Today, I shall write about Pakistan’s important literature festivals and its efforts to reach out to readers and writers. I shall also be a bit nostalgic and tell a bit about my years in publishing when I was young, and the great privilege it was to work in that field. I shall reflect briefly on how we can make better use of modern media to involve groups of readers and writers. We don’t all have to be mainstream readers and know all about the latest ‘must read’ books for the avant-garde. And at the end, I shall remember two writers and poets who passed away a few days ago; Pakistani Intizar Hussain and the Swedish Bodil Malmsten.

This year’s Karachi Literature Festival had more visitors than ever; about 150,000 visitors came to the coastal hotel where the festival was held during February 5-7 to listen to authors talk about their works, listen to debates about literature, hear why the writers choose the topics the do, attend book launches, listen to readings of short stories and poetry, buy a book or two from the book stalls, meet friends and see and be seen, too. And there were art presentations, too, cultural dances, music performances and display of pictures.

Ameena Saiyid is the highly respected CEO of Oxford University Press and the founder organiser of the Karachi Literature Festival. She was confident and proud of this year’s festival when she was interviewed by PTV World a few days ago, when the lights were turned off and it was all brought to a successful end.

She mentioned several other festivals coming up later in the year, in Lahore, Islamabad and Faisalabad. She said that Oxford had started the festivals in Karachi seven or eight years ago. She said these festivals were no longer mere ‘festivals’; they had now turned into a ‘movement’. She welcomed interested organisers to join hands and get such festivals off the ground, because there is room for all who are interested in writing, selling and buying books, and indeed, reading books. Among other things, she stressed the importance of translating Urdu and other local literature into English so that Pakistani writers can reach wider audiences.

As an observer, I am impressed by the literary events in Pakistan, and it warms my heart to see the excitement of all who are involved. I have attended all three Islamabad Literature Festivals, and since it is a treat every time, I am anxiously awaiting for this year’s event in April.

I also become nostalgic because when the literature festivals take place in Pakistan: I started my professional career as a school teacher and an editor in the Norwegian Universities Press in Oslo in the mid-1970s. Before that, I had spent a few summer holidays as a shop assistant in Helene Wilhelmsens Bokhandel in Bergen, selling postcards, pocket parlors, textbooks and literary to tourists and locals in the country’s ‘city of culture and tourism’.

I had a relative who was CEO of Lunde’s Forlag, a modest Christian publishing house and bookshop in Bergen, with a branch in the capital, too. Furthermore, I had had the opportunity to work with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), which was making adult education programmes in languages, literature, mental health and other fields of broad interests to the viewers. Such multimedia series were usually supported by a book and some correspondence material, sometimes even local study groups organised by NGOs. This was in the early days of distance education, and we cooperated with the British Open University. Yes, my boss became the first leader of the Norwegian Distance Education Establishment (Norsk Fjernundervisning). No wonder, we found all these new things interesting, being in the midst of innovation in education, culture and business.

We too, had book festivals, especially of educational books and journals for schools, colleges and universities. But what we did was not quite at the same high professional level that the Pakistani literature festivals are. Today, though, Oslo, Lillehammer and other cities have excellent festivals.

It is important to have such activities in our time, to expand reading and writing so that new technology and gadgets take over all. But new technology can also help us to broaden and deepen reading and writing. Furthermore, there is room for specialised festivals, focusing on children’s literature, poetry, and many sub-topics and unusual target groups. We don’t always have to be ‘neat an nice’; we must also invite those who are not mainstream to do what they want to do, using the media and communication forms they want to use, or just experiment, along with the traditional books.

It is important that people meet and exchange views, too, and that we don’t just consume visual and audio messages. Written texts are still essential to our learning, leisure and experience. With the modern media all around us today, we should find new ways of using them for literature, too, not just for quick communication, which may in many cases not be very serious either. We should embrace the new media, and include new readers and writers, and new forms of ‘literature’. But I still believe the book, the printed book, will always be the most important.

Let me mention two great writers and poets, who gave us some of the important literature we consume.

A few days ago, on February 2, 2016, Intizar Hussain, one of Pakistan’s greatest Urdu writers and poets, passed on. He was 91 or 92 and had received numerous awards and had been taken to the heart of all Pakistanis. The sad event was so big that PTV World changed its regular programming and brought it as ‘breaking news’.

On February 5, 2016, Bente Malmsten, one of Sweden’s most popular, serious and productive writers and poets, died at 71; she had suffered from cancer for some years, and had also spoken publicly and written about it. She had returned home from North-West France where she had lived most of the time for over a decade, in a town called Finistèr, whose everyday life she wrote about in a series of books.

‘The Prize of Water in Finistèr‘, published in 2001 and translated into English, was selected for Book of Week by BBC 4.

Malmsten would always side with the oppressed and unlucky in our world, including such people in very affluent Sweden. In one book she described the life and longings of a homeless man, whose shoes were worn-out and leaking, his trousers torn, and his jacket almost falling off his back. But even he had his beautiful dreams and wishes, like we all have, and maybe he had a more ‘impressive’ past than many of us. In the end, the tramp wasn’t really very different from you and me.

Good that Malmsten mentioned these things in our hectic time. Good writers do exactly that, they hold up a mirror and shows us a bit about who we are, and who others are. Good writers help us see what we otherwise wouldn’t notice. And sometimes, we may be nostalgic, too, and look back in time, using the past to learn for the future, as Intizar Hussain sometimes did – and as I did when talking about my work in publishing and bookselling.

I don’t think Ameena Saiyid has much time to look back – but I am sure she cherishes her MBA from the British Government, and the high award from France more recently, provided she takes time to relax for a while. But she seems otherwise to look ahead to new – and old – ways of making literature the resource it should be for people everywhere.