Pakistan in the Sea of Narrative

I gave this talk at the Asian Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. on November 5, 2015. Many thanks to Nuzhat Khatoon for inviting and hosting me. In addition to giving me the opportunity to thank several people who helped make my book Alive and Well in Pakistan what it became, it allowed me to express an appropriate measure of gratitude to a writer whose work was extremely formative in my early career, V.S. Naipaul.

One of the main problems with writing or speaking about Pakistan, especially in this country, is that it’s so chronically newsworthy that we tend to see it only in those terms. I’ve griped for years about how Americans tend to see Pakistan not as a human society in its own right and inherently interesting as such, but as a policy problem for Americans to worry over and try to solve. I said “especially in this country,” and of course I mean above all in this city. Washington, D.C. is an industry town, swarming with policymakers and policy wonks, the way Detroit used to swarm with automotive engineers and middle managers, and the way my home city of Seattle today swarms with software engineers and middle managers.

There’s nothing inherently bad about the products of any of those three industries – cars, software, or policy – but there’s nothing inherently good about them, either. They are what they are: tools that people create for themselves to use. The saying goes that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We Americans have too many hammers, and all too much policy. And our approach to the world tends to start from the mistaken premise that, if a problem exists somewhere out there, there must be an app for that. And if there isn’t, there should be.

My book Alive and Well in Pakistan leans hard against that premise, which can make it a hard sell for denizens of this city. But I hope it’s helpful to Washingtonians for just that reason: I hope it helps people whose work is all about U.S. policy to think outside the Beltway. That’s one of the uses that I hope it still has, eleven years and counting after it was first published, and now a full two decades since I first went to Pakistan.

But my first purpose in both traveling and writing was not to help others, but to broaden my own horizons. My parents are both exemplary earnest, conscientious middle-class Americans: in long professional careers, and now still in ostensible retirement, they’ve both put a premium on showing up ready to work and on making themselves useful to other people. And I think Wisconsin, where I grew up, is even in these times of bitter division full of such people, which gives me hope for Wisconsin and for America as a whole. There’s no more Middle American place than Wisconsin, in a good way. But the Middle America that I come from is no less a self-regarding bubble than Washington, D.C. is. Thus the first sentence of the first chapter of my book is: “I had traveled a long road from Wisconsin to Pakistan.”

So I was driven initially by an urge just to get as far away as possible from Middle America, both geographically and culturally, to see the world from outside what I thought of as the smothering American membrane, and to take whatever knocks I might have coming for having made such a choice. And the protean genesis of Alive and Well in Pakistan was nothing to do with American policy at all, but rather a callow obsession with another traveling writer, and a youthful urge to know whether I could do something like what he had done.

That writer was a literary writer, and my own real ambitions have always been literary, so I’m especially honored and grateful to have been invited to speak at this august literary venue, rather than at one of Washington’s many policy think tanks. And this talk is a plea for the usefulness and importance of literary writing: of working to see and articulate the world and human experience accurately, in their own terms, rather than with the preconceptions prescribed by this, that, or the other intellectual or political program.


Before I first went to Pakistan in 1995, I went in 1994 to Srinagar in the beautiful Vale of Kashmir, famously disputed ever since 1947 between Pakistan and India. I was already working as a journalist based in Bangkok, and I was aware of the dispute, of the heavy-handed Indian military occupation, and of the deadly violence afflicting many Kashmiri families. But my real motivation for going there was that V.S. Naipaul had gone to Kashmir and had written about it in his first book about India, An Area of Darkness. I might as well note, before one of you does, that Naipaul is an ideologically divisive writer. That is largely his own doing, though not entirely, and it’s something about which we could argue endlessly. But I’d rather not. I want to focus here not on the hard-fought, endless, and rather tiresome Naipaul Wars, but on his real merits as a traveler and observer and on what I gained as a younger writer by following, literally, in his footsteps.

An Area of Darkness is not a shapely book. But its middle section, recounting the summer Naipaul spent in Kashmir in 1962, is graced by a precision of depiction and incisiveness of observation that surpasses even the best of his own often extremely good writing. I know that, not only because I’ve read almost everything that Naipaul has written, but also because I made a point of seeing Kashmir for myself. On the authority of my own experience, I can vouch that Naipaul’s depiction of that very distinctive place and society rings true.

On the other hand Naipaul gets the geopolitics of India, Pakistan, and Kashmir very wrong, but that’s another matter. It’s an important matter, but it’s separate from his ground-level human observation. Naipaul writes vividly and memorably in the Kashmir section of An Area of Darkness about specific, identifiable individual people: Mr. Butt, and Aziz, and Ali Mohammed. In 1994 I met all three of those men, as well as Aziz’s son Nazir, because I sought them out. Aziz in particular was proud of having been written about, and he noted with some glee that the Department of Tourism had objected to Naipaul’s mention of laundry being hung out to dry and spread out on the lawn of the Hotel Liward. “You don’t understand the book,” he had told them. Aziz and Mr. Butt and Nazir and Ali Mohammed were little more than politely hospitable to me – though they certainly were that – and I made no lasting personal connection with them. But meeting them helped me to get over my hero worship of Naipaul by seeing them for what they are: human beings with lives and worries of their own, outside of any book. They don’t belong to V.S. Naipaul, nor do they belong to you and me as his readers. At the same time, paradoxically, I gained a new appreciation for what Naipaul had achieved. No longer was An Area of Darkness mere literature; now, to me, it was a depiction of something true, a true story.


Two decades down the long road of my own writer’s life, the road that led me from Wisconsin to Pakistan and beyond, and back, I find myself reflecting on a paradox within a paradox: that I myself transmogrified real human beings into personages within the pages of my own book. For example, in September 2003 I attended a one-day cricket match between Pakistan and South Africa at Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. I made a point of sitting in the general enclosure, the cheap seats, and I spent most of the long day enjoyably chatting with Mohammed Faisal, a young teacher from a village near Gujranwala, who had ridden to Lahore with twenty other men standing in the bed of a Toyota pickup truck just to see the big match, and who was highly tickled to find himself sitting next to a white American. After the match ended he put his hand on his heart and gave a little speech: “It was you who made our journey memorable,” he told me. “At first I didn’t know what you would speak to us. I was a bit shy. But you speak to us very nicely. In my village I have no one I can speak English with.”

“Do you have email?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied. “We don’t have that facility. Only phone. We will meet again, inshallah.”

Mohammed Faisal still doesn’t have email, but one of his students now does, and a couple of months ago, out of the blue, he wrote to me using his student’s computer. It was a wonderful surprise made possible by the Internet, which magically contracts space and time almost like the ansible in Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction. And it compelled me to confront my role and responsibilities as a writer who is also, and primarily, a human being.

Merely by following the human impulse to greet someone he had enjoyed meeting more than a decade earlier, Faisal reminded me to remember the humanity of the people I write about. That should be basic to why a writer writes in the first place, but it’s too easy to write about people and then leave them behind. Call it an occupational hazard. Being gregarious, seeking out people and soliciting their stories, is a big part of what I do, but it’s not humanly possible to stay in touch with everyone. Nor is it desirable: one thing we’ve learned the hard way in the age of the Internet is that it’s possible to be too connected, too networked. Somewhere in his more recent writings, Paul Theroux – a gregarious traveler if there ever was one – nicely describes himself as being “in retreat from experience,” and I get that. There’s a lot to be said for privacy and solitude. But I’m deeply grateful to Mohammed Faisal for getting back in touch with me, and I’m glad that there exists a technology that allows him to do so.


I want to close by referring back to my impolitic comments at the beginning about the limited shelf life and dubious usefulness of policy, the abstraction that consumes the time and energy of so many people in this town. Policies come and go, and part of the problem with a policy-driven mentality is that it presumes stasis, or at least some fixed fulcrum of power and interest, that really doesn’t exist in the real world. To understand what I mean by that, read my late mentor Clyde Edwin Pettit’s sobering masterpiece The Experts: 100 Years of Blunder in Indo-China, or read Graham Greene’s brilliant novel The Quiet American. A big part of our American problem is that we allow ourselves to be led by the nose through the increasingly dreary and artificial cycle of political churn every four years. Related to that is the even bigger and deeper problem that we’ve allowed ourselves to be brainwashed by a century’s worth of Hollywood movies and other ersatz culture. Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the important recent book Between the World and Me, made this point wonderfully when an interviewer for The Observer pointed out to him that the need for redemption and optimism runs deep in American culture. “Yes,” Coates agreed,

and I think that it is deeply injurious to us all. If all your movies and all your stories have to end with the good guy winning on some fundamental level, your culture is not being honest about the world. My job is to look out and see what I see and to be just as honest as I can.

The good news is that it’s beginning to become obvious to us that the real world is not subject to control by such contrivances as United States policy and Hollywood endings. We do well to listen to writers, like Coates, who help lead us toward this understanding. Paul Theroux makes a similar point in an essay titled “Travel Writing: The Point of It,” in which he advocates writing that’s “prescient without making predictions” and writes that he has

always felt that the truth is prophetic, and that if you describe what you see and give it life with your imagination, then what you write ought to have lasting value, no matter what the mood of your prose.

And Naipaul made the point with characteristic pith in a 1994 New Yorker profile, in which he drew a distinction between plot and narrative. Narrative, said Naipaul, is the stuff of reality, the warp and weft of the world as we experience it. Thus narrative is what writers should concern themselves with. Plot, he said by contrast and dismissively, “is for television plays.”

Another of my heroes, the great British foreign correspondent and travel writer Gavin Young, whom I had the honor to know personally in Bangkok late in his life, writes in the introduction to his collection Worlds Apart that he “fell into journalism the way a drunken man falls into a pond.” I fell into journalism exactly the same way. Indeed I fell into the great sea of narrative out there in the real contemporary world, and I’ve been swimming hard ever since. My life as a writer has been every bit the adventure I hoped it would be. Unlike the plot of a sitcom or the outcome of an American presidential election, real-life narrative is not subject to happy endings or policy prescriptions. And that’s more than okay; it’s actually good. At any rate, we would do well to get used to it.

I’ll end with one last nod of personal homage and gratitude to Mohammed Faisal. I don’t know Faisal personally, beyond having sat next to him for eight hours or so at a cricket match twelve years ago. Likewise, he knows me only as the American who spoke nicely to him and expressed interest in visiting his village. Being a writer, I took the liberty of turning our conversation at Gaddafi Stadium into a long set piece in my book, Alive and Well in Pakistan. I had my notebook open the whole time, and Faisal defended me against other cricket fans who wondered aloud if I was with the CIA, so I know that he knew that I would be writing something. But still, I hope he doesn’t mind having been written about.

What I do is what writers do: I trade in versions and vestiges of other human beings and their stories. The vulgar accusation one hears from time to time is that a writer “just wants to sell books.” Of course I do. Please buy my book. Writers deserve to make a living, as much as anyone else does. But it’s true that, by trading in the currency of other people’s stories, a writer takes on a very large and even grave responsibility. By getting back in touch with me recently, Mohammed Faisal serendipitously did me a favor: He reminded me that what exists in my book is only a stylized literary personage, an elusive trace or avatar of himself. The real man lives in the real world, the sea of narrative, and I wish him well.