The Aleph Review, a literary anthology launched earlier this year by Mehvash amin, Showcases the work of Pakistani writers and artists. this vibrant and well put together compendium of poetry, prose and experimental works offers an original perspective on South Asian writing. The team take Afshan Shafi (also a contributing editor on the Review) on their editorial journey
What was the experience like putting together Vol 1 of the review? Were there any revelations or surprises during the editorial process?
Mehvash: Exhilarating, trying, enervating, tiring, uplifting â€“ the first issue was all that and more.
There were some really serendipitous moments, as when Taufiq Rafatâ€™s son Seerat Hazir gave me a thin college magazine, circa 1968, with his fatherâ€™s seminal essay Towards the Pakistani Idiom in it.
The surprise: how genuinely good some of our young writers are.
Ilona: Putting together this particular issue took a long time. There were various obstaclesâ€”not a lack of good writing, as from the beginning we received excellent submissions, but financial and also physical as our publisher and chief editor broke her leg in the early stages of the project.
Mehvash Aminâ€”Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
â€œAll of us are poetsâ€
Despite all the delays, we discovered that even established, senior writers were enthusiastic about submitting their work to The Review. This included local as well as diaspora writers, and artists, since art is and will continue to be an integral part of our publication.
Mahboob: The meetings, the process of reading some excellent pieces of prose and poetry, the anxiety over publishing, and then the exhilaration of finally holding The Aleph Review are going to have a bearing on how I view literature from this point onwards.
“Many people are unfamiliar with the development of Pakistani poetry in English from Partition onwards”
I have always been fascinated by the choices which Pakistani writers in English have to face, and the risks they take. To be a part of such choices revealed more complexities than I had anticipated.
What do you think are the greatest strengths of the Review?
Mehvash: I wanted to archive the works of some of our excellent bygone authors, while looking to the future with fresh, raw writing.
I think we managed the first with the excellent collection of essays by and on Taufiq Rafat, and the new writing that we published in spades, from screenwriting to poetry to fiction, is there for all to appreciate.
Ilona: I feel that the essay and poetry sections of the review are its greatest strengths. Both sections comprise work by senior as well as young writers. The essays include memoir, academic and personal pieces. Besides this, a set of short, pithy interviews give the reader insights into our new novelists.
Mahboob: The Review combines the old with the new.
However, we have not tried to sell old wine in new bottles.
By including both established and relatively unknown writers, The Review has laid the foundations for future anthologies in which more and more young writers would find space to be recognised.
â€œWe have not tried to sell old wine in new bottlesâ€
What, in your opinion, distinguishes Pakistani writing from other international writing? Can you identify any particular themes?
Mehvash: Well, I would hope that it is not the tired subject matter of bombs and fundamentalism.
I would hope that it is that our writers are good, indeed excellent, even if they are treating universal themes.
Shaista Sirajuddin has said: â€œBeware of the foreign publisherâ€¦â€ She meant those who decide on those typical tropes of violence and religious bigotry and done-to-death clichÃ©s (like the muezzinâ€™s cry) as Pakistani tropes. We must not allow that.
Ilona: Thatâ€™s a difficult question! In prose, I would say that the over-riding theme has been of politics, and in the recent past of history, sometimes related to contemporary events. These themes are explored in the novels of Kamila Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif, Sorayya Khan, Hussain Naqvi and Nadeem Aslam, among others.
Shadab Zeest Hashmiâ€™s work takes a different tangent exploring the way in which cultures overlapped at various points in history.
Mahboob: Pakistani writing is, admittedly, somewhat less mature when compared with other international literatures â€” Indian, African, and Latin American â€” which are currently the focus of literary inquiry in the world.
However, the Pakistani writer is uniquely placed in his proximity to the changing socio-economic and political world order. Pakistani writing in English is particularly alert and responsive to the globalisation of literature, as well as the need to root such literature in the here and now of the indigenous.
I believe that Pakistani writersâ€™ engagement with the themes of loss and fear generated through ever-increasing religious intolerance, and their adherence to promoting tolerance and pluralism in spite of this, are the great strengths of Pakistani writing.
The editorial board of the Review consists entirely of poets. Do you think the poetic sensibility of each of the editors served as a constraint when selecting work from other genres? Or the inverse?
Mehvash: Yes, all of us are poets. I think for the coming issue, some of the editors are going to try their hands at prose, and we have a new kid on the block who writes prose, Hassan Tahir. I think we are all good at sniffing out good writing even if we are largely poets by definition.
Mahboob: I think it was limiting in a way, particularly in the poetry section itself. We do not ascribe to similar schools of thought about poetry. So, we did not agree on several things, particularly on the relative merits of some of the submissions. However, what that has ensured is that the poems or other pieces we have chosen are of a quality that surpasses the normal level that one would find in other places where Pakistani writing is published (for example, in journals and university and college magazines).
Please tell us more about the choice of Taufiq Rafat as the cover feature? How important is the act of revisiting the work of local literary figures and why?
Mehvash: Oh, hugely, hugely important. How do you create a literary landscape if you are not aware of who has come before you? No one writes in a vacuum.
The Aleph Review will always have a section archiving the work of poets and writers gone by.
As for Taufiq Rafat, not only was he a personal mentor, but an excellent poet. I think for Pakistani English writing, he is probably one of the first names that comes to mind.
Ilona: In my conversations with young poets, and even readers of poetry, Iâ€™ve come to realize that many people are unfamiliar with the development of Pakistani poetry in English from Partition onwards.
In this context, revisiting the work of local literary figures in various genres is important for writers of the future; they need to be conversant with the evolution of local literature in English, whether they choose to adopt the tone, theme or style of a particular writer, or to disagree and develop their work in a different direction.
Rafatâ€™s importance lies in his efforts to steer poets away from the English canon, towards imagery rooted in the poetâ€™s own experience and surroundings.
Mahboob: I completed my MPhil thesis on the poetry of Taufiq Rafat at Punjab University, and it was the first attempt to analyze his work. So for me this choice was special on a personal level. Given the inherent bias in favour of British and American literature in many of our older English departments, it becomes frustrating to meet students who do not know anything about the very rich tradition of Pakistani writing in English. This is compounded by the fact that several incompetent administrators deliberately hand courses in Pakistani literature to faculty members without any expertise or interest in Pakistani literature. That is why we must revisit our senior generation of writers, and keep highlighting their importance and contribution.
What kind of work do you aim to showcase in the future? What can we expect from Vol 2 of the Review?
Mehvash: We already have some amazing contributions. I donâ€™t want to give anything away, but we are working on a fabulous theme, which will give The Aleph Review 2018 an intense undercurrent â€“ all I am willing to reveal right now!
Ilona: We will continue to focus on creative non-fiction; the graphic novel or story; and to our range of essays we will add food, food memoir, and travel.
Translation has gained a new significance, particularly in the West, where collaborations between writers and translators who are poets or writers themselves, have made for very successful translations. We now have several excellent translators, whose work will be featured in this issue.
Mahboob: I would like to see more young writers finding this platform for publication.