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.

  • Hasan Abdullah
    Posted at 12:18h, 24 February Reply

    Congratulations to the author for an interesting piece.

    In this era of increasing concentration of resources, and also widening gulf, within, and between, the people and the countries, for a positive advancement in any arena, huge efforts on part of the lovers of humanity are required. To quote Ghalib:

    aaey hai bey-kasee-e ishq peh ronaa ghaalib
    kis key ghar jaaey gaa sailaab-e balaa merey baad
    (Feel like crying over the haplessness of love
    To whose home the flood of calamities go after I am no more)

    Hasan Abdullah

  • Ercelan
    Posted at 17:29h, 24 February Reply

    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.”

    good. but don’t communities of writers and readers exist even if we dont recognise them as ‘institutions?’

  • Sabiha Ashraf
    Posted at 17:29h, 24 February Reply

    So far Hasan ,,I’ve enjoyed each article that you’ve written…
    You think before you ink
    Your writing seems effortless – a pleasure to read..
    You tickle our thought processes
    Keep writing Hasan

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 05:19h, 10 March Reply

    I haven’t been able to decipher the message of this article. It appears to me the whole article is excuse for weak literature. The question raised in the title itself is self defeating.

    In the concluding paragraph the writer says “Literature demands…” Literature has unfettered access to borrow from society, take cues from there and germinate ideas. This is the purpose of literature, if it powerful enough the society will accept it eventually. How can literature demand something from readers or society?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:40h, 11 March

      Anil: The title of the article as originally published was different; it was changed by the editors when it was reproduced on this website so the author doesn’t have to answer for that choice. Still, it is not clear in what sense the article is an “excuse for weak literature.” Perhaps you can elaborate on what you had in mind.

      My own sense was that the writer is using as a point of departure the position of some scholars that “literature is intimately linked to the creation, even the idea of a nation.” If that is indeed the case then there needs to be some facilitation of that role. I feel that national academies of literature, centers of translation, and literary awards are devices that fulfill that function. In that sense one can say that if literature is asked to play that role, it can metaphorically ask society for some assistance in return.

  • hasan
    Posted at 09:46h, 11 March Reply

    I think what you’re asking might in a sense be about the difference between “literature” as it’s created by writers and “literature” as it’s created by readers. When you talk about “unfettered access to borrow from” etc., that’s literature-by-writers, who have, really, no responsibility or requirement other than to write, and to make their work as good as possible on its own terms, whatever those terms are. (So something like Padgett Powell’s “The Interrogative Mood” is obviously succeeding on terms that are not those of, say, Alice Munro, which is fine and good, because it is better to have people writing like both Padgett P and Alice M rather than just one or the other. Even things as nonsensical as “50 Shades of Grey” or “Twilight” are succeeding by the measures they’ve set for themselves.)

    But when we talk about “literature” as some sort of reflection of society – which is what we do when we come up with things like “Pakistani literature” or “Indian literature,” which are basically concepts that readers/societies make up – I do think it’s fair to think about what it demands and what it requires, as we do with any other idea.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:09h, 13 March

      I get your point Hasan Sahib but don’t you think readers can’t be made responsible. Readers take the natural path of least resistance, they would always drift towards what we call popular literature. But this problem is not unique to Pakistan alone everywhere it is government that can make a difference

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:04h, 14 March

      Anil: I believe readers can be made responsible. Students who come out of schools where a study of the classics is a part of the curriculum are much more engaged readers of serious fiction than those who have not had the opportunity. There is no natural drift to popular literature.

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