Aamer Hussein on His Pakistani v. His British Readers

M. Lynx Qualey
July 2, 2013
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While we rode the bus together during the 2013 Palestine Festival of Literature, Pakistani-British writer Aamer Hussein and I had a number of chances to talk about literature, among other things. During one particularly long ride, I opened my laptop in order to capture a few of the things he had to say about writing, translating, and different literary audiences in the UK and in Pakistan.

“It’s very different,” Hussein said. “I could even see that in the same book, Pakistani readers and British readers respond to very different things. … Over the last seven years, I’ve been more aware of my British readers,” and those stories “have been written with a sort of ironic British slant.”

But Hussein nonetheless continues to write with a consciousness of his Pakistani readers, and lately has experimented with writing short stories in Urdu. He has traveled to a number of literature festivals in Pakistan and said those readers have been very appreciative. “Usually, whatever I read in Pakistan goes down well. I do take more risks in Pakistan than I do almost anywhere else.”

His Urdu and English stories are different. He’s also found that they don’t have quite the same force when translated into English. “There’s a kind of fury that doesn’t make it — rather like the accounts of people here in Palestine. I think that the brutality is lost in the translation.”

Hussein surmised that, in English, “Violence of emotion cant be expressed precisely because it isn’t a violent language. Perhaps in English we’re very casual about violence; in Urdu It really hits you in the face.”

Hussein also noted that “in Pakistan my fans tend to be male and quite young. Whereas in Britian they tend to be women. … Perhaps the Pakistani youth identify with some of the males in my fiction, whereas Westerners tell me I write well about women.”

“It’s not that Pakistani women readers don’t read my work, but I certainly have a greater response from a young men. And in Britian, it’s most likely to be women. Critics who write about my work also tend to be women.”

Hussein acknowledged that he does create stong women characters, but, “For me that’s not a plan, it’s just a reflection of the way I live.”

In the last decade, there has certainly been a rise of Pakistani fiction reaching English-language readers. However, Hussein noted, this has mostly been from Anglophone readers. Because of this, “people began to see [the Anglophone literature] as representing Pakistan to the West, so there isn’t the need to translate.”

Yet Hussein felt there was an urgent need to translate. “Read me, and if you want to read Pakistani fiction, read from Urdu.”

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