24 Feb What Can Literature Do?
By Hasan Altaf
Interviewing Chinua Achebe – the author of Things Fall Apart, who has become, through the usual process of reduction, a one-man stand-in for Nigerian when not for African literature – for The Paris Review, in 1994, Jerome Brooks noted that the majority of Achebe’s work was in English. He asked about the existence or importance of Igbo translations, and Achebe responded with a story about an Anglican missionary’s attempt to standardize his language’s many dialects:
The way [Archdeacon Dennis] did it was to invite six people from six different dialectal areas. They sat round a table and they took a sentence from the Bible: In the beginning, God created… or whatever. In. What is it in your dialect? And they would take that. The. Yours? Beginning. Yours? And in this way… they created what is called Standard Igbo.
The result: unmusical, “wooden,” “a terrible tragedy.”
Standardizing a literature is not always particularly different. Especially in a country like Pakistan, which has many languages, many dialects and many traditions, cherry-picking from here and there to create a representative model will most likely result in something flat, wooden and uninteresting. Rather than a single literature, Pakistan has what might be more accurately called an assembly of literatures – in English and Urdu, Punjabi and Pashto, all of them engaged in their own conversations – and this is a strength, this is the music. In all their many tongues, Pakistan’s writers produce remarkable work, creating a diverse collection of literatures for a diverse, multifaceted country. (If some of those are privileged over others, that’s a different – but not unrelated – conversation.)
But literature does not belong only to writers: It belongs also to readers. Writers, as Achebe said, should be free to write whatever they like, in whichever language they please, but once their work becomes public, it enters a different domain in which it is not unreasonable to talk about the responsibility and the role of literature. And if you accept the idea put forth by scholars as diverse as Frantz Fanon and Benedict Anderson – that literature is intimately linked to the creation, even the idea of a nation, and that it can be shaped by and used for purposes entirely non-literary – the polyphony of Pakistan’s literatures can look more like cacophony. Diversity, at its worst, becomes fragmentation: In this deeply divided country, full of fenced gardens into which we retreat with others who are most like us, literature may simply have fortified the walls between languages and classes, ethnicities and faiths.
And in doing so it has abdicated one of its essential and unique functions. Literature can’t compete with the imagery of photography, the realism of cinema, the immediacy of music, but unlike all of these, literature captures consciousness. At its best – to use Forster’s phrase – literature serves to only connect. It creates empathy, understanding; it allows citizens who may have little in common but the accident of nationality an opportunity to understand each other, hear each other, make sense of the stories by which others live. (And we shouldn’t forget that other conversation, either, about the political implications and uses of literature.)
Achebe didn’t object to the idea of a standard Igbo. What he criticized was the way the missionaries decided to create it: Sitting around that table, they circumvented and short-circuited the natural, long-standing processes by which Igbo-speakers of different dialects had been communicating with one another. In Pakistan’s literatures, however, those processes are either missing or weak. It’s not a failing of our writers, many of whom cross these lines already (as translators, or as people who use different languages for different genres), but it represents a more general failure that we do not yet have the institutions, the spaces, the incentives that would allow a Sindhi playwright to reach a Burushaski poet, an English novelist to speak to a Hindko reader, a short-story writer of Balochi to inform one of Punjabi.
It might not be true any longer that literature reflects some sort of collective id – people are always debating which medium does, and literature is usually not at the top of the list anymore – but the implications of this fact are frightening, yet logical: We might simply not be particularly interested in one another anymore, if we ever were to begin with.
The evidence suggests, thankfully, that this is not the case: Cricket continues, like glue, to bring Pakistanis together; Coke Studio owes its success, in part, to its deliberate blending of many of the languages, styles and genres of music to be found in Pakistan. But meeting over sports or music is easier, for reasons both inherent – they are visceral, immediate; for spectators, they are passive – and also institutional: Coke Studio is, in a sense, the process that literature does not yet have, the middle ground where different traditions can meet.
We already have common languages in which different people can speak to one another, and by producing work, Pakistan’s writers create the material – it would then be easy to cry “More translation!” and leave it that. While necessary, though, translation on its own won’t be enough. Allowing Pakistani literature to exist organically – as not a collection of but a conversation between the country’s various literatures, as a place where we can only connect – requires a more fundamental shift.
Literature demands something, not just from the reader but from society at large. It demands not just that we watch or cheer together, play or dance together, but that we take the time to understand one another. It demands that we create the institutions and the time to make this possible. It demands that we put in the effort. And it demands, most of all, that we agree that it is worthwhile to do so.
This article appeared in Dawn (February 23, 2013) under the title ‘Only Connect’ on the occasion of the Lahore Literary Festival. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.