I’m excited to be speaking at the Karachi Literature Festival in London next week!
As a journalist in Pakistan, I’ve reported on the KLF (and it’s sister event the Islamabad Literature Festival as well as the unrelated Lahore Literature Festival – metropolitan rivalry is a big thing in Pakistan).
In Karachi, the heat and stench (sorry!) from of the Arabian Sea are the backdrop to a long weekend of literary events, speakers and readings at an enclosed venue with armed guards (I’d almost forgotten that detail, the ubiquity of machine guns at every ‘important’ place almost make them invisible).
The KLF started up at a time when there was the global interest in Pakistani literature was at its height. There was a steady publication of an array of Pak Lit including one that remains a favourite of mine, Mohsin Hamid’s Mothsmoke.
Hamid has been at a number of these festivals, and is a humble and low key interviewee. I didn’t get to interview Hanif Qureshi when he attended in 2012 but recall watching agog at his Q&A session as he dared to publicly slay a member of Pakistan’s formidable Aunty Brigade who’d asked some silly but innocent question or other. By that year my knowledge of the cultural hierarchy in Pakistan was attuned enough to know that Aunties (middle aged women of the upper classes) are off limits. So it was astonishing to watch in slow motion I’m certain one brought down a peg or two in front of my – and a couple hundred others – eyes. “What a stupid question.” I think his exact words were.
What Hanif Qureshi lacked in charm, Mohammed Hanif made up for. I’ve never seen anyone so adored and adoring speak at an event before or since and he certainly knows how to work a crowd. He had that very Pakistani way of blithely ignoring criticism – in this case of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (his follow up to A Case of Exploding Mangoes) – while charismatically seducing the crowd who’d come to see him. I’ve seriously learnt a lot from that man.
But will there be Aunties in London? Who in fact is going to come? The criticism levelled at these types of events in Pakistan is that they’re targeted at a very exclusive audience. Let’s not forget that the vast majority of Pakistanis are illiterate; and a only a very tiny margin of Pakistanis are literate in English and yet the Pak Lit that caused (causing?) a international stir is written in English.
But I’m actually really fascinated that the KLF is happening in London. I’m a Londoner who spent nearly a decade in Pakistan and being submerged with my British Pakistani ways into Pakistan itself was a mind bending to say the least. So having the Karachi Literature Festival in London will be..what?
The last vaguely similar event I went to was a London memorial to Sabeen Mahmud, a wonderful young activist I knew who was assassinated in Karachi in 2015. The crowd there were largely Pakistani and yet not the kind of Pakistani I’m surrounded by normally in London’s grubbier edges. Not the kind who left their lives and families and histories behind to find opportunity abroad because Pakistan would not offer them any.
I’ve never been able to adequately express the 360 rollercoaster I experienced in Pakistan adequately. But one day I will try.
I’m speaking on the subject LGBT and Misogyny: Is Legislation Making Transgender People and Women Safer? in relation to my film Poshida at the Karachi Literature Festival at the Southbank in London on 20th May.