The spring season is for literature – poetry, maybe more than prose. We have had several literary festivals in the country recently, since February, when Oxford University Press and others began the wave, where both prose and poetry have featured en masse, in Urdu and English. In Islamabad, Pakistan Book Foundation recently held a successful weekend event at the Pakistan-China Friendship Centre, which also included a large book fair with textbooks and fiction at discounted prices. Low prices are important to reach students and ordinary people, the vast majority of Pakistanis, who could otherwise not afford to buy many books. How to keep prices low is not easy to know – because writers, publishers, distributors, libraries and booksellers must all have some profit from their work. Today, there isn’t much to earn from books, unless one becomes a bestseller or a publisher of the bestselling book.
Every year on 23 April, the World Book and Copyright Day is observed worldwide, well, in more than half of the world’s close to 200 countries. That ‘copyright’ is part of the name of the day indicates that the writers, publishers and others in the industry have a right to charge for their cultural and scientific work and that free photocopying, for example, and downloading, should not happen, or be within agreed rules. In some countries, older books can be accessed for free on Internet, but they cannot just be accessed, stolen. The book industry is not yet in as deep trouble as the music industry. But in both sectors, we need to find new ways to support the creators and other partners so that we can all in future, too, read new books, listen to new music, see new films, and so on. If people are not paid for their work, few can make professional contributions.
Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend a literature breakfast, just a day ahead of the World Book Day, organised by the Pakistan-Norway Association (PANA). One of PANA’s members was eager to talk about the day since he had worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Unesco, which made the World Book Day an official day from 1995. The primary focus of this year’s World Book Day was, ‘Reading, it is my right!’, referring to the 70th anniversary of the International Human Rights Declaration. At the PANA breakfast, focus quickly turned to women’s rights issues. One speaker referred to women writers, including the best-selling Norwegian writer Maja Lunde. The main speaker of the event, Annick Jaqueline Goethals, a writer cum chef from Belgium, drew attention to gender, family and other social issues. Music teacher Lynley Ruth Butt, a New Zealander by birth, having adopted Pakistan as her home country some fifty years ago, also spoke about that in her introduction, and so did Shireen Gheba Najib, who has authored several books, including one released last year about Allama Iqbal’s poetry entitled ‘Tulip of Sinai’, illustrated by her own paintings.
A Norwegian participant mentioned Roald Dahl’s children’s books, donating a book by him to one of the speakers, stressing that although the famous writer was British, his parents were Norwegians. “I am glad Roald Dahl wrote in English rather than Norwegian. If he had written in a ‘small language’ like Norwegian, he would perhaps not have become as famous”, said the Norwegian, yet, he also mentioned that there are still world names among newer Scandinavian writers, such as the author of ‘Sophie’s World’, Jostein Gaarder who wrote about philosophy; Jon Michelet who wrote about the sacrifice of seamen during WWII; and Astrid Lindgren, the Swedish writer of fun children’s books, which are at the same time are historical and sociological accounts of the old farming communities, which now have been swallowed by industrialization. Emil of Lönneberga, Pippi Longstocking, and the Brothers Lionheart are among her famous characters, translated into English. The Danish writer H.C. Andersen is famous for his many deep, often sad stories meant for children, but often, those books, too, are as informative for adults as for children, being social critics and revealing the truth behind the facade of society. Yes, indeed, true storytellers do that; they tell stories that we as readers can relate to, often, we have to finish the stories ourselves or spin them into our lives and times.
Translating poetry into a foreign language is difficult; the prose is easier, yet not done by a click of the finger. Translators, too, need their freedom and literary content must fit into the context and life of people in the other countries and cultures. For example, Emil has in German become ‘Michael’, in Icelandic he is ‘Emil i Kattholti’, and in France, he was rechristened ‘Zozo Tornado’.
Few characters enjoy the immediate universality of ‘Mr. Bean’, played by Roland Atkinson in numerous hilarious British films and videos. In those stories, few words are needed. The stories somehow reach all of us instantly; someone who has a sharp eye and a deep sense of common humanity can only tell them, in all their simplicity.
At the PANA breakfast meeting, Annick Goethals said that people in her neighbourhood in Belgium sometimes said about her that they didn’t think she wanted to talk to people; she liked to observe and reflect, they said about her. If she sat in a cafe or on a park bench, they said: “We must not disturb her. She is looking at what is happening around her, thinking about it and making her own stories out of what she sees.” In that way, it becomes true that writers are holding up a mirror to us, showing us what goes on and telling us stories about ourselves, what we can all see, and often, too, analysing and showing us more clearly what happens around us nearby and far away.
“Mohsin Hamid, one of Pakistan’s greatest writers, is doing exactly that”, said a member at the breakfast meeting as Dr. M. Ali Nawaz, PANA’s chairman, donated one Hamid’s books to Goethals, notably ‘Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London’, which came few years ago. Let me add that the book is already available in pirated copies, not giving much heed to the copyright laws and the spirit behind the World Book and Copyright Day. But pirated copies also help to make books available to readers at low prices, in spite of it being wrong.
Two Japanese friends at the PANA event, Kajinami and Nakajima, working in the development aid sector, were as polite as one can be, true to the Japanese culture, and they gave interesting accounts of social and family aspects of the Japanese way of life. Another participant noted that although Japanese couples usually stay married, that does not mean that they are all that intimate in their relationship. “To make comparative studies of marriages would certainly be a great topic for writers, and for social scientists”, said one participant. “It is not given that the Western ways are universal, maybe except for as regards human rights”, said another member, adding that although there is very high divorce rate in the West today, recent research looking into the issue over the last one hundred years, has revealed that the divorce rate was not always so low in the past either. “Today, couples sometimes live together because they have to for social and economic reasons. That is not good at all, better than to accept divorce”, she suggested.
As the literature breakfast drew to an end, a member of the group mentioned that last year, Kuzuo Ishiguro, the eminent British writer of Japanese heritage had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But this year, with the crisis in the Swedish Academy, which selects the winner, maybe the prize in people’s opinion will be devalued, or perhaps not awarded at all? Perhaps the Swedish Academy has to be restructured, modernised and regain confidence and prestige before it can award more prizes? There is at least one Pakistani poet among the many candidates nominated for the prize this year, notably Irshad Ullah Khan. If he should indeed receive the prize, I am sure he could wait for another year, too!
Writers are among the most respected people among us – and so should those who award prizes be; as readers, we also ‘cast our vote’ when we buy a book and discuss a theme of literature, as the PANA group did last Sunday focusing on gender issues. Maybe we sometimes become a bit too moralistic and normative, as social scientist also become. It is the privilege and trademark or writers to tell stories about any issue, social, political, psychological, and so on – and the writers don’t need to agree with his or her characters. Let the good writers put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard – and let us read literature, and reduce the amount of time and thoughts we give to social media. A world without the analysis and stories of real literature is unimaginable.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.