When John Freeman, the editor of the well-regarded British literary quarterly, planned a themed issue on Pakistan, he had no expectations what the final product would contain.
Granta editor: 'no expectations' with Pakistan issue
When John Freeman, the editor of the well-regarded British literary quarterly Granta, planned a themed issue on Pakistan, he did so without any expectations as to what the finished product would contain.
"I have to say, we didn't give briefs to the contributors or even have any preconceived notions of what we wanted written," he explains. "That would have heightened the likelihood that we would have created an issue about how the West sees Pakistan, rather than what stories the best Pakistani writers - and people who write about Pakistan - want to tell."
But in opening the doors to many generations of Pakistani writers and artists, what Freeman got back cut through much media sensationalism and provided a real insight into the country, through storytelling, reportage, poetry and art.
Freeman is, above all, keen to stress that Pakistan was not chosen as a theme because it is so patently a newsworthy topic. The commissioning process - Freeman says he had always hoped the big hitters such as Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and the Pulitzer finalist Daniyal Mueenuddin would contribute, and they have - was separate from any particular event. In fact, the whole issue was born out of a suggestion from the Granta contributing editor Peter Carey that the quality of work coming from Pakistan deserved the kind of attention that led to the publication of Granta: India! in 1997.
Still, when Freeman says "there's just a great collision at the moment between this evidently interesting time for Pakistan and the exciting new work coming from the country", he cannot help but implicitly refer to the terrorism, repression and violence that seems - rightly or wrongly - to characterise daily life. It's there in print, too: Mohsin Hamid, the author of the Booker-shortlisted The Reluctant Fundamentalist, contributes the stridently visceral A Beheading. The clue is in the title. Mohammed Hanif shot to fame with the satirical A Case Of Exploding Mangoes, and his love story, Butt and Bhatti, is a tale of unrequited love that has horrific consequences. And Declan Walsh's revealing reportage on the Taliban's activities in the north of the country is depressing, but also required reading for anyone who cares about life beyond his or her own four walls.
Along with the short stories and essays that have always been Granta's stock-in-trade since the first issue in 1979, there have always been diversions into art, photography and photojournalism. Freeman thinks that the art in Granta 112: Pakistan is "as exciting as the prose" and while it won't get the same attention, he may have a point. One image, in particular, is essentially a graphic representation of the whole issue. In Ayesha Jatoi's Clothesline, a woman drapes her red washing over a decommissioned fighter plane to dry. If this is a snapshot of Pakistan, then, Jatoi seems to suggest, terrorism, war and violence are a part of everyday life. Does Freeman agree that there is a slightly bleak side to the issue?
"Well, this is honestly an attempt to celebrate something Pakistan can rightly be proud of," he argues. "There are many conflict-ridden parts of the world, but you'd be hard pressed to find an explosion of talent like there is coming from Pakistan."
That meant Freeman was keen to make sure he didn't just cherry-pick the Pakistani writers who already had international profiles. Intizar Hussain came to Freeman via Basharat Peer, whose own contribution to Granta 112: Pakistan is a beautiful yet devastating account of his return to an increasingly militant Kashmir. Peer was so keen to highlight Hussain's work outside Pakistan, he translated it himself for this issue. The wry humour that runs through Hussain's story of the contradictions in Pakistani life - "What an era General Zia has brought to Pakistan! The echoes of prayer and the roar of public hangings" - prove that he was right to do so, and Freeman hopes such exposure will lead to more of the author's work being translated.
Hussain does at least have some prominence in Pakistan; he has published six collections of short stories and four novels in Urdu. But Granta dug deep to find brand-new writers too, such as the hitherto unknown Jamil Ahmad.
"I wanted our issue to introduce a writer, but I never would have imagined it'd be a 79-year-old retired career civil servant from Islamabad," Freeman laughs when I ask him about Ahmad, whose first novel, The Wandering Falcon, is out next year. "It was a good day when we got his story. But then, we also looked at a lot of short stories submitted to a prize in Pakistan called Life's Too Short, and they were all very good. Some nearly made it into the issue. I think prizes like that, and the sense that Pakistani literature is as important to the fate of the country as its laws, will go a long way to encouraging more writing. In years to come I suspect we'll hear a lot more from every writer on this issue."
Ahmad's heartbreaking contribution is the very last in Granta 112: Pakistan. A meditation on love and shocking violence, it seems to sum up the collection. So I wonder what Freeman himself learnt from editing this collection?
"Well, it's sharpened my sense that the way Pakistan is today has as much to do with its role in proxy wars as it does with the intentions of founding fathers like Muhammad Ali Jinnah," he says. "His feelings about whether it was to be a state for Muslims or an Islamic state were, as it's pointed out in the issue, equivocal. But we basically handed this project over to the writers. And I think writers by nature expand and explode anxieties that are felt in the place they call home.
"Look, we definitely didn't want to make an issue that was all about terrorism and violence. And I genuinely think there's hope in each one of these pieces, but it's hard-won and tentative, as is the best kind of hope. Otherwise it's simply sentimental."
Granta 112: Pakistan is available to order now. You can also read Mohsin Hamid and Basharat Peer's contributions online at www.granta.com