Published Dec 28, 2015 09:54am

Thrillers: How a neglected genre helped Pakistani fiction get its groove back in 2015

This year we have evidence that the thriller could be Pakistani fiction's next big export
This year we have evidence that the thriller could be Pakistani fiction's next big export

I'd venture that 2015 hasn't been the best year for Pakistani fiction in English but then again, what's our measure?

Shall we assess the state of Pakistani fiction by the number of awards Pakistani writers have been nominated for? The amount of fiction published indigenously? What about relying purely on critical assessment of the works in question - would that give us any insight at all?

Not really, and not just because we didn't feature on notable shortlists (or longlists, for that matter) this year and haven't published many books on home soil. Commenting on the state of Pakistani fiction as a whole is unfair because the machinery required to produce, sell and distribute local fiction in English in Pakistan is broken, lacking vibrancy, diversity and investment.

Our salvation comes in the form of Indian publishers and the odd book published by fledgling independent publishing houses. And here, we can discern the glimmer of a trend - a trend that, if given its due, could transform the maddening chaos of our political and social landscape into fodder for exciting fiction.

I'm talking about thrillers.

Thrillers are the stepchildren of literary fiction, cast aside by tastemakers for being too obvious, too pedestrian. It's true - thrillers are mass-market fiction, catering to a fairly low common denominator. But the genre's easy appeal is exactly what fills a publisher's pockets. Thrillers are delightfully malleable too, often able to morph neatly into a script for TV or a feature film.


Books like The Spinner's Tale, Agency Rules and Juggernaut feature true sons of the soil as heroes, and don't fall prey to co-opting 'ethnic' tropes to reach a wider (read: white) audience.


This year we have evidence that the thriller could be Pakistani fiction's next big export. Omar Shahid Hamid's The Spinner's Tale (Pan Macmillan, India) chronicles a young Pakistani's descent into extremism even as his friends take different paths. Hamid's debut last year with The Prisoner (Pan Macmillan, India) set us up to expect that he'd stick to the thriller genre, and he should. Though his writing needs tightening up and the book's narrative could've been less cluttered, The Spinner's Tale makes good use of Hamid's background in law enforcement.

Interesting also is Agency Rules by Khalid Mohammed (Dead Drop Books, Pakistan). This little-known book deserves a closer look; main character Kamal Khan is a complicated commando with a conscience. Mohammed's writing style is competent, I expect this one is going to be snapped up by an Indian publisher soon.

Akbar Agha's Juggernaut (4 Hour Books, India) finds inspiration in an army man too: Captain Gul Khan, on whose shoulders Pakistan's nuclear security rests. What these books have in common, and what I find exciting, is this: their heroes are true sons of the soil, unabashedly Pakistani. In an age in which South Asian writers and foreign publishing houses fall prey to co-opting 'ethnic' tropes to reach a wider (read: white) audience, this alone is enough to warrant our applause.


Pakistani fiction in English reflects the society that breeds it - full of possibility, yes, but hindered by a system that ought to have righted itself by now.


Thrillers aside, a few fairly straightforward novels popped up: Sorayya Khan's City of Spies (Aleph, India), The Lost Pearl by Lara Zuberi (Ilqa Publications, Pakistan) and The Satanist by Sana Munir (Partridge, India), to name a few. Karachi Raj (Fourth Estate, India), an ambitious novel by Pakistani-American Anis Shivani, caught the eye too.

But on the whole Pakistani fiction in English retains its stratification: those who publish with Western houses have the edge when it comes to visibility while those who publish in India, or locally, might avoid typecasting but risk dropping into literary oblivion.

In this way, at least, Pakistani fiction in English reflects the society that breeds it - full of possibility, yes, but hindered by a system that ought to have righted itself by now.


This article originally appeared in Dawn Newspaper's Books & Authors on 27 December

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