Personal vs Political freedom.
What is Literature?
Let’s take a step back and discuss, what literature really is. Have you ever really thought how novels and poems are classed as literature? It may seem too broad of a question, but everyone has their own opinions.
In the 1930s, Queenie Leavis suggested that: ‘the effect of the increasing control by Big Business… is to destroy among the masses a desire to read anything which by the widest stretch could be included in the classification ‘literature’’.1 In simple terms, she believed that literature is read by select groups like the elite and not the masses. She was fearful of big businesses commodifying literature by making it easier to read and turning it into something other than what is being read by higher culture, and is easier to read. But this view is outdated.
The more contemporary voice, Arthur Krystal says that ‘although writers may be good or bad, literature itself is always good, if not necessarily perfect. Bad literature is, in effect, a contradiction. One can have flawed literature but not bad literature; one can have something “like literature” or even “literature on a humble but not ignoble level”’.2 Thus, literature must provoke thought, and have an impact on how one views the world. Or it should deepen our understanding towards time periods in history and issues which occurred. This makes us question ourselves and how we view certain things. It jogs our mode of enquiry and maintains our interest. Whether it’s classical Shakespeare, or Harry Potter, if it challenges your mindset, then it is indeed literature.
How do you define what is literature, and what is not? Do you agree with Leavis’ view, or Krystal’s?
Picture this. It’s 1977 in Pakistan, the heat is scorching hot as always, and you hear the news of Pakistan’s new president being elected. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. An officer in WW2, who worked with the British and then fought during India’s Partition, now the sixth president of Pakistan.
Haq wasn’t the best of leaders. He organised a military coup, and overthrew Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Straight after he was appointed, he fixed the martial law, which allowed the military, as part of the government, to control civilians. With this came restrictions and abuse of power including censorship of the media and oppressing human rights. He put in place laws which allowed the publical stoning of women, who were accused of adultery or pre-marital sex. The novel is set around his regime, where the rising political tensions overlap into the personal relationship amongst characters, and their own individuality.
Waseem and Safdar.
‘Intense and passionate and absorbed’. 3
Three words which describe both Waseem and Safdar perfectly as characters.
Waseem, Tahira’s brother, and Safdar, his best friend, are both rigid political activists who oppose the restrictions of the new military administration. They both attend and organise protests against the government, and boldly chant:
‘Nahin lenge hum yeh rusvai’. 4 (We will not take this humiliation)
‘Khun paseene ki kamaai. Khun paseene ki kamaai’. 5 (‘“The earnings of our blood and sweat, blood and sweat”’.) 6
This reflects the reality of 1970s Pakistan, where Haq took acres of lands from citizens, who worked hard and put their (as the saying goes), blood, sweat and tears, into forming assets. Both characters rebel against this repression, and are passionate with their views.
Safdar states how: ‘“too long have we let the military run this country. There is too much injustice in this land. There is unconscionable, intolerable poverty in this land”’.7 This novel deeply informs you of the issues with Haq’s reign, in which he allowed poverty to increase and the people to suffer. The characters recognise this injustice and try to make it right.
However, how the political affects the personal is that, Waseem’s passions for his political beliefs, lead him to staying unmarried and results in his death. Safdar also gets caught up with the protesting, and lives with the ache of losing his best friend. He is also unable to unite with his lover Andaleep, who loses her life to the protesting as well.
Abbas brings light to Pakistan’s historical past, and broadens the reader’s understanding of this juxtaposition between the political and personal. According to Krystal, this would then qualify The Empty Room as a piece of literature. The political freedom was left missing for the residents of Pakistan, under their new government, which then strips them away from their personal freedom. Freedom of equality. Freedom of expression of opinion. All taken away.
 Queenie Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (Pimlico, 1932).
 Arthur Krystal, “What is Literature?,” Harper’s Magazine, 2014.
 Abbas, The Empty Room, 68.
 Ibid,. 204.
 Abbas, The Empty Room, 69.