Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

A book review by Sadaf Halai.

Indian authors writing in English were the rising stars of the anglophone literary world in the 1990s, notes Muneeza Shamsie in the preface to her groundbreaking and exhaustive book, Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English.

At the time, she writes, many in Pakistan would ask her why there weren’t any English language writers in Pakistan. But, contrary to general perception, Muneeza recalls, she was “meeting and writing about Pakistani-English authors all the time”.

This disconnect between perception and reality served as a catalyst of sorts for A Dragonfly in the Sun, the 1997 anthology she went on to compile. The anthology included the works of several writers of Pakistani origin living abroad, raising important questions of “identity and belonging”. In Hybrid Tapestries, Muneeza addresses those questions and defines what it means to be a “Pakistani” writer: “anyone who claims that identity,” she argues.

She asserts early on in her remarkably well-organised, thoughtful and extremely readable book that Pakistani English literature is unlike other Pakistani literatures in that it is a “direct result of the colonial encounter”.

She uses a “historical trajectory” to trace the development of Pakistani English literature: the starting point of the trajectory are the “founders” of Pakistani English writing — writers who became Pakistani at the time of the Partition, whose writing cannot be separated from the “colonial encounter”. She, however, avoids using what she refers to as the “academic labels” of postmodern and postcolonial.

Muneeza is also ever mindful of the “cultural intermingling” and the “hybrid influences” that have resulted in the “tapestry” of a complex, if not complicated, history of English literature in Pakistan.

English may have been introduced to South Asia by British imperialism but those writing in it wanted to challenge the narratives of the Empire. Pre-Partition writers of fiction and poetry in English were, thus, faced with the formidable task of “finding the true expression of the subcontinent in the English language, which did not, or seemingly could not, accommodate the nuances of South Asia and its many cultures”.

Hybrid Tapestries is divided into two sections: Pioneering Writers and Developing Genres. The former includes Atiya Fyzee-Rahamin (1877-1967), Shahid Suhrawardy (1890-1965) and Ahmed Ali (1910-1994) – who all started writing much before 1947 – and Zulfikar Ghose, Taufiq Rafat and Sara Suleri — who embarked on their literary careers immediately after Independence.

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