TFT: If you were to characterize the writing produced for this year’s ZHR prize, what would you say about the style and the content? What stood out most for you?
Alice Albinia: I was really struck by the collective power of these pieces: there is such strength and solidarity in the accumulation of these voices and stories, with their repeated explorations of the relentless oppressions of family and culture. Despite the very different biographies and experiences, it felt to me as if the women were writing together, for each other. I was deeply moved, reading them.
All the writing was in English, so there was a particular class dynamic to the pieces. But within that, there was a great deal of variation. There were some pieces by people from Sindh; others from Urdu-medium families; women of different ages and economic means. So, a variety of Pakistani milieu and contexts, albeit mediated via English.
Also: there was no conventional romance. How interesting! That was also particularly striking. (laughs) It’s kind of like the polar opposite of Western writing in that way. Where has romance gone, in Pakistan? Is it too complicated? Too taboo? Or are there just more important things to think about?
TFT: A question we posed to the winner Raniya Hosain too, since this is a theme that seems to have come up a lot in the various entries. Do you think there is something ubiquitous about women’s pain across time and space – and could writing it help empower women?
AA: Yes. There was an entry, “Quarantine”, that describes in a very witty way, how lockdown is finally allowing everyone in the world (men especially) to experience what it is like being a South Asian woman. I laughed when I read that one. It’s so true.
But all these writers looked very boldly at the way women’s lives are circumscribed in sexist ways, and there is a lot of pain in the writing which many other people outside Pakistan can undoubtedly empathise with. And yes, exactly, you can see it in this collection, how empowering it is, just putting words on paper and sending them out into the world.
Did you read “Hairy”? That’s a very funny piece about the actual, oppressive, patriarchal pain of epilation. Performed by a Dr Lolly.
TFT: What was it about the winning entry by Raniya Hosain that the judges appreciated most?
AA: I think it was probably the beautiful writing. She does write very beautifully indeed. I loved the opening, with the different ways of describing womanhood, profound and silly, “A woman is a metaphor. Wait no – she is a biological certainty, a fixed chromosomal truth… A woman is silver earrings and five different types of organic conditioner.”
I sometimes wonder about all the wasted hair conditioner in the world, organic or not.
She’s describing different experiences from her particular point of view as a well-heeled young woman, and she does it with such delicacy and force. The catcalls; the feeling of shame for “wearing sleeveless”. Her line about the “The closest I have come to a world without patriarchy is Ladies Hour at the Islamabad Club Pool (9-10am)” should be stuck up in every government office. Or every public pool, at least.
One hour in the pool! As she points out, it a very elite experience to be swimming in an Islamabad pool for one hour in the morning. And yet that elite privilege, with its strictly demarcated code; it says so much. She describes the lovely feeling of being in the water, of feeling it on your skin. I remember swimming in the sea in Karachi and it was such a powerful experience: freedom and independence, and not being watched for once (til you get out, anyway), being cloaked in the ocean.
TFT: What are the most important themes that you think Pakistani non-fiction writing in general has to offer readers from other parts of the world?
AA: A glance into the many different aspects of this complex and interesting country. If you don’t have a personal connection to Pakistan, it can be a daunting place to think about, let alone actually visit, from the outside.
Pakistan already has amazing writing coming out in the form of novels. So I was really excited about the non-fiction/ memoir dimension to this competition – these non-fiction short stories – vignettes of different experiences. Writing collections like this help move readers beyond the usual stereotypes.
So, the more voices that come out of Pakistan, the better it is. I was busy when I was asked to do this prize, but I wanted to read the writing. And I was so moved by it and so impressed. I think it’s a really brilliant initiative.
TFT: Do you find Pakistani writers making major interventions on ‘global’ issues or are they more preoccupied with local concerns?
AA: Oh, they seem preoccupied with everything, naturally.
With these particular entries, there is a very strong sense of the domestic versus the public, and the clash of values when women move from one space to another. I loved the detail of lives and homes, clothes and skin – the personal experience of women navigating the world. And of course, these things translate outward. They go beyond specific cultures, language and experience. That’s what each bit of good writing is doing. It’s really important to do both and I think that the best pieces of writing in this collection were doing that.
For example, that piece about the father who committed suicide (“Fathers, be good to your daughters”). The circumstances and issues she is describing were, of course, very local, how the death was reported, where they thought he might be, how they found him. The way it was written made me feel almost as if I were there in Karachi. And then, the actual core thing she’s writing about – in this case the loss of a parent – which goes well beyond the personal and the local. Almost everybody has a father. Bereavement is so shocking when it happens.
Likewise, the piece about the mother with mental illness, ‘Teaching my mother how to pronounce suicide’; what a vivid piece of writing. It actually made me shake.
TFT: Another question that we put to this year’s winner too, and one that we hope that you can also weigh in upon as a judge: what sort of platforms do we need for a flourishing literary culture in Pakistan? And do you find that the lit-fest scene helps with this?
AA: For women to write safely, some things are needed. Maybe this already exists – I’m not sure – but you need a safe, password-protected online forum where women can write for each other and to each other, without being trolled. So a safe space like that would probably be a good idea.
I know the literary festival scene is already really strong in Pakistan – the festivals started taking off well after my book Empires of the Indus came out in 2008, and I’ve spent the past years finishing my next two books, which are Empires of the Indus and Leela’s Book but in Britain, so I have little direct experience of them but I hear amazing things.
Another thing that is probably needed would be to reduce some of the obstacles to getting published, not just from the English-speaking world of Pakistan, but other linguistic cultures too.
“For women to write safely, some things are needed. Maybe this already exists – I’m not sure – but you need a safe, password-protected online forum where women can write for each other and to each other, without being trolled”
To that end it would also be very interesting to have a prize – or a sub-section of the ZHR prize – for translation. I’m sure there is plenty of really fascinating writing by women coming from, say Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and a translation element would help nurture that writing if it doesn’t exist already as a thriving literary culture, and either way, give it a new audience.