Pakistan Writers Take Center Stage

The literary magazine Granta shines a new light on Pakistan with features on new writers from Pakistan. Guest host Jacki Lyden discusses the cultural significance of Pakistan with John Freeman, editor of Granta, and Sarfraz Manzoor, one of the writers featured in the magazine.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, saving for retirement in a dicey economy. We'll have tips on how to keep your head above water now and still plan for your future with our money coach Alvin Hall. That's in a few minutes.

But first, how about a trip to the literary shores of Pakistan? The autumn issue of the journal Granta has collected poetry, photographs, fiction devoted entirely to Pakistan, some of it quite satirical. Editor of Granta, John Freeman, joins us on the line now from Tokyo. Hello, John.

Mr. JOHN FREEMAN (Editor, Granta): Hi, nice to be here.

LYDEN: And also with us is Sarfraz Manzoor, one of the writers featured in the issue. And he joins us from the BBC studios in London. Hello, Sarfraz.

Mr. SARFRAZ MANZOOR (Writer): Hi there.

LYDEN: John, you have this wonderful sort of satire that your writers came up with about how one should write about Pakistan. Could you read a little bit of the list?

Mr. FREEMAN: Yeah. We've got five writers in it and the first one is by Muhammad Hanif who goes: Number one, must have mangoes. Number two, must have maids who serve mangoes. Number three, maids must have affairs with man servants who occasionally steal mangoes. Number four, masters must lecture on history of mangoes and forgive the thieving servant. Number five, calls to prayer must be rendered to capture the mood of a nation disappointed by the failing crop of mangoes.

LYDEN: And you also send up this fear that Pakistan engenders in a lot of Western readers. One of the writers is talking about that is almost a brand, saying, if you're writing about brand Pakistan, I don't need to reiterate here what brand Pakistan stands for. But since my future income stream's tied up with it, I'm going to do it. Brand Pakistan is a horror brand. It's like the "Friday the 13th" series, or if you're into humor, like "Scary Movie," or "Jaws," if nature writing is your thing.

I just thought this was all such a great off-kilter take on what we all think about Pakistan - sometimes.

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, supposedly we're all interested in Pakistan because it's in the news, because Osama bin Laden may or may not be hiding there, because the country is in the throes of a battle with extremism. And a lot of the writers who come from Pakistan are aware of that curiosity. And in some ways, they're writing against it because they are very much against selling their country to the outside world. But they cannot determine why people buy their books.

And so Muhammad Hanif's first novel, "A Case of Exploding Mangoes" barely has mangoes in it. And in some ways it's a satire about the way that you write about Pakistan. And his piece in this issue of Granta operates much in the same way.

LYDEN: Sarfraz Manzoor, you were asked to contribute to this issue and we're going to get to your contribution, "White Girls," in a few minutes. But what do you think about the notion of the whole issue devoted to not only fiction and nonfiction, but art and photography as well.

Mr. MANZOOR: I mean I think it's a really interesting organizing principle, because I think that Granta did an India issue a while back. And so Pakistan, because of the fact that it doesn't really take much for Pakistan to be timely because there's always something going on every couple of weeks, every couple of months. So it's always in the news.

But I think that, you know, by sort of slightly subverting stereotypes. But also I think unpeeling the country and its people, then I think you perhaps get something else.

And, for me, part of the reason for wanting to write in Granta is because it's not a magazine like a news magazine or a newspaper. You can try and unpack the real story of what it means to be from Pakistan or part of the Diaspora in a more subtle and hopefully more interesting way that, you know, the mainstream media would, you know, ordinarily do on a daily basis.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. And for those of our listeners who might not know about Granta, it is a quarterly literary journal. John, you took some of the writers, some of you collected and got together in Lahore to have a panel about this. And you blogged about it for Granta's website. Could you tell me what that experience was like?

Mr. FREEMAN: It was actually really wonderful because one of our goals for this issue was to make something that made as much sense to Pakistani readers as it did to readers around the world. I was in Lahore for a day and I was in Karachi for two or three days and I met many, many readers who are very concerned about the country and are very proud in a way to have a chance to celebrate the literary accomplishments of writers who are coming from there.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about new writings from Pakistan as featured in the autumn issue of Granta. My guests are John Freeman, the editor of Granta, and Sarfraz Manzoor, one of the writers featured in the issue.

Sarfraz, would you introduce us to your piece, which is called "White Girls." And talk about it a little bit, and then I'm wondering if I could get you to read from it.

Mr. MANZOOR: Yeah, when John asked me to write something, I wanted to write something which was going to be true to who I really was. And the truth is I didn't spend most of my time thinking about Pakistan in a kind of direct way. But the ripples of the fact that that's where I'm originally from, you know, they carry on. And one of the most direct ways they carry on is in terms of, you know, the search for love and relationships.

And the piece that I eventually wrote called "White Girls" was kind of slightly a comedic take on, you know, the challenges of somebody, you know, from Pakistan looking for somebody to fall in love with, and then invariably finding that the people you fall in love with are the wrong color for your parents. And I kind of felt like this was something where you don't have to be Pakistani to kind of understand that.

So the piece was called "White Girls." And the first few lines of it, which I'll just read for you are: Her name was Bo and she was the first girl I ever loved. I was 10 years old, a shy, skinny brown boy with a mop of black curls. And Bo wasn't just out of my league, she had descended from another universe. Bo was tall and beautiful with sparkling white teeth and golden hair that swung in braids when she ran. I loved her, but I knew she could never be mine. She did not live in Luton, for a start, she was (unintelligible) and somewhat older than me. She was married - and the highest hurdle - she was white.

Because even at the age of 10, I knew that while I could possibly have persuaded her to leave her husband, swap Los Angeles for Luton and consider being with a younger man, I could never make Bo brown.

LYDEN: And, of course, the narrator is talking about Bo Derek in "10."

Mr. MANZOOR: Correct.

LYDEN: And you think that's kind of great because her movie's titled the same age that he is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: But it's a wonderful story of this man who eventually comes to equate taking a chance on love, which is a little to me a theme of this collection, because we're taking a chance here, I think, John Freeman, in what you have assembled here on creativity, on the human spirit, on the kinds of things that don't unfortunately dominate news headlines.

Mr. FREEMAN: Well, and humor. You know, to be Pakistani is so many other things. And simply to be from the country which exists in South Asia and is going through the tumultuous times it is right now. And, you know, I think it's important to remember when it comes to the space which means Pakistan, it can extend far beyond the borders of that country and mean something different wherever you are.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MANZOOR: I just wanted to pick up on that, actually, just in terms of in a way the very fact that Pakistan has got this edginess about it and it has got this, you know, sense of danger and transgressive-ness, it actually means that the humor that comes from that Diaspora has an edge to it as well.

And just to give you an example, somebody emailed me yesterday. It was a song that he had recorded and it was on YouTube. And it was basically a take off of Lionel Richie and it was called, "Halal, is it Meat You're Looking For?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANZOOR: And it was done with the lyrics and the melody of the Lionel Richie song, but it was like a hymn of praise to halal meat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Well, the other thing that I think is in a wonderful creative way, useful about this, John, is that you've taken us through all kinds of different looks. I mean you do have a look here from The New York Times journalist Jane Perlez at one of the first statesman of modern Pakistan, Jinnah.

Mr. FREEMAN: And Jinnah turns out to be much more ambiguous a figure than at first glance, you know. And what Jane finds traveling around Pakistan is that the portraits that people put up of Jinnah say a lot about what they imagine Pakistan to be. And Jinnah was a savalro(ph) suit wearing, cigarette-smoking, gin and tonic drinking, pool playing dandy in a way, but he was also the founding father of what has become an Islamic state.

And the question is, is it a state for Muslims or is it an Islamic state? And in the past 50 years, what's happened is that Pakistan has become an Islamic state. And throughout the issue you see writers dealing with that evolution. And it's a very poignant portrait, I think this issue presents because if you read Jane's piece you see that Pakistan didn't necessarily have to become the state that it is right now. And hopefully the pieces in the issue explain to a certain degree how it got there and what it feels like to have lived through that.

LYDEN: Sarfraz, you came to England at a really young age, do you get back to Pakistan often or keep in touch with folks there?

Mr. MANZOOR: I do actually. I mean I was there - so there was a Karachi literature festival, in fact, earlier this year and I actually went back to make a BBC documentary about Jinnah. And John is absolutely right that, you know, in a sense there is a battle for the soul of what Pakistan could be. And in a way, writing like this, by deepening and giving a slightly more broader idea of it, hopefully, you know, it sort of - it's par for the battle in some ways as well.

LYDEN: Sarfraz, where do you think Pakistani writing is today? Is it coming of age? Is it younger? Is it edgier? How would you say it's evolved?

Mr. MANZOOR: To be honest, I don't think I'm really the best person to talk about that because, you know, as somebody who's part of the Diaspora, I'm actually much more familiar with where British and, you know, American writing is. I think one of the things that hopefully this issue does is highlight the richness of the fact that there is a new crop of writers who are, you know, emerging out onto the national stage.

And hopefully for young writers in Pakistan, knowing the kind of rewards that are now available, if they get the right story and if they can capture the imagination, that must be an example of hope, actually. If you're, you know, if you're in your 20s and you want to sort of, you know, tell your story or write your novel, the fact that the prizes are out there now, I think that must be quite encouraging.

LYDEN: Sarfraz Manzoor is a writer whose work is featured in the autumn issue of Granta magazine, the magazine of new writing. He joined us from London. John Freeman is the editor of Granta. And he joined us by phone from Tokyo. It's a wonderful issue. Thank you both so much.

Mr. FREEMAN: Thank you.

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