Category: Lit Hub

How to Write About Authoritarians Without Getting Arrested

Saba Imtiaz for LitHub

Saba Imtiaz writing for LitHub on truth, fiction, and fake news in Pakistan.

Every time I travel through Karachi airport, I stop by its bookshop. It’s not the best organized store in the world. The titles are jumbled together. Fiction merging with non-fiction, biographies next to self-help; books that travelers have opened, flipped through, and put back in the wrong section. Sometimes, I surreptitiously hide a biography or two in the fiction section.

Occasionally, the staff will recommend a book about a topic with a selection of fiction and non-fiction. It’s all the same, piled together on one rack, and treated the same way: If it’s written and it is published, it must be true.

In Pakistan, people are constantly looking for some version of the truth, browsing through their smartphones and the fiction racks of bookstores. There is a stream of rumors repeated on talk shows and forwarded on WhatsApp by people citing “sources” claiming to know the “real story” behind a militant attack or a political controversy. There are missives about impending doom: imminent security threats, crime statistics, and public health crises; tailored to suit one’s preset narrative. If you believe in x, y message—or novel—makes perfect sense.

In his latest novel The Party Worker, the Pakistani cop-turned-writer Omar Shahid Hamid depicts a political strongman called “Don” and a linchpin member in his network determined to bring him down. It has all the makings of a crime novel: cops on the hunt for blood and glory, Mafioso, bloody crime scenes, loyalties and betrayals.

But this isn’t an ordinary crime novel. The Don is a thinly-veiled caricature of a real-life Pakistani politician who lives in exile, and whose political party ruled Karachi for decades because of its broad urban appeal—and alleged violent tactics. Allegations against the party range from targeted assassinations to extortion, and writing about the politician, until recently, was largely off-limits. Reportage that critiqued the party’s exiled leader or mentioned the allegations led to sharp rebuttals and full-fledged tirades. Journalists covering the party were limited to reproducing sanitized press releases and transcripts of speeches. It was the party’s facts, period.

The Party Worker crosses that line drawn in newsprint, depicting the Don as an obese, power-hungry figure with a proclivity for sex workers and ice-cream soda mixed with vodka, whose party uses brutal tactics to control Karachi, while he is protected in exile and has a soft corner at the CIA. Hamid combines the tactics and behaviors of political strongmen to turn the characters in the novel into surreal figures. The book takes on from where reportage ends, imagining how to bring the Don to justice, creating a number of revengeful characters to take on the task. One of them, in truly irreverent Karachi fashion, is called “sisterf***er uncle.”


Realism and Fantasy

Louise Glück for Lit Hub

Louise Glück writes for Lit Hub on different interpretations of realism: 

It is entirely possible that I have never had an accurate sense of what is called realism in that I do not, as a reader, discriminate between it and fantasy.

My earliest reading was Greek mythology. As with my prayers, nothing was ever deleted, but categories were added. First the Oz books. Then biography, the how-to books of my childhood. How to be Madame Curie. How to be Lou Gehrig. How to be Lady Jane Grey. And then, gradually, the great prose novels in English. And so on. All these made a kind of reading different from the reading of poetry, less call to orders, more vacation.

What strikes me now is that these quite disparate works, Middlemarch and The Magical Monarch of Mo, seemed to me about equal in their unreality.

Realism is by nature historical, confined to a period. The characters dress in certain ways, they eat certain things, society thwarts them in specific ways; therefore the real (or the theoretically real) acquires in time what the fantastic has always had, an air of vast improbability. There is this variation: the overtly fantastic represents, in imagination, that which has not yet happened (this is true even when it locates itself in a mythic past, a past beyond the reach of documented history). Realistic fiction corresponds roughly to the familiar and present reality of the reader; its strangeness is the strangeness of obsolescence or irrecoverability. Regarding this obsolescence one is sometimes grateful, sometimes mournful. Though the characters in their passions and dilemmas resemble us, the world in which these passions are enacted is vanished and strange. In the degree to which we cannot inhabit that world, the formerly real becomes very like the deliberately unreal.


Secrets of the Designers: On Creating the Look for a Literary Journal

John Freeman writing for LitHub

John Freeman in conversation with Michael Salu about the conception of a literary journal’s visual identity, for LitHub:

John Freeman: I’ve worked with you before on a brand (Granta) which was already well established. I’m curious how this differs, basically creating a visual identity from scratch.

Michael Salu: It was interesting trying to gather a starting point for the look of a new journal (Freeman’s). I supposed I’d begun with thinking about what might hook into the strong literary tradition of the journal and your own rather lucid, oak-distilled Americanness, if you don’t mind me saying? I wanted to create a feel to the journal that I suspect had quite a part in raising you and maybe get a touch of a bygone idea of America, but also create a fresh contemporary brand that could cloak the intended international perspectives that fill its pages.

So I began with looking at The Beat era, Ginsberg, Kerouac et al. Walker Evans and other artists from that era and the paraphernalia surrounding them during and soon after their respective heydays. I think of the scenes, the journals, the academic publications, the poetry and photography books. The typography of this time carries a certain robustness, directly inspiring the Freeman’s masthead. There’s such myth and movement through images more recently, so working with young photographers seemed an interesting way to go.

JF: Well you threw a bulls-eye dart there. I grew up driving distance from City Lights, which was my MFA and also how I found a more modern collision between aesthetics and ethics. Planet News could be a book for untruthy times. You’ve worked with me before though and must have known the journal would have a global list of contributors. How’d you figure you would signal that or do you feel like all the ways of signifying in that regard are too broken to employ?

MS: I’d say there’s a visual vernacular that’s universal. Particularly when it comes to magazines. It’s something we question little, the formula road-tested for optimal impact. The image as a signifier for something you want to or need to identify with. Using this formula in a literary context playing with that signification is I think a way to draw on the grouping of ideas you seem to aim at both now and before.

JF: One thing I know is you always wanted your covers to speak to readers’ intelligence and skepticism, can you give me an example of how that interaction grows out of questioning the vernacular you just described?

MS: I suppose I spend a fair amount of time examining the semantic data that exists within images, how they shape our narratives and there are certain strict codes we adhere to certainly for “commercial” purposes. What do they mean to the individual and our societal hierarchies? These codified archetypes of being, or saying that we imbibe and occasionally those life myths are disturbed and we struggle to react. Thinking about Charlie Hebdo and the recent Trump cover by Der Speigel, yet the likes of Vogue arguably carry more power as their tropes of propaganda are consistent and far-reaching. I’ve always been interested in subverting those codes. Remember Granta 110 and 115? In fact I’ve always wondered how you read images given your granular engagement with words.


On Fidel Castro’s Relationships with Literary Giants

The Good, the Fake and the Ugly

The divisive Cuban leader Fidel Castro died last week at the age of 90. Emily Temple examines his relationships with some of the top literary figures of the twentieth century. The full article can be read on the Literary Hub website:

Notorious Cuban revolutionary and long-term leader Fidel Castro died on Friday at age 90 after a long illness, leaving a complicated legacy—some heralding him as a liberating hero and others decrying him as a ruthless dictator. Whatever else he may have been, it seems that Castro was an avid reader—“ours is an intellectual friendship,” Gabriel García Márquez once said—and he has been tied to a number of literary figures over the years, with varying degrees of importance, not to mention veracity. Below, a brief history of Castro’s relationships, whether good, bad, or not actually very real, with some of the most famous writers of our time.

Fidel Castro + Ernest Hemingway

It’s a widely known fact that Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway were friends. Just look at all those cozy pictures of them, right? Well, the truth is that all of those cozy pictures were taken on the same day, because that was the only day they met—and they didn’t even say much to each other.

As Jacobo Timerman explained in The New Yorker: “The revolutionaries never viewed Hemingway sympathetically; he had taken little interest in Cuba… Although it’s never stated explicitly, the tourist gets the impression that Hemingway supported Fidel Castro, that the writer is part of the Revolution. The truth is that… the regime never managed to establish a solid link between Hemingway and Castroism.”

And all those pictures? They all come from one day in May of 1960, when a fishing contest was held in Hemingway’s honor. “There are numerous photographs of that meeting,” Timerman writes, “but nothing noteworthy in the words that were exchanged before witnesses—mere formalities, really.” In fact, Hemingway was probably mostly trying to get Castro to keep from confiscating his land.

So when you visit, remember: all that Hemingway + Castro stuff is just tourist bait (read: money). That shouldn’t keep you from enjoying your mojitos, though.

Fidel Castro + Pablo Neruda

This is a case of a friendship that could have been—should have been, even—but, well, wasn’t. Pablo Neruda, himself a communist (he was even, briefly, a Senator for the Chilean Communist Party) was a major admirer of Fidel Castro—and an ardent lover of Cuba in general. In 1959, he visited the country and met the newly powerful Castro in Caracas. As he writes in his memoirs:

Fidel spoke for four uninterrupted hours in the huge square of El Silencio, the heart of Caracas. I was one of the 200,000 people who stood listening to that long speech without uttering a word. For me, and for many others, Fidel’s speeches have been a revelation. Hearing him address the crowd, I realized that a new age had begun for Latin America. I liked the freshness of his language. Even the best of the workers’ leaders and politicians usually harp on the same formulas, whose content may be valid, though the words have been worn thin and weakened by repetition. Fidel ignored such formulas. His language was didactic but natural. He himself appeared to be learning as he spoke and taught.

Later, Neruda describes a secret meeting he had with Castro:

He was a head taller than I. He came toward me with quick strides.

“Hello, Pablo!” he said and smothered me in a bear hug.

His reedy, almost childish voice, took me by surprise. Something about his appearance also matched the tone of his voice.

Fidel did not give the impression of being a big man, but an overgrown boy whose legs had suddenly shot up before he had lost his kid’s face and his scanty adolescent’s beard.

Brusquely, he interrupted the embrace, and galvanized into action, made a half turn and headed resolutely toward a corner of the room. I had not noticed a news photographer who had sneaked in and was aiming his camera at us from the corner. Fidel was on him with a single rush. I saw him grab the man by the throat and start shaking him. The camera fell to the floor. I went over to Fidel and gripped his arm, frightened by the sight of the tiny photographer struggling vainly. But Fidel shoved him toward the door, making him disappear. Then he turned back to me, smiling, picked the camera off the floor, and flung it on the bed.

In 1960, Neruda published Canción de gesta, a collection that included the poem “ A Fidel Castro,” which to my eyes at least appears to be a strong-voiced message of support for the leader.

But in 1966, after Neruda visited the United States (and the anti-Castro Peru), Cuba turned its back on him. In July, a group of Cuban intellectuals—on orders, it was said, from Castro himself—published a scathing public letter condemning Neruda for betraying their Communist principles by associating with the enemy. According to biographer Adam Feinstein, Neruda felt that the letter had been written because “Castro had not taken kindly to his only half-veiled warning [in his poem “A Fidel Castro”] to the Cuban leader to avoid making a cult of his public persona.” Neruda, insulted, angry, and feeling that Castro hated him personally, never went back to Cuba, though he was invited only two years later.


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