Literary festivals reveal to us who we were, who we are, and who we might become - Photo by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Literary festivals reveal to us who we were, who we are, and who we might become - Photo by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

I don't think I’d be amiss in saying a literary festival has four key purposes.

First, to introduce to the audience exemplary works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry which made their debut in the past year; second, through an exploration and critique of these works, to form a cohesive picture of strides made in intellectual traditions; third, to create exposure for existing and new writers by affording them prominence, for this is perhaps the sole forum where the oft-sidelined writer is given their due; and fourth: to locate and then gauge the trajectory of one’s own literary heritage within conversations of global significance.

In doing so, we hope literary festivals will reveal to us who we were, who we are, and who we might become.

Last week thousands flocked to the Karachi Literature Festival’s (KLF) seventh instalment for what is now widely acknowledged as the city’s most prominent forum for cultural exchange. Founded by Oxford University Press’s (OUP) Ameena Saiyid and writer and publisher Asif Farrukhi, KLF is now also perhaps a festival with the greatest breadth, as this year a series of sessions dedicated to the visual arts ran alongside forums critiquing foreign policy or dissecting film.


Ill-prepared moderators, circuitous debates in sessions and a heavy focus on subjects tangential to literature left the lit fest floundering in its quest to fulfill its obligations. Does the KLF team need to honestly evaluate their process to ensure they’ll retain an increasingly savvy audience?


Usually thick with the presence of Indian writers, this year two prominent panellists, Anupam Kher and Nandita Das, dropped out of KLF following a visa snafu that seriously irked the former.

While this added a hint of intrigue to the buzz surrounding KLF the two were ultimately not missed — vocal Indian transgender rights activist Laxmi Tripathi, journalist Barkha Dutt and other writers from across the border made up for their absence. They shared the stage with Pakistan’s not-inconsiderable stock of home-grown literati, as Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Fahmida Riaz, Zehra Nigah and others straddled multiple panels.

It was a fine weekend: temperate weather and a bustling but fairly considerate crowd meant KLF’s offerings could be sampled late into the evenings.

Indian luminaries such as Barkha Dutt and Laxmi Tripathi made up for the absnece of Anupam Kher and Nandita Das
Indian luminaries such as Barkha Dutt and Laxmi Tripathi made up for the absnece of Anupam Kher and Nandita Das

But ultimately, KLF decisively achieved only the first of the four aims outlined above.

Ill-prepared moderators, circuitous debates in sessions and a heavy focus on subjects tangential to literature left the lit fest floundering in its quest to fulfil its remaining obligations, and as the festival approaches its eighth iteration next year’s KLF team needs to honestly evaluate their process to ensure they’ll retain an increasingly savvy audience.

Before we get to what didn’t work, here’s what did.


Encouraging new writers and respecting those gone before

In Pakistan, where there are few credible accolades to count on, KLF deserves praise for encouraging writers in the form of generous prizes and pomp: namely, this year’s KLF awards for fiction and non-fiction in English (won by Aamer Hussein for 37 Bridges and Other Stories and Aroosa Kanwal for Rethinking Identities in Contemporary Pakistani Fiction: Beyond 9/11 respectively) and Urdu (won by Nejeeba Arif for Ma’aani sey Ziada), KLF Peace Prize (in affiliation with the German Mission in Pakistan, won by Muhammad Amir Rana for The Militant: Development of a Jihadi Character in Pakistan) and the upcoming Italian Metropoli d’Asia Award.

A special session arranged in memory of Intizar Husain (L) and the German Peace Prize ceremony (R)
A special session arranged in memory of Intizar Husain (L) and the German Peace Prize ceremony (R)

What we often overlook is how public recognition in the form of an award is key to a writer gaining access to avenues that will advance their career, like prestigious writers’ residencies, fellowships and such.

When leveraged correctly, what might appear to be calculated PR on the part of companies or governments may actually prove to be the difference between a struggling writer and a successful one.

In this way, KLF’s numerous awards and book launches highlighted deserving work published in the past year.

Next, one can’t talk about KLF without mentioning Intizar Husain, who passed away only a few days prior to the event.


At KLF one panellist made the striking observation that Intizar Husain has earned a place in history among the likes of Ghalib or Iqbal, destined to be identified by first name alone… forever Intizar.


Those closest to him were visibly affected by his absence. As always, in times like these his being a key figure in KLF’s development and success was almost beside the point — it was the man we missed; his work will live on. A moment of silence was observed for him at KLF’s opening ceremony and a special panel was arranged in memoriam, featuring Nigah, Farrukhi, Riaz, Saiyid and several others. During this memorial one panellist made the striking observation that we should not refer to the legendary writer as Intizar sahib any longer — he has earned a place in history among the likes of Ghalib or Iqbal, destined to be identified by first name alone… forever Intizar.

In doing this writer justice, Pakistan’s literary community brought out the best in itself: humility, eloquence and a rich tradition of understated erudition.

The big brand question

Every year someone or the other asks — what does a soft drink have to do with literature?

This time around my beef isn’t with big-ticket sponsors. I’m more apprehensive about how literary concerns took a backseat to other, more accessible cultural mediums like film, photography, comedy and politics.

High-profile guests often overshadow discussions on literature. Here, Hina Rabbani Khar takes the stage.
High-profile guests often overshadow discussions on literature. Here, Hina Rabbani Khar takes the stage.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I enjoyed these sessions. The visual arts need a champion and ArtNow Pakistan and the team of the Lahore Biennale Foundation have admirably risen to the occasion. Similarly, our burgeoning film scene deserves every ounce of respect we can muster.

But is it fair to pit sessions on literature — arguably the most subtle of the arts — against easily digestible crowd-pleasers like comedy routines and talks on high politics? If placed side by side I think it’s fair to surmise that the charismatic career politician (Hina Rabbani Khar, for example) will draw crowds away from a lecture on, let’s say, Urdu digests. The former is an easier sell, no doubt — but a lazier one too.


Is it fair to pit sessions on literature — arguably the most subtle of the arts — against easily digestible crowd-pleasers like comedy routines and talks on high politics?


My irritation at this state of affairs stems from the fact that the big names or featured acts in question have done little of strictly literary significance. In my opinion a personality like Khar only has a place at a lit fest if she’s promoting a memoir she’s just written — like journalist Barkha Dutt with This Unquiet Land, for example, or Ishrat Husain with Globalisation, Governance and Growth.

Call me a purist but I’d like to keep the focus on books. If done correctly we won’t be any poorer for it, as there’s plenty of space to discuss politics within the framework of a novel or piece of non-fiction. Teasing these dialogues out of written work requires creativity on the part of the organisers and moderators, yes, but isn’t that what we come to KLF for? To locate a greater meaning in our individual works of literature?


As interest in visual mediums of expression grows at a rampant pace (owing in no small part to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram) literature festivals, as one of the few remaining safe havens for writers and the written word, need to remain true to their ethos.


As interest in visual mediums of expression grows at a rampant pace (owing in no small part to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram) literature festivals, as one of the few remaining safe havens for writers and the written word, need to remain true to their ethos.

In this way KLF undermines the second and third aims of a lit fest. It sidelines the writer in favour of the performer and so, leaves little room to engage an audience in a discussion that touches on current literary trends.

If this is to continue I suggest KLF be rebranded a culture festival. It’s a more honest representation of the affair.

Inclusivity and contemporary discourse

In the aftermath of lit fests past, ‘inclusiveness’ has been a hot topic of debate. Under scrutiny are both the diversity of speakers invited and the audience attending. The good news first: I found the audience at this year’s KLF refreshingly varied. Making full use of free admission were young school children and families, even passersby who were simply curious.

Laudable also is how sessions in the main garden — KLF’s hub — were conducted largely in Urdu. I appreciated how authors and panellists were not whisked quickly out of sight by their handlers post-discussions. They mingled freely with the crowds, which is exactly how it should be.

The audience at KLF was diverse and writers like Kamila Shamsie (L) mingled freely with the crowds
The audience at KLF was diverse and writers like Kamila Shamsie (L) mingled freely with the crowds

However, several panels fell short of expectations in terms of inclusivity, which in turn affected content.

Karachi’s deeply entrenched literary-cultural establishment dominates the management of fests like KLF, which would not be a problem if said establishment made an extra effort to open up key decisions to a younger set more familiar with contemporary discourse and emerging writers. This is not the case, the result being that several sessions missed opportunities to introduce the audience to new frameworks with which to view old problems.

A conversation with Laxmi Tripathi, a session on Pakistani publishing and a talk with Ruchira Gupta come to mind. In the first, talk centred on how terrible patriarchy is for women and trans-persons (we got the memo, thanks) while more modern notions like the impact of class privilege on transgender rights were ignored. In the publishing panel burning questions about manuscript sourcing and solicitation went unanswered and when women’s rights were discussed in Gupta’s session there was little discussion of intersectional feminism.


It stands to reason that the more diverse a lit fest’s management, the more diverse its content. Actively sourcing fresh voices will enliven a lit fest’s agenda by adding modern perspectives. So why isn’t this being done?


It stands to reason that the more diverse a lit fest’s management, the more diverse its content. Actively sourcing fresh voices will enliven a lit fest’s agenda by adding modern perspectives, and ensure that aims three and four — highlighting deserving new names in literature and remaining globally relevant — are achieved. Sessions on art at KLF proved this: different faces were visible and so, debate was more engaging.

So why isn’t this being done? A festival in its seventh year should be equipped to provide answers.

The moderation problem

Just as all writers aren’t good orators, all critics aren’t competent moderators. KLF is regularly criticised for hosting poorly moderated discussions; this year was no different. In several instances it was clear that panels had not been planned in advance. Certain moderators talked over their subjects. I felt for the foreign panellist sitting amidst a trio of speakers chatting mostly in Urdu. In this case steering the conversation towards English is the least a moderator can do.

We need better moderators, plain and simple. Seniority should not dictate this decision. The best moderators may not even be part of the literary circle at all. Again, only expanding KLF’s reach and inclusiveness will solve this problem.

In closing

Before you think me immoderate in my criticism let me venture that a festival that’s been running for seven years is robust enough to bear a little nudge.

And so, as it trundles towards a decade of celebrating the literary arts, KLF might have to make some radical choices to ensure its credibility endures. We’re tired of reductive arguments, circular debates and the same faces every year. We’ve exhausted our patience for rhetorical banter and self-aggrandisement.

Put another way — we’re finally growing up. We already know who we are and where we come from. It’s time for KLF to wholly fulfil a lit fest’s agenda and answer the most pressing question of all: who shall we become?


This article originally appeared in Dawn Newspaper's Books&Authors on February 14 2016.

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