“Who is a Pakistani writer?”, asks Sabyn Javeri, academic, essayist, novelist, and editor of Ways of Being: Creative Non-Fiction by Pakistani Women, an anthology of 15 essays that explore a diverse range of issues, ranging from selfhood, personal and political history, to motherhood and grief, being and belonging, control and resistance, all while steering clear of any essentialist paradigms. Referring to herself as a “serial migrant” in an age of mass displacement, where “home” has already turned from the tangible into an ineffable idea, Javeri answers the question with more nuance than is usual in most explorations of national and ethnic identity: “who you are is longer a question of ‘where you are from’; rather, who you are is more accurately represented by ‘what you stand for’. A Pakistani writer, therefore, (…) is one who feels a connection to the land either by origin or by sensibility.”
Art as resistance
The authors in this anthology occupy different locations, belong to different generations, and, unerringly, enter into a dialogue with the reader who is no longer allowed to hide behind easy fixes of representation, making them participate, instead, in a complex re-imagining of culture, politics, and gender dynamics.
The idea of art as resistance is a dominant motif in the text. Saba Karim Khan, having discovered storytelling as her “song”, the thing that brings her joy and fulfilment, sees fiction as a space for visible, decisive, and fierce intervention: “I could write fiction that is truer than fact, stir up an illusory world, populate it with characters and eventually inhabit it. I could dig up graves and dirt, refuse to let things be buried, turn on their heads the human food chains and pyramids we construct. I could reflect and produce an auto-ethnography, just like this one, even write about “home”, and show how distance is no match for memory; but mostly, I could search in my stories for the extraordinary in the banal and use it to forge human connection.”
Fiction, then, becomes both, an act of truth-telling and a site of social/political resistance. Rukhsana Ahmad, similarly, sees her writing as political activism, creating active opposition to gender oppression. Both Muneeza Shamsie and Saba Karim Khan credit writing with having given them a voice and the ability for political assertion, while Soniah Kamal sees it as a tool for taking back control wrested from her on account of her gender identity. In a telling comment on gendered practices of writing, Hananah Zaheer, in her deliciously subversive essay titled “Writing Naked”, takes note of the great white male writers, chronicled as having shed clothes as a literal, powerful act of self-definition, that translates into metaphoricity for women writers who would rather avoid the possibilities of disaster inherent in nakedness, preferring the abandon of laying bare intention, ability, and defiance. Writing remains viscerally political for all the writers in the anthology.
There has been an uptick, in recent years, in stories of mothers told by daughters in both fiction and non-fiction, as a shift away from narratives of motherhood that privileged the historically glorified and patriarchally sanctified mother-son relationship. In “Riffat’s Diary”, Taymiya R Zaman finds in her mother’s diary, started by her as a teenager in Karachi of the 1960s, the “story of a feminist girlhood.” The author, treating her mother’s personal journals as one half of a living archive, attempts to use her mother’s words to understand and document the past. Finding herself in almost constant disagreement with the subject of her study, she continues to knit together the past and the present, refusing to take over ownership of her mother’s story, turning the act of writing into one of re-constructing the history of one woman as also her complex social and political context. Saba Karim Khan makes an astute observation about the celebration of what she calls “motherhood martyrdom” in South Asian communities. The more the mother gives of herself, the lesser she privileges herself, the greater she becomes, finding validation in suffering and erasure of all possible personal desire and ambition.
An obvious tool of phallogocentric social formations, this cultification of motherhood has often been responsible for the woman writer’s forced disengagement with her art. Rukhsana Ahmad, first generation immigrant to Britain, and Noren Haq, second-generation British Pakistani, both point to the dangers of devaluation that attach themselves to motherhood, reducing women to “just a wife”, “just a mother”. Haq’s narration of her early days of motherhood – the fog, the fear of incompetence – is both deeply personal and alarmingly universal. The text’s intersections with and its deconstruction of the mythos of motherhood are particularly relevant to contemporary feminist scholarship. Judith Butler, in the preface to her crucial volume on queer theory and politics, Gender Trouble, problematises the word “trouble”, seeing in it the workings of power and control: “the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.”
The writers in this anthology all seem to embrace the same idea of “trouble”, tackling head on social/cultural prejudice and breaking rules of conformity. “Women who read and write, and tell stories which hold up a mirror to the times we live in, are certainly troublemakers,” writes Saba Karim Khan. Sadia Khatri, in her evocative essay, “Fear and the City”, writes of growing up in a city that did not allow women to occupy public spaces and of her experience of unlearning the self policing of her body and sexuality. Soniah Kamal confronts the questionable morality that validates only those forms of art that allow women to remain hidden away from the public eye. The extraordinarily gifted novelist, Kamila Shamsie, writes of the antipathy towards migrants apparent in the shifts in British immigrant laws and the dangerous tendency of privileging economic worth over both intellectual/artistic value and humanitarian concerns. Bina Shah, writer and journalist, perhaps explains it best when she defines “red lines” as Pakistani lingo for things one must not say, at least in writing, and goes on to demonstrate to the reader a constant pushing of these red lines, a constant getting into trouble, challenging assumptions, and practising fearlessness.
Many of the writers represented in this anthology belong to more than one space, one culture, often claiming a multi-ethnic identity. Several hold dual citizenships. Some, like Feryal Ali Gauhar and Humra Afridi, travel not just geographically, across mapped lines, “home” and “identity” then mean to writers who cannot have rigid definitions of either? How does Javeri’s question of Pakistaniyat resolve itself? Documentation or holding a passport can only be a mechanical, forced way of locating identity, as Shahnaz Rouse points out. A common thread that seems to run through all 15 essays is that of discontent. The writers all question the structures they inhabit – domestic, diasporic, linguistic, political. They reject the silencing of women’s and minority voices and push for change. Their identity as Pakistani writers is perhaps constituted in their commonality of intent, as much as it is in a shared history. Home is often loss in these essays, even when it has not meant displacement, becoming another thematic thread that holds these diverse pieces together. It is perhaps most appropriate to summarise the volume in Javeri’s own words: “The personal essay demands ownership and accountability; the writers in this anthology own their stories with courage and grace.” Courage, grace, and truth-telling, then, as ways of being.
Ways of Being: Creative Non-Fiction by Pakistani Women, edited by Sabyn Javeri, Women Unlimited.