Writing serious literature is resistance: Shahnaz Bashir

There has been no dearth of writings on Kashmir considering it draws fancy of media, academicians and writers alike. While most of the written work on Kashmir has been authored by writers placed outside the valley, lately however there has been resurgence in writing coming out of the valley itself. Writers like Basharat Peer, Nitasha Kaul, Mirza Waheed, Shahnaz Bashir, and Essar Batool and many others have through their writings introduced the local perspective of the conflict, thereby challenging the state constructed narrative.

Wande Magazine interviews one such author, Shahnaz Bashir whose critically acclaimed debut novel The Half Mother won the Muse India Young Writer Award in 2015. His other work, Scattered Souls, a powerful collection of short stories too has been received very well that several lead reviews compared him with Manto and Chekhov. Speaking with Faiza Nasir, Bashir discusses the importance of writing in a conflict situation, his views on Arundhati Roy’s latest novel and the representation of Kashmir conflict in the works by non Kashmiri writers and the areas that need to be looked at while writing on Kashmir. (A shorter version of the interview appeared in Kashmir INK).

Wande Magazine: Lately, there has been resurgence in writing coming out of Kashmir. What do you attribute it to?

Shahnaz Bashir: I attribute it to the phenomenon of what actually a Libyan writer Hisham Matar once said in an interview that during conflict, when the conflict is at its peak, there are not enough possibilities for artists, writers to write or express that situation. Barbers’, bakers’ and butchers’ shops are more important places where storytelling can happen in a conflict situation. Art and writing needs some leisure, so there has to be a recess.That is why I think the 90s in Kashmir were extremely troubled and one could not think about writing at leisure, at peace. Moreover, we did not have online media then. So it was a bit difficult to reach many a reader. But despite the fact, people kept writing, they wrote in Urdu and Kashmiri. Later many youths went out of Kashmir, many studied in these big institutions, interacted with people, exposed themselves to other societies and also found opportunities of getting published. So that’s why it came late. But it was there all the time, we cannot say it wasn’t there at all. Everything takes its time.

I would have been writing anyway, even if there was no political conflict. I think when you write serious literature, it is resistance itself. If somebody tells me that I have to write about resistance only, that it has to be only resistance literature, I would resist that proposition too. Because I think writing inherently and naturally is resistance itself. All creativity is resistance. When you are writing serious stuff, you are actually resisting certain notions, certain conformism which any society can be replete with.

WM: How important is it to challenge the state constructed narratives by producing a body of work or body of knowledge from the site of resistance itself?

SB: It is not only the question of importance, but a question of duty. When you live in a situation which unfortunately is strife-torn and your writing does not have those political contours in it, you are issuing a political statement that you are indifferent to the situation. That means it is your politics and you have chosen to be silent. That’s why I think it is the duty of a writer even if the writer has many other concerns. Moreover, it also depends on how much overwhelmed you are with a situation like ours. My first two books are about Kashmir of nineties and maybe it will fade into current times. This is because when I started, all this had seeped into me; I had to get it out. So even if there is a change in terms of what people write, we will always be writing about what has happened in Kashmir. If we ignore this reality not only will it look fake, but it also would be a political statement of indifference on one’s part.

WM: There is a body of work, both fiction and non-fiction produced on Kashmir by writers who are not from Kashmir. Are you satisfied with the representation of Kashmir in this body of work?

SB: There are many well meaning people in India who write very explicitly about Kashmir, on Kashmir and for Kashmir and at times their output is larger than many Kashmiri writers themselves who represent Kashmir at global level. We have people like Gautam Navlakha, Arundhati Roy and many others. However,there is a very intriguing kind of problem sometimes in having a non-Kashmiri sympathizer—an artist or a writer or anyone. I went through Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. She has already very openly and boldly talked about Kashmir in her non-fiction throughout these twenty years between her two novels. I still believe that her first novel The God of Small Things is a better one because in it Arundhati intimately belongs to the story she is telling. Her tireless voluminous non-fiction on all great issues is unprecedented and superb. But if I may speak about the literary side of the latest one, after these twenty years she has written a novel which is a condensed fictionalized form of everything she has already written threadbare in her non-fiction. Second thing is that the connection, the relationship between the characters in the latest novel, like, a  dissolute Indian (S. Tilotama) falling in love with a Kashmiri insurgent (Musa Yesvi) is imaginatively absurd and out of place in a context as culturally insular as Kashmir. It looks very unlikely. I think the whole novel is like an ineffectual and pointless yet pretty detailed narrative about the things we already know. Fiction which is based on research is never as universal as the one based on one’s intimate experience which one can have only by belonging. It’s dangerous to write about cultures one doesn’t belong to. About feelings one doesn’t feel. About people one doesn’t speak the language of. It can never become universal literature. It is very strange to note that though the narrative of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is in favour of Kashmir but the connection, the relationship that the narrator is trying to make between Kashmir and a woman in Delhi (again) tries to forge the fate and destiny of Kashmir with the mainland. Just replace the author’s name with anyone and hardly anyone would ever read or know about The Ministry.

Slavoj Zizek, a Balkan philosopher, on James Cameron’s film Avatar says that even though Avatar looks like a movie against neo-capitalism in US, however, it again is a racist narrative because the hero, the Avatar of the resistance has to come from US and represent the other. I think here we have the same problem, the other representing the self. It is an example of how much or to what measured extent a non-Kashmiri can be morally, artistically, diplomatically, academically or in any other way supportive of Kashmir’s struggles. And in what way even the support becomes dangerous for a Kashmiri when the support is too large and too overarching that it looks like it’s again strangely, yet sympathetically, trying to bind Kashmir’s destiny with the mainland.

WM: The broad-ranging theme, across all genres, in the written work by Kashmiri writers centres on conflict. In your view is it emancipating or limiting?

SB: I think it is both. It is emancipating as well as limiting because usually any publisher would not usually be interested in Kashmir unless it is about conflict. That does not mean Kashmiris should stop writing about conflict. I am talking about the publishing world out there which is very commercial and there exists an intricate nexus between publishers and writers with regard to what is being promoted as literature. I believe the primary importance of literature is to provoke and reform rather than entertain, but the whole publishing commerce is based on the entertainment value. Now there are certain themes that unfortunately appeal people, like conflict, gender discrimination and wars. So in that way, because you have to write in English language and you have an international publisher and therefore an international audience, there is an edge.

However, it is also very limiting because literature is a metaphor to what you actually want to say, what actually happens. It is a greater truth. So if the reality is always subsumed in conflict, your literature would reflect it. But if you are writing only about conflict, you tend to be called a resistance writer. Writing also needs its own freedom, it resists if it is trapped in only one kind of theme but at the same time even if you try to write about something else in a society and you try to present it in a way that there is no conflict then it looks like a fake story, a made-up and a political statement on your part that you are deliberately ignoring the conflict.

WM: What are the kinds of difficulties that a Kashmiri writer faces when they are writing on Kashmir?

SB: I don’t think there is a problem in getting a publisher. I believe that if you are really writing well, in all the ways, then you will be ultimately confident that you wouldn’t care about publishers. The example being that amongst the Nobel laureates, ninety percent and above write in languages other than English, languages not familiar to many readers. If you have a well written manuscript, there are very less chances of refusal. Publishers always look for something new. The only problem is that if they find lack of finesse, it’ll take a long time to edit, so they generally refuse or ignore. And on an average each publisher receives more than two hundred manuscripts per day as submissions. And then there is a way of approaching an agent, and agents are there looking for manuscripts provided they are good. The problem I would say is with us. One is that we easily get into rat races. I believe you cannot and should not, or even if you can, write one book unless having read dozens. You should not write a short story unless you have read one hundred short stories at the least. There is no shortcut to hard work. The other important thing is the social encouragement you get, but that goes back to the political situation. The political situation in Kashmir is such that though things like envy, discouragement we associate with general social features within the society, but with us this is very cathartic because it is not only a social feature; it is a feature of the political situation also.

WM: How do you see Kashmir conflict being portrayed in works by writers from Kashmir? Do you find any lack in the portrayal of the conflict?

SB: I will not impose my opinion on other writers or those who want to write or those who are already writing, but this is how I feel about it: If I am writing three hundred pages about a character’s suffering and two hundred pages look like I am just trying to experiment with the aesthetics of language rather than being focused on the story, then there is a problem. I do not approve of literature that is written for the sake of aesthetics only. But a literature that balances on aesthetic and the political (content). There has to be a fine balance between aesthetics and the political side of the story. The narration should reflect the deepest feelings of characters, evince their psyche, produce ideas which the reader must take away.

(A brief version of this interview was originally published in Greater Kashmir weekly magazine Kashmir Ink issue of 16 July to 22 July, 2017. www.kashmirink.in) 

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