By Kamil Ahsan
You may know that I’m actually one of the Reviews editors here at Barrelhouse, not one of the Fiction editors. So, although it seems counter-intuitive that a Reviews editor would want to helm an issue for fiction, this “Road Trips” issue grew out of my literary criticism, not my fiction. And it makes sense that it would be annoyingly intellectual, mostly because of this need to assert ourselves in a way we rarely get to. A few months before I first solicited these contributors, I wrote a review of the famous Pakistani writer Mohammad Hanif’s new novel Red Birds. I wrote it out of an abiding love I have for Hanif, to be sure, but it also felt like the right moment for me to argue that I was genuinely tired of the kind of fiction I’ve gotten used to from prominent South Asian authors—despite the fact that, for the most part, I deeply respect their non-fiction. That’s probably because not only did I grow up in Lahore, Pakistan, and attend college there as well, I’ve been gauging the reactions of the elite “intelligentsia” to novels by famous Indian or Pakistani authors (but tellingly, never Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Nepali, or Kashmiri ones) all my life. The reactions were rarely good. Everyone seemed to live in a constant state of nostalgia. Something before was always better than something now. And perhaps I too fell for that fallacy. But perhaps the critique is valid too. If a large portion of the English-language reading population—in countries where many cannot read at all—feels that ‘our’ literature no longer speaks to the humdrum ordinariness of our lives, that it’s just too damn didactic, then who exactly is this literature for? So I just ran with the very first banal thing that popped into my head: road trips. The irritation of my siblings falling asleep on my shoulder when my mother dragged us to Islamabad in the middle of the scorching summer. Playing drinking games with my best friends on a bus to the northern towns of Nathiagali or Murree in the mountains. Insisting on stopping for breakfast at a famous dhaba on the Grand Trunk Road with my college friends.
What you’re less likely to know about me is that I’ve rarely felt the need to assert my South Asian identity, nor have I spent much of my life being deeply interested in it—which makes me a very unlikely person to helm this issue. Still—in January, when I read every single translated novella by César Aira for a retrospective about his works, I grew restless. Critics often talk about the tradition formed by Aira, Bolaño, Marquez, Borges, Allende, and other Latin American writers. There’s a great deal of variation there, of course, but there’s also a connective tissue that one does not have to be a literary scholar to discern. And I couldn’t help but wonder what I’ve been wondering my whole life: what’s our connective tissue? Who even is “us”? I’ve grown up hearing one word all my life—desi (pronounced they-see)—most often as a means to connote a multilingual, multiethnic community that crosses state lines, referring to people with ancestry from or living in the subcontinent in general. In fact, I have great fondness for the word as a political imperative, not least because I’ve always used it and heard it used the way the writer Vijay Prashad does when he argues that, like Black or Chicano, “desi” best encapsulates the “revolutionary aspirations” of a people who hearken back to an imaginary “homeland” stretching from “Jackson Heights to the Ghadar Party, from the rallies against Dotbusters to the Komagata Maru, from the 1965 Immigration Act to Devon Street.”
Of course, the word takes on a whole new meaning in different contexts and generations. It reminds me a little of the word “Anthropocene”: many historians dislike it for different reasons, but it’s caught on, so: oh well! But it’s not just semantics. “Desi” is one way South Asian immigrants are made to feel excluded, and separated from each other—on religious or ethnic grounds if not nationality. I’m reminded of the pejorative for South Asian-American immigrants I grew up hearing: “American-Born-Confused-Desis” (ABCD for short). This exclusion is also true for the many peoples who have been oppressed and/or brutally occupied in South Asia for decades, if not centuries: Kashmiris, lower-caste peoples, Baloch, Pashtuns, Adivasis, Tharus, Indian Muslims, Pakistani Hindus, Bangladeshi Hindus, Christians, Tamils, Ahmadis, Ismailis, Parsis, Sufis, Jains, Naxalites—I could go on forever. So naturally, when I sat down to read the works of writers and artists I wanted to solicit, I realized how I had unconsciously been using the word “desi” to exclude too: no, I hadn’t really thought to include Sri Lanka—how profoundly awful of me!
Still, I thought, still, there must be a way to put “us” together. The Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder was cynical about this, post-1947. In River of Fire, Hyder argued there’s no real way to ever disentangle our identities in South Asia from the many others that have contaminated it (no such thing as, say, a Pakistani Muslim, as opposed to an Indo-Muslim with a culture mixed in by Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Zoroastrianism—and again I could go on forever). But then: the Partition of the Indian subcontinent—that irreversible event that has been likened to the Holocaust for the way it’s seared in our collective memory as the foundational trauma—did happen. As one of Hyder’s characters, a child, asks in 1948 Lucknow: “You mean Humpty can never be put together again?”
Obviously, this is all another way of saying that this issue is selfishly-motivated. I think it’s easy to call blindly for more representation—but who knows how to do that when you don’t really know who needs the representing? If it’s easier to write this note for the issue after it’s been completed, it’s because of how much I’ve learned from the contributors in this issue over the past few months. Hasanthika Sirisena gently corrected me that my critique of Hanif and famous South Asian writers wasn’t exactly new. Seyhr Qayum told me what it was like to come back “home” after attending art school abroad and finding internalized Orientalist artistic practice in the very places she least expected it. Chaya Bhuvaneswar told me how ground-breaking a famous South Asian book (one I have vehemently disliked for many years) was for the immigrant community in America—and all of a sudden, it made sense to me. Nahal Hashir showed me how a “traditional” aesthetic could very much be a feminist response in the present, in the days after a nation-wide Women’s March in Pakistan. Feroz Rather reminded me of the oft-violent exclusion hiding behind how many people use the word “desi,” especially for a writer from Indian-occupied Kashmir, like himself. Devi S. Laskar took the very things I was tired of reading about, and redefined what was ordinary, that our lives can indeed be specific and universal. Palvashay Sethi reminded me that the native-diaspora binary was too ridiculously neat and tidy, even if it was convenient. Each of them was right, even if I’d never thought of it that way before.
I’m proud that out of the 19 contributors to this issue, 15 are women or non-binary, but what was most incredible about how this issue came together was not the vague tokenism that figure may suggest but the perspectives they brought. Over these past few months, each contributor has been arguing for an over-arching approach: let’s let all this variation breathe, shall we? Let’s tease it out, and lay it out for all to see.
So, here, sort of, are the answers to my questions. This new “desi” tradition includes queer comics, erotica, and meta-fiction. It includes the avant-garde, the Gothic, the speculative fiction, the philosophical fiction.
It’s fiction inspired by Western writers. It’s fiction that wants to be for everyone, truth be told, even as it doesn’t want to pander. That’s our tradition.
The kicker, though, is this. Whether you’re reading Ahsan Butt’s deeply spiritual road trip to the fictitious city of Miraaz in “The Installation,” Tara Isabel Zambrano’s sickly, haunting trip in an open truck to the real city of Jaisalmer in “Alligators,” Nur Nasreen Ibrahim’s world-weary trip to a Himalayan mountain range in “The Death of a Glacier,” or the conversations between the writers and artists about their work; whether you’re sussing out the disparate elements in Nazish Chunara’s artwork, or discovering the Easter eggs in Hafsa Ashfaq’s—I think it’s obvious that whatever this new tradition is, there’s actually nothing new about it. Hell, it never went away! Some of us—like myself—are just a little late to the party.
The cover artist Mariam Jajja is a Pakistani designer and an illustrator currently based in Berlin. She has a keen eye for branding, story-telling and visual narratives revolving around Pakistan. Juxtaposing Pakistani pop culture themes and characters, her work aims to create a visual language that presents a positive image of the country. You can find her on Behance and Instagram @m.jajja