Living Colours: ‘A platform for free speech, unheard voices’

The Missing Slate (TMS) is an arts and literary journal based in Islamabad but created with the intent of breaking past the litany of geographically-rooted magazines. Since 2011, TMS was a web-based magazine which recently came out with its first print anthology, featuring the best works published in 2014. To date, TMS has included work from 80 countries and translated from over 18 languages. The magazine was recently shortlisted for the United Kingdom’s ‘Saboteur Awards for Best Magazine of 2015’ and is the only Pakistani magazine on the list. Dawn spoke to the Editor-in-Chief Maryam Piracha about the magazine and her experience of organising creative writing workshops in Islamabad.

Q: How was the idea of The Missing Slate conceived?

A: The idea for The Missing Slate (TMS) came as a response to the literary landscape in Pakistan at the time of the magazine’s creation in June 2010. It appeared that there was no platform to introduce Pakistani writers to the rest of the world and international and culturally diverse writing and literature in Pakistan. My creative partner and the magazine’s co-founder Moeed Tariq and I knew that our magazine couldn’t be rooted squarely in the South Asian diaspora.

There was too much going on outside our little space; an unparallel amount of talent and mediums in the arts and literature.

TMS was founded on the premise of free speech and for broadcasting voices that are typically unheard. But over the years, it became more, providing a platform to the censored, ostracised and disenfranchised, and giving a home to writers who just wouldn’t otherwise be known.

Q: How do you manage to publish such geographically and culturally diverse material?

A: Our inclusivity, both in terms of the countries from which we publish and our editorial team, has been the driving factor behind our ability to bring in diverse content. The team members come from eight countries, accounting for the diversity and each editor is in the international focus of the magazine.

Beginning with the 8th issue, which is when our coverage truly exploded, we began focusing on country-specific literary content. And once you focus on being international, the writing comes to you. Initiatives like the Poetry World Cup (PWC) in the summer of 2014 – timed with the FIFA World Cup – help in furthering an international cultural dialogue through literature. The PWC featured work from 32 countries going head-to-head in a knockout tournament where one poem per country scored goals depending on the number of votes it received. Many participating poets were introduced to the work of other wonderful, international poets and given a chance to be read by thousands of readers.

Q: What do you look for in the poetry and fiction you publish?

A: Cross-cultural dialogue is important and the work we publish has a definitive voice and sets out to say something. However, we have featured about an ingrown hair too which some may argue, doesn’t say much but look closer and you will see the careful social underpinnings that are instantly identifiable. Ultimately, we focus on how human a piece is and what perspective it takes; whether it’s inclusive or exclusive and if it’s the latter, does it have redeeming qualities?

Q: Does it set out to shock or does it aim to engage with the reader?

A: Some of the work we’ve published can be seen to be ‘risqué’, but it never goes for the shock value. There are so many stories we have published through both fiction and poetry, where you can trace out the humanity; the heartache of people hurting irrespective of the whys, an emotion that is tragically (and instantly) universal.

Q: As a writing teacher, do you think writing can be taught and learnt? Is there a risk of stifling the individual style of a writer in a class?

A: I don’t think writing can be taught, in the traditional sense. As writers and people, we are constantly evolving, learning from each other, our experiences and the books we read. There are no tricks to writing, just one rule - to sit down and do the actual work. Not everyone understands this, especially those who think of themselves as ‘writers’, without accepting any of the accompanying responsibility.

In my experience of teaching creative writing in Islamabad, there are some students who will get better with encouragement but will never achieve the skill others possess. And while talent should not be underestimated, it needs to be honed. Interest in writing and the need to write is propelled by reading which was widespread in the students I taught. The workshops I taught focused on peer review and discussion rather than enforcing any style of writing. Writing workshops are ultimately about expanding your world view, breaking out of the cocoons writers often live in and experience their craft with others on the same journey

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