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Belletrista - A site promoting translated women authored literature from around the world


Edited by Muneeza Shamsie
Reviewed by Kathleen Ambrogi

When I first visited to Pakistan in 1997, I imagined I'd meet the "re-women" of Western imagination: re-served, re-pressed, re-tiring, re-strained. But when an older Pakistani woman colleague took me on a tour of Islamabad, I was dazzled by her unapologetic opinions, her witty commentary. As we passed by the imposing houses of government—all marble slabs and sweeping staircases—she waved a delicate, bejeweled hand and quipped, "Big buildings for little men." I was surprised and delighted, and that was just the beginning. And the World Changed, the first collection of creative writing by Pakistani women writing in English, offers people everywhere the opportunity to meet sharp, thoughtful, forward-looking Pakistani women in all their creative glory.

Muneeza Shamsie—a distinguished critic, writer, and editor—has selected and arranged twenty-five stories to showcase a broad array of writers: the young and the old, the established and the up-and-coming, those whose writing is peppered with Urdu and those who handle British and American slang with dexterity. Her introduction provides a brief history of literature on the Indian Subcontinent and introduces us to the writers included in the collection. Although these women are clearly citizens of the world, the common thread of Pakistani culture enhances and complicates each story.

Bapsi Sidhwa, the first Pakistani woman to publish a novel in English (The Crow Eaters, 1978), opens the collection with her story "Defend Yourself Against Me." Sidhwa introduces us to a curious mix of immigrants. Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, lumped together in Houston, Texas, find themselves bumping into their difficult history thousands of miles from home. Thus Sidhwa sets the tone for the collection: be prepared to find stories set anywhere, to find male as well as female protagonists, to be shocked or saddened, to laugh or to think deeply. Little is predictable here

Probably the most common theme is that of Partition—the bloody birth of Pakistan in 1947. Politics provides a persistent drumbeat for many of the tales, but others have a more personal focus. In these pages, Pakistani and Dominican children adopt a kitten in a poor New York neighborhood; a superstitious housewife determines to save her husband's life by following her dreams; a fisherman falls in love with the image of a beautiful woman painted on a truck; marriage becomes a cultural litmus test for both men and women; a British professor's prejudices are challenged by a determined young woman; and powerful memories come to life in Pakistan, India, the UK, Europe, the US, and Central America.

This is a treasure trove of stories, a collage of contemporary prose crisscrossed with poetry and the rich patois of a diverse and complicated multicultural heritage. Exotic details provide spice, but beyond the aroma of paratha and the elegant drape of the shalwar kameez, the old adage holds true: people are surprisingly the same the world over.