by Claire Chambers
At a Sheikh Zayed Book Award event in 2017, Marina Warner told the audience that the Arabic root word for water and story is the same. Both nouns, she claimed, relate to the verb 'to transfer', rawin being one way to say 'storyteller', while rawiya is 'to drink one's fill' or 'to be irrigated'. If the link between liquidity and storytelling is less immediately apparent in Urdu and other South Asian languages than it is in Arabic, nonetheless in the eleventh century Somadeva collected together Indian myths as the Kathā Sarit Sāgara ('Ocean of the Streams of Stories'), suggesting a similar understanding of the link between words and watery worlds.
All this resonates with my new book, Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays, which was published by Oxford University Press last month. I eventually chose Rivers of Ink as my title when I realized how many words I'd written in my journalistic outpourings for this fine blog 3 Quarks Daily, as well as for Dawn and other outlets, over the course of five years. The phrase comes from the Spanish idiom verter ríos de tinta meaning to pour rivers of ink, corresponding to the English saying, 'much ink has been spilt'. If even a fraction of the ink cartridges I drained over the last half-decade were in service of equality, anti-racism, and internationalism, or (re)introduced readers to a confident and diverse body of texts, I will be happy.
Coincidentally, Rivers of Ink recalls the titles of two influential subcontinental novels: Qurratulain Hyder's Aag ka darya (River of Fire), which deals, amongst other subjects, with Partition and the post-Second World War South Asian diaspora; and River of Smoke, in which the nineteenth-century Opium Wars enable Amitav Ghosh to impart wisdom on present-day globalization and the political grounds of free trade arguments.
Through my image of a fast-moving body of dark, blackened water — a liquid usually associated with purity, vitality, and the capacity for cleansing — I was also extending a brief but heartfelt nod to two feminist texts. Turkish novelist Elif Shafak's memoir of her postnatal breakdown and her writing life, Black Milk, has meant a great deal to me as a scribbling mother. And, as if in photographic negative, the title of French feminist Hélène Cixous's collection White Ink also calls to mind breast milk, suggesting the distinctiveness of women's writing, or what Cixous terms écriture féminine.
Especially to British readers, the idiom also has troubling, violent connotations in light of Enoch Powell's racist 1968 'Rivers of Blood' speech. Since a crucial section of my book is about the British multicultural context in which racism is sadly still rife forty years after Powell's speech, this title seemed apt.
The book is divided into five sections. The first part, 'Play on Words', comprises four essays on various aspects of contemporary writing, from multicultural adaptations of Shakespeare to representations of journalists in Pakistani fiction. Next comes a section about Pakistan's cities and regions, which benefits from my nationwide explorations during a formative pre-university year teaching English in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — travels which provided insight into the country's diversity. After that, a grim segment entitled 'Human Rights and Inhuman Wrongs' examines cultural production and human rights abuses, including torture and acid attacks.
The longest part, 'Muslims, Islamophobia, and Racism in Britain' brings together some of the research into these hot topics that I have been conducting for the last 13 years. From the travel writing of women authors who visited Britain in the Edwardian period, via the history of the British curry industry, to Boris Johnson's, Steve Bannon's, and Donald Trump's latest iniquities, this part of the book deals primarily with the view from outside Pakistan. The diasporic outlook matters because migration is perhaps the defining condition of the twenty-first century, despite it regularly being misunderstood and dehumanized. The book's final part scrutinizes education, theory, and the culture industry. It encompasses chapters on the literary theorists and activists Frantz Fanon and Edward W. Said, on the theoretical concepts of postcolonial feminism and 'self' versus 'other', and on literature festivals and higher education from a global perspective.
Overall, I look at a range of authors — emerging as well as established, and working in genres including the novel, short stories, poetry, film, and drama — who write in various languages but most often English. Rivers of Ink makes a case for drawing this writing into the mainstream canon, as well as sounding a clarion call for expansion to understandings of contemporary global literature.
Although we seem to be heading in to murky political waters with Brexit around the corner, the Trump presidency entering its second year, Vladimir Putin's continued sabre-rattling, and Narendra Modi seeming to consolidate his power, I dare to hope that less ink will need spilling in the coming years over basic issues of human rights and social justice.
To end, ouroboros-like, near where we began, here is another Western author talking about Arab culture, Jean Genet:
You can select a particular community other than that of your birth, whereas you are born into a people; this selection is based on an irrational affinity, which is not to say that justice has no role, but this justice and the entire defense of this community take place because of an emotional — perhaps intuitive, sensual — attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them.
In this passage, taken from his essay 'Four Hours in Shatila', Genet proclaims his 'irrational', somewhat solipsistic affiliation with Palestinians. I feel a similar emotional attraction towards Pakistani culture, despite its many problems. I hope that in Rivers of Ink I have managed to articulate the deep affection I hold for the South Asian country and the awe I feel at its impressive literary output.