Thursday, February 09, 2012

Searching for American novelists about Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Here is a long and excellent article, The Storytellers of Empire, by Kamila Shamsie on the lack of American fiction in the post cold war era. It is actually much more than that and very incisive. She questions the lack of introspection about American involvement in the countries where it has been militarily involved (she asks of American writers. "“Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.”). The article begins with Kamila's encounter with John Hersey's novel "Hiroshima" - and it here that she is talking about the two Americas:
Inevitably, it also contains within it two Americas. One is the America which develops and uses—not once, but twice—a weapon of a destructive capability which far outstrips anything that has come before, the America which decides what price some other country’s civilian population must pay for its victory. There is nothing particular to America in this—all nations in war behave in much the same way. But in the years between the bombing of Hiroshima and now, no nation has intervened militarily with as many different countries as America, and always on the other country’s soil; which is to say, no nation has treated as many other civilian populations as collateral damage as America while its own civilians stay well out of the arena of war. So that’s one of the Americas in Hiroshima—the America of brutal military power.

But there’s another America in the book, that of John Hersey. The America of looking at the destruction your nation has inflicted and telling it like it is. The America of stepping back and allowing someone else to tell their story through you because they have borne the tragedy and you have the power to bear witness to it. It is the America of The New Yorker of William Shawn, which, for the only time in its history, gave over an entire edition to a single article and kept its pages clear of its famed cartoons. It is the America which honored Hersey for his truth telling. 
I grew up in Pakistan with two Americas. One was the America of To Kill a Mockingbird and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, of the young Michael Jackson and Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Charlie’s Angels and John McEnroe and Rob Lowe’s blue eyes. Of Martin Luther King and Snoopy. That America was exuberance and possibility.

But there was another that I lived with. The America which cozied up to Pakistan’s military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, because it served its own interests in Afghanistan to do so. This America threw vast amounts of money at Zia, propping up his rule, strengthening his military, turning a blind eye to its nuclear program, working with him to promote the war in Afghanistan as a jihad for all Muslims rather than a territorial matter between Afghans and Soviets; this America spoke eloquently of the Afghan people’s right to freedom and self-determination but decided it was an internal matter when Zia’s government cracked down on pro-democracy protestors in Pakistan, or when he instituted public floggings and hangings, or when he passed a law which made it possible for a woman who had been raped to be stoned to death for adultery. 
How to reconcile these two Americas? I didn’t even try. It was a country I always looked at with one eye shut. With my left eye I saw the America of John Hersey; with my right eye I saw the America of the two atom bombs. This one-eyed seeing was easy enough from a distance. But then I came to America as an undergraduate and realized that with a few honorable exceptions, all of America looked at America with one eye shut.
I don’t mean Americans looked at America uncritically. I mean they looked at it merely in domestic terms. 
I hadn’t expected anyone in America to know anything about Pakistan’s cultural life in the way that I knew about America’s cultural life. In the 1980s at traffic lights in Karachi, barefoot children, many of them refugees from Afghanistan, sold paper masks of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. As the unfortunate among you may know, Rambo III showed that great American icon fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and was dedicated to “the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan,” though Wikipedia informs me that after 9/11 this dedication was changed to “the people of Afghanistan.” I haven’t sat through the movie to determine the veracity of this claim. But anyway, yes, you could buy paper masks of Rambo at traffic lights. And young men in the heat of the Karachi sun wore leather jackets and pushed up their sleeves in imitation of Michael Jackson. I was never foolish enough to imagine that at traffic lights in America anyone was selling paper masks of Maula Jut, Pakistan’s mustachioed cinema icon of the same period, or dancing while moving only their upper bodies in the manner of the sultry pop singer Nazia Hasan—whose below-the-waist gyrations didn’t make it past Zia-ul-Haq’s television censors. But I was startled to discover that when I said I was from Pakistan I was met with blankness—as if, in 1991, no one knew that through the 1980s Pakistan had been America’s closest ally in its proxy war against the Soviets. I don’t recall being too bothered by this. After all, it gave me a way of seeing which for a while was entirely satisfactory. 
I had grown up in a country with military rule; I had grown up, that is to say, with the understanding that the government of a nation is a vastly different thing than its people. The government of America was a ruthless and morally bankrupt entity; but the people of America, well, they were different, they were better. They didn’t think it was okay for America to talk democracy from one side of its mouth while heaping praise on totalitarian nightmares from the other side. They just didn’t know it was happening, not really, not in any way that made it real to them. For a while this sufficed. I grumbled a little about American insularity. But it was an affectionate grumble. All nations have their failings. As a Pakistani, who was I to cast stones from my brittle, blood-tipped glass house? 
Then came September 11, and for a few seconds, it brought this question: why do they hate us? 
It’s hard to remember this now, but it was a question asked loudly and genuinely, maybe not everywhere, certainly not by everyone, but by enough people. It was asked not only about the men on the planes but also about those people in the world who didn’t fall over with weeping but instead were seen to remark that now America, too, knew what it felt like to be attacked. It was asked, and very quickly it was answered: they hate our freedoms. And just like that a door was closed and a large sign pasted onto it saying, “You’re Either With Us or Against Us.” Anyone who hammered on the door with mention of the words “foreign policy” was accused of justifying the murder of more than three thousand people. 
In this moment of darkness, I found myself looking to my tribe, my people. I found myself looking to writers. Where were the novels that could be proffered to people who asked, “Why do they hate us?”, which is actually the question “Who are these people and what do they have to do with us?” No such novel, as far as I knew, had come from the post-Cold War generation of writers who started writing after the 1980s when Islam replaced Communism as the terrifying Other. But that would change, I told myself. The nation that had intervened militarily with more nations than any other in the latter half of the twentieth century but had itself come under attack infrequently would now see its stories bound up with the stories of other places. The writers would write. The novels would come.
They didn’t. They haven’t.
This is just the beginning of the essay. If you have time, you should definitely read the full article. Towards the end, she talks about some of the novels written by Pakistani writers about 9/11. But where are the American novelists:
The stories of America in the World rather than the World in America stubbornly remain the domain of nonfiction. Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t. The unmanned drone hovering over Pakistan, controlled by someone in Langley, is an apt metaphor for America’s imaginative engagement with my nation. 
But what about the Joppolos of fiction writing? Listen again to Hersey’s remarks about Joppolo and imagine he’s talking about fiction writers rather than soldiers: “No other country has such a fund of men who speak the languages of the lands we must invade, who understand the ways and have listened to their parents sing the folk songs and have tasted the wine of the land on the palate of their memories. This is a lucky thing for America. We are very lucky to have our Joppolos.” 
Where is Joppolo the novelist? Where is the American writer who looks on his or her country with two eyes, one shaped by the experience of living here, the other filled with the sad knowledge of what this country looks like when it’s not at home. Where is the American writer who can tell you about the places your nation invades or manipulates, brings you into those stories and lets you draw breath with its characters?
In some cases, those of us writing about America have lived and studied here. But that’s not true in all cases; it’s not true of Mohammad Hanif and Nadeem Aslam. 
So why is it, please explain, that you’re in our stories but we’re not in yours? 
Fear of appropriation? I think that argument can only take you so far. Surely fiction writers today understand the value of stories about America In the World, and can see through the appropriation argument. It is, after all, a political argument that can easily be trumped by another political argument about the importance of engagement. So why, then—why, when there are astonishing stories out in the world about America, to do with America, going straight to the heart of the question: who are these people and what do they have to do with us?—why are the fiction writers staying away from the stories? The answer, I think, comes from John Hersey. He said of novelists, “A writer is bound to have varying degrees of success, and I think that that is partly an issue of how central the burden of the story is to the author’s psyche.”

And that’s the answer. Even now, you just don’t care very much about us. One eye remains closed. The pen, writing its deliberate sentences, is icy cold.
Read the full article here


Anonymous said...

Ayesha Siddiqa is the best fiction writer on Pakistan.

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