Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf, and who they are, as a writer. Today Orooj-e-Zafar reads us four excerpts of Bilal Tanweer’s debut novel, The Scatter Here Is Too Great.
Thanks for recording for us, Orooj. Before we take a listen, tell us a little about your love story with Bilal Tanweer. Is this the first novel of his you’ve read or one of many? I’m not personally familiar with his work, so perhaps you can tell us a little about him? Or what you know about the book that can help put the passages you’ve selected into context?
Orooj: The pleasure is mine! This is, I believe, his only novel, also a winner of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014, after his extensive work as a translator of books by Ibn-e Safi. Story-telling being his forte, he has published short stories with international magazines like Words Without Borders and Granta.
When I read this small bio behind The Scatter Here is Too Great, I was impressed. I never met him personally but I asked a friend, studying at his university to tell him, “he changed my life.” From the way my friend described it, he didn’t see it coming at all. His humility is admirable because he wrote for the people of his country and in that, he feels he succeeded.
He told an interviewer that “fiction writing came late and translating, even later,” but his flair of the written word is nothing short of a gift. A reviewer called The Scatter Here is Too Great “a collection of blood-stained letters to Karachi,” and it could not be truer. He wrote stories about the city at its prime and fall—its people, its places, their niche and interaction thereof—that he believed were lost if not retold and felt for. With multiple narrators, all connected to the other by either the city or circumstances, you don’t have any room to surface. The realness and profundity of his language—vernacular but narrating grotesque, unfortunate events—is that of a poet; it kept me gasping for air throughout the book.
The bits I chose to read out are the pages preceding a new part of the book. He used a bullet-shattered windscreen as a metaphor for the city he grew up in, using different (or rather the same) descriptions of it to carry his stories forward. Not only did this part of Karachi become a dangerous place to live in, it lost its more prominent voices to cruel circumstance.
Sundress: Forgive me for asking the obvious before we listen—this is not a translation, but was written in English, right? Can you tell us a little about English literature in Pakistan?
Orooj: Of course but I’m still discovering it myself! Tanweer originally wrote it in English, yes but I suppose Alamgir Hashmi understood the untapped potential Pakistani writers had to tell this country’s story and make it accessible. He was the first English-language Pakistani writer I knew of. Recently, thanks to the glowing reviews I read about them, I discovered Mohammed Hanif, Muneeza and Kamila Shamsie.
Sundress: “The hole at the center throws a sharp, clean web around itself and becomes crowded with tiny crystals. That is the metaphor for my world.” That’s a hell of an image. This sounds almost like a fable, like the book will be an attempt to give a complete image of a war, of the brutality and the day-to-day.
Orooj: That’s exactly what it did. The image of war like you said, doesn’t hit you right away. As I said before, the language is so colloquial, the tragedy comes as a shock, but not a surprise. It is almost like a snare in this part of the book; nothing goes horribly wrong at first until it does.
Sundress: Listening on to this second clip, The Scatter Here Is Too Great sounds like more than just a letter to Karachi—I hear any city suffering under the fear of a bullet. I think perhaps it’s also how you’re reading it, but it sounds more like a love letter to the human spirit. A universal message. But what roots it in Pakistan? Can you share some of these colloquialisms with us?
Orooj: I agree and I’m glad you share my views. Maybe unintentionally he struck a chord with, not just the Pakistani in me, but also the human. As for its placement, Tanweer takes real places like Clifton Beach, Lyari etc. He uses native words for parents, (Amma/Ammi, Baba) and even incorporates some of the local lingo (aray bhaiyya), even if some are derogatory terms. Then of course, the surreptitious meetings between characters and the events that followed – bomb blasts, robberies.
Sundress: The idea of layered stories always appeals to me, so I’m curious. Without giving away too many spoilers, what are these “different stories” that the windshields are telling?
Orooj: First we have “A Writer in the City” about a boy and his father, now impoverished playing a game with blackboards. He comes and goes in the book, through different points in his life, growing up to be like his father – you guessed it – a writer.
There’s the couple who sneak away to be away by themselves, the girl seeking some time with her beau who she “swears she’s in love with” and the boy, hormonal and eager but with an interesting background of his own. The one I found most interesting was that of an ambulance driver who had a meltdown after he was helping victims of a bomb blast in the city.
Sundress: This is definitely my favorite section. Hearing you read this tale brings back the news media for me—Peshawar certainly feels new and immediate again, but this passage is less hopeless than news coverage. Your pacing catches that “sense of wonder” Tanweer’s talking about. I get the sense that even though there are multiple protagonists, this need for wonder is Tanweer’s; “…stories were reasons that allowed us to connect ourselves to the world, to compose ourselves in ways others could read… we needed stories in order to imagine the mad world we live in.” That’s such a powerful idea.
Orooj: Exactly. What I love about this book is that though it has multiple protagonists, the main character is Karachi itself. There’s a powerful monologue in the story, part of which was, “the city is dying,” and it completes the story until that point so perfectly. All the characters are pieces playing their part, most victims but so significant in Karachi’s tale. This is why I think it’s something everyone should read.
A mentor once told me, “poetry is not for the lazy,” because there’s a reason every word in a poem is where it is, even its punctuation. The flow in a written piece is crucial especially when it comes to slam poetry. Reading The Scatter Here is Too Great made me realize that every one of his stories was vital – irreplaceable – to Karachi’s tale. Quite simply, he narrated the horrors housing in those streets, eloquently defending that it was not always like this and there will be a time when it will not.
Without him “prettying it up,” he makes you see that it wasn’t just the poor who suffered, or the uneducated, or even the prominent. You did not have the time to fall in love with a particular character because you only knew them for so long. The scatter of sorrow, anguish and pain was truly too great. Heroically, he collected whatever he could of the timelines that were cut short and gave realism a completely different meaning for me.
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
Orooj-e-Zafar is a Browncoat nineteen-years-young mosaic in her first year of med school. She fancies herself a certified overthinker and spoken word poet, frequently performing in front of audiences in her city at venues such as Kuch Khaas, among many others. Orooj is a reader for cahoodaloodaling and has been published at The Missing Slate, Pankhearst, Up the Staircase Quarterly. She recently released her first spoken word album, the articulation of my vertebrae: from being spineless to finally standing tall. She resides in Islamabad, the dharna capital of Pakistan. She has been married to slam poetry since she heard the word, ‘onomatopoeia’ and would like nothing more than to wake up to a hot cup of chai and a good poem; engaging conversations are a close third. Her best friend is her copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. She’s been playing the guitar for eight and a half years (badly), sings decently enough and bakes till her problems go away. Some days she is Ron Swanson and others, Leslie Knope. Though she married slam poetry early and (un)foolishly, the universe itself remains her one true love; she’s just passing through.
Bilal Tanweer, whose native language is Urdu, was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. He received his MFA in creative writing at Columbia University. A fellow at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2012, Tanweer’s fiction, poetry, and translations have appeared in various journals, including Words Without Borders, The Caravan, Granta, and Vallum. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan where he is an assistant professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences. The Scatter Here Is Too Great won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 and was a finalist for both the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015 and The Chautauqua Prize 2015. Recently Tanweer was selected as a Fellow of Akademie Schloss Solitude for 2015-2017.