by Tabish Khair
Growing up in an Urdu-speaking family, I heard various words used to refer to a story or a short story: kahani, qissa, dastan. Sometimes, the word ‘afsana’ was also used, but not by the purists, who employed it to refer to ‘fiction’ in general. However, the only word used to describe a ‘novel’, and only a novel, was ‘novel,’ pronounced ‘naavel.’
Growing up (due to four generations of professional education in the family and my own English-medium ‘convent’ schooling) to be more Anglophone than ‘Urduprone,’ I did not consider this to be odd. After all, in English too, one talks of the ‘short story’ and the ‘novel.’ The idea of radical newness – novelty – is attached to the genre of the ‘novel’, not to that of the short story. The implicit Anglophone assumption is that the short story is a version of longer stories written in the past, and Urdu sustains that reading too with terms like ‘qissa’ and ‘dastan,’ which have medieval moorings.
It is only when I picked up some other European languages – mostly in bits and pieces – that I realized that this situation was an oddity. In Danish, which I speak with some competence, the word for novel is ‘roman’ and the word for story is ‘novelle.’ In French, which I read falteringly, the common option is ‘roman’ and ‘nouvelle.’ And so on and so forth. In other words, most European languages provide medieval moorings to the ‘novel’ – ‘roman’ is obviously linked to medieval romances – not to the short story.
This difference is important to bear in mind, as both the short story and the novel are ‘new’ and ‘old’, depending on what features of the two genres one focuses on. That many Indian languages, such as Urdu and Hindi (which uses both ‘novel’ and ‘upanyas’), associate radical newness with the novel and history with the short story is a record of the trajectory of colonization in South Asia. Despite that, the ‘short story’ has had a very different history in South Asia – and, from what I can see, given the limits of my knowledge, in Asia. For one, well into the 20th century, the short story was a dominant genre in languages like Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. The great 20th century writers in many Asian languages – such as Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai in Urdu, Premchand in Hindi, even the more novelistic Rabindra Nath Tagore in Bangla – are sometimes exclusively and always significantly associated with the short story genre.
It is a history that has been largely ignored by global scholarship, especially in postcolonial studies and west- facing comparative literature: the short story played a much bigger literary and cultural role in Asia in the 20th century than it did in UK or even USA. It continues to be vibrant in the 21st, though less visible, solely due to critical and publishing prejudices imbibed from an Anglo-centric reading of the two genres.
That is the biggest reason to celebrate an anthology like The Best Asian Short Stories, and to applaud Kitaab for bringing it out every year. The fact that the stories in this anthology are all in English should not blind the reader – and the critic – to the distinctively Asian provenance of this endeavor: this anthology gives the short story the attention that the genre deserves within the Asian cultural tradition, attention that is often denied to it globally. That this attention is fully warranted is confirmed by the variety, lucidity and vibrancy of the stories – from so many different backgrounds – selected for inclusion in this anthology.
There is another set of reasons to celebrate this anthology: it creates an Asian community of writers. I am not making a parochial point. Let me explain this with reference to the two genres – the Anglo-dominant one of the ‘novel’ and its poorer cousin, the ignored, but no less crucial, genre of the ‘short story.’
As all practitioners of the art of novel writing know (and I must shame-facedly confess that I have written about as many novels as I have written short stories, which I find more difficult as a genre), the novel has often been associated with modernity by many scholars. The most obvious – Anglophone – association was by Ian Watt, who traced the novel form to both individuality and modernity. Though I have a slightly different reading of the novel, Ian Watt’s definitions are sufficient for my purpose here: because the novel, by its very length, is ‘individualistic’ in ways very different from what Watt had in mind. It simply cannot be anthologized!
Yes, you might have a completed volume of the novels of, say, Franz Kafka, but the fact remains that anthologies of novels are not possible. On the other hand, anthologies remain the prevalent form of dissemination for poems and short stories. Hence, regardless of individualism as Watt might have defined it, the very lengths of the two genres permit or prevent the creation of a collectivity.
And because the short story allows the creation of such collectivities, it is of far more use in marginal, oppressed, ignored and frayed spaces. The novel, due to its very length, which imposes a high level of financial and individual risks, is a monopolistic genre: its ‘trends’ tend to move towards monopoly, as does its marketing, procurement and even reading. The short story can resist this. An anthology of short stories can include the work of authors who would not be able to get entire collections – let alone novels – published because of financial, cultural, political and other factors. It can contain stories with very different agendas and styles, thus moving the reader out of her/his monopolistic biases. I believe that among the prose fiction genres, it is the short story that is more enabling and potentially radical than the novel. The very possibility of anthologizing is an aspect of this.
That is another reason to celebrate this new edition of The Best Asian Short Stories! Another year. Another list of authors: some new, some published. Many of them writing from spaces that do not allow them access to the monopolistic publishing of novels – which is not just a matter of getting those 200-plus pages printed and marketed by a house, but also the even more difficult matter of visibility in the crush of glamourous, mainstream novels. This anthology, like all anthologies, brings all of them together. The different experiences, the different styles, the different politics, all of them are not just presented but also, to a degree, protected by being collectively anthologized. It is in this sense that a community is created, and every reader who picks up this anthology, as I hope many will do, helps create this necessary community: a community of Asian writing that stands on its own two – no, its own million – feet!