Arts, Culture & Media

Nadeem Aslam writing about Pakistan

We rarely get a glimpse into real life in Pakistan. One way to do that is through writing. Nadeem Aslam was born in Pakistan and moved with his family to England when he was fourteen. He has since written three novels in English. The World's Carol Zall spoke with him about his work and has this profile.

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

The current issue of British literary magazine �Granta� focuses on Pakistan. In Granta's own words, the nation of 200 million people speaking nearly sixty languages is �one of the most dynamic places in the world today.�

Granta's editor, John Freeman, says there's currently an enormous amount of writing talent in Pakistan. While there may be many places in the world that deserve to have an entire issue devoted to them, says freeman, there aren't always writers available who can tell their nation's stories. But he says that's exactly what's happening right now with Pakistan.

�It's a thrilling moment literarily, but obviously there's some serious themes at work here and there's a lot at stake,� Freeman said.

Granta's Pakistan issue features both non-fiction and fiction, as well as poetry and artwork. The magazine opens with a novella called �Leila in the Wilderness� by Pakistani-British author Nadeem Aslam.

Aslam was born in Pakistan and moved with his family to England when he was fourteen. At the time he did not speak any English. But since then, he's written three acclaimed novels in English.

His new novella, which he wrote for Granta's special issue, is set in modern-day Pakistan, but with the very first words, Aslam invokes a sense of times past.

�In the beginning, the great river was believed to flow out of a lion's mouth, it's size reflected in its ancient name � Sindhu, an ocean. The river was older than the Himalayas.; the Greeks had called it Sinthus, the Romans Sindus, the Chinese Sintow, but it was Pliny who had given it the name Indus.�

�Leila in the Wilderness� deals with problems facing women in Pakistan today. Although the story's details make it clear that it takes place in the present, there's still much in the writing that feels mythical. Aslam says he wanted to lull people into thinking that they were in some exotic land.

�And then suddenly a mobile phone rings, and you are shocked, I hope, to think that this is actually happening now,� Aslam said.

The story's heroine, Leila, is 14-years old, and has been married against her will to an older man from a powerful family. Her husband expects her to bear him a son, but when the time comes, Leila gives birth to a girl. The child is taken from her by force, and killed. Meanwhile, Leila's enraged husband is persuaded to give her another chance. Time and again, however, Leila gives birth to baby girls, and continues to suffer abuse at the hands of her husband and mother-in-law.

At one point when Leila feels particularly threatened, she grows wings and flies away from her tormentors. With that flight, Aslam's tale departs the realm of the everyday � but the author insists that the circumstances of the story are very much rooted in the real world.

�You know, no one in Pakistan has ever sprouted wings, but the real things are real,� Aslam said. �It is my understanding that Pakistan is among those countries where the ratio of men and women is inconsistent with the rest of the world. Millions of women are missing.�

Aslam says that much of his fiction is based on real events in Pakistan, including one newspaper article he read about a woman who accused doctors of switching her male baby for a female one at birth, only to admit later that she had only made the claim because her husband had threatened to throw her out if she gave birth to another daughter.

�I wouldn't be able to make up half the terrible things in all my books,� said Aslam. �The beginning is always something in the news. I always say that news is the most emotional program on tv for me.�

Aslam says that anyone who reads his work can see how deeply critical he is of the injustices in Pakistani society today. But he says that criticism is born out of love for his native land.

�It all comes out of a place of love, you must understand that I am critical of Pakistan in my writing but I am also aware that we are a very young country,� Aslam said. �We are 63-years old. Let me ask you: �What was America like when it was 63-years old?'�

While Aslam says he won't whitewash his country's problems, he's still keenly aware of the negative image that many outsiders have of Pakistan. Still, he doesn't think it harms Pakistan's reputation to focus on problems like the ones Leila faces in his novella. He points out that everyone in the story who hears of Leila's troubles tries to put an end o the injustices she's suffered.

�So you know, they too are Pakistani, so that is the Pakistani that I am proud of, and I hope to be part of, in that there are bad things, but that resistance is always there, and that is something we have to count on,� Aslam said.

While Aslam's tale recounts terrible events, it's also a story about love, loyalty, and above all, hope. In that sense, his fiction reflects his own attitude towards Pakistan.

�I cannot subscribe to this notion that Pakistan will fall apart,� he said. �I mean, it might, but I am not going to begin from that point. I can't �because I love that place.�