The first Karachi Literature Festival held at Southbank (May 20) brought together Pakistan’s finest writers, old and new, and a passionate audience eager to discover new voices.
When I first heard that KLF was coming to the Southbank Centre this year, I was filled with excitement. The programme included a mixture of familiar names, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie and Mirza Waheed alongside those entirely new to me. The festival, jointly organised by the KLF and Southbank, tempted me with its bold and original programming. Sessions on memories of homeland sat alongside talks on cinema, poetry performances with panel discussions about Brexit, Partition stories with a discussion on tweeting for social change. The entire event, which took place in a single day, seemed to be an invitation to find out more about my Pakistani heritage.
I travelled to London with a mixture of excitement and nerves, hoping no one would discover that I was only half-Pakistani (from my mother’s side). I was running late and rushed into the first session like the white rabbit, only to be greeted by bemused faces and an empty room.
‘Are you one of the speakers?’ one of the ushers asked me. I admitted that I was not and was asked to leave the room. The session had not yet started. I scolded myself that I should have known better; we were running on Pakistani timing.
Soon enough, the panel arrived. Kamila Shamsie, Mirza Waheed, Claire Chambers and Qaisra Shahraz took their seats to read and discuss refugees and migration.
‘Will you take some pictures for me?’ Shahraz asked, as I settled into the second row. I beamed and nodded and looked somewhat hopelessly at the iPhone plonked into my hand.
‘It’s that button there,’ offered the person next to me.
‘What brings you to the festival?’ I asked, a little too enthusiastically. ‘Who are you looking forward to seeing today?’
Nadia looked at me earnestly and then admitted that she hadn’t read any Pakistani literature, didn’t recognise any of the authors on the panel but came to find out more about the literary scene. I dropped back into my seat, feeling glum that we weren’t going to heartily debate Kartography or The Holy Woman.
‘I read,’ Nadia said, reading my expression like a book. ‘Just not Pakistani literature.’
Nadia is one of many people I met during the day who had never picked up books by any of the writers featured. I find this illuminating. Sometimes there is an assumption that if writers are published, readers will automatically seek them out that somehow they’ll gravitate towards the book with a magnetic pull. But that’s obviously not true.
‘There’s just not that exposure in bookshops,’ Nadia said, as she headed off for the next session. It’s something that stayed with me for the rest of the day.
In the poetry session, I met a secondary school teacher who said she was really interested in Pakistani writers. Despite her enthusiasm she could only recognise Imtiaz Dharker on the panel because she had taught her on the curriculum. We talked at length about the lack of visibility of Pakistani writers.
‘They’re not promoted in schools,’ she said. ‘And they should be.’
Every session I attended was jam-packed. This was unsurprising given that the festival sold out. I was surprised however, that so few people I met, actually knew any of the writers, or had read their work.
‘I didn’t agree with a word that man said,’ another woman greeted me, as we sat to listen to Sayeeda Warsi. A woman who’s politics is so different to my own.
The audience at KLF was diverse, young and old, mostly Pakistanis yes, but what was refreshing was the range of opinion in the room. Everyone appeared politically engaged. From Sayeeda Warsi’s discussion of Muslims and the West to Omar Shareef’s insights into security in Karachi. The quality of questions from the audience was lively and intelligent. As I sat and listened, I was reminded of the political turmoil at home and abroad; from Brexit Britain to Trump’s Muslim ban. It struck me that we can only really learn something, if we listen to those we disagree with.
When I checked twitter later in the afternoon, I am reminded that the Jaipur Literature Festival is taking place, just across the bridge, at the British Library. It filled me with sadness that on the 70th anniversary of Partition, in the spirit of literature and debate, no one thought of uniting these festivals under a single roof.