Writing in & of the World: Silk Routes Grant Narrative, Pakistan Two

My graduate training is in the field of creative writing, with a specialization in fiction. During the course of my graduate study, I produced fiction based that was based on Karachi and arose out of the conflicts of contemporary urban life. For the last three years though I have been teaching literature at the undergraduate level at a liberal arts college in Pakistan, and my views on literature and my own practice as a writer have evolved in conjunction of my practice of teaching literature. I will try to list some of my ideas here.

When I started teaching, I thought my MFA degree in fiction writing gave me an edge, simply because there are only very few people with an MFA-training teaching in Pakistan, and students would appreciate the kind of perspective I bring to their study of literature—that is, one of a writer. However, having taught for three years now, I find my approach has expanded significantly from a pure discussion of technique and craft aspects of writing, and it has embraced a wider array of subjects and strategies, including questions of history, context, and a profound emphasis on self-reflection and lived realities.

At the beginning, I taught my students to read literary texts “like a writer”: paying attention to the questions of techniques of narrative construction, and the resulting effects of a writer’s formal choices. The students were discomforted at first by their first encounter with such an approach to literature. But they gradually shed their preconceived ideas about the nature and aims of literature, and began to shift their focus from ‘correct interpretation’—an anxiety that very many students bring with them to the classroom—to the ‘erotics of literature’: that is, the pleasures and possibilities of language and a close examination of the structure of a literary text. We read a range of texts: from Arabian Nights and Dastan-e Amir Hamza to more contemporary works by Italo Calvino and David Foster Wallace. I hoped to make them see literature as ‘an experience’ and ‘not a statement or an answer to a question,’ and ‘as a thing in the world’, rather than ‘a commentary on the world’. It was a liberating exercise for everyone involved and by the end of the course, the anxiety and oppression of ‘correct’ interpretation was replaced by a more democratic and inclusive exchange on the possibilities of our experience of coming into contact with language that was alive which defamiliarized us from ordinary things and objects.

During the course of this exchange, I had also challenged their fundamental ideas relating to literature and reading. For instance, I cautioned them against the positive knowledge that was bandied around in literature’s name, and encouraged them to think of stories as artifices that trigger certain experiences. I emphasized that the insights from literature were not of substance but of mode. Literature taught you to see how you engaged with language, through which you learned something about interacting with yourself and the world. We read Barthes, early-Sontag, and the New Critics.

But a good two years into the experiment, I began to see the limits of my approach and how far short it fell in answering the needs of my students. The realization came when I was teaching Aleksander Hemon’s The Question of Bruno—a book on the Bosnian War. More specifically, how the Bosnian War ravaged Sarajevo and its history of a multicultural and multiethnic past. The book was an extraordinary testament of witnessing the war from a location that was not affected by it. (Hemon consciously wrote the book as a refugee in Chicago observing the war destroy his hometown.) As I taught the stories, focusing primarily on Hemon’s exquisite prose and images and puzzling over the strange shapes that each one of the stories made, I sensed uneasiness in the class. It was clear to me and to my students that history in this book was not just incidental, it was central, and a purely formal approach would not work. And was it really possible to read a book like Hemon’s by staying indifferent to the war in Sarajevo and without knowing anything about Yugoslavia as a Soviet satellite? How does one comprehend fragmentary stories and a fractured psychic continuum without really engaging with the fractured history of the former Soviet states and the psychological discontinuities that result from living under war? The stories in Bruno were not simply referencing the historical event but consciously situating themselves inside it and reaching out to those tragic, traumatic events in order to create meaning. The form of the work, it was clear to all of us, was solving problems posed by the content; and without an engagement with the content, discussing form was meaningless.

So, midway into the semester, I altered my approach and grounded the stories in the city of Sarajevo. We watched a documentary on the Bosnian War, read journalistic accounts of the Bosnian genocide, and discussed our own experiences of violence living in Pakistan.

Much to our surprise, once we allowed what it meant to us located in Pakistan enter the classroom, the entire experience of the work transformed. Students were able to bring in their own life experience into the reading of the work more openly, and as they related their own experiences of violence to their readings of the stories in Hemon’s book, they became aware of the fact of how deeply their ‘intellectual’ persuasions were informed by their personal and spatial experiences. Literature suddenly transformed from being a distant, detached world into something of an illuminated space that existed between the literary texts and ourselves.

Now, in the classroom and in my own literary practice as a writer, I have moved away from airtight considerations of form and technique and have incorporated context, history and space. My suggestion to my students is to ground their interpretation closely in texts while simultaneously being aware of where their interpretation falls short, what it fails to explain and take into account, and what details in the text undercut their interpretation. I insist on making my students aware, constantly, of the inherent tension between the instability of meanings in a text versus our impulse to create a singular meaning. I believe this dialectic is crucial and enables students in many important ways, particularly, in making sense of the increasingly uncertain world in which we live.

I still believe that at the heart of literary enterprise is defamiliarizing a world we think we understand and know, and slowing down of judgment and a reexamination of how we arrive at particular views. But I also understand that one of the fundamental function of narratives to enable individuals and communities comprehend the world and themselves: narratives help people render their experience legible and make meaning of their histories and their world around them. I see the literary texts as a site for reflection and honest conversations, which defamiliarizes a worn out world, and then demands of us to engage anew with it.