“Pakistan is a place where…”: Teaching the Life’s Too Short Literary Review.
For your amusement and edification, perhaps, I offer you a partial transcript of a short exercise I did in my class last semester, after the students had read all the stories from the Life’s Too Short Literary Review. I put the students in groups of two, assigned them each a story, and instructed them to take the story they were assigned and treat it as if it were representative of Pakistan, and to then describe Pakistan in terms of what the story showed them about it. In other words, as we went around the room, they would each say “Pakistan is a place where…” and then describe the picture of the place that the story gave them as if it were the one and only picture of the place available to us.
I wanted them to get two things out of the exercise. First, I wanted them to think consciously about — to make explicit — the burden of representation we often place on stories from “out there,” the way a story from Pakistan cannot (to us, in the US) be allowed to simply be a story, but has to be a story from Pakistan revealing the essence of the place, etc. And second, I wanted them to see what silly and partial (and irreconcilably different) versions of the place you tend to get when you force each story into that role.
As it happens, we had a nice discussion afterwards about the status of the aggregate of all of the “Pakistan is a place where” statements: the truth-value of that collected data set was still disputed/dubious, but we were able to come to some consensus that it was at least partially recognizable as Pakistan, or, rather, resembled recognizable stereotypes of the place. Talking about how it accurately resembled a coherent but essentially stereotypical image of Pakistan was a nice place for the discussion to go, though I hadn’t planned it that way: it helped us talk about the material reality of a fiction, whether Orientalist or other, the way its reality as a thing doesn’t necessarily stem from any empirically observable reality about the place itself. And then we talked about how well this aggregate actually described the stories themselves (the answer being: not very well at all). Left implicit but obvious — I hope — was a sense, first, of how directly and consciously the stories were speaking to an imposed (Orientalist) sense of Pakistan as a place (how they were all or mostly, on some level, aware of and trying to speak around a recognizable set of stereotypes), and, second, of how poorly served we were when we read them in terms of the stereotypes themselves. Which is to say, how converting the stories into “Pakistan is a place where” statements transformed the stories into something recognizable as stereotype, but unrecognizably different from the original stories themselves. And perhaps most importantly, in retrospect, the fact that the entire exercise was recognizably artificial and absurd — and yet produced NYT quality PAKISTAN IS TERROR! stuff — almost sort of says all that needs to be said. You can’t see it in the transcript, but that absurdity was explicit throughout the exercise, from the beginning — where students were trying to understand why they were doing it — to the end, where they were (I think) intentionally emphasizing the ridiculous slant of their readings. And laughing…
(This transcript, by the way, came courtesy of Audrey, who faithfully transcribed all class discussions for a hearing-impaired student. It isn’t perfect, but you do get a sense of the actual class discussion. Note: the transcript does not differentiate between students, who are all simply referred to as STUDENT).
AARON: PRESENT IT IN THE FOLLOWING FORM. “PAKISTAN IS: BLAH BLAH-BLAH.” “PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE: BLAH-BLAH BLAH.” PRESENT IT AS IF INSTEAD OF SPEAKING KIND OF CRITICALLY, LET’S REALLY LIVE IN THIS FICTION. SAY “PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE MEN ARE CONCERNED ABOUT GETTING THEIR GIRLFRIEND’S PREGNANT AND WHERE PEOPLE TRY TO GET A BABY SO THEY CAN MAKE THEIR BOYFRIENDS LOVE THEM.” THAT IS, IF WE WERE TALKING ABOUT “BABIES,” BUT NO ONE HAS BEEN ASSINGED THAT STORY. DO YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN?
ALSO, ONE THING THAT ALWAYS HAPPENS IS THAT ONE MEMBER OF THE GROUP DOES ALL OF THE PRESENTING. WE ARE NOT GOING TO DO THAT. I WANT TO HEAR FROM BOTH OF YOU. AND, THIS IS EASY. LET’S START WITH YOU GUYS.
STUDENT: AT FIRST MY STORY IS ABOUT AN OLD WOMAN. PAKISTAN HAS THE ECONOMIC DIVERSITY.
AARON: DIFFERENT CLASSES?
STUDENT: YES. AND THIS STORY IS ABOUT CLOSENESS AND FAMILY AND THE WE DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT PAKISTANI CULTURE. BUT WE CAN SEE THAT FAMILY, UPPER CLASS PEOPLE THEY SPEAK ENGLISH AT HOME BUT THE SERVANTS, LOW CLASS PEOPLE BASICALLY.
AARON: UPPER CLASS PEOPLE SPEAK ENGLISH, LOWER CLASS PEOPLE SPEAK URDU? SAY IT AS IN “PAKISTAN IS…”
STUDENT: IN PAKISTAN, FAMILY LIVES FAR APART. AND THEY DON’T SEEM EMOTIONAL ABOUT THE LOSS OF THEIR GRANDMOTHER AND MOTHER.
AARON: OK, WHAT STORY?
STUDENT: SETTLING AFFAIRS. THANK YOU.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE YOU ARE ASKED TO CHANGE FOR SOMEONE ELSE.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE CHANGE IS VIEWED NEGATIVELY.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE YOUR IMAGE IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE WOMEN TELL THEIR HUSBAND’S WHAT TO DO. WHERE LITTLE BOYS RESPECT MEN WITH WHITE HAIR. PAKISTAN IS WHERE HUSBAND’S ARE EXCLUDED FOR DOING WHAT THEY WERE ASKED TO DO.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE THERE ARE LOTS OF BEGGARS WHO SHAVE THEIR HEAD AND PRETEND THAT THEY HAVE CANCER.
(the story was “Mir Sahib’s Hairdo“)
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE FULL OF HOMOSEXUALS PEDOPHILES AND PLACES WHERE BUSES AREN’T SAFE.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE THERE ARE LOTS OF CREEPY SEXUALLY DEPRIVED PEOPLE EVALUATING GIRLS ON BUSES AND OPENLY TOUCHING YOUNGER GIRLS ON BUSES.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE WOMEN KNOW WHAT THEY WANT AND THEY HAVE NO TROUBLE THEIR BUSES ARE SEGREGATED SO WOMEN ARE IN THE FRONT. AND THEY LOOK FOR SAME SEX RELATIONSHIPS.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE CHARACTERS DON’T SEEM TO ASSOCIATE WITH ANY NATION AND GO ALONG TRYING TO MEET THEIR OWN NEEDS.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE THERE SEEMS TO BE NO MEN.
AARON: THANK YOU. WHAT STORY WAS THAT?
STUDENT: EXCERPT FOR CHALALLAH.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE PEOPLE CAN’T DECIDE WHETHER THEY LIKE OR NOT LIKE AND GO BACK TO LIKING OTHER PEOPLE.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE THEY INTRUDE INTO THEIR NEIGHBOR’S HOUSES. PAKISTAN ARE PERCEIVED TO SEEING THEIR WORLD AS BOMBINGS.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A MIXTURE OF I GUESS TRADITIONAL WAYS OF LIVING AND SEEING OTHER NON TRADITIONAL EXPERIENCES.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE PHOTOGRAPHERS MAY COME TO TAKE PHOTOS.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS WHERE TRAVEL AGENTS HAVEN’T NECESSARILY EXPLORED OTHER PLACES OTHER THAN PAKISTAN.
AARON: OKAY. WHAT STORY?
STUDENT: WOMAN IN THE APARTMENT, LUCKY PEOPLE.
AARON: ALL RIGHT. THANK YOU.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE ON A NORMAL SUNNY DAY YOU ARE DRIVING IN YOUR CAR IS SUDDENLY SMACKED BY A DEAD BODY AND YOU GET EXPLOSION.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE THERE IS CARS BUT YET A MIX OF OLD AND NEW TECHNOLOGY.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE GIRLS ARE EXCITED TO BE WITH A MAN THAT SHE LOVES IN A TRAINING PLACE.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS TRADITIONAL RELIGIOUS PLACE WHERE PEOPLE WILL BE SUSPICIOUS IF YOU ARE DRIVING WITH A GIRL IF YOU ARE A GUY.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS WHERE FAMILIES ARE INTERCONNECTED SO YOU ARE LIKELY, SO TEENAGERS CANNOT GET AWAY WITH TROUBLE.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE GOVERNMENT IS CORRUPT AND THERE ARE COMMUNISTS AND COMRADES.
AARON: WHICH STORY? “TO LIVE”
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS THE PLACE WHERE CHILDREN AND PARENTS OF TWO CULTURES CANNOT DEFINE THEMSELVES.
STUDENT: PEOPLE ARE IN DIFFERENT AND DO NOT CARE FOR THEIR FAMILY.
STUDENT: CLASS SEPARATION AND PRIDE.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE TRADITIONS ARE HONORED.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE THEY VIEW INDIA AS A PLACE WHERE THERE IS NO CARE FOR TRADITION LESS CONCERN FOR PRIDE AND MORE FOR FAMILY TOGETHERNESS.
AARON: WHICH STORY WAS THAT?
STUDENT: “THE WEDDING”
AARON: WHERE WAS THAT?
STUDENT: 64. FIRST PARAGRAPH. I HAVE EXPERIENCING MY FAMILY IN INDIA. I DECIDED THE NEW COUNTRY ISN’T FOR MY BEST INTEREST SO I RETURNED TO MY FAMILY IN INDIA.
AARON: THANK YOU.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE FULL OF DOUBT FEAR AND UNCERTAINTY.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE IF YOU ARE NOT RICH YOU ARE FUCKED.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE PEOPLE WANT TO LIVE.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE THAT IS LOOKED DOWN ON BY OTHER PLACES.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WOULD YOU SAY PEOPLE PROBLEMS ARE TAKEN FOR GAIN OR WITHOUT CARE.
AARON: FOR GAIN OR WITHOUT CARE?
STUDENT: YOUR PROBLEM IS OUR BENEFIT. LIKE THEIR PROBLEMS BENEFITS OTHERS.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE WHERE PEOPLE ARE ARBITRARILY KILLED.
STUDENT: PAKISTAN IS A PLACE OF DOUBT AND — THAT IS PRETTY MUCH IT. TERROR.