Review of Ways of Being — Creative Non-Fiction by Pakistani Women: A space of their own

Loss of home, patriarchy to gender norms, Pakistani women writers question everything in an anthology of essays

March 03, 2023 09:02 am | Updated 10:09 am IST

The Cuban performance artist and activist, Tania Bruguera, who has faced many forms of censorship, once read out a manifesto of artists’ rights at a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights meet in Geneva in which she said “art is not only a statement of the present, it is also a call for a different future, a better one. Therefore, it is a right not only to enjoy art, but to be able to create it.”

Seen in this light, the anthology of essays edited by Sabyn Javeri,  Ways of Being: Creative Non-Fiction by Pakistani Women, is incredible in that it provides readers with a different point of view, diverse, “an underdog history, parallel yet complementary” to the historical context and the socio-political journey of Pakistan after Partition, and all that it entailed. The themes are varied, some writers look at the past, some question the politics of the present, and “still others reimagine the vision for the future.”

In her introduction, Javeri points out that in an age of mass displacement, she wondered who has the right to call herself a Pakistani writer, finally deciding to go with anyone “who feels a connection to the land either by origin or by sensibility.”

Acts of resistance

Among the voices is that of British-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie who reveals her mixed feelings when she became a British-passport holder, agreeing with British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar’s description: “In that moment you are betrayed and betrayer both. You’re betraying your country by seeking another passport, and you’re betrayed by your country which makes you want to seek another passport.”

Javeri thinks of herself as a “serial migrant, with a whirlpool of maps under my carbon footprint”, and reflects on the many meanings of home when the “sky is the same everywhere.” Historian Taymiya R. Zaman goes through her mother’s diaries of the 1960s and finds out why she abruptly stopped writing; novelist Uzma Aslam Khan pays homage to an assassinated human rights champion and Soniah Kamal writes about her desire to become an actress when young and how it led to a life of writing, as an act of resistance.

For the many acts of resistance, the essays are a must-read. As Javeri puts it, unlike in fiction, the personal essay demands ownership and accountability and the writers in the anthology “own their stories with courage and grace.”

Ways of Being: Creative Non-Fiction by Pakistani Women; Edited by Sabyn Javeri, Women Unlimited, ₹450.

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