WRITERS are many things to many people, but one of my favourite descriptions of what we do is this one: that we function as the soul of society. We observe and participate, we interpret and analyse, we bring forth imagined worlds that are reflections and refractions of the environments in which we live.

Sometimes we’re holding up a mirror to society, acting as its conscience. Sometimes we’re psychologists, going deep into the psyche of our characters in order to capture the very bones of their nations — and ours.

As Pakistani fiction writers, our insight into this country is unique and privileged, serving the higher truth beyond political rhetoric, journalistic analysis, promotional propaganda.

As the Sri Lankan novelist Ru Freeman writes, “For all the things a newspaper cannot do, for getting to the very heart of things … there is fiction.” Our work provides not just plot and character, but emotion and context. We write about the inner turmoil, the pressures and stresses, the small joys and the large triumphs that Pakistanis experience in their everyday lives. By looking at people’s lives on the micro-level, we provide the fine understanding of what takes place on the greater canvas when it is amplified and relayed to the world

If you want to understand the birth of Pakistan, start with Saadat Hasan Manto, whose famed short stories brought him to court on charges of obscenity. No other writer better captured how the horrific experiences of Partition have left scars on so many Pakistanis that still ache and burn today. Or you could turn to Bapsi Sidhwa, the godmother of Pakistani writing in English. Her novel Cracking India illustrates the violence that previously peaceful neighbors enact upon each other when it is time to carve up the land that previously belongs to all.

TV gives only half the picture about Pakistan.
The vast swathes of agricultural land on which most Pakistanis live and toil are described by Daniyal Mueenuddin, reminiscent of Tolstoy in how he lays bare the workings of rural Pakistan, its economy and class structure, in his short story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. How Pakistanis fare when they migrate from these agrarian societies and settle abroad, their attempts to preserve their culture and tradition and their clashes with the Western societies into which they must integrate, is etched with intimate precision by Nadeem Aslam in his novel Maps For Lost Lovers.

Contemporary Pakistan is riddled with extremist violence, a huge divide between haves and have-nots, and an education crisis, problems for which we still don’t have comprehensive solutions. Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Prisoner, a thrilling crime novel set in Karachi, exposes many of these problems by describing the workings of the Karachi police force. They face targeted violence, corruption in their ranks, and political interference on all levels, Hamid’s insider’s view managing to evoke sympathy even for this beleaguered institution.

A God In Every Stone, the epic novel by Kamila Shamsie, examines the British Raj’s influence in shaping Pakistani politics today. The Empire’s harsh suppression of the Pakhtun uprising in the 1930s paved the way for the tyrannies of later, more contemporary dictators. Mohammed Hanif’s brilliant satire A Case of Exploding Mangoes examines the dictator Ziaul Haq’s era, and the pressures that the US exerted on Pakistan to fight the last theatre of the Cold War, which led to the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan today. Mohsin Hamid’s modern classic The Reluctant Fundamentalist shows an educated son of the elite leaving the path of corporate success in America; his return to Pakistan puts him on a path of radicalism that offers him greater rewards than what he previously prized on Wall Street.

But the challenges in our society have given birth to a fine sense of humour and an appreciation of the surreal that shows up in much of our literature. Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing Me follows the travails of a spirited Bridget Jones-like Pakistani journalist, a young woman navigating a difficult career, a crazy city, and the landmines of her personal life. Moni Mohsin’s Butterfly novels, based on her famed ‘Diary of A Social Butterfly’ columns, poke endless fun at the ridiculousness of Lahori society, providing Austen-like commentary on the good-heartedness of its people even as they bumble and flail their way through life.

When you pick up a newspaper or watch a television report to find out news about Pakistan, you only see half the picture. You’re learning the facts, but not necessarily the truth about this magnificent, maddening country. Pick up a novel about Pakistan, written by a Pakistani writer. Sit down and spend a few hours or days with us rather than the 60 seconds that mainstream media would allow you. Grapple with us, live our lives with us, cry our tears, get to know our jokes. In other words, read our fiction so that you might understand our humanity.

The writer is the author of A Season For Martyrs.