Stories with Oil Stains – The World of Women ‘Digest’ Writers in Pakistan
by Dr Kiran Nazir Ahmed
Oxford University Press 2020, 232pp
Reviewed by: Dr Zainab Latif, PhD (CUNY)
28 April 2023
‘Stories with Oil Stains: The World of Women ‘Digest’ writers in Pakistan’ by Kiran Nazir Ahmed, offers a refreshing alternative to the dichotomies often employed to analyse women’s issues: notions of victimhood which fail to capture the creative and productive ways in which particular subgroups engage with their patriarchal realities. In exploring these phenomena, Nazir identifies critical contradictions within the women’s’ digest subculture: digest writers publish prolifically, but are not respected as ‘authors’; they never meet, yet share strong bonds; and they sustain their profession, sometimes branching into digital media, articulating a unique and subjective worldview. How is this possible, and why is it important?
The book opens with an anecdote involving a transgender woman, Roxy, and her boyfriend, Nadeem, citing Roxy’s simultaneous dismissal of, yet yearning for, the romantic ideals depicted by television drama serials. Nazir sets the stage for the book by noting that even though marriage was not an option, “… digest discourse had reached Roxy and shaped some of the desires she nurtured for her relationship with Nadeem.” (p.4). Nazir goes on to acknowledge that the book follows “ironies and contradictions between ‘imaginary worlds’ and ‘real lives’…” as in the case of Roxy and Nadeem. Why does she choose to start the book with this distracting narrative? In fact, the anecdote prepares the reader to engage with the book: navigating its multiple storylines, while grappling with the questions that it raises.
Several local language digests, including those in Urdu, publish entirely original articles. Many cater to audiences and authors who are predominantly women, although their publishers are mostly men. A digest may have an annual circulation between 100,000 to 250,000 copies (p.26), and one copy is often shared across several readers. Nazir’s work is based on the premise that attachment with readers and between writers in the digest world, and the agency that this engagement affords, sets digest writers apart, and deserves examination. What the book does not state explicitly, although this contribution is perhaps one of its greatest, is that this examination offers a window into the reality of the struggle for gender equality in Pakistan and beyond.
The questions that are explored using the attachment, articulation and agency framework are simple: given that they rarely meet, how do digest writers develop bonds of trust and friendship in the absence of physical proximity? How do writers use their medium to depict their reality? What role does their writing play in their lives? How do they navigate the opportunities and judgement associated with career growth and publicity? Nazir considers these questions (p.10) through literary critique and ethnographic analysis while recognising her own role as an active participant in the research. The book consists of four chapters, bound neatly by a summative introduction and conclusion. Each chapter addresses a core question through the analogy of a journey, toward anonymity (chapter 1), stories (chapter 2), meaning (chapter 3) and respect (chapter 4). Each chapter follows a parallel track as the literary and ethnographic analysis is interwoven with the reactions of the author to her findings.
Chapter 1 describes the “emotional intimacy of voices” (p.62) using the relationship between two digest writers to depict intense bonds of platonic love, across physical distance, and built on a shared attachment to digest stories. At the same time, Nazir argues that the “intimate space” created as a result of frequent phone conversations between herself and her participants led to the sharing of “intimate feelings” and not just “intimate facts”. That space was built on emotional resonance and trust, and was oblivious to political or ethnic divides, creating a comfortable anonymity which nurtured closeness. “How many of us can explain growing close to one person rather than another solely as a rational, conscious decision? … Each relationship has a life of its own, it contains an element of our conscious choice and identity, but there is also much else. In the context of the digest community, this ‘much else’ plays a more visible role …” (p.66). Nazir argues that the digest world, inhabited by writers and readers, is one of few authentic spaces not affected by public lives or identity.
In chapter 2, Nazir undertakes two literary analyses to illustrate the emotional intimacy identified in the previous chapter. The first critique captures the sexual undertones of the longing between two friends who are separated by physical distance. Digest stories portray same-sex relationships displaying romance-like intensity but overt reference to homosexuality is avoided. She notes, “Attachments between women can be viewed as a kind of a playful, innocuous flirtation that is managed and stabilised because of the common subscription to conventionality. Being a regular reader or writer of digest fiction reflects your implicit endorsement of conventional notions of marriage and family … it is because readers and writers implicitly subscribe to [these] traditional conceptions … that this playfulness and intensity can be easily explored and indulged.” (pp.81-82). In the second part of the chapter Nazir argues that the digest format provides an alternative space for the exploration of attachment and becomes a vehicle for writers to share their political and personal identity and lived experiences. Thus, she argues that the stories provide a journal-like space for the exploration and sound-boarding of worldviews. Furthering the narrative of her own journey, she interrogates her intense reaction to the sudden death of a digest writer whom she regularly read, articulating her regret at losing the “voice” and “validation” (p.109) that the writer’s stories provided.
Chapter 3, “In Quest of Meaning”, focuses on four clandestine digest writers who live in a shared Syed Jilani household in rural Sindh, and examines their use of stories to portray their lived experience and engage with the outside world. The eldest, for example, uses her stories to depict some of the anecdotes that she hears from her mureed (followers), while another uses it as a vehicle for raising social awareness. The chapter explores how these secret writers navigate their agency and identity, and voice their aspirations through their stories. It also explores the mechanisms of escape, e.g., engaging male allies (uncles, fathers, brothers, husbands, sons etc.) to circumvent the restrictions imposed by their prominent and deeply patriarchal Syed family. Nazir uses chapter 3 for a surreal exploration of her own worldwide, noting that her “assumptions about reality and belief were occasionally overturned” (p.116) while observing the writers in their roles as faith healers and spiritual leaders over the course of two years of research. She contrasts the warmth of her introduction to Sindh – phone conversations with writers and encounters with fellow passengers on the bus – with the ruthless image of Sindh held by her mother, illustrating the cultural backdrop to this part of her story: sufi saints, legends of love and devotion, and the exploitative and patriarchal institution of feudalism.
The last substantive chapter unpacks the professional aspect of being a digest writer. “In Quest of Respect: Engagement with the Electronic Media” examines whether digest writers are “real” writers. This debate is evident throughout the text, as digest writers are not referred to as authors, but as writers, placing them lower in the hierarchy of literary prominence despite often having published hundreds of stories. Although digest stories have inherent value for the writers and the readers, they attain market value as screenplays for local television channels, which requires them (the stories) to fit a certain mould, compromising their authenticity. Thus, women are able to attain greater respect as screenwriters – being endorsed by popular media – than they ever can as digest writers, despite their singular contribution in articulating the aspirations and hopes of tens of thousands of readers.
Each chapter of Nazir’s writing transports the reader to a different dimension. As she notes in the ‘Conclusion’ chapter, this is intentional. In describing her bus trip to reach rural Sindh, for example, she sets the stage for her subsequent description of the family of digest writers. Similarly, as she describes her bus journey to a small town in Punjab for another set of interviews with a well-regarded screenwriter, the reader accompanies her on the journey, poised to share her experience. Moreover, Nazir employs a remarkable ability to seamlessly weave together the three parallel strands of the narrative – literary critique, ethnographic analysis, and self-interrogation. She identifies how her ‘anxiety for doing it right’ was overridden by the necessity to respond authentically to the question often posed by her participants: ‘but you haven’t told us about yourself’. The delicacy with which the author deals with becoming the subject within the ethnographic process is commendable. There are no undertones of resentment, for example, when she finds a character with the same name and similar life events depicted in a screenplay written by an interview subject. In fact, Nazir recognises that her research led to two creations, “ethnographic writing and television script … my [ethnographic] gaze was not just reciprocated, but led to a representation.” (p.172).
But perhaps Nazir’s most significant contribution is to treat the positioning of digest writers in social power dynamics carefully, pragmatically, and without judgement. “In this context, rather than a quick funnelling of these women’s choices into ‘good/bad’, [or] ‘passive/active’, there is a need to treat their choices with as much respect and authenticity as we would expect for our own priorities.” (p.158) She urges us to engage more closely not only with the sub-culture that she describes, but also with the lens that we choose to employ. For example, she notes that limited access to the outside world may offer an opportunity for closer observation of that world, when it is available. Conversely, fewer restrictions on mobility may come with additional costs – more practical responsibilities, less time, and less ownership of that time. Dismissing overly simplistic, one-size-fits-all notions, Nazir makes the case for more nuanced consideration. The book is not about women per se. Rather it’s about quiet power and remarkable grit, constantly challenging patriarchy as well as traditional feminism. By bringing the grey into clearer focus, Nazir helps the reader look beyond black and white dichotomies and situate her or himself in a more authentic reality of feminist wins and struggles in the local context.
© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2023