Cocoonistan

My post for the November issue of Bookslut goes up today. Here it is below, excerpted in full. The conversation has just begun, so please do join in the comments section.

I. Polemics
Years ago, when I was engaged in the pursuit of the Hindi PhD that I now have, I was approached for an interview by a reporter working for a local Hindi weekly. This was not because I was a notable scholar, but because my presence in the provincial city of Allahabad was odd enough to remark upon in print. At some point the reporter asked me how I liked Hindi literature in comparison to English literature, and if Hindi literature had even developed to a point that it could be compared to English. I tried to explain, in Hindi that was far from flawless, that if I thought Hindi literature was poorly developed, I wouldn’t have come so far to study it, and that in comparison to English it was perfectly good. When the article came out, the reporter had summarized my response along these lines:

Rockwell believes that Hindi literature has made great progress in its development and can even be compared to works of English literature.

The use of the kind of language we use to describe the economies and infrastructures of developing nations to discuss the literatures of so-called ‘third world’ countries is pervasive (pick up a copy of Aijaz Ahmad’s excellent book In Theory to read more about the third worlding of literature). How often do we hear about the development and progress being made in French or Italian literatures? This discourse is even endemic to the discussions about such literatures that take place among the very authors that write in them. Aside from the ludicrousness of talking about the development and progress of the novel or short story in the same style as one might discuss the building of bridges and the paving of roads, there is also the fact that very few literatures of the world are in their infancy. “Yes!” You might interject, “But surely the novel and the short story are quintessentially modern forms!” Indeed, perhaps they are (though there are many arguments to the contrary). Nonetheless, these forms date back to at least the late nineteenth century in most Indian languages. Other genres of writing in the modern Indian languages stretch back much further than that, some to the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, or even earlier, to say nothing of the antiquity of Sanskrit.

English, as the most powerful international language, dominates world conversations on just about everything, but wraps its native speakers in a cocoon that renders them increasingly unable to hear conversations that were not meant for their ears. The cocoon can alienate us from cultural diversity and deafen us to voices that are not speaking directly to us. In this way, as in many others, globalization both broadens our horizons and shrinks them dangerously. Nowadays, development discourse is often used to discuss the great progress that is being made on the front of new writing in English in India, and more recently, Pakistan. Besides the fact that this discourse infantilizes the literary output of writers in English, it paves over the very existence of literary traditions in other languages. As an English-speaking person who likes to read non-English literature from South Asia, I often feel irritable on encountering pronouncements about the extreme youth and great promise of Indian or Pakistani literature.

II. Dialogue
It is thus that I recently got caught publicly fuming over some patches of development discourse. After writing a review of Granta’s recent Pakistan issue for this column, I happened to read an interview in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn with Granta’s editor, John Freeman. I felt irritated by his responses with regard to the very small number of pieces in the issue that had been translated from Urdu and other Pakistani languages. This led me to tweet ungraciously, “After his interview with Dawn, I suddenly hate him.” Freeman then contacted me to learn the source of my pique. What follows are excerpts of our exchange.

There were a couple of things you said that fed into my existing misgivings about the Pakistan issue. I was clear in my review in Bookslut that the absence of translations from Urdu and other languages troubled me. When I saw in the interview that you had actively sought Urdu writing (and Memon did tell me that you attempted to contact him but had the wrong email), I was glad. But it was the assertion that none of the submissions you received ‘made sense’ that bothered me. Of course I have no idea what you received. The writing could have been bad, the translations were very likely poor. But what does it mean for a piece of writing to ‘make sense’ in this context? Did they not talk about Islamism or militarization? Were they not keyed into global conversations?

Writers from India and Pakistan who write in English are in dialogue with and cognizant of the debates and conversations that concern readers in the US and UK. They are a part of those conversations and that market. People writing in Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, and so on, are part of different conversations that tend to be more locally rooted. They too have a transnational audience, but they have no expectation of an American readership, for example. I’m not arguing that the latter are more authentic than the former; authenticity debates are specious and unproductive. What I am arguing is that new Urdu writing probably does not take as much of an interest in the subjects that Westerners want to hear about. But what are their concerns? Are they not worth hearing about? Would contextualizing and explaining them become cumbersome and excessively footnoted? Would it be like trying to translate jokes? Would it be impossible to sell?

The wide availability of Indian and Pakistani writing in English makes it easy to ignore the incredible richness of literary life that exists in all the other languages. Translations are poor and are mostly labors of love. There’s little professional work in that area, and publishers tend not to feel the need to get at these books because the stuff in English is so much more accessible. I think the danger of this dynamic is that it becomes an echo chamber, in which readers feel that they are being given multiple perspectives, but they are not. I very much enjoyed this article by Pankaj Mishra I read yesterday on journalism about Asia. The situation is similar, I think, with regard to literature.

The other thing that bothered me in the interview was this sentence: “But in a lot of countries early in the development of their literature – I’m thinking certainly of the United States – people who were writing were well-to-do, Henry James and Edith Wharton for example.” Not for the allusion to aristocratic writers, but for the notion that Pakistan is early in the development of its literature. Even for English this is not true. But certainly in terms of Urdu literature, which stretches back to at least the sixteenth century, such a statement is likely to offend. In 1947, when Pakistan was created, there were immediately numerous eminent authors living there. My interview a few weeks ago with Memon Sahib touches on the recent trend of speaking about writing in Pakistan as an exciting new phenomenon.

For some reason, discussions of the arts in so-called ‘developing’ countries tend to use the same discourse that is used to discuss the economies of those countries. Third world countries are slowly working to build up their literature in much the same way they are building their infrastructure, their manufacturing base or their medical facilities. Elif Batuman dropped a gratuitous passage of this kind into her recent LRB piece on MFA programs (reading literature from developing nations might be considered intellectually edifying, but who would do it for fun?). Perhaps there are young nations out there where there was previously no literature, or at least only oral culture. But India and Pakistan are most definitely not such nations. I realize you made this reference casually, and that it was probably repeated to you numerous times by all different people, including Pakistanis. But heed Pankaj Mishra’s warning well, and always ask yourself if you are standing in an echo chamber.

And Freeman responded:

When I said [the Urdu literature submissions] didn’t make sense, I didn’t mean that the themes, or even the context was a problem. It was usually the translation, or the fact that some of the work we looked at simply wasn’t very good, or it was a new translation of a classic epic or a poem by a long dead poet. We did have a few close calls with short stories from Urdu, but in the end we had to pick what had the intensity and beauty which was most arresting. We do have a poems from Pashto and Sindhi, and of course [Intizar] Hussain’s terrific piece, and the Manto story on the website, but I was disappointed we didn’t find more which we liked.

None of this has anything to do with selling or extremism, and in fact a lot of the themes which recur in the issue do not become apparent until we are nearly done, since we are looking at each piece individually. On your point about developing literature, I did not mean to suggest that Urdu literature or any other within Pakistan was without a history or developing…I was referring more to literature which develops within the nation state. The Pakistani nation state is very new; just as when Wharton and others were writing, so was the American nation state. But that doesn’t mean that native American story-telling or pre-revolutionary American texts do not qualify as literature…simply that when a nation declares its independence a different sort of clock starts, especially early on, since the writing starts to help define borders as much as lines drawn up on a map.

I made a decision early on to focus on Pakistan writing of the modern nation, not of the region or of its languages. We never intended this issue to be representative or exhaustive, but since we are the magazine of new writing, we decided to focus on what was new, and to give hints of its heritage among writers still alive and working (why we didn’t have a Faiz poem, for example). I think the long history of Pakistani writing pre-1947 speaks through the writers we chose. On that score I’m pleased with the issue, and I hope this clarifies what its calling from.

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lapata

Daisy Rockwell paints under the takhallus, or alias, Lapata (pronounced ‘láh-putt-áh’), which is Urdu for “missing,” or “absconded,” as in “my luggage is missing,” or “the bandits have absconded.”

16 thoughts on “Cocoonistan”

  1. How are James and Wharton early American writers? The House of Mirth was published 118 years after the USA was established as a nation-state. And one could just as easily talk about an American tradition made up of contemporary non-“aristocratic” writers like Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, or Willa Cather in the time period of James and Wharton. The choice not to is completely arbitrary.

    The second fundamental problem with the claim that “developing nation literature” implies “aristocratic” is that ALL of the USA’s first writers were non-aristocratic for reasons which will become obvious if you think even a moment about it (leading me to wonder if Freeman has). The formation of a “gilded age” quasi-aristocratic society in the late 19th century and early 20th was a radical departure from the conditions in which early American writers like Charles Brockden Brown, Susana Rowson, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and James Fenimore Cooper were writing. To put this as simply as possible, all of the USA’s early writers were deeply and basically concerned with the way America was NOT aristocratic: Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry doesn’t make any sense at all unless you take that for granted, or people like Washington Irving. The fact that writers like James could be described as “aristocratic,” in other words, is the clearest indication one could want that they do not belong in the early period in American literary history. Even their contemporaries did not see people like James as a representative American writer; critics of the day still adhered to the older model of American literature, the one that emphasized, above all, democratic every-man-ism above all. The burden of proof was always on “aristocratic” writers (like Wharton, James, and Fitzgerald) to prove that they were still American, while the mainstream was meanwhile dominated by middle class strivers, the Dreiser’s and Crane’s and Howell’s, etc.

    In other words, the argument makes no sense even if you accept the underlying presumption that what happened in American literary history is the model Pakistan’s literary tradition should follow. But, that’s exactly why the parallel is illuminating. American literary history has historically been treated the same way as Freeman is treating Pakistani literary history: until relatively recently, scholars have always treated 1776 as the earliest possible moment when the US’s literary history is allowed to begin, even though people had been writing for two centuries beforehand. All that other stuff just sort of silently disappears. The same thing happens when Freeman decides to “focus on Pakistan writing of the modern nation,” an arbitrary line excluding all sorts of stuff whose omission doesn’t even register.

  2. In case it wasn’t clear in the above, by the way, the point is that what happened in American literary history is NOT the model Pakistan’s literary tradition should be expected to follow. Because the class status of American writers has everything to do with the funny little quirks of early American history, same as it does for Pakistan, or anywhere else. Expecting them all to follow the same path requires you to ignore or make up history (which is why it’s worth noting that Freeman’s admittedly tossed-off literary historical sketch is completely ahistorical; the history is made to fit the narrative required).

  3. Thanks for writing this piece. It was a pleasure to read.

    How many authors from the South Asian subcontinent have won the Nobel Prize for Literature? Rudyard Kipling who was born in Bombay and was the “prophet of British imperialism” and Rabindranath Tagore who won for the English translation of his vastly superior Bengali book of verses – “Gitanjali.” When I was much younger I often wondered why many talented South Asian writers never received greater critical acclaim on the global stage. Part of the problem does indeed lie with accessibility. However, I am not convinced that lack of acceptable translations completely explains it.

  4. “On your point about developing literature, I did not mean to suggest that Urdu literature or any other within Pakistan was without a history or developing…I was referring more to literature which develops within the nation state.”

    So, the literature “which develops within the nation state” of every nation state that’s “very very new,” is in its infancy, regardless of the history of its literature or literary merits. At which point, there is no need to come to any judgement regarding its maturity or richness based on a review of its literature, we can just look at the date of independence of a nation state and deem it in its early stage of development since the nation state should have come into being and declared itself independent earlier than it did. That also renders the question of comparing Pakistani , or any “third world” literature with international literature moot.

    If the literature that develops within a nation state is literature that deals with the fact of the nation state, then which stage of “development” do Faiz, Jalib, Faraz etc. represent?

  5. I have not read the Granta issue and don’t intend to. I did not read the Rushdie anthology, and don’t intend to read it either. I do remember a couple anthologies of that kind, one from Pakistan, another from India. Done by native log. They were sublimely awful. So my question would be: did the gora and semi-gora log do a better job of selection (readable, enjoyable, memorable — heck with ‘representation’) than the native log? If they did, Fine. Let them have their brief moment of glory (i.e. getting placed in course syllabi in American colleges until such times (soon?) that the Humanities are altogether abolished). I think any anthology’s true success lies in the in the number of author’s it makes ita reader to seek out in more detail. Nobel-worthiness, Representativeness, Authenticity are concerns that arise from other non-literary anxieties. Seeking Granta’s seal of approval is not any different from seeking it from The Times.

  6. Mr Naim is surely right at one level to state that “seeking Granta’s seal of approval is not any different from seeking it from The Times” or the NYRB or any such external and “objective” authority. But here is the problem. This is very much the nature of the beast when one writes in English or translates into English. If you do not accept that benchmark, you risk being marginalized. I think the only proper response is to challenge people like Freeman in public and thus try — however utopian this may sound — to somehow discipline them. I think LaPata is on the right track here.

    As for Pankaj Mishra, cited with approval by LaPata, he is the ultimate two-faced character. Read him over the years. He has taken every position and its opposite. He hates writers in English. Then he loves writers in English (as long as they are his buddies). I am astonished that anyone takes this slippery guy seriously — oh, BTW, he writes for the NYRB, the New Yor Times etc etc etc.

  7. To me at least, the very premise of “nation state” in Mr. Freeman’s response sounds unsatisfactory when the material presented is drawn in large part from literature. Take, for instance, Qurratulain Hyder. She wrote her critically acclaimed Urdu novel Aag ka Dariya in Pakistan (1959). She later moved to India and wrote many more novels and short stories. Which nation state should claim her? What is incontrovertible is that it is an Urdu novel, or, better still, just a novel. So the term says very. I often wonder whether a writer sets out to write a “colonial” or “post-colonial novel,” or she writes from some irrepressible inner need. Even to call a literary piece “Pakistani” is to constrain it within a certain geography—something less durable than culture and literature. Which may be all right for the narrow pedagogical needs of students or—as Mario Vargas Llosa puts it—for analysis and discussion. But what does it say about the piece’s power and what Mr. Freeman aptly calls “intensity and beauty”? Since he appears to be quite fond of Intizar Husain (and I’m delighted), the narrator in one of Husain’s very early short stories, “An Unwritten Epic,” is mystified by the term “constructive literature.” He says he has seen nothing “destructive” in literature. So how can it be “constructive”? To him literature is just literature, existing in its particular mode of being, impervious to national boundary or state. (In my translation work, mostly from Urdu, I have stopped worrying about the nation state, as I can see no perceivable difference between an Indian Urdu writer and her Pakistani counterpart.)

    My other problem: the literary stage of the Pakistani “nation state” is not as crowded by its English authors as one might wrongly assume from their overwhelming presence in the pages of Granta. What impression is a lay reader likely to get of the nation state when the selection falls tragically short of giving a carefully balanced idea of its diverse literary traditions? I especially regretted the poor representation of Urdu. I wish Mr. Freeman had contacted me sooner and at my regular address. Apparently he had enjoyed reading my translations in Words Without Borders last year. At the very least, I could have pointed out some good fictional pieces for his consideration.

  8. There is an unusual prickliness that sets in when the “Occident” chooses to set itself up as a finer judge and discerner of things native and ‘oriental’.
    So the criticism of the Granta issue has largely been on what it did *not* contain and *why* it should have included other literary traditions. Fair enough, but a critique could have been just as objective if it had been based on *what* the issue does contain.
    Mehr Afshan Farooqi’s anthology of Urdu literature that OUP India published a couple of years ago, contained contributions from nearly 90 authors from the subcontinent and it didn’t excite a similar controversy.

  9. @aditi: For a reading of *what* the issue *does contain*, and by the *same* author of this criticism, see this (linked above)
    Daisy Rockwell, “Getting to Know You”, Bookslut (Oct 2010)
    http://www.bookslut.com/white_chick_with_a_hindi_phd/2010_10_016685.php

    I realize that blogs by nature fracture conversations, and this can throw up hurdles for the casual readers, but really, that is the point of certain forms of on-line publishing: Grow the conversation, explore various facets, have a dialogue. This post, my previous post, Zunguzungu’s post, the previous review are one example of such a conversation with Granta:Pakistan. Your comment does point out the need to archive all of these conversations in a unified pdf and publish them as such. I will try and get to it soon.

  10. I am sympathetic to Cacoonistan’s perspective that Granta should have included pieces written in Urdu and other regional languages. I also agree with his general point that the “developmental” discourse is used to infantilize and dismiss the intellectual and literary output of non-English, third-world writers, though I think the writer himself slips into that discourse when he starts to make a case that Urdu literature actually has a deep history. Not only is this not relevant, it also seems to imply that Granta is justified in excluding, say, Pashto literature because it does not have the same “eminent” history. The issue is whether Urdu writers are saying something substantially different from what the English writers that Granta chose to include are saying. The reason it is important to include Urdu writers and writers from other languages is so that Granta’s readership would at least have some basis for comparing the literary output of the geographical region of Pakistan and to understand if there are in fact different issues at stake for writers in different languages (maybe there are and maybe there aren’t). The reason Granta’s exclusion of Urdu writers and writers of other languages is problematic is because Granta’s edition claims to be providing a sample of Pakistani writers, and has, in classic elitist fashion, chosen urban English writers from largely middle to upper class backgrounds as representatives of Pakistan. Personally, I’m not convinced that including Pakistan’s prominent Urdu writers would shift the perspective much—they aren’t so different—but it would be better than not having any regional languages. Again, what matters is perspective, not how deep the history of Urdu literature is.

    Also, I think the author has a fairly romantic and naïve understanding of Urdu literature. It is one thing to say that Granta should’ve included non-English writers, it is a whole different thing to suggest that literature in Pakistan is thriving despite our broader institutional crisis. We all know that literature is not produced in a vaccum and that creation of literature requires certain institutions and arrangements like universities, reading publics, patronage from the government or private elites etc (at least those things that qualify as “literature” for Granta). In fact, there are a handful of writers and poets in Pakistan that dominate every literary space and event, which is partly by their own design, and in general they have very little to say that is original or interesting. This should not surprise us. In Pakistan, being a writer is something people do on the side because you cannot aspire to a middle class life through writing alone. There are few opportunities for people trained in the arts in general and even fewer for those trained in a regional language. There is no doubt that the lack of any institutional support for non-English writers in Pakistan makes producing quality literature difficult. At the end of the day, literature is a craft and it requires that people have money, time and energy to pursue it, or at least incentive to sacrifice now in the hope for future pay off. That is simply not the case here. Moreover, the fact that education is limited to a certain class and that the vast majority of these people think that the arts is a complete waste of time has meant a decline in the quantity and quality of literature. The only people that seem to care about Urdu literature are people sitting in South Asian Studies Departments in the US, and it is from the comfort of that space that people imagine this rich and lively literary tradition (this shouldn’t surprise either, their jobs depend on it). Most Urdu writers in Pakistan will tell you that the literature here is in a crisis, and most, I imagine, will agree that Pakistan is not producing writers of the caliber of say Latin America or Eastern Europe.

  11. A very thought provoking post.
    The educational model introduced by the British had some advantages-
    1) a boost for publishing in ‘mother tongue’ vernaculars which enabled the formation of vibrant Bilgungsburgertums- like the Bengali Bhadralok- such that there was increased ‘cross-pollination’ between literary traditions.
    The point here is about ‘the means of production’ becoming available in a manner that permitted economies of scope and scale such that a run-away growth occurred and there was a pretty dramatic shift in ‘lebenswelt’ even for women. My great-grandmother lived in a mental Universe where Gods and demons walked the street. My grandmother- though also married off at puberty- was a Socialist. A huge jump.
    2) Academic study of vernacular languages reversed a sectarian compartmentalization such that for example a Tamil Pundit of the Saivite caste was completely ignorant of the great Jain classics in the mother-tongue. Teaching through vernacular medium in Schools, meant there had to be a common curriculum, and University chairs in these languages so that School Inspectors and the Dept. of Education could objectively evaluate outcomes.
    This cross-pollination was extremely important. True, some chauvinists took the opposite tack- dividing Hindi from Urdu for example, or insisting that ‘foreign’ words be expunged from the ‘divine’ mother tongue- but, it is noteworthy that English speaking Barristers worked the final mischief of setting community against community for their own narrow political ends.

    It is after Independence, indeed from the 70’s onwards that we see this new phenomenon of the vernacular language getting a second class status. The allegation is made that these fellows are ‘loose livers’, drinkers, womanizers- whereas someone who is published from the West can of course do what he or she likes in that respect- they are ‘Sahib log’ not dirty natives.

    The screening function of English- talk as much as you like in the vernacular but until you start chucking bombs we will ignore you- and even after you’ve started chucking bombs we’d prefer to get information about you from those nice folks at the C.I.A or N.S.A who give good Powerpoint.

    Did this adversely affect Literature? Yes, by God! My generation is less literate than my father’s and the kids in their twenties know nothing except Harry Potter and tweeting.
    What went wrong?

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