There was a time when women writers used to write by using pen names to avoid social judgments and moral policing in male-dominated Europe and America and some of the greatest names include Jane Austen, George Eliot and Emily Dickinson who tried to avoid sexist rebukes from the then traditional western societies. Time was little changed with the first wave of feminism and finally reaching the ambitious goal of universal suffragette and Virginia Woolf still had to write A Room of One's Own (1929) to express the desires and needs of women writers.
This segregation and castigation have been an intrinsic part of the male-dominated Postcolonial world and its literature as well where women in Spivak’s words remained doubly colonized. Pakistani-English literature emerged as a distinctive field of postcolonial literature in the early decades after the partition though things seem astonishingly different in this case where women writers seemed to dominate Pakistani-Anglophone literature. Having predecessors like Atia Faizi and Surraya Hussain and comrades like Ismat Chughtai and Qurat ul Ain Haidar in Urdu fiction, Pakistani-Anglophone poets, novelists and fiction writers have eclipsed their male counterparts. This story of great success begins with Attia Hossain and getting strength from writers like Bapsi Sidhwa and Sara Suleri, ascending to new heights with the emergence of Kamila Shamsie as one of the most prominent faces in 21st-century world literature. Pakistani writers have explored a wide range of subjects and they have experimented with all leading genres of fiction including poetry, novels, short stories and memoirs. Though Pakistani Anglophone women writers have tried to give a voice to female subjectivity in their works, their literary canvas and range are not limited to sex and gender issues only. Pakistani women writers have very successfully tried to meddle with the issues of politics attached to the female body, partition trauma and its effects upon the collective consciousness of the nation, displacement and immigration, diasporic experience and hybridity, identity issues and marginalization, violence and wars, colonial past and postcolonial present. It requires a very detailed discussion to include all those names and their contributions in this body of amazing and versatile literature and this precise article would never be able to encompass such a gigantic task, I would like to include some of the most inspiring and influential women writers who have been very strong voices and their voices are louder and saner than any of their counterparts.
A Pakistani novelist of Parsi origin, the godmother of Pakistani-English novel, Bapsi Sidhwa enjoys a very similar stature in Pakistani literature that Jane Austen occupies in English literature. Bapsi Sidhwa like a lone warrior started writing novels when Pakistani English novels had a barren landscape. She took it as a challenge to establish a novel as a distinctive form in her native country and began her illustrious career with The Crow Eaters in 1978. Her first novel revolves around the Parsi community and its experiences in Pakistan though her later novels including Ice-candy Man (1988), The Bride (1983), An American Brat (1993) and Water (2006) deal with the issues related to partition, feminism, violence, hybridity, religious fundamentalism migration and war. Sidhwa continued to write and inspire Pakistani readers in a time when there wasn’t any strong voice to stand side by side with this wonder woman of Literature in English. Her popularity doubled with the publication of Ice Candy Man in India with an alternative title Cracking India (1988) and it was later adopted as a critically acclaimed Bollywood film.
Sara Suleri Goodyear, whose sad demise last month took the literary fraternity with shock and grief, served Pakistani English fiction with her acclaimed memoir Meatless Days (1989). A brilliant artist and a perfectionist in prose, her memoir dealt with her divided life between two worlds of her native home and her later home and intertwine personal and national history. Meatless Days which is considered one of the important works in Postcolonial English literature describes the journey of Pakistan from partition to the 1980s and in Kamila Shamsie’s opinion remains the most important book from Pakistan. Sara Suleri’s scholarly work The Rhetoric of English India is also considered a very important contribution to colonial cultural studies.
Though it was Sidhwa who laid the foundations of Pakistani-English fiction, it was Kamila Shamsie who established it as one of the most aspiring fields of literature throughout the world. Belonging to the intellectual elite of the subcontinent and following a very rich tradition set by Attia Hossain and Muneeza Shamsie, Kamila is dominating the Pakistani English novel since the publication of her critically acclaimed novel, Kartography (2004). Kamila in her fiction deals with contemporary geopolitics, and issues related to war and immigration and have very effectively tried to redefine the paradigm of Postcolonial Literature. Her novels Home Fire (2017) and Burnt Shadows (2009) attracted the readers beyond the borders and left behind the idea of strictly “local literature”, her works stand as an address to a global audience.
Moniza Alvi is a Pakistani-British poet whose poetry addresses the issues of cultural conflicts faced by the immigrants and through her verses, she tries to explore the problems of displacement and difference. Author of a short stories collection titled How the Stone Found its Voice (2005) and various books of poetry, she is one of the prescribed poets in British high school books. Her most famous and award-winning poem “Presents From my Aunts in Pakistan” illustrates the phenomenon of dual identities and divided loyalties experienced by a young girl. Moniza Alvi’s poetry collections include The Country at My Shoulder (1993), Split World: Poems 1990-2005 (2008) and many other critically acclaimed collections.
Uzma Aslam Khan
Uzma Aslam Khan along with her contemporary Kamila Shamsie has become one of the most prominent names of Pakistan English fiction and her novels including Trespassing (2003) and Miraculous History of Nomi Ali (2019) have been instrumental in making her a leading figure in contemporary Pakistani-English Literature. Uzma Aslam Khan deals with a wide range of issues in her novel and being a wonderful storyteller bind those together in her most acclaimed work Trespassing. The story is set in the backdrop of political conflicts and wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and tries to expose the dangerous involvement of western powers in the East and its dreadful consequences. Khan’s The Miraculous History of Nomi Ali set in the Andaman Islands is a successful attempt to defy traditional history. Nominated for various literary awards, The Miraculous History of Nomi Ali, in Muhammad Hanif’s words, is a "glorious book about a forgotten place".
Bina Shah, author of Before She Sleeps (2018), has successfully proved that Pakistani writers are not afraid of taking a less trodden way. Heavily influenced and highly regarded by Margret Atwood for her masterpiece Before She Sleeps, Bina Shah is regarded as one of the most recognizable feminist voices in Pakistani-English Fiction. Before She Sleeps tells the story of women who resist sleeping with multiple men to breed more children in order to fulfil the needs of society which has lost most of the male population due to war. State tries to control women by using technology and the story reminds us of Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (1985) with its creative intensity and imaginative power.
Belonging to the country’s political elite and having a troubled history on her back Fatima Bhutto is equally attractive and thought-provoking in her fiction and non-fiction. She has authored the Women Prize For Fiction nominated novel The Shadow of Crescent Moon (2013) while her chronicle of family history Songs of Blood and Sorrow (2010) drew positive reviews. Her second novel The Runaways deals with the ideas of migration and exclusion, demonization of minorities and fundamentalism and how this world full of segregation disrupts the lives of ordinary people. Fatima, the granddaughter and niece of two former prime ministers of Pakistan is a vocal critic of corruption, fundamentalism and militarization of Pakistani society.
Author of Diary of a Social Butterfly (2008), Moni Mohsin is one of the most aspiring writers in Pakistani-Anglophone literature. Moni Mohsin has been very productive since the publication of her first novel The End of Innocence (2006) and her writings especially The Diary of a Social Butterfly have attracted readers and critics alike. Her social satire The Diary of a Social Butterfly revolves around the social life of a snobbish yet amusing woman “Butterfly” that has a unique ability to create humour amidst the most turbulent days of Pakistan’s history. Moni’s prose provokes unstoppable laughter with Butterfly’s misspellings, literal translations and incorrect pronunciations in her most recognized work of fiction. Moni Mohsin has been a regular contributor to leading Pakistani newspapers.
Tehmina Durani, a Pakistani socialite and author of a highly controversial and equally successful memoir My Feudal Lord (1991), is one of the leading figures in Pakistani-English fiction. My Feudal Lord deals with the patriarchal system and women’s place in feudal society. Married to an influential politician, she brought out the dark secrets of life inside the huge walls of feudal lord’s harems. Her autobiographical novel was appreciated and criticized by readers and critics simultaneously for its bold and brave stance against patriarchy and the problems faced by an independent woman in a traditional Muslim society. Her second novel also tries to explore very sensitive subjects and she very openly discloses the dark secrets of the personal lives of clergy and mystics in Blasphemy (1998). Tehmina Durrani’s boldness and provocative stance against the untouchable sides of Pakistani society make her a modern counterpart of Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hassan Manto.
Muneeza Shamsie is a Pakistani literary critic, editor and bibliographer and her contributions to promoting and preserving Pakistani-Anglophone literature are more than anyone in Pakistan. Shamsie’s scholarly work of literary history Hybrid Typestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English (2017) is considered the most important work in its relevant field. Shamsie, the mother of eminent novelist Kamila Shamsie, has edited a number of anthologies of short stories and poetry as well. Muneeza Shamsie has been a part of editorial boards of prestigious international literary journals and her opinions in the context of Pakistani-English literature are taken with the highest regard.