My friend in Islamabad recently shared this essay by Kamila Shamsie in Guernica Magazine, “The Storytellers of Empire,” which inspired and also saddened me. In the essay Shamsie posits the overall question,
“Where are they, the American fiction writers whose works are interested in the question – “What do these people have to do with us?” and “What are we doing out there in the world?””
Shamsie’s point is that American fiction writers have refused to write in the Pakistani voice. Unlike John Hersey writing on Nagasaki, the fiction writers of today have distanced themselves from telling the stories of Pakistanis — the stories of the “other” in a way that allows the reader to resonate with/identify with a character and hopefully, in turn, a real human life. To break away from the stereotypical and overly generalized perceptions of Pakistanis as seen in mainstream Western media.
While Shamsie’s feelings resonated with me, I can think of a number of reasons why Pakistanis are absent from American fiction, reasons that are difficult to escape, overcome, or disregard.
For one, there is a complete lack of context. And this I think is rooted in the way in which Pakistani Americans identify themselves. Unlike Indians or Latin Americans, Pakistanis in America distance themselves from their Pakistani identity for reasons that are obvious. This distance creates a lack of intrigue, of creativity, of a passion to tell a story about your country of origin. As some distance themselves from their ethnic identity, there is also a seemingly growing tendency to identify more with their religious identity, especially after 9/11. This creates a dynamic where the issue of being a Muslim in America post- 9/11 is an issue all on its own, a point of focus which overwhelms the space where inspiration may be sought to develop Pakistani characters and voice.
Another reason may be that unlike, for example, Vietnam, this war being waged on Pakistani soil is still somewhat removed from day-to-day life in parts of urban Pakistan. Journalists living in Islamabad or Kabul are present for this war just as journalists were present during Vietnam, but somehow they have not yet transferred their experiences, their stories to fiction. This could be because while they are present, it may be in a vacuum. Perhaps the enclaves from where they watch this war are just not close enough to the people, the human lives that are affected (or completely unaffected?) by war? Or in cases where they are close enough, the transfer of stories to fiction just hasn’t happened…yet. Though it has been eleven years since the attacks of September 11.
One of the reasons Kamila Shamsie’s essay resonated with me is that I attribute much of my understanding and interest in history and culture to fiction and literature. Yet I do feel strongly about the fact that the stories should come from sources that are linked, either ethnically or in some other strong way, to the stories they are taking the privilege of telling. This, in my opinion, is critical to sustaining credibility as a writer and the authenticity of the story. I believe that Pakistani American fiction writers do exist and are capable of weaving together important stories that need to be told. I just don’t know where these voices are. Or whether they will ever step out of the shadow of their overwhelming American identity to let their Pakistani self speak.