Most of It: Andrew Madigan on So That You Can Know Me: An Anthology of Pakistani Women Writers

So That You Can Know Me: An Anthology of Pakistani Women Writers, Eds. Yasmin Hammed & Asif Aslam Farrakhi, Garnet

So That You Can Know Me: the title says it all, or rather most of it. The stories in this collection betray a self-conscious and, at times, a relentless wish to make themselves heard and understood. Most of the selections describe a society–a husband, a teacher, a superior–that doesn’t want to listen. The stories are small, intimate and local, things whispered across the kitchen table. Featuring translations from Punjabi, Pushto, Urdu, Sindhi and Seraiki, this book was published in cooperation with UNESCO in their “Collection of Representative Literary Works.” According to the UNESCO website, this series was launched in 1948 as the result of a recommendation by the UN General Assembly at its first meeting two years earlier. Its mission is to “encourage and facilitate translation of the great works of different countries into the languages that are most widely spoken. It hopes in this way to contribute to mutual understanding between peoples…” (1).

What ties these stories together, aside from gender and nationality? First, the natural world is ubiquitous; the pages are filled with images of plants, animals and farming. Two, the focus is on simple village life. There are no computer programmers or graphic designers here; no one drives a car or pays $5 for a coffee. Third, much of the action is set in the home, which recalls the 19th-century domestic romance of European and American literature.

The fourth and most significant common thread is that that, in so many of these stories, the main character has an intense feeling of isolation, alienation and despair. She, or sometimes he, is suffocating in a rigid community that allows no deviation from the common path. The people are actors who must speak every line as scripted; ad libs and improvisation are forbidden. They live in a solipsistic world of anger, confusion and fear. Moreover, the characters’ inner world has a sharp affect on the style and structure of the stories. The writing often reads more like a lyric poem than short fiction. The narrative arcs tend to flat-line: there is often no beginning, middle and end; no rising and falling action. There doesn’t tend to be much dialogue. Instead, the writers concentrate on first-person narration and interior monologue with an emphasis on the main characters’ emotional, psychological and spiritual conflicts.

These characters find themselves in predicaments similar to those of early modernism. Take “The Poison of Loneliness” by Musarrat Kalanchvi (the title alone evokes the movement’s existential dread):

He knew that he was searching for something. His feelings were innocent and his sentiments pure. He had a simple heart full of longing. In spite of so many possessions he was marooned by a sense of deprivation. A moment of sadness engulfed his whole being. Immersed in a sea of loneliness he felt himself drowning. Something was choking him; he could not comprehend this feeling. He could not resist letting out a loud cry and this cry shook everything around him. He felt as if his blazing tears and sighs were burning everything… (16)

Like Jakes Barnes, like Vladimir and Estragon, this character is searching for something that will not be found. In “The Cow” Firdous Haider offers another Godot-like passage: “She kept on waiting. But everything was still; loneliness and restlessness persisted” (39). There is no anomie in his society, however, no devaluation of values, no lack of consensus regarding God, meaning, purpose. There is faith in the possibility of faith. In this story, and others, the crisis of modernism has been inverted. The main character has changed while society remains the same. In this sense, many of the characters in this collection are related to Sarty, the sometime-narrator of Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” who has evolved far beyond his parochial surroundings. He is the catalyst for change in a place of stasis, tradition and normalcy. The wasteland is not out in the world, but rather inside the character himself.

The greatest strength of this collection lies in the small significant details, the concrete images that, like shadows in a Platonic cave, allow fiction to pass for reality. In “The Magic Flower,” for example, Parveen Malik describes a destitute mother cutting wheat with a sickle. Her infant daughter lies under a tree in a knapsack. The mother “gave her a grain of opium to ensure the child would sleep” (27).

The preponderance of local color is also one of the book’s flaws. Many of the pieces seem to have been chosen because they tell, or seem to tell, the story of real, ordinary, downtrodden Pakistani women; quality, sophistication, variety and originality don’t seem to have been the primary criteria. The stories are meant to be representative, which is consistent with UNESCO’s mission statement, though only the underclass is genuinely represented. The opening line of “The Magic Flower” summarizes the collection: “Sakina was born into an extremely poor family” (27). “Descent” is similarly bleak and straightforward about the country’s economic conditions: “Their good looks had gone: poverty had snatched what little charm youth had lent” (Mumtaz Shirin, 54).

There are a few middle-class professionals here, but their stories are nearly identical to those of the poverty-stricken characters from the rest of the collection. “Paper Money” is about a writer, but he lives in a haunted house near a banana grove. We don’t learn about writing, writers, the literary community or the educated classes; he could have been a fruit vendor or a bicycle repairman. One of the stories is set in England, but the writer makes it feel like a Pakistani village: “Seated in that Birmingham apartment, Sikandar and Hirnam Singh talked for hours about crops, oxen and milk-producing buffaloes” (Bano Qudsia, “Many Faces of Truth,” 158). Pakistan is largely a poor, rural country, but that’s only one part of the story; it would have been nice to hear the others.

The characters, incidents and concerns, within these fictions, are quite familiar, expected, sometimes stereotypical. Fathers, husbands, teachers–and sometimes women–are cruel and bloodthirsty, while the women, children and servants are victimized. The search for peace, happiness and money is a common theme. The search is invariably futile, but for some the implausible dream is its own reward. In “The Coach,” for instance, the main character is mesmerized by a magazine picture of a magnificent carriage in front of a golden palace. He “lost himself in the beauty and glitter of the wheels” (Nilofar Iqbal, 23). The image is briefly comforting, though soon he will return to a father who beats him to the verge of death.

There are moments of innovation, quick excursions into fantasy, surrealism, stream-of-consciousness. On the whole, though, there is a sameness. Some of the pieces are only sketches while others are short stories in the commonly accepted sense. The plight of the disenfranchised is often handled with nuance and skill, but the collection would be more engaging and vibrant if the writing displayed a greater variety of themes, characters and settings. The work in So That You Can Know Me often fails to distinguish itself from other post-colonial traditions, especially those of the Subcontinent and the Arabian Gulf. The stories in The Literature of Modern Arabia (Ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, 1988) come to mind. The settings are often vivid and textured, but only in a localized sense: we can visualize the community but we rarely get the sense of a particular city or country.

The first story, “Munni Bibi Goes to the Fair,” owes a great deal to Joyce’s “Araby.” A young girl dreams of going to the local fair, but when she finally gets there she finds nothing but darkness and disappointment. The story ends with violence and disillusionment. This appropriation of Joyce shows us that the writers aren’t mere village innocents, despite what the stories themselves might suggest, but rather astute modern women who live in a country that isn’t entirely modern. Live might be the wrong verb. It isn’t clear whether the authors live in Pakistan, are from Pakistan, or are of Pakistani descent. It would have been useful if the editor had included an Introduction in order to provide a framework within which to better understand the stories.

In any event, the allusion to “Araby,” and other inter-textual references, tells us that the writers are familiar with the Western canon, which they’ve adapted to their own experience, something writers from all cultures have done and continue to do. At the turn of the 19th century, American authors such as Charles Brockden Brown and William Hill Brown were struggling to shape a distinctly national literature that was separate from its Europe and England antecedents, but they found themselves continually shoved back towards their influences. The result was a series of novels that weren’t independent or separate, but rather dialectic and interconnected: a dialogue with Continental fiction, a nasty argument with the English novel. The writers in this collection have found themselves in the same place.

So That You Can Know Me is, at times, amateurish, derivative and melodramatic. The prose is occasionally stilted as well, but perhaps these are only small crimes. The stories are filled with promise and passion, and the small significant details are sometimes impeccable. This collection is a welcome change of pace from what you find in American literary journals–tales of air-conditioned ennui, the fiction of comfort, works of suburban disgruntlement–that have been polished so vigorously, by teams of highly-trained workshop professionals, that you forget how dull they really are.

Work Cited
UNESCO. “UNESCO Collection of Representative Literary Works.” 30 September 1955. 10 September 2009

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