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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

As their country descends into chaos, Pakistani writers are winning acclaim - Saeed Shah

Pakistani novelists writing in English - long overshadowed by literary giants from neighbouring India - are now winning attention and acclaim as their country sinks into violence and chaos.

Tales of religious extremism, class divides, dictators, war and love have come from writers who grew up largely in Pakistan and now move easily between London, Karachi, New York and Lahore. Since the publication of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist two years ago, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a new wave of Pakistani fiction is earning critical acclaim at home and around the world.

Last year came Mohammad Hanif's first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes - a dark comedy about the Islamic fundamentalist rule of General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s - and Nadeem Aslam's The Wasted Vigil, which is set in modern Afghanistan.

Two keenly anticipated works are due out in the UK in the coming weeks: Kamila Shamsie's fifth, and reputedly finest, novel, Burnt Shadows, and a collection of short stories by Daniyal Mueenuddin, who was compared with Chekhov when some of the tales were previously published in the New Yorker.


The Pakistani writers causing most excitement tend to be young and from the country's upper class, having grown up in Pakistan in the 1980s. Mohsin Hamid said that, for Pakistan's small English-speaking elite who had been able to live an insulated lifestyle up to the 1980s, coming of age under the oppressive dictatorship of General Zia was a "dramatic wrenching change" that created a fertile ground for writers.

"There's a desire now to dine on Pakistani writing cuisine. It's coming at the same time as some really amazing Pakistani writing," said Hamid, who lives in London.

"Great fiction comes from the tension that produces those dramatic political developments. Pakistan has been going through really interesting times. As writers process that through their fiction, they're coming up with an art with a real urgency and personal need."


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