Being in hard places sometimes means risking danger. Yet even if risk is not especially acute, wrestling with the world’s disparities of wealth and poverty, opportunity and suppression, hope and despair can be difficult, even harrowing.
The stance of the privileged in proximity to poverty and violence is a perennial struggle. How are we to understand the disparities in which we are complicit? What is our self-perception and our understanding of others who are different from ourselves? In what ways are they and we similar and different? How do we describe those who are suffering and our own engagement with them? How do we construct narratives that are truthful and that do not stereotype, exploit, glamorize, exaggerate or distort?
These are questions that arise – or should arise – for travelers and reporters, activists and commentators, missionaries and theologians.
Novelists are often especially acute in analyzing the anguish. In Uzmah Aslam Khan’s novel Thinner than Skin (Northampton: Clockroot Books, 2012), the Pakistani first-person narrator, Nadir Sheikh, aspires in San Francisco to be a professional photographer. Here’s a piece of the dialogue when he takes his photographs to a stock-photo studio for inspection:
“Why are you . . . wasting time taking photographs of American landscapes when you have material at your own doorstep? . . . Next time you go home, take some photographs.”
When it was obvious I still didn’t get it, he dumbed it down. “Show us the dirt. The misery. Don’t waste your time trying to be a nature photographer. Use your advantage.”
At the next studio he presents some studies of the antique marble tabletop in his mother’s kitchen in Karachi:
“Your photographs lack authenticity.”
“Where are the beggars and bazaars or anything that resembles your culture?”
“The marble is a real part of my family history. It’s old, from 1800–”
He waved his hand. “It seems to me that when a war’s going on, a table is trivial.” I wished for the courage – or desire – to ask what images of what war he was looking for.
On his way out Nadir thinks: “A [Linda] Waidhofer can be a nature photographer of the Wild West but a Sheikh must be a war photographer of the Wild East! He must wow the world not with the assurance of grace. He must wow the world with the assurance of horror.”
Many times in those days I thought of my interview with the man who said I was lucky to come from a place always in the news. If he only knew how rapidly the glamour of chaos recedes the closer you come to it. If he only knew never to slit its belly. It is already slit, and the insides are always raw, and people in Karachi spent a lot of time looking around, trying not to slip in a city damaged not by one but a series of attacks, each more malevolent, more multipronged. On any given day, the target would be a mosque and a hotel; on another, a bus and a train.
He and his Pakistani-American woman friend come to Pakistan, where most of the novel takes place, and he takes a few pictures conforming to the studio managers’ stereotypes:
To my disgust, this time I had taken photographs of beggars and children running naked in the street, sucking mango pits and smearing their sooty cheeks with orange stains. “For rich men with retirement homes in Napa Valley,” I said to no one in particular, hitting delete.
The scale of suffering in the disparity between the affluent and the poor afflicts him at a restaurant dinner with family and friends:
[P]erhaps it was the word feeding which sent my mind whirling. I began thinking how odd it was, the way the best-fed man at the table over there was the one being lavished, when three quarters of the Pakistani population lived under $2 a day. 40 percent had no access to drinking water. 50 percent no sanitation. I could smell the open gutter out on the street. Where was our hospitality when it came to this? It wasn’t that I was upset with my brother-in-law’s mother, or with Wes, and I’m not sure I was even upset. It was simply a profound sense of – whitewash.
Uzma Aslam deftly depicts the pain of witnessing poverty, the urgency of empathy, yet also the difficulty her character confronts in depicting it through his artistic medium – photography – without indulging in clichés. I’ve just started Thinner than Skin (13% into it, Kindle tells me) so I don’t know how religion will figure in the novel, if at all, but so far the wrestling is purely secular. Judges for the first French Embassy Fiction Prize said the award went to Uzma for this novel “because of the eloquent and elegant way in which she reveals a myriad of different worlds with masterly restraint.”
Let’s look more closely at the character Nadir’s struggle about his photography. He wants to make a living as a photographer, and he needs a product that will sell in his market. Pictures of beggars and the detritus of bazaars would not be inaccurate. The problem is that his potential marketers are imposing several distortions:
• They already have an idea of what “authentic” pictures from Pakistan should look like – without having been here or knowing anything about the realities of the country other than the stereotypes they’ve picked up. They’re not actually open to any real insights from or about Pakistan, because they think they already know and understand the place.
• While theoretically they’re interested in an artist’s pictures, in reality they’ve prefigured and thereby truncated the artist’s open-ended interaction with his material, his artistic freedom. So the art photographer finds himself relegated to the position of a news photographer – being told by an editor what pictures to bring back from a crash.
• All this prefiguring excludes much more than it includes. Yes, a war is going on, but, as in many wars, much ordinary life goes on despite being affected in various ways. So one particular part of a reality is seen as the whole, and all in order to confirm a pre-existing view of the world. This in turn reinforces a pre-existing set of attitudes about the fecklessness or viciousness of a particular people group and the consequent futility of working with them or trying to ameliorate the prevailing conditions.
Rather than collude in these distortions, Nadir deletes the street pictures in disgust. The cost is that worlds that should know each other continue isolated from each other.
These are provocative and instructive vignettes for all who seek to make a difference cross-culturally, all who want to move others to engage with difference, all who are moved to bring worlds into touch with one another. Uzma Aslam’s novel is entitled Thinner than Skin. As both tellers and hearers of news in the dimension of difference – stories from and about people living in different places, conditions and cultures – we need to get under the skin of what we expect to see and what we expect to hear so that we can, as much as possible, encounter the real.