Pakistani Authors Catch Literary World's Attention

The world is starting to take note of a new group of authors emerging from Pakistan. Two of those authors were at a recent literature festival in London.

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Pakistan's writers have not won a lot of fame outside their country - until now. The world is beginning to notice writers who offer insight into a country that's constantly in the headlines. And that includes two writers we'll report on next. They're already familiar to many listeners of this program and they're both gaining wider attention. NPR's Rob Gifford met both at a literary festival that was held in London.

ROB GIFFORD: On Paper, Daniyal Mueenuddin looks very American - Dartmouth and Yale Law School, law practice in New York - but underneath he's very Pakistani, despite having moved to the United States when he was 13 years old. His first book is a collection of short stories called "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders."

He says Pakistani writers are very different from the Indian writers the West has come to admire. Pakistani writing, he says, is grittier and tougher emotionally.

Mr. DANIYAL MUEENUDDIN (Writer): We're not lying in sort of a bath of warm water and reflecting upon, you know, our sort of quirky, funny families. There's an edginess to our writing, I believe, which is distinctive.

Born of the - of the - just the, you know, edginess of the situation, I mean, it's very violent. It's really dog-eat-dog, the atmosphere crackling with energy and electricity and menace.

GIFFORD: Certainly in Mueenuddin's stories you can feel the energy and the menace lurking, stories of corrupt politicians and servant women, of farm workers and bandits, of entrenched tradition and of change.

Mueenuddin moved back to run his father's farm in the south Punjab a few years ago, and he lives there now with his tall, blonde Norwegian wife surrounded by what he calls the corrupt, violent society of rural Pakistan. He's not optimistic about the direction the country is going, but he still can't help loving the place.

Mr. MUEENUDDIN: I feel engaged with people there in a way - especially living on my farm. There's a deep connectedness that I find there that I don't have anywhere else. I come to the West and life here seems very pleasant, but quite bland, and I don't know my neighbors. And there's a vividness and a profundity to life there that I don't find in the West.

GIFFORD: As he comes to write his next book, though, Mueenuddin says that he is faced with a decision that all Pakistani writers face. Should it be set before or after September 11th, 2001? 9/11 is a watershed date for Pakistanis, as it is for Americans.

Another writer who had to deal with that question is 36-year-old Kamila Shamsie. Her novel, "Burnt Shadows," has won rave reviews in Britain and elsewhere. The book begins in Nagasaki at the end of World War II and stretches across 60 years, ending up in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

Ms. KAMILA SHAMSIE (Writer): Someone suggested to me early on that this book starting in Nagasaki would end up being the first 9/11 novel, and I said don't be ridiculous, you know. And I got quite annoyed and said not everything has to be about that. But as I was writing the book, I just found it was going in that direction because that was so much what was in my thoughts at the moment that my unconscious was sort of going there.

GIFFORD: Some of the new Pakistani writers spent their childhood abroad. Some, like Shamsie, came to the U.S. or U.K. for college. But the smells and sounds of Pakistan still infuse their writing.

Shamsie regrets that her country is in the headlines for many of what she calls the wrong reasons these days. She doesn't deny the many problems, but says there's plenty to cheer about too, like Pakistan's burgeoning literary scene.

Ms. SHAMSIE: But through the '80s, in Pakistan people would say, you know, you are from Pakistan, you want to write in English, no one's going to be interested, it will never happen. No one can say that now to a young Pakistani who wants to be a writer. They look around, they see there are a number of us now who are being read, who are writing, who are doing well, and I think that's really creating a sense that writing is viable, it's something that can be done.

GIFFORD: And ironically, many Pakistani writers are being published first in neighboring India, the political enemy but the cultural and linguistic brother that's helping to bring Pakistani writers to the attention of the English-speaking world.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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