'Ways of Being': 15 Pakistani women open up about home, loss, despair and survival

The anthology explores what it means to be a Pakistani writer in today's day and age

By Saba Karim Khan

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Published: Thu 27 Apr 2023, 5:26 PM

“Who is a Pakistani writer?” is the central question underpinning a recently published anthology, Ways of Being: Creative Non-fiction by Pakistani Women, featuring 15 versatile essays by Pakistani women, whose voices are unique, yet their journeys undeniably analogous. Such an anthology has been deeply awaited; a collection that weaves together themes of articulating resistance, experiments with storytelling, grappling with discontent, making good kinds of trouble, and above all, traversing the politics of home and our fluid and often ambiguous relationship with it.

The issue of who can speak and write about whom is delicate and one that has long plagued storytellers; if you live outside Pakistan and don’t experience the daily micro-aggressions on-the-ground, can you still write and speak about the place? If you express nostalgia about home, through a confluence of memory and intimacy, are you “expatsplaining” (romanticising ideas about home?) If you don’t sport firebrand jingoism, is there a lack of loyalty that needs redressal? It seems we face a crisis of legitimacy on multiple fronts: who is Pakistani enough, who is patriotic enough, who is local enough, who is pure enough, which brings us to the question: who gets to decide if I’ve passed the litmus test of authenticity, especially when writing about home?

Author, academic and editor of the volume, Sabyn Javeri, responds to this dilemma in her introduction by saying, “who you are is no longer a question of ‘where you are from’; rather, who you are is more accurately represented by ‘what you stand for’. A Pakistani writer, therefore, … is one who feels a connection to the land either by origin or by sensibility.” As a result, Ways of Being purposefully aims to transcend this politics of representation, albeit without undermining it—and creative non-fiction offers these writers the platform to achieve just that.

But creative non-fiction is no uncomplicated craft. By articulating selfhood — merging the personal with the political — creative non-fiction strips writers off the protective gear that fiction provides. Writers of fiction often get asked if their story and characters are autobiographical, typically garnering a mixed response; many will say that whilst influences from real life were extrapolated, the story remains largely imaginative. Creative non-fiction doesn’t afford writers such luxury or hiding places; in Ways of Being, for instance, every essay is imaginative but also equally real — it demands that the distancing between the written word and the self be entirely erased. What we are left with in common, across each of these 15 writers, then, is their pursuit of true stories, informed by intimacies, personal insights and thought-provoking ideas about life and being; to openly express what they “stand for”, with no cop out options.

As such, whilst creative non-fiction offers freedom and flexibility in the scope of writing and fewer rules to abide by, it is a double-edged sword. The courage required to trace one’s own trajectory, admittances and reflections on paper, is not just vast, but also distinct in voice, orientation and purpose, from other modes of storytelling, such as drama, fiction and poetry. In Ways of Being, we witness voices that are attempting to unshackle censorship and offer in its place, visceral truths steeped in the messiness, ambiguity and fluidity of the writer’s own lives and the worlds they occupy.

Ways of Being also has implications for improved access to writing and publishing for Pakistani writers. For the Pakistani literary industry to be resurrected and eventually thrive, it requires more than a handful of established writers to be granted a voice—this anthology strives to subvert that echo chamber and status quo. By including women across a range of interests and positionalities, the collection stretches the boundaries of whom we perceive as a worthy Pakistani writer or voice — an important first step towards democratising the publishing landscape for Pakistani writers.

Ultimately, the anthology also invites you to explore alternative impressions of Pakistan and what it means to be Pakistani. This place (Pakistan) and its people, have defended, for far too long, caricatured and reductive impressions of violence, savagery and misery, as the defining truth about themselves, at least in mainstream media. Ways of Being attempts to shift the conversation about Pakistan through the power of literature and through the voices of Pakistani writers themselves — this time, they get to tell their own stories. Whilst it doesn’t arrive at such a nuanced and varied scope by delegitimising the struggles and strife that characterise the lives of many Pakistanis — if anything, discontent runs through almost every essay in the anthology — what it does tell us is that such chaos isn’t particular to Pakistan, nor is it the only way of being for Pakistanis. It underscores the agency of Pakistanis in defining their past, present and futures, bringing into sharp focus, the long prevailing narrative of third world cultures requiring rescue through emulating more evolved ways of being.

This anthology is full of subtext; there is turmoil, both inner and outer; there is defiance; and there is resilience and hope, all in co-existence — and buried within such complexity, lies the beauty and true potential of this collection. These are 15 women who view the world multi-lingually, their voices liquescent, flowing through a common vessel (some connection by origin, memory or sensibility to Pakistan), embarking on unpredictable journeys and flights. In this anthology, the vessel — their being “Pakistani” — unburdens them rather than locking them up. It contains a tapestry of lives, homes and ways of being, crisscrossing on the written page, pushing boundaries, shedding typecasts and unfastening windows — this is a collection much like a stairway, leading to “other rooms, other wonders”, that ultimately enriches what it means to be a Pakistani writer.

'Ways of Being: Creative Non-fiction by Pakistani Women' is available online and at Magrudy’s bookstores across the UAE.

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