Muneeza Shamsie is a Pakistani critic, bibliographer, short story writer and the editor of three pioneering anthologies A Dragonfly In the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English (Oxford University Press, Karachi 1997) a retrospective of poetry, fiction and drama, Leaving Home: Towards A New Millenium: A Collection of English Prose by Pakistani Writers (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2001) about migration; And The World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women (Women Unlimited, New Delhi 2005; Feminist Press, New York 2008). She was educated in England, has lived in Karachi and given much thought to issues of colonialism, culture, language and gender which she has addressed through her writing. She has spoken at many literary forums in Pakistan, Britain and India and written essays on literature for many publications such as The Oxford Companion of Pakistan History edited by Ayesha Jalal (forthcoming) the online Blackwell Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century World Fiction edited by John Ball (forthcoming). Interpreting Homes in South Asian Literature edited by Malashri Lal and Sukrita Paul Kumar (2007) The Encyclopedia of Pakistan edited by Hafeez Malik (2006) and South Asian Century edited by Zubeida Mustafa (2001) among others. She contributes to Dawn, Newsline, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature and the online Literary Encyclopedia. From 1973-82, she taught, as a volunteer, music and mime at a special education school run by ACELP and is a founder member of the Karachi hospital, The Kidney Centre.
As a literary critic and writer, your focus has always been on Pakistani writers and Pakistani writing in English. What do you attribute to the rising interest of such literature in the West? Do you think that it is a phase that will eventually lose its spark?
I think the reason for the rising interest in Pakistani English fiction today is perfectly straightforward: that it has become increasingly accomplished and Pakistani English writers today are really good. This was not so in the earlier decades of Pakistan and, with the exception Ahmed Ali whose major novel was pre-Partition, it was really Zulfikar Ghose and Bapsi Sidhwa who changed that. This coincided with new literary discourse in western academia and the realization that some of the finest English Literature was coming from migrant communities in the west and Britain’s erstwhile colonies.
There is a great international awareness of Pakistan today because of political events and that too has generated an interest in writing from this country, but I don’t believe this would be of much worth, if it was not met by real talent. There are wonderful Pakistani English writers emerging daily – and many more waiting in the wings. To some extent it is a snowball effect. The success of fellow-compatriats encourages others in Pakistan. These established writers are invited to school and colleges in Pakistan; some have conducted creative writing workshops too.
Tell us about your experience as a writer, critic and journalist? How did you choose that path? What was your proudest moment?
My sister and I had a rather unusual upbringing for Pakistani girls because we were sent away to boarding school in England when we were very young – as my father and his brothers had been – when I was nine, my sister was eight. I came back home to Pakistan at nineteen.
I had always loved reading and writing, but it was merely something that people in my family just did. I never thought of it as a career. I had wanted to be a scientist, but I discovered there were no openings for women scientists in Pakistan. So there followed a long period of confusion and cultural conflict.
I was married at 24, of my own choice. I was encouraged to write by my husband, Saleem and my two best friends, although I kept it a secret from everyone else: it was years before I mustered up the courage to offer anything for publication. The next thing I knew, I was asked by Dawn to contribute features to its newly vamped Sunday Magazine. This was in 1982.
I loved journalism. I loved the new horizons it opened out for me (and it enabled me to work from home, because my two daughters, Saman and Kamila, were very young). I wrote on all sorts of things from art and archeology, to development and education. All the while the most important part of it, for me, was the engagement with literature which has always been my great passion. I interviewed and reviewed many contemporary writers, including Pakistanis. As a result I had a lot of material to draw on when Oxford University Press asked me to put together my first anthology A Dragonfly In The Sun a compilation of 50 years of Pakistani English writing for Pakistan’s Golden Jubilee.
Shortly after the anthology was published, the British Council sent me to the 10-day Cambridge Seminar which was a wonderfully stimulating experience for me. The following summer I gave a talk on Pakistani English Literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and in Pakistan, I was invited to speak on the subject too.
Gradually my work became more and more focused. I did two more anthologies including And The World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women, which was recently reprinted in the US. I wrote a new introduction for US audiences, where I traced the acquisition of English by Muslim women, right back to the nineteenth century which proved to be a fascinating journey of discovery for me.
Nowadays I concentrate entirely on literary criticism. I also write the yearly bibliography of Pakistani English books for The Journal of Commonwealth Literature.
My proudest moment? I suppose when my first article appeared in print – and I discovered that a whole lot of people had actually read it and liked it too!
There is a strong feminist tone in your anthologies. Is that a subject dear to your heart? What’s next for you?
I was always conscious of gender issues even as a child. I just remember finding it quite illogical and annoying that some friend of mine, or cousin, could behave in a particular way or go somewhere because he was boy and I could not, because I was a mere girl.
In my teens, I continued to be rather bookish which was not particularly admired, outside school, in society either Pakistani or British. This was before the feminist revolution and intellectual women were regarded with deep suspicion as unmanageable and unmarriageable.
Also, I had a strong feminist tradition in my family. Both my paternal grandmother and my aunt, Tazeen Faridi have worked tirelessly for women’s welfare and women’s rights.
These days I am working on a critical book on the development of Pakistani English literature and I am Managing Editor of The Oxford Companion to the Literatures of Pakistan, which is still being compiled but it will cover the major language of Pakistan and there are editors who are specialists in these languages working with me.
You belong to a family of famous writers. Do you see a glimpse of your mother Jahanara Habibullah’s work in yours and how much of your own style do you see in your daughter, Kamila Shamsie’s work?
I think it would be more accurate to say that both Kamila and I have been greatly influenced by the awareness of the women writers in our family, which includes my paternal grandmother – Kamila has just written an article “A Loving Literary Line” in The Guardian about this. This consciousness emerges not so much in terms of style or structure or content, but sometimes in the ideas that we engage in, or the imagery that seeps in. This is particularly true of Kamila’s second novel Salt and Saffron where she has mentioned my mother’s book in her acknowledgements.
My mother was over 80 when she began her first book, a memoir. She wrote it in Urdu and was 84 when it was published which is quite remarkable and which is why I have dedicated And The World Changed to her.
What is the one subject that you feel has not been given its due attention in Pakistani writing?
I think good literature should be defined by the quality and integrity of the work and not its subject-matter. But I rather wish that more people were aware of Pakistani English poetry. There has been some really good work published in Pakistan since the 1960’s beginning with Taufiq Rafat and Maki Kureishi. In Britain, Moniza Alvi has brought out five critically acclaimed poetry volumes in recent years and is an important mainstream British poet.
Photo courtesy of Ayesha Vellani