Wednesday, June 19, 2013

South Asian soft power in print - from Karachi


Reaching out to South Asia with lit from Karachi- online

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

Emerging South Asian literature is bonding over a new print space online.
A literary anthology of writing from South Asia, “Papercuts”, - born in Karachi nearly a decade ago - has made a grand comeback in cyber space and recently in print.
The initiative that begun as the Desi Writer’s Lounge on the social networking site Orkut has widened its creative pool to include neighbours like India and  Bangladesh — and collate from the marathon volume of freelance traffic to publish the bi-annual compendiums of prose and poetry from the sub-continental region.
Managed by a team of 12 editors, the space was initially meant to provide a creative platform to young writers from Pakistan, who are rarely published outside the country unlike in India where emerging writers have easy access to print visibility at home and abroad owing to the publishing boom.
An average estimate says India has nearly 25,000 big and small publishers on the official roster compared to barely fraction of the number in Pakistan.   
Desi Writers’ describes itself as an online “24/7–365 days a year” writers’ workshop and community. Bulk of the workshops is conducted at forums — where members and writers have to undergo “intense critiquing sessions”.       
One of the reasons why Desi Writers’ has been able to wrest survival space online is the fact that in the last 10 years or so, writing in English in Pakistan has seen a phenomenal surge with the spread of university education in English, translations, return of young foreign-educated writers inspiring indigenous talent and a sharp increase in readership. Some of the nation’s cult literary figures like Mohammed Hanif and Ali Sethi say most contemporary Pakistanis have strident voices and opinions now than ever before on a variety of subjects touching upon politics to society, culture, romance, life. religion and even terrorism.      
Consequently, stories are easy to find among the youngsters bred on sensitivities of globalization, ideological conflicts and socio-political turbulence in the country.
“Desi Writers’ were the first people to set up a e-case from Karachi,” says editor of Desi Writers’ Lounge Afia Aslam. Over the years, Desi Writers’ has published 11 volumes of “Papercuts” with submissions to the website open to the lay writer.                         
“Last year (2012), we invited freelance entries from India and Bangladesh as well for Papercuts 2013,” Aslam told this correspondent during one of her promotion tours to India.
The array of themes – cutting through realities in the region - was startling, Aslam said. “The submissions featured subjects like Vietnam, China, war, politics and local ethos,” the editor of the Desi Writers’ recapped.      
A soliloquy on Indian train journey in South India – “Portraits from Across Window” and a short story, “The Inauguration” by freelance writer Suneetha Balakrishnan set in Kerala in the latest volume of “Papercuts” are like windows to another planet for young Pakistani readers.  

“It is essentially a cultural exchange forum to promote soft diplomatic power between the two countries that often spar with each other across the border and open people to people understanding,” Aslam said.
“It (read soft exchanges) is so easy to destroy it at the end of the day,” the editor said.   
Desi Writers’ is in the canvas of a broad trend that is bringing South Asian nations under an umbrella with regional literature festivals in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and even in Myanmar. Asian poetry forums crowd the Internet. The cultural ministries of the respective SAARC nations add to the exchanges with frequent brainstorming initiatives and literary exchange forums.
According to writer-politician Pavan K. Varma, the former Indian ambassador to Bhutan, “literature is emerging as one of the most effective and potent soft diplomatic tools in the South Asian region with writers from the subcontinent leading the creative charge”.
Cmmenting on Desi Writers' Pakistan’s literary heavyweight Musharraf Ali Farooqi (the translator of the Amir Hamza series).says English writing in Pakistan has to compete with cheap publication in Urdu, argued Farooqi.
“English is not our essence. It is difficult to do literature in English, but English is also where we are at,” Farooqi said.
The magazine needs to promote its writers’ more vigorously, suggested the writer, who turned a publisher with his publishing unit Kitaab in Lahore (2012). Literature in the region is caught in bad story-telling, Farooqi says.
“What is it that readers want to read in Pakistan and in the region? If you keep harking back to the classics, literature becomes repetitive. You need a better breed if writers,” Farooqi observes.
Desi Writers’ is scouting for this breed of original story-tellers from the region with its forthcoming annual short story competition.       
Madhusree Chatterjee 

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