Uzma Aslam Khan's Thinner Than Skin, recently longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, falls in the growing category of fiction that is broadly called 'post-9/11'. It is not set in the US, though the story begins there.
Nadir is a Pakistani photographer living in America, who would like to do studies of marble table tops, but whose photographs agents reject because they do not study war or they're not 'authentically' Pakistani – "Show us the dirt. The misery", they say to him. His girlfriend Farhana, is half-Pakistani and her desire to 'return' to a country she has never been to takes the two of them and another colleague of Farhana's to Pakistan to study glaciers. In Pakistan, Nadir and Farhana team up with Nadir's old friend Irfan, who accompanies them on their trip to Kaghan Valley and beyond.
Intertwined with the back-and-forth narrative of Nadir and Farhana is the story of Maryam, the Gujjar woman whose family live a migratory life, following the seasons and old nomadic routes.
Yet the war and turmoil in the region cannot be ignored. Though the two narrators – Nadir and Maryam – would rather be left to their intricate observations, the world demands that their view be expanded to include more than the taste of honey-and-garlic and the blue of the sky above Nanga Parbat.
There is a bomber in the region and no one knows who it is, though all kinds of people come looking for him. Tragedy follows, though in this particular instance no bombs are involved; relationships of all kinds are put under severe strain as the company decide to go ahead with their trip to the glaciers instead of 'returning' to America.
Khan's prose is consciously poetic and her vivid, loving descriptions of place reminded me of Farhad Mehranfar's film Moushak-e-Kaghazi (Paper Airplanes, 1997); given that one of her narrators is a photographer, this is not entirely out of place. The sensuality of the descriptions are not always or only visual: in one memorable scene, while three people are in a boat on the lake at Kaghan Valley, the sound of bangles in the suddenly still air is purely cinematic – a kind of verbal slow-motion during which events stand out in painful clarity.
There is much careful plotting and some subtle observations that nevertheless carry a thread of anger – against the privilege of travelling Americans, against forest inspectors, policemen in and out of uniform and the men who come preaching jihad. News travels by rumour and gossip and act as good devices for Khan to avoid info-dumps. When the company are in Gilgit, Nadir notices a piece of graffiti on a wall that says "Pipelineistan 4 Hu?"
Perhaps Khan would like to avoid the tag of ‘woman writer’, which has become something of a pejorative, a way of signifying a more domestic approach to writing about the world.
Dropcap OnMore interestingly, Khan has a keen sense of physical and political geographies and she could have chosen no more appropriate place than north Pakistan, where ideas of borders and belonging play out heartbreakingly every single day.
What struck me only much later is that this book fails the Bechdel Test spectacularly. There are two main women characters – Farhana and Maryam – though Maryam's daughter Kiran has a small but crucial (and crucially non-verbal) part to play. Both women are always surrounded by men and seem never to miss the company of other women or feel even slightly awkward in their isolation.
Or so it seems, because re-reading parts of the book to test the thesis, I found that while there are interactions between women, they appear as reported conversation, or take place off-screen, as it were: Maryam recounts things her now-dead mother said; Nadir sketches the time his sister spends with Farhana back in Karachi and says, 'Farhana never reciprocated'; the really important interaction between Farhana and Kiran is never heard – they're seen in long-shot, at a distance, out of earshot.
At one point in Maryam's narrative, she reflects: "Her mother taught her that women spoke to each other in a language that was direct and intimate, while men spoke in idioms, to raise their height." It's a pity, then, that Khan doesn't let the reader judge for herself the directness and intimacy of the speech of women talking to each other.
Perhaps Khan would like to avoid the tag of woman writer, which has become something of a pejorative, a way of signifying a more domestic approach to writing about the world. I find this unfortunate, because there are many things to like about the book, including its intricate storytelling and the courage it displays in moving beyond the comfort zone of the urban and the middle-class.