Award Winning Pakistani Writer – Usman Malik

Usman Malik is a Pakistani-American writer of mostly short fiction. His work has appeared in several venues including the anthologies The Apex Book of World Science Fiction, The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories, and Final Cuts; Tales of Hollywood Horrors & Other Specters. His fiction has been reprinted in several Year’s Best collections including The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy series. He has also been nominated for the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. In 2015 Usman won the Bram Stoker Award and the following year, he won the British Fantasy Award.

Pakistani Writer Usman Malik
Pakistani Writer Usman Malik

We at Daastan recently got in touch with him for our Interview Series. Scroll down to learn more about the author.

You wrote on your blog: ‘We’re moving toward a world where, thanks to the internet and e-publishing, cross genre, multicultural, and global literature will dominate the marketplace.’ Where do you see the Pakistani Publishing Industry in this new Literary order.

Pakistani publishing suffers from a gamut of problems. Low readership in English, predatory publishers, bookstores turned into publishers who have no clear aesthetic vision for the books they want to acquire and publish, lethargy in promoting local talent, and rampant piracy by readers as well as printer-publishers. Till the industry comes together with clear guidelines as to what’s acceptable and what’s not, Pakistani authors will have no choice but to seek publication overseas, which is a problem.

A: The writers will be forced to pander to western or Indian stereotypes of Pakistan

B: Bold, authentic, desi art will rarely breach the surface here.

Pakistani publishing houses have an opportunity to specialize in various genres. To generations grown up on Amir Hamza, Amar Ayyar, and Harry Potter, the idea of genuinely homegrown science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, mysteries, and pulp fiction continues to appeal. I was recently reading an article which suggested that the massive market for pulp fiction in India is propped up by book stalls at train stops. Ideas and places like that should be tapped.

The good news is publishing houses in the west, particularly in genres such as fantasy, sci-fi, horror, mysteries, noir etc. are hungry for works by marginalized writers. So if you have a good Pakistani fantasy novel in you, now is a good time to finish it, polish it, and pitch it to American and European publishers.

Why do you think, is the pakistani writer not exploring genres like fantasy and sci-fi?

Historically these were considered gutter genres mostly because our minds are still shackled by colonial and imperial tenets. If realism was the order of the day in the West (particularly a post-Hemingway America), realism was what our writers would do (particularly post-Partition). But haven’t we nearly exhausted realist modes of expression? Realism or mimeticism ignores what E. M. Forster describes as one-third of human existence: sleep and dream-time. How can we strive for truth if we ignore such a large component of the human condition? Dream-logic — which speculative genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and horror specially (SFF/H) are so good at utilizing.They allows us to dig deeper into the psyche and bring forth gems of supernal insight into character, history, mythology, and archetype. Myth is the quintessential genre and dream-logic, surrealism, magic realism — whatever name you give these modes of writing — are good at exploring it.

I believe the Pakistani writer is playing in these genres much more than they used to. The Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction is an effort to seek out promising young SFF/H writers and the increasing awareness of the award every year seems to indicate the diversity of Pakistani writers interested in working in these genres.

What were the challenges you faced on your way to publishing your first book?

I came to professional writing through short fiction, so a better question might be about the challenges I faced on the way to my first professional story sale. If you talk to Western writers working in my preferred genre of SFF/H, you’ll find many saying it is harder to sell your first short story to a professional market than your first fantasy novel. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true — there are different sorts of hard work involved in either — but, yes, your first short fiction sale is probably as difficult as selling a first book.

The challenges I faced included my predilection to writing very desi stories with desi words and sometimes desi narrative rhythms. I like including Pakistani cultural references in my fantasies, such as Rooh Afza, Bholi ka juice, Androon Lahore landmarks etc. and some editors early in their own careers had difficulty with such indigenous non-American references. Other problems I faced were a lack of understanding of story structure, plot, character etc. I was pretty much an autodidact (my last creative essay writing lesson was at fifteen years of age), so I had to teach myself how to closely read published texts and derive my own understanding of these aspects of the story.

My big breakthrough came when I was accepted to the Clarion West Writers Workshop, a Seattle-based six-week-long writing workshop where I had the privilege to be mentored by writers such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King’s son Joe Hill among others. Before Clarion I had already written a 130,000 word novel that had gotten me agented. After Clarion, though, I trunked the novel. I understood more about the power and beauty of short fiction now and I decided I would only return to novel-writing once I felt I was comfortable writing short fiction and was ready for something longer.

That was seven years ago.  I have since published enough stories to fill two volumes. My debut collection, in fact, is coming out in early 2021 titled Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan from Kitab press. It has been a long journey and I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s received in Pakistan.

What is the biggest hurdle for authors in Pakistan?

Lack of proper instruction in creative writing. Lack of access to good publishing houses. Lack of access to literary conventions, where the craft and business of writing is discussed. Lack of good writing workshops. Lack of access to good editors and agents. Lack of access to spaces occupied by published writers.

Are you working on a book currently?

I’m currently working on finalizing the manuscript for my collection. Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan is a sort of community project. It has seven stories and we have commissioned seven Pakistani artists to create a sketch to accompany each story. A separate team is working on cover art and book design. We wanted it to be a really interesting unique book that showcases the diversity of Pakistani artists working in speculative artwork and one that might set the bar for future publishing in Pakistan. We hope the final product will meet our dreams and your expectations.

What are you reading these days?

Little, Big by John Crowley. Just finished E. Lily Yu’s excellent On Fragile Waves. Beta reading a story for a friend.

What is your one piece of advice for young authors in Pakistan?

“You were sent here to give voice to your own astonishment.” – Annie Dillard

Tell your own stories. Spend time on your craft — you’ll often hear a writing career is a marathon, not a sprint. This is true. Believe in the work, but be open to feedback. Grow a thick skin. Appreciate all feedback, whether wrong or right. They’re all reactions to your work and readers have a right to their reactions. Ignore what’s not useful to you and get back to writing even bigger, even better stories. 

We are inspired by Usman Malik’s advice for authors. If anything, Pakistani publishing Industry needs authenticity the most. Apart from being a phenomenal writer, Usman’s insights into the publishing Industry are valuable. We hope you also enjoyed reading this interview. You can reach out to us at mersawal@daastan.com for any queries. Sign Up with us today and help us change the narrative!

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Samin Qureshi
Samin Qureshi is an undergraduate Art student at NCA following her passion for writing through various online avenues. Samin takes a keen interest in empowering women and advocating for their rights. In her free time, Samin loves to cook and listen to old music.

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