effort to learn common usages in certain languages, but not in others. There”s almost a hierarchy of languages in place, and that needs to be brought down. Hindi/Urdu is spoken by about a fifth of the world”s population. Chinese by another fifth. Spanish by a very large proportion, and Arabic by yet another large chunk. Writing in English should be liberally sprinkled by these languages--more than I did in Anatolia. If the writer is good, the sense will be obvious from the context, and the experience will have been enriched.
TNS: How should one learn the craft of fiction writing?
AS: By first living a little. This means not jumping to graduate school and then teaching in writing programs while one drafts a novel for ten or fifteen years. Without experience of the business or political worlds, for example, how can one write? There is so much domestic fiction in America today because this is all writers have experience of. Too much experience, beyond a certain point however, is also destructive. One needs to absorb all the classics and learn ways of writing that the masters have demonstrated, and read so much that no one style leaves a strong enough influence. Out of this constant back and forth between experimenting with one”s own style and sifting through a multitude of influences a unique form of expression will emerge. That”s what the fiction writer needs to discover.
TNS: When should we expect your novel to be published? And please tell us something about it.
AS: I hope some publisher snaps it up as soon as it is offered, which should be in a few weeks; I”m just putting the last touches to it. It”s called The Slums of Karachi, and takes place in my imaginative rendition of Karachi”s Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). I bring in a character similar to Akhtar Hameed Khan, the founder of OPP, but again only in an imaginative sense, not anything literal. There”s a female American anthropologist living for a year in the colony, and her section of the novel is in the form of her diary--not field notes per se, which would be too boring if presented in authentic style, but her emotional life. Then there are two young characters, Hafiz and Seema, who follow different paths as they try to make it in the world; Seema is very bright and goes to Karachi University, while Hafiz has a difficult time holding on to his manual jobs. I want to show in this novel how Karachi--and Pakistan by extension--is both changing rapidly, and yet in many ways not changing. Cultural change is very slow, despite appearances. Globalisation is effecting everything (this takes us back to your question about the immigrant often being smarter than the native). Gender relations are changing, and class is more fluid. Opportunities are wider, yet the system resists too much change too quickly. It is this grind in which Hafiz and Seema are caught. The most important thing about the novel is the city of Karachi itself as the lead character, the physical sense of it which determines the relations among the characters, shapes the outcome. I hope that this is the first novel in English that gives the sense to a reader unfamiliar with Karachi what the city is really like. Although, here too, imagination plays more of a role for me than strict verisimilitude.
An illuminating travelogue of a politician
Yad Nagar Ki
Moula Baksh Chandio looks back and shares with us the golden moments spent with a bevy of friends. He keeps the memory of those lovely days dear to his heart because, in his opinion, memory needs to be cherished and it should not be allowed to fade.
Basically Chandio is a politician, but he shows great devotion to the printed word as he has penned a few books in the past. In Gullian Yad Nagar Ki we have a politician who has an artist”s soul. When he travels with his friends to various countries, the creative self overpowers him and thus we see a wayfarer whose narrative becomes very dynamic. This book is the result of wanderings of Chandio. With the help of memory, he recreates all those episodes of his life.
“Gullian Yad Nagar Ki” is a book of devotional journeys to the holy sites of Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia etc. Chandio was very fortunate as he has friends whose company made the journey a great pleasure. During the journey to Iraq, he was ashamed that apart from Shah Abdul Latif and Sabit Ali Shah, no other modern Sindhi poet has paid homage to the struggle of Hazrat Imam Hussain (RA). He wonders why our modern Sindhi poets shy away from eluding to the great role that Hazrat Imam Hussain played at Karbala. The narrative becomes very moving as he describes the holy shrines of all the martyrs of Karbala.
Similarly, when he is in Saudi Arabia to perform Umra the so called “puritan” stance of the rulers irks him.
“We were accorded warm welcome by the Saudi officials. We were accommodated in the royal guest house. The Saudi officials invited us to see the belongings of King Abdul Aziz. I declined to go there. I told my friends that it is great pity that kissing the Holy Shrine of Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH) is not permissible but the belongings of the Saudi dynasty are on the display for all the visitors.”
Chandio poses a very pertinent question: The Saudi rulers have nearly eliminated all the historical sites of the era of Holy Prophet (PBUH) to stop pilgrims from doing what they call as “Bidaat”. While on the other hand, the belongings of the rulers have been preserved. This really irks the pilgrims but they can”t do anything about it.
Though this travelogue is crammed with lots of facts, thankfully the author knows how to gel these in with the narrative. Otherwise, the narrative becomes nothing but a drab historical document. Majority of such books suffer from this malaise where the writer exerts his full energy in building a pyramid of facts. As a result, the reader finds himself in a maze of facts, leaving him quite frustrated. Here the author maintains a balance, as he knows when and where he must insert the facts. He also avoids religious rhetoric and opens his heart in a very humble way. He puts his point across by saying that the essence of religion is to fight against ignorance and hate. Universal peace and love is what religion is all about in his opinion. In these troubling times when we are up against religious fanatics, this is the right message which we must preach to all and sundry.
When Chandio is wandering in the streets of Madrid, he notes that all people believe in doing all work with their own hands. This puts him in a somber mood when his thoughts drift towards his own country. Chandio rightly observes that in Pakistan, there is neither rule of law nor even an iota of respect of the citizens.
“Gullian Yad Nagar Ki” treasure trove of memories is both amazing as well as illuminating. Mazharul Islam praises the book and says that memories need to be preserved as one preserves perfume in a phial as he opines that this digital age is quite damaging for memories. Moula Baksh Chandio must be awarded full marks for such a wonderful travelogue. The prose is quite impressive and it never jades the reader till the last page.
Dr. Bilal Sambur was in Lahore past fortnight to deliver the 33rd Iqbal Memorial Lecture organised by Philosophy Department of the University of the Punjab. The annual memorial lecture was instituted in 1965 and Mumtaz Hassan, a noted scholar of those days, was the first to deliver the lecture. A number of scholars including renowned orientlists like Dr. A Schimmel, Professor W.C. Smith, Professor H.D. Lewis, Dr. George F. McLean, Professor W.C. Chittick and Dr. John Walbridge have since delivered lectures under this banner.
Dr. Bilal Samburwas, however, is the first scholar of a Muslim country invited to deliver Iqbal Memorial Lecture. He is Professor of psychology of religion at the Department of Religious and Philosphiucal Sciences, Suleman Demirel University at Isparta, Turkey.
With a doctorate from Birmingham University, Dr. Sambur is known in his country as a liberal intellectual. He also heads the Ankara-based think-tank named Association for Liberal Thinking.
Speaking on “Islam, Liberty and Pluralism”, the Turkish scholar had many enlightening ideas to share with his audience. His central message was that Muslims have to develop a new perspective which values liberty and pluralism as the highest values if they have any desire to be part of modern civilization.
Underlining the need for a fresh approach that values liberty and pluralism, he observed: “We should not be only alert about our religiosity; we must be alert also about our liberty”.
Liberty and pluralism, he emphasised, are Islamic values because Islam talks to humanity. “Islam means the commitment to God and it implies commitment to humanity”, he averred.
The 33rd Iqbal Memorial Lecture was presided over by Mujahid Kamran, vice chancellor of the Punjab University and was finely conducted by Dr. Sajid Ali who heads the philosophy department of the university.
Tribute to an archaeologist
Nani Gopal Majumdar travelled more than two hundred miles on foot in Sindh three quarters of a century ago. Born in Bengal in 1897, he was an official of the Archaeological Survey of India and was looking for cities of archaeological importance. He supervised excavation works in many parts of Sindh including Sehwan, Larkana, Amri and Khisthar region.
Majumdar also wrote a book, Sindh Exploration, which carries details about major findings and descriptions about archaeological cities of Sindh Zaffar Junejo describes the book as “a powerhouse and treasure for amateur and professional archaeologists and explorers.”
Majumdar, however, did not have much time to continue his work. Just after fifteen months of his arrival in Sindh, he was murdered by dacoits on November 11, 1938 while he was supervising excavation work in Kachho area.
The people of Sindh, however, have not buried him in oblivion.
A group of writers, historians and intellectuals gathered recently at the village Rohel Ji Kund, where he was murdered, to remember him. The event was arranged by NGOs like Kacho Exploration, Anees Academy and Sujag Sansar.
Making an acknowledgement of his services for Sindh, they paid rich tribute to him. A plaque was also installed at the place carrying words of gratitude: Sindh would remember you for centuries and your work would be a guiding principle for those who are interested in archaeology of Sindh.
Many of us miss Dr. Anwar Ahmad. He is a distinguished scholar who now teaches at the Osaka University of Japan. Three years ago when he was associated with the Multan University, where he organised a national seminar on progressive literary movements to which a number of writers and intellectuals from all parts of the country were invited.
Urdu department of the University of Multan has now published twenty-four papers presented at the Seminar in a book form. Compiled by Dr. Rubina Tareen, Dr. Qazi Abid and Hammad Rasool the book, Teen Adabi-o-Fikri Tehreekain, carries well- written pieces on rationalism, progressivism and modernism with reference to Urdu literature.
Another book, John Aeliya key Inshaeeye too has been brought out by the same department. It carries newspaper columns of Aeliya who was better known as a poet. The book has been compiled by Imtiaz Ahmad.
I find myself in agreement with Dr. Lal Khan when he says that poets have played a role in the South Asian revolutionary movements. Some of them are still presenting radical ideas in their literary pieces.
Dr. Tahir Bashir is a respectable name among such poets. His fourth volume of verse has been recently published by the Fiction House of Lahore under the title Sadaay-e-Inqilab.
I chanced upon Samron Dilawar at a Christmas ceremony and my impression was that he would be a nice priest. But he was introduced to me as a poet and gave me a copy of his recently-published collection of Punjabi poetry Bhanday saray Miti dey. A blurb on the dust-jacked of the book reveals that he is a professor of philosophy at the National Seminary of Philosophy in Lahore who received higher education in philosophy from the Philippine.
Bhanday saray Miti is his maiden book. It carries nazms and ghazls and has been published by Fiction House, Lahore.