By Sara Danial
Sara Danial is part of Ananke’s Empower Program – a capacity building program for women across the Global South.
With Sri Lanka’s Shehan Karunatilaka and India’s Geetanjali Shree bringing to South Asia two of publishing’s biggest, most prestigious prizes, what is going to be the way forward for one of the world’s most understated literary regions? Have we ever contemplated why we don’t see a lot of South Asian fiction published in the global literary landscape? Do these wins mean that the tables are now turning?
The year 2022 is a testament to the fact that our regional literature is largely overlooked by the outside world. We have prize-worthy, potentially award-winning content. As both the wins mentioned above have treaded the international shores, with Shree also co-winning the Warwick prize for women in translation, one wonders what is next. Of course, this recognition is not a fluke, and it is not as though these have mushroomed out of nowhere.
We witnessed a restructuring of sorts in the length and breadth of how the Global South is perceived in the wider literary world. For instance, with Awais Khan’s No Honour and Reema Abbasi’s Sin, we see local social disorders being questioned. With Faiqa Mansab’s This House of Clay and Water, we see barriers being broken. With Sabyn Javeri’s Hijabistan, we begin to question our own value system, allowing us for more internal reflection. Besides the content, we have seen a lot of diasporic writing with various publishers willing to publish brave, outrageous books.
There has also been a gradual shift towards translations. With the recent Booker wins, one of which was a translation, the Global South also realized that there is also an enormous treasure trove of untapped literature in regional languages that are largely overlooked, such as Urdu, Gujrati, Tamil, Persian, etc. Moreover, many translators, such Reema Abbasi and Musharraf Ali Farooqi, from the South Asian region are trying to bring forth gems in regional languages that easily go under the radar because they don’t get a universal readership, beyond the Subcontinent, which is not just tragic for the works of authors, but an outright disservice to the readers.
Although the progress is rather sluggish, all of the above have contributed to a potpourri of collective oeuvre that has now begun to take the limelight on the global fabric of literature. A lot of this responsibility has been shouldered by independent, mushrooming presses.
For instance, Neem Tree Press in the UK has begun to take up the works of various Asian authors, including Safinah Elahi, Taha Kehar, and Faiqa Mansab. For quite some time now, several presses around the globe have lifted and championed south Asian literature. So amidst all of this, we hope that it will lead the Big five publishers to consider the regional literary works in various languages, especially from the global south.
For instance, Zain Saeed, author of Little America. When I spoke to him, he mentioned how he struggled to find a publisher until it was finally picked up by Penguin Random House India. It was then published by Reverie Publishers in Pakistan where it went on to win the KLF Getz Pharma Fiction Prize. While the destination was sweet for Little America, the journey was not. Zain Saeed says, “About 80 percent of the rejections I got from US /UK pubs were based around the ‘we can’t sell this to a foreign audience’ problem. The other 20 percent was editors saying they didn’t feel the narrative or had issues with some craft elements.” While this is absolutely understandable, I wonder about the other qualms. He explains, “The experience pretty much mirrored my experience with my MFA – it seemed like everything I wrote was expected to be supplemented with brochures explaining the place I was writing about, explaining the people. People in those workshops – like the editors I’ve mentioned – just couldn’t bring themselves to understand my version of my own people. There were always comments like ‘how is this possible?’, or ‘people aren’t like that’, or ‘this character feels too misogynistic/apolitical/racist/clueless/evil/good, etc.’ This confused me immensely, because the characters I was writing were everyday Pakistanis that all of us know, and love, (and in some cases accept) and it seemed no one was prepared to take my word for it. They only wanted to read their versions of my people, which has always made me wonder if that means good publishable fiction from non-Western cultures is supposed to play to its audience rather than just tell the truth.”
Extrapolating the same case study, Safinah D Elahi, founder of Reverie Publishers, relays her difficulty in picking up the dicey manuscripts and how it was a sore spot, “Picking books of value that are otherwise underappreciated – I guess one needs to have an eye for it. Also, I’m being offered books, and authors are willing to sign with Reverie because I intend to create good business practices. Paying royalties and commissions on time, respecting work ethic. Adding to that, because we have a minute readership, even award-winners are difficult to sell, rendering the publishing business not-very-profitable. We need the numbers (scale) which will only come from worldwide distribution. I’m also producing original work this year and what scares me is the number of sales to recover the investment I’ve made in the book, but that’s the risk one must take.”
To date, authors of South Asian heritage have not received a National Book Award to my knowledge. However, we saw 2022 witness three authors on the longlist, albeit from the diaspora – Jamil Jan Kochai for The Haunting of Hajji Hotak, stories of Afghanistan and its diaspora, Fatimah Asghar for When We Were Sisters, and Sarah Thankam Mathews for This Could Be Different. While literary works maneuver across continents, as a publishing professional, I realize that it is not easy, it is not a straightforward path, and it doesn’t follow a fixed formula. It is disordered, it is dicey, and it takes a lot of second thinking. And it is blanketed by power dynamics.
Expanding the same tangent, how come an award winning book out here was never ‘understood’ by the western lot? It is a no-brainer that such works are not only overlooked, or dismissed, they largely emasculate our rich, and complicated culture and history, diverse multilingual literary elements, and go on to show the distorted power dynamics being played front and center.
So while the likes of Awais Khan making the award-winning list for No Honour for World Book Award, and Usman T. Malik for Bram Stoker Award for Short Fiction for The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family, and The Crawford Award for Midnight Doorways, we hope to see our people making to the Booker nominations and wins. Yes it is too soon to make this claim. But we know that the two Booker wins are a global victory for all authors of the Global South. And the prize seems finally reachable for us. And every time we witness a South Asian author scaling new heights, or reaching a new milestone, it is a celebration of our creative traditions, knowing that our stories are important, our perspectives are different, and we have been existing all along, waiting to be explored.
Yes, publishing is a business. And everyone in the value chain is in it for the numbers, but it is always better to tap the niche and celebrate the works of indie presses, look for translations that may otherwise find a limited readership, and appreciate the underprivileged creative expressions. They need an outlet. They must be voiced out. They need amplification. The myopic perspective on the global landscape cannot be undone by a few exceptional wins. The notion of continuity must be sustainable. The big five Pubs need to give long overdue recognition unreservedly, with cognizant encapsulation of literature from the global south. This will translate into more equity, diversity, and inclusion to support our works, with a special focus on regional languages. It also means more presses willing to take up the works that are pertinent to a regional readership. Not only will this change the way the publishing business works, but it will also enable a revolution in the readers how they see the world from a broader lens.
With Zain Saeed facing a tough time with Little America, a generally skewed narrative of most South Asian books of the English language, it seems a bit far-fetched to see our works being published in the west. But it is happening. The first step has been taken. With many more to follow. It won’t be easy, but then who said it was?
Image source: Booker Prizes
Sara Danial is a mother of two. A Pakistani writer/editor, born, raised and survived in Karachi, though to be precise, reared in the dunes of Dubai, she was corrupted by English and a voracious appetite for books. She’s certain to die in the present century as she was born in the last. Stained by a number of vices, like reading and writing and with a Master’s degree, she thought the world should be at her feet; but she was wrong. She took up her old vice to land up in the world of literature, through which she shares her love for all things sacred to the English language. Her writing has been published in Dawn, The News on Sunday, The Friday Times, Pakistan and Gulf Economist, South Asia, BOL, The Friday Times, The Nation and The Express Tribune. She can usually be found musing about over a cup of coffee, or occasionally ranting.