written by Sadia Khatri
The conference room turned out to be too cramped; we were thrilled. Najia [Sabahat Khan] and I had been expecting a few people to show up — five to six at most — having done minimal advertising for the event. But with continuous knocks and peeks through the door, people kept filing in. One man barged in to realize he was in the wrong place, looked around wordlessly, and left. We were disappointed, but half an hour into the session sixteen faces sat around the table, firmly holding on to their printed works of poetry, fiction, non-fiction or their iPads.
Introductions revealed that we were in the company of accountants, students (finance, film, writing, medicine), moms, and also full time writers. Here is the thing: there are serious writers everywhere, looking to be published or improve their skills. Literature festivals do a great job of exposing the writing community, but don’t really foster the community in a sustainable way. To be fair, it isn’t their job to do that. The idea behind Writers’ Meetups was to create a space where seasoned and amateur writers could freely walk in and out to share their work and learn from each other’s expertise.
Big plans. How would we do this? We asked everyone to first read aloud sections from their work. A few lines of poetry, a paragraph or two of fiction. The air in the room was bated; who would go first? Everyone eventually took the plunge. I explained that we were trying to get all voices in the room, to gather a feel of what kind of writing we did. But it was more than that. If you’ve heard poets’ recitations of their work, you will know that no one else can do their work the same justice. Reading your work aloud is an exercise in ownership, confidence, and instilling intimacy into the words you write so that is meaningful for someone meeting it the first time.
The room had a lot to offer. I was personally expecting a lot of politically themed work, but aside from a few such pieces, the writing spanned a range of topics. Maliha Ali read out a particularly memorable Urdu poem, ‘Aik Mülk Tha’:
Aik mülk tha
Jo bas müsalsal shaam hee mayñ atkaa hüa tha
Aik masnüee sooraj bhi laa khaRaa kar diya
Magar voh bhi bujh gayaa
Logoñ ke ghar kee mo’m bhi jal kar khatm ho gayi
Inqilabi jalsoñ mayñ cheekh cheekh kay galay bhi kharaab ho gaye
Tou logoñ nay bolna hee chhoR diya
Hers was one of the two pieces in Urdu. The rest were in English: works on personal history (one from a woman working on a memoir), novellas and anthologies in progress, short stories in the pipeline for writing competitions, blog posts from years ago. They spoke of relationships, identity, freedom, magic, old Karachi, rooftops and love.
For the critiques — the main part of the session — we split people up in groups of two and three. In half an hour, they did a close reading of each other’s pieces, delving into the technicalities of writing. On a whiteboard we had hastily scribbled starting guidelines, asking people to identify, at the least, one strength and one weakness in their partner’s work.
There is a culture of skirting around criticism, especially among younger people. Reaching out to friends with your creative efforts means getting encouragement that is blind enthusiasm. Outside institutional pedagogies, new writers don’t really have a space to get constructive feedback and grow creatively. Desi Writers Lounge is an excellent project in this regard, but with the meetups, I was thinking of something that would be more real-time.
Couple that with the increasing number of writers I was running into everywhere, I thought these meetups could be a realistic, sustainable new project. Meanwhile a few friends in Lahore and I had just founded a new arts and literature society called Open Letters. These meetups, we thought, could be a meaningful new project in line with the society’s philosophy of creating a circuit of regular writing-related activities. After talking to Sabeen, Najia and the Open Letters team, the first meetup was scheduled. And now, here were people, discussing why their poetry lacked flow, or why their fictitious characters had depth.
Post-meetup feedback convinced me that this project has potential and that people would follow up. For now, we hope it becomes a sustainable space where writers can keep bringing their work to the same audience, and grow with continuous feedback from a tried community. Aside from networking, which will be a direct result of these gatherings, a culture of critiquing can really be fostered. There is room to further define the purpose of these meetups, something I am sure will happen with time; people have already suggested writing activities, guest talks.
In the meantime, another meetup is in the pipeline in Lahore, under the Open Letters society. I am convinced now that all it takes is an initiative for something you think is lacking, and people will respond. After the first success, you are almost forced to wonder why you didn’t do it before.