In an overly simplistic but nevertheless thought-provoking 1986 essay, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Frederic Jameson made the following claim:
Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic, necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.
Whatever we make of Jameson’s explanation for this—capitalism, he claims, has failed to separate public and private life in the Global South—there’s no denying that he spotted a major trend. From Chinua Achebe to Maryse Condé, José Donoso to Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie to Juan Rulfo (the list goes on and on), a great many 20th-century postcolonial writers have portrayed the personal as the geopolitical, telling their nation’s story through their individual characters’ lives.
This has not been an unequivocally good thing. For every J.M. Coetzee (whose Disgrace brutally reminded white South Africans that a decade of “diversity” did not atone for apartheid) or Ernesto Sabato (whose Abaddon, the Exterminator basically prophesied the darkest years of Argentina’s “Dirty War”), the form has had to endure the cynical intentions of countless authors who believed it offered a flashy way around the old novelistic challenges: gripping characters, setting, plot. The case of Pakistani writer Intizar Husain is instructive here.
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Born in 1925, in the North Indian town of Dibai, Husain grew up in an anti-Western Shiite household and was educated at a madrassa. Perhaps in rebellion against his conservative upbringing, he went on to get an MA in Urdu literature and decided to become a writer. He graduated in 1946. A year later, the subcontinent exploded with sectarian violence as it was partitioned by the departing imperial government. Responding to a radio broadcast by his mentor, the critic Muhammad Hasan Askari, Husain then immigrated to Lahore. In the political and cultural capital of the newly independent Pakistan, he quickly established himself as a poet, journalist, and short-story writer. His major theme, in the words of the literary critic and translator Asif Farrukhi, was “the search for roots after the disruption of partition.”