LAHORE LITERARY FESTIVAL: The landscape of children’s literature
By Anam Haq
In an effort to accommodate a variety of literature and reading interests, the LLF had a session devoted to children’s literature. Even though this did not attract throngs, it was one of the better moderated and more productive sessions, not least because the three panellists were actively involved in children’s literature in diverse and significant ways, and also because Afia Aslam, the moderator, was on top of her game.
Panellists included Baela Raza Jamil, director of programmes at Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi; Nina Fite, the US consul general in Lahore; and Musharraf Ali Farooqi whose children’s book Tik Tik, the Master of Time has recently been published. Aslam began by asking the panellists what the general landscape of children’s literature in Pakistan is. Jamil’s active engagement with children was apparent when she spoke about the successful children’s literature festival which has been held annually for three years throughout Pakistan, and said that children are all awaiting an outlet to express themselves. She quoted examples of children who, in the festival, had chosen to write on themes that affect the entire nation — missing people, families torn apart by war and poverty. Children, she said, deserve literature which addresses these issues because children do not live in an insulated world and can respond to complex situations just as adults can.
Fite mentioned that the USAID has rebuilt over 900 schools in areas affected by war and is focusing on implementing literacy programmes throughout the country. She also spoke about the role played by children’s literature in building bridges between cultures by giving the example of a children’s story set in America in the early 20th century, which she had read to school children in Pakistan. She pointed out that the themes of family bonds, parental love, the importance of education and so on are relevant to each child no matter what his/her location in the world.
When asked how he addresses conflict in his writing for children, Farooqi said that he chooses to address healing instead. Drawing on his own memories, he said that children do not read to be reminded of all that is ugly in their world but to break free of it and use their imaginations to find a way to reconstruct their lives. His writing, he said, provide escapism of sorts as he focuses more on relationships and their role in the healing process. For instance, the relationship a character from another galaxy has with his grandfather can be instructional not just in providing fertile ground for a child’s imagination but also in teaching children about friendship and respect in different circumstances. He encouraged parents to allow their children to read even if it meant that they weren’t doing outstandingly at school.
The discussion then veered towards a central component in children’s learning — storytelling. There is a strong tradition of storytelling in the subcontinent and it is the most effective way of informing children about the world in a way that piques their interest. The romantic stories of paris and jinns, as well as the comic exaggerations of Chacha Chakkan and Haji Baghlol have been around in the South Asian cultural fabric for decades and the fact that children are now secluded from that rich and fun learning experience is regretful. Farooqi recalled the tamashas of yore where storytellers would play out entire stories to an enthralled audience of children and adults alike. Jamil ended the session on the note that education in Pakistan needs to utilise these existing local pedagogies which requires a process of unlearning and re-learning on part of teachers and parents.
LAHORE LITERARY FESTIVAL: UNDER EVERY STONE
THE dreamy title, ‘A Sense of Place,’ suggested an emphasis on the role of place in writing and the session gathered writers in whose work place plays an intrinsic part: Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms Other Wonders is rooted in southern Punjab and Lahore; Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is a Bombay bhaji through and through; H.M. Naqvi’s Home Boy is played out against New York in the aftermath of 9/11; and Ebba Koch, the art historian whose passion for Mughal architecture has defined her work for the past 30 years. The choice of moderator though, was bewildering — Omar Waraich, a senior journalist whose main interests are politics and current affairs.
The session started out encouragingly, with speakers talking about how the process of understanding a place has informed their work. Koch examined her study of Mughal architecture in both India and Pakistan and its echoes in the social fabric of society. She declared the Mughal era as being a “utopia of the past” for the present generation of South Asians — a legacy of religious peace, intellectual learning and sophistication — a heritage that lives on in any retelling of Mughal history. Naqvi recounted his all encompassing research for Home Boy, absorbing New York in every way his characters could imagine, as well as helpfully naming the best place for nihari in the city on a homesick day. Thayil mentioned how Narcopolis came from his unconsciously stored memories of Bombay from the past 30 years. The unwrapping of such personal processes offered insights into not just the craft of these writers but also into the craft of writing itself and its profound relationship with the author’s world.
Thereafter though, the session went awry, not least due to the moderator’s inability to keep the panellists on topic. Of course, writers love to speak about their work (and themselves) and so the discussion rambled. In reply to a question about whether the plot is constructed fully before the actual writing process begins, Mueenuddin said that stories choose the author, hence even the author is trying to find out where the story is going. This uncertainty within the writing process, he said, keeps the author motivated and usually translates into interesting reading for the audience. Naqvi further elaborated by saying that characters are individual voices with agency and so to tell them what to do would be peculiar.
The speakers also talked about their differences in terms of persistence. Mueenuddin confessed that he abandoned work on two novels before he completed his short story collection — he said that too much work on one project eventually turns the project repulsive to the writer. Koch, though, thought differently and said that working on her subject has been an obsession for decades.
The idea of place finally returned to the discussion towards the end of the session with Naqvi saying that in the context of Karachi, the sense of place matters immensely while recreating the city in prose. “In large cities, like Karachi,” he said, “a story lies under every stone.”
LAHORE LITERARY FESTIVAL: ART OF STORYTELLING
The session ‘Narrative Forms in Urdu Fiction and Poetry’ was one of the few sessions devoted to Urdu literature at the LLF. Panellists were writers Khalid Toor, Ali Akbar Natiq and Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Toor has worked as a producer at Radio Pakistan for most of his life, but has been recently re-discovered as a prose writer with critical acclaim. His work has spanned over 30 years, but up until now he has remained strangely elusive to fame. Natiq is foremost a poet, but has recently written his first collection of short stories, Qaim Deen. Musharraf Ali Farooqi, albeit an English writer, has a history, both personal and professional, with Urdu literature and is a prolific translator of Urdu classics into English.
The loosely structured session began with the moderator Ali Madeeh Hashmi asking what narrative meant to each writer. Toor gave a fantastic answer, saying that when a story breathes subjectivity is when it transforms into a narrative. On the other hand, Natiq used the dastan to illustrate his thoughts about narrative. According to him, the reader wants a story to be told — he/she wants to be enthralled by a narrative which, much like the dastan, has a real story to tell and is not constrained by descriptions and plot fillers. Farooqi here made an excellent point by indirectly quoting E.M. Forster, saying that the dastan at the very outset tells the reader the story, that is, when the protagonist was born, what he did, when he died. But this “story” is different from the plot in which how the story unravels is revealed. He further elaborated by giving the example of characters whose strongest traits are highlighted in the initial “story” of the dastan — the plot then that takes these traits and reverses them. This narrative method, so strongly influenced by fatalism and predestination, is a crucial part of dastan.
Hashmi asked the writers to discuss certain descriptions in their work, in an effort to understand the relationship between description (which can be seen as a pause in narration), and narrative. Natiq discussed the character Selaab in his stories, and explained that the point of description is to sketch a character with whom each reader is familiar to some degree. Whether it be a local madman chained to a charpai, or the literal selaab of Noah, the description of the character conjures up memories or images in the reader’s mind and invests his/her subjectivity into the narrative. Toor then read a portion from one of his stories. The passage described an aandhi. At the end of the storm, all that remains is the tragicomic loss of a boy’s clothes in the tussle between man and nature. It was a beautiful descriptive passage and duly held the audience’s rapt attention.
Towards the end of the short session, Farooqi said that despite being a Pakistani writer in English, literature in Urdu is far superior to what is being produced in Pakistan in English. Regardless of the language, what is important is that quality literature is being written in Pakistan and appreciated. Toor hit the nail on the head when he said that literature knows no divides of the ruler and ruled, of languages or of regions. He quite rightly asked: “Did Dickens rule us? Did Shakespeare teach us how to write in Urdu? Were we oppressed by Eliot? What is the difference between Pushkin and myself? We are both writers and are both human beings. There is no difference, no oppression and no conflict on either side.”
— Anam Haq