September 25, 2011KR BlogBlogKR

Ripped from the headlines: international fiction and its discontents

In January 2010 the New Yorker published a feature by Claudia Roth Pierpont on contemporary Arabic novels in translation. As a publisher, I welcomed the article, since it mentioned several novels published by the press where I work. But in every other way the article’s outdated and Western/US-centric perspective was frustrating (at the time I tried to articulate that frustration in an essay). To illustrate, Pierpont introduces her subject and the novels she is going to discuss thus:

What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh? What bearing does such information have upon your life? There are, of course, newspapers to keep responsible Americans up to date when trouble looms… What else do we need? The ways that people think and work and suffer and fall in love and make enemies and sometimes make revolutions is the stuff of novels…

… Whether any book will outlast its moment is impossible to say, but what follows is an account of some novels that are worth reading now, and that may prove to be worth reading even when newspapers divert our attention to wars and prisons somewhere else.

I won’t rehash my argument with the solipsism of this reasoning—but will instead turn to Pankaj Mishra’s essay in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books(behind the paywall, sorry), “Pakinstan’s Writers: Living in a Minefield.” Mishra’s essay is a different creature entirely than Pierpont’s. Where she launched with an unchallenged—though of course unfortunately common—assumption of the primacy of American interests and the American consumer’s desires in approaching any subject, Mishra’s essay foregrounds the issues that arise as soon as one begins talking about American perceptions of literature from “elsewhere,” and particularly from Pakistan in this moment: the “nervous Western curiosity about the country’s complexities.”

Pakistani writers writing in English must, Mishra notes, face both traditional conservative expectations of the West for colonial writers, and also their work “runs the risk of being read, at least by its primary audience in the planet’s rich and privileged places, as reproachful polemic or mere propaganda (it is not widely read in Pakistan itself).” In Europe or America, these writers may be seen

as Pakistani and Muslim (even when they follow no religion), with all the complex emotions of fear, rage, bewilderment, curiousity, and sympathy that their country and religion provoke today. In Pakistan, however, they are likely to be identified with their country’s Westernized upper-middle classes…

Despite this complex and admirable framing of the context of his essay and the issues at stake, Mishra must still grapple with the difficulties all such pieces on international literature face: he is reporting on a literature that is of particular topical interest to Americans. The New York Review of Books is running an essay on fiction in Pakistan rather than, say, Indonesia or Mongolia, and this for reasons that are extra-literary, to do with the political moment. Many American readers (perhaps, to some degree, all?) are indeed looking to answer the kind of questions Pierpont poses: we have the news already, but “What else do we need?” to understand. This is the motivation that dogs international literature—that novels will be treated as news, read to reveal truths about other people and places rather than read as literature. Mishra addresses this reasoning:

[These writers’] subtle fictions offer an attractive alternative to the reflexive habit of looking at Pakistan from the narrow perspective of Western security and strategic interests. At the same time they are much less able than other writers to avoid ideologically charged readings of their work. What makes their fictions internationally prominent… also influentially shapes their interpretation at present.

Then closes thus:

Living in a fragile nation-state, Pakistani writers cannot avoid a fact that still only occasionally troubles practitioners of the novel in more secure and self-contained societies: that many private lives today are increasingly shaped by such global forces as religious extremism and political and economic upheavals. Under such stresses, the self becomes ever more ambiguous and unknowable—an insight that renders the best of Pakistani writing in English more than just topical, and may help it last long after the geopolitical dramas of our time have been forgotten.

This insight is lovely, and the last sentence acknowledges the scope of the problem: how often international literature is turned to and read not for itself but out of topical concerns, and fades out of the public mind once its nation is out of the headlines. Many of us read reviews of contemporary American literature looking in a sense for “news,” for journalistic coverage—who’s doing what? What’s going on? Yet no review begins with that assumption; they begin with the literature as literature. As readers we should watch ourselves when, as we turn to international literature, we begin to look for something else, some external good, even a theoretically noble one. To educate oneself further about a country with which our government is so deeply involved is indeed a worthwhile aim—but it isn’t fair to writers or to literature to ask them to be tour guides, to instruct about culture or context, potentially to reduce their work to an illustrative sidebar in a history textbook. We are all guilty, I think, of some degree of this approach—how could we not be? When the news urgently turns our attention toward one location or another, it follows naturally that we who love literature turn to its writers.

All gratitude to Mishra then, for raising and elegantly parsing these issues. But I do have one real complaint, which is that the four writers his essay focuses on are all male—Mohsin Hamad, Nadeem Aslam, Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin. (I am slightly biased about this, on in that the press where I work publishes the amazing Uzma Aslam Khan, and it’s true I was hoping she would be mentioned.) The piece is largely journalistic—Mishra travels to Pakistan, offers descriptions of scenes, cities, and people, and interviews the writers in question—offering in effect a survey of contemporary Pakistani fiction in English. It’s unfortunate, then, to leave the reader with the implicit impression that the significant fiction is all written by men. (Kamila Shamsie, I should note, is briefly mentioned.) For another view, and a different list of writers, see this piece in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn (which takes on this surge of interest in Pakistani literature from the West with a brisk sarcasm), and this very interesting piece by John Freeman about the future of US literature, which mentions a number of writers from Pakistan.

Of course all book-review venues function journalistically: they report on what’s being published, and they tend to weigh in on the books and writers that other places are talking about, thus perpetuating their own sort of literary news cycle (see: Franzen, Freedom). It seems hopeless to look for an end to the mainstream media’s news cycle—no matter how incisive a critic Jon Stewart may be, on it spins. But in literature, a subject of comparatively little interest to the wider culture, I think we could manage to be freer of it. In the case of this essay, I wondered, then, why not also feature writers whose books had not been recognized already in the US and UK, nominated for or awarded major prizes, published by the biggest houses. The latter are the writers the NYRB’s readers are most likely to already have heard of (if, it’s true, perhaps not read)—why not bring to our attention a few writers we in the US would be otherwise unlikely to discover? I don’t mean to fault Mishra unfairly for this; of course this is a trend much larger than him. But I’d like to note this perhaps missed opportunity, and to say it’s one all journals and magazines miss regularly, as they make sure to talk about the books that people are talking about. Instead, let’s hear more about the work we don’t know how to talk about yet, haven’t yet begun to imagine.