Creativity - An Attempt To Understand

Dr. Khalid Sohail



The creative process and creative people have always been a source of fascination for psychologists, sociologists and even historians. Arnold Toynbee, a famous historian, once observed in his article, ‘Is America Neglecting Her Creative Minority?’: “To give a fair chance to potential creativity is a matter of life and death of any society. This is all important because the outstanding creative ability of a small percentage of the population is mankind’s ultimate capital set .....” (Ref. 1, p.361).

Being a student of human psychology and literature I was also fascinated with the creative process and its relationship with the creative person and his environment; and being an immigrant myself, I had also been interested in the process of immigration and its affect on different people. Over the years I have come to know many immigrants who lead a very lonely and miserable existence while I have also met many others who found the experience of immigration a catalyst for their personal, professional and artistic growth. In the last few years when meeting many immigrant writers, I wondered whether their views and experiences might shed some light on the dynamic interaction between immigration and creativity.

In the beginning I devised an informal questionnaire and sent it to nearly a dozen Urdu writers living in the West. I waited for weeks, in some cases months, but I received only two replies. Interestingly enough they were both from women writers, Irfana Aziz from Winnepeg and Humaira Rahman from New York. The men writers, in spite of their promises, did not send me any written reply. After a few months I realized that that particular project should be aborted.

Although it was disappointing and a frustrating experience, I did not give up, I came up with another project instead. I thought being a psychiatrist by profession and conducting interviews at work, I should utilize that experience in interviewing Urdu writers living in the West. It was a good idea but the distances I had to travel in North America were a big obstacle. While I was travelling in Europe in June 1990 I used the opportunity to interview Abrar Hasan in France, and Munir-ud-din Ahmed in Germany. Once I had conducted those two interviews, I was thrilled with my results. I thought the endeavour would now be easy. I was hoping to give the audiocassettes from each interview to my secretary and she would give me the typed interviews in return. It did not take me long to realize my naivety. Those interviews contained so much Urdu terminology and the names of Urdu books and writers that for my Canadian secretary it was almost impossible to do them justice. So I decided to do the work myself; but I hadn’t realized that transcribing a one hour interview would be such a laborious and time consuming job. It took me hours and hours of writing and rewriting. Next, the interviews had to be typed and proofread. It took me two months to process two one-hour interviews into draft form to send to Europe. Although the process was painful, I was pleased with the final product and it gave me the impetus to interview other writers. I approached Urdu writers living in Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, Montreal and New York; I chose these cities because I could travel by car to conduct my interviews. Luckily when I went to see Humaira Rahman in New York, Iktikhar Arif was visiting from England and I could interview him as well.

In the beginning I had a longer list of writers to be interviewed but when I realized that it took me nearly a month to work on each interview I stopped after twelve months. There are a number of writers that I would have liked to interview such as Irfana Aziz and Abdul Qavi Zia from Canada, Salman Akhter, Mohammed Umar Memon and Talat Isharat from the United States, Saqi Farooqi, Qaiser Tamkeen and Mushtaq Ahmed Yousafi from England and numerous others; regretfully I could not interview all of them. I knew that if I did not finish the project after a year, I would have become involved in other projects and those interviews would never have been published. The names of the writers that appear in this book are no indication that I do not consider other writers important or that I am not impressed by their contributions; it is just that a project that is done by one person has its limitations.

I had many things in mind when I initiated this project. First, I wanted to cover different forms of creative expression:  poetry, fiction, drama and translations. I also wanted to include women writers and also writers from different age groups. I was also aware that I could conduct a more informal and in-depth interview with those writers whom I knew personally. I am including this lengthy explanation because I am aware that Urdu writers are quite sensitive about these issues. I am grateful to those writers who gave me their time for this project and apologize to those that I could not interview. Both groups make significant contributions to Urdu literature.

Each time I interviewed a writer I tried to capture the essence of the person’s life, so that the reader could get “a feel” for the writer and appreciate the dynamic interaction between the writer, his environment and the creative project. I tried to focus on their unique experiences of creating, how their family and professional lives affect their creative personalities and how their creative selves are influenced and shaped by their early experiences. I also tried to highlight the differences in their creative and personal lives before and after they immigrated to the West.

I think the interviews provide a wealth of information, ideas and experiences. I found them very inspirational. In the next few sections I will highlight some of the issues that I became aware of while reviewing the literature and the interviews I conducted. I hope that the final interviews will be as enjoyable and intellectually stimulating for readers as they were for me.

I will discuss many issues regarding creativity under the following headings:

A.  Nature of the Creative Process

B.   Creating Literature

C.  Personal Conditions Affecting Creativity

D.  The Creative Person

E.   Environmental Factors Affecting Creativity

F.   Migration and Creativity

G.  Women and Creativity




I  Definition

Creativity has been a difficult concept to define. When we look into Webster’s dictionary it says “a process of making or bringing into being” but when we read different writers who have written extensively on the subject we come across the following definitions.

Carl Rogers wrote “... there must be something observable, some product of creation. Though my fantasies may be extremely novel, they cannot usefully be defined as creative unless they eventuate in some observable product ... unless they are symbolized in words, or written in a poem or translated into a work of art or fashioned into an invention.” (Ref. 2, p.349).

Greenacre wrote, “I use the term creativity ... to mean, the capacity for or activity of making something new, original or inventive, no matter in what field. It is not merely the making of a product, even a good product, but of one which has the characteristic of originality.” (Ref. 3, p.62)

Rollo May broadened the horizons of creativity by saying, “Creativity is a yearning for immortality ... creativity is not merely the innocent spontaneity of our youth and childhood, it must also be married to the passion of the adult human being, which is a passion to live beyond one’s death.” (Ref. 11, p.27)

II  Theories of Creativity

Experts in many fields have put forward a number of different theories highlighting various aspects and dimensions of the creative process. Some of these theories are descriptive while others are dynamic.

Joseph Wallace presented one of the most popular theories in 1926 that believed that the creative process consisted of four stages:




Verification”    (Ref. 1, p.15)


Catherine Patrick in her book What is Creative Thinking discusses those stages in detail. She states that during the “Preparation” stage the thinker aims to acquire more information about the problem than he already possesses. During “Incubation” there is recurrence of the chief idea, which is finally adopted as the solution to a problem, or the subject of art in the stage of Illumination. The stage of “Illumination” consists of “a sudden intuition or a clear insight or a feeling ... something between a “hunch” and a “solution” and at other times the result of “sustained effort” (Ref. 4, p.15). This stage has also been known as the Eureka experience:  in literature when the thinker says to himself, “This is IT”, “I have discovered”, “This is what I wanted to express”. The final stage is “Verification” in which the essential idea or outline which appeared in the illumination stage is revised or verified; if verification is not possible, then the outline is revisited, so that “Revision” can occur simultaneously with the stage of “Verification”.

Catherine Patrick says “The four stages may overlap, as Incubation may appear during Preparation and Revision may begin during the Illumination stage.” (Ref. 4, p.45)

A number of other theorists who belong to the psychoanalytical school of thinking looked at the creative process from a totally different perspective.

Freud tried to explain creativity from his own way of thinking. He compared literary work to fantasies and day dreaming which are related to fulfilment of wishes and primary process thinking. He also “saw a great similarity between neurosis and creativity; they both originate in conflicts which spring from more fundamental biological drives. In other words, they are attempts to solve conflicts that originate in the powerful human instincts.” (Ref. 1, p.22)

Freud seemed to be preoccupied with biological drives, instincts and primary process thinking. Other psychologists and psychiatrists believe that in creativity the primary process thinking joins with secondary process thinking, which deals with reality and forms a synthesis. Arieti named this Tertiary process thinking while Princhas Noy compared it with insight and wrote “when these new inter-categorical schemata are produced in a creative mind and result in the highest art forms, it is always because the self centred and the reality oriented categories have been integrated into one new entity. Thus by integrating abstract concepts and concrete images, objective information and subjective states of experiencing ideas and emotions, wishes and reality considerations, the artist succeeds in achieving the ultimate aim of any creative art:  to weave into a single tapestry the warp and weft of self and reality ... neither creativity nor insight can ever be achieved by either the self-centred primary process or the reality-oriented secondary process alone, but only by a kind of cognitive based on a SYNTHESIS of the operational modes of both process.” (Ref. 6, p.743).

During my interviews Abrar Hasan commented on the relationship between resolving personal conflicts and creative expression. He said, “For me, its roots are in conflicts of one sort or another. Typically, this has occurred in the form of collision of my inherited value structure with what I came across as I read more widely and especially when I came to Canada. I would not simply live with an opposing set of presuppositions and value structures ... the conflicts were just too great. My disposition is such that to be meaningful to me I must understand things at an intellectual level. In practical day to day life I can go on living with contradictions, and accepting them, as long as I am able to understand and resolve them mentally. The day to day conflicts to me are specific examples of broader life examples. Whenever I have found some ray of light in resolving these broader conflicts it has almost always resulted in my creating poetry. As if, in the process of creating poetry I was travelling from the mental to the emotional plane assimilating my ideas. So I would say that conflicts of one sort or another and their possible resolution have been an integral part of my creative process.”

Kris conceptualised the creative process within his own frame of orientation; on one hand he considered that the use of primary process in creativity was “a regression in the service of ego”: and on the other hand he felt that some part of creativity may be the function of the conflict-free area of ego, the autonomous ego. He believed that “creative imagination may lead to concrete achievements, some of them art, others devoted mainly and solely to problem solving; to inventiveness in science or simply to the enrichment of an individual’s existence.” (Ref. 1, p.25)

Jung wrote about creativity when he focused on the aesthetic process. He believed that the creative process had two modes, the psychological and the visionary. The psychological mode was related to human experience and his consciousness while the visionary mode dealt with the deeper part of human personality, the timeless depth, the “collective unconscious”. He also talked about the archetypes which he considered “an invariable nucleus of meaning.”

Phyllis Greenacre also made significant contributions towards understanding the creative process and the personality of the artist. She suggested that the ego of the future artist is capable of dissociating itself from real objects and thus developing a “love affair with the world”. In this connection she  talks about the “collective audience” and “collective alternates”. She wrote “in an effort to clarify this in my mind I have adopted the phrase collective alternatives to describe this range of extended experience which may surround or become attached to the main focus of object relationships: ... the true artist may be more faithful with deeper inner integrity in his relation to his collective audience than he is with his personal connections.” (Ref. 1, P.25)

Adler tried to explain creativity with “his compensatory theory of creativity ... that human beings produce art, science and other aspects of culture to compensate for their own inadequacies.” (Ref. 11, p.34)

These descriptions clearly describe how the creative process makes a bond between the inner and the outer worlds of the artist and the writer.



While I was listening to different writers share their experiences of creating literature, I realized that those experiences were not only reflections of their personalities but also the type of creative work in which they were involved. Those experiences varied dependent upon whether the artist was creating poetry, short stories, novels, dramas or doing translations. They reminded me of my late grandmother who used to tell me that there were three ways of getting water in a village. Some people preferred to get water through the wells:  they dug the ground in their backyards for weeks or even months to reach the desired depth to find water. Sometimes they had to dig deeper to find pure water and each time they needed water they had to throw the bucket in the well and then pull it out. Others did not want to work that hard but they were willing to carry the bucket for a few miles to the nearest river and then bring the water back. The third group consisted of those people who relied on rain. They did not have to work hard but they did have to wait. They had no control over the weather. Sometimes it didn’t rain for months, while at other times it not only rained, it poured.

To me, poets are the artists who wait for the rain, short story writers go to the river and novelists dig wells in the backyard. It was quite amazing to listen to the encounters of writers with their creative selves. Their individual styles, and personalities were revealed.

Some poets were fortunate. For them it rained frequently, so they didn’t have to wait long before their next creative adventure; however, for other poets, such as Faruq Hassan and Humaira Rahman the wait was so long that they became distressed. They felt as though they had not heard from their dearest friends, their creative selves, for a long period of time. It was as if they lived in a geographical location prone to drought. Sometimes the experience of waiting became quite painful and anxiety-provoking. They didn’t know whether their friends, their creative selves, were in good health. They weren’t even sure whether their creative selves were alive. Humaira Rahman even prayed for the well- being of her inner self and anxiously waited for her next visit. It was similar to a tradition practised in the East, where people pray for long periods of time each summer, hopeful that it will rain.

When it rained it was like hearing good news. It was a source of joy, excitement, and jubilation. It was a good omen. It meant that their creative selves, were alive and well, healthy, and productive. Experiencing those moments of creativity and giving birth to a ghazal or nazm was quite remarkable. Humaira Rahman could feel the aura. She said she felt an echo in her mind, in her heart and in her soul. She felt restless, even irritated. It was like experiencing creative labour pains and then the poem was delivered. She had to take some time off from her day-to-day activities to write down the poem. When Faruq Hassan’s labour pains began, he would often deliver twins or triplets, producing two or three poems at one time.

For some poets the whole experience was unannounced. It was like a precipitate labour. They had no advance warning, they could not see the clouds or hear the thunder before the rain. I was quite amused by the descriptions of the experiences of Ashfaq Hussain and Iftikhar Arif when they gave birth to one of their most beautiful poems, poems that became very popular and were considered quite representative of their works.

When I asked Ashfaq Hussain if he remembered the day and the circumstances when he wrote his poem ‘A Love Poem For My Son’ he said:

“My poem about my son is a very personal one. My son was two or three years old at the time. One day my wife and son had gone out; I was missing him which inspired me to write that poem. I don’t remember the exact details of the event. I don’t think I even knew what I was going to write when I picked up my pen and paper. I must have thought of my son, the temporaries of life and the meaning of our existence. All those things which are not obvious in my poem must have been floating in the back of my mind. I am not saying that I consciously wrote that poem about those issues. All I am saying is that I must have contemplated them at one time or another. I must have thought that children grow up, they become teenagers, then young adults, then grow old and die while life goes on. Many people like myself think about those issues, but at that moment when I was missing my son all those feelings and ideas got transformed into a poem. Maybe I was consoling that I myself might not be living one day but that my son might still be alive. I think it did not take me more than twenty minutes to finish the poem. But that is an ordinary thing. I think the angle that makes that poem special is that it also reflects one aspect of the immigrant experience. I think I must have been preoccupied with my cultural heritage at that time. I must have wondered whether we should thrust our heritage onto our children, set them free in the new society, or thirdly, should we try to strike a balance between two cultures. I think all immigrants share similar dilemmas and problems. Sometimes we like our traditions although we admit that some of them are wrong. Those are the traditions of feudal times and the era of slavery. To break the outdated traditions is a challenge for each immigrant parent. When I was addressing my son I was actually addressing the next generation. It was just expressed in a personal way.”



With your eyes, I

will see those days

which have yet to come.


With your feet, I

will run very fast

on dream-pathways

which are still obscure.


With your hands, I

will touch those mountains

whose very thought

makes me breathless.


Those mountains and those roads

on which you walk

a new era

this is yours.

I will not even see

this new era

but my eyes will kiss

its every moment,

with these bright eyes.



In your eyes

like light I shine

like love I abide

like a dream I am alive

in your beautiful eyes

all my dreams

hide in a special corner;

and if perchance these dreams

bloom with fragrance of flowers

in their sweet-scent

you should keep

all the letters of my name

with care.


Translated by:

Shehla Burney

When I asked Iftikhar Arif about the nature and experience of the creative process, he said, “Different writers and critics have different ways of explaining the creative process. Some people feel satisfied after they finish writing. Others feel happy that they completed a beautiful poem. But in my case, since I have gone through a lot of pain in my life, when I finish a poem I feel sad. I suddenly realize what I am going through. If something is bothering me and making me uncomfortable inside, there is restlessness in me, a lot of tension, a disturbing feeling, so when I write it becomes tangible. It becomes very visible in my poetry.

Let me give you an example. I remember one day I was at a New Year’s party in Pakistan. Some of my old friends were there. I had gone to the party alone. Many people stopped and talked to me. As midnight approached, the time when friends and lovers and spouses kiss each other, I noticed that the women around me who were my good friends, started to leave. I was very hurt. I felt uncomfortable,  so I asked my driver to take me home. It was hardly a half hour’s journey, but in that period I wrote the poem “Barhavan Khilari” which translates “The Twelfth Man”. When I finished the poem and read it to someone I started crying. I realized that I was the subject of the poem. It turned out to be a very personal poem. For me it was not a catharsis, it was a realization of my unfortunate situation.”


In the season of brightness

Countless spectators

Come to spur on

Their favourite teams,

Gather to inspire

Their own idols.


I stand aside

Alienated from it all

Deriding the twelfth player.


How different he is,

That twelfth man!

Amid the game,

The noise,

The roar of acclaim,

He sits alone

And waits -

For the moment to come,

For the time to come,

For that incident to happen

When he too can play

With shouts of praise,

Tumultuous applause,

Words of support

Just for him,

And he’ll be one of them

Respected like the rest of them.


But that rarely happens.

People still say

The bond between game and player

Is for life.

But even lifelong bonds can snap,

And the heart that sinks

With the last whistle

Can also break.

And you, lftikhar,

You too are a twelfth player,

You wait for a moment,

For a time,

For an incident.


You too lftikhar

Will sink ---

Will break.


Translated by:

The Poet


Brenda Walker


Some poets, after creating a poem were not happy with the outcome, so they kept on working on them for a few weeks. They seemed to be their own worst critics. They wanted to be satisfied with the final product. If they couldn’t perfect the poem, they would discard the whole thing.

The experiences of Munir-ud-din Ahmed, a short story writer, were quite different from that of the experiences of poets. He reminded me of those villagers who went to the river to fetch water. It appeared as if even being pregnant with the ideas and the stories for months, he had to leave his home, his work and his city and go somewhere far away, he had to take a holiday to deliver his stories. He needed more time to complete his creative work. He said, “This is true for my short story writing. Most of my stories are conceived over a longer period of time. It is very rare for me to write a story right away. After I conceive an idea, it takes me quite some time to develop it. The idea remains in my mind for many months until I go on my travels. It is mostly during those days that the whole thing ripens to such a point that it can be put into writing.”

When I was interviewing Ikram Brelvi, the novelist, I felt I was talking to the person digging a well in his backyard. He worked hard and consistently for years to finish a novel. He said, “When I was writing ‘Pul Siraat’ I used to sit in the basement of my daughter’s house and write for six to eight hours daily. I had to revise the novel again and again. I rewrote the novel six times - I can show you six manuscripts. I changed the end even as the calligraphist was working on my novel.”

The dedication, the devotion and the time commitment of a novelist is incomprehensible for poets. Some poets like Ashfaq Hassain and Humaira Rahman acknowledged that they wished to write fiction but did not have the time and discipline for such a task.

It was also interesting that poets had a tendency to share their creations personally while fiction writers got them published.

To this point, I have been discussing poets, short story writers and novelists. In these interviews I also talked to a playwright and translators of Urdu poetry and prose into English. The process of writing a play is far more complex than a short story because the end product is not only read but also has the potential to be performed. So a play joins hands with creative writing and performing arts at the same time. Jawaid Danish tries to explain the complexities of the process in these words:

“The process of creating a play is very different than other creative expressions. When a short story writer or a novelist finishes a story his responsibility ends there; but in writing a play, alongside the plot, dialogues and the characters, the writer is also worried about the direction, lighting, sets and the audience. If the writer is preoccupied only with the script and not with the stage, then the drama could only be published and not staged. One other important factor in plays is the cost of costumes and sets. Many Urdu classical plays are not staged now because the costumes are so expensive that the directors cannot afford them.”

When I asked Jawaid what comes first, an idea or a character when one writes a play, he responded:  “I have an idea or plot or a subject in my mind before I develop the characters. I have to think about the time period and number of characters before I start writing. I have also to bear in mind the feasibility of casting such characters if one has to stage the play. I used to be actively involved in staging plays in my school years. One of the big problems we faced at that time was that we could not find girls to play the roles. So I tried to write plays with very few female characters. We used to ask the boys to dress up as girls to do the roles. I didn’t like that. It was okay for comedies but not for serious plays. Urdu speaking girls were not allowed by their families to participate in plays. There were times we had to invite Bengali girls to do those roles.”

I asked Faruq Hassan, in reference to his translations, if he had a preference for traditional stories or symbolic and abstract ones. He replied:  “I don’t force myself to go for either, but generally I don’t care much for the abstract ones. Before translating a story, I have to know what the story is all about. Translating is like teaching; if you don’t understand the material yourself, you cannot communicate it well to others. I don’t want to cheat others or play games with them. I sometimes have trouble understanding how the abstract stories function. Most of the stories I have translated are either realistic or allegorical.”



After I realized the wide range of variation between different writers and their creative outcomes I became curious about the personal factors that affect the creative process.

I  Being Alone

The first significant factor that I became aware of during my interviews and literature review was the opportunity for writers to be alone. It is a well known historical fact that all creative people look for times of solitude. Prophets used to go to the caves, mystics to the jungles, scientists to their laboratories and writers would go on long walks. These days they probably lock themselves in a room, to be alone with computers and word processors. The similar characteristic is that writers want to withdraw from others to the solitude of their own company.

The same moments of being alone that many average people dread because they turn into moments of painful loneliness, are eagerly anticipated by creative people. Artists and writers need time to get in touch with their inner selves, their deeper selves, their unconscious states and their reservoirs of creative energy. They cannot nurture their creativity when they are busy with their jobs, family, or day to day responsibilities. They want time to be idle and lazy and do nothing because that is the time they can daydream and fantasize which enables them to concentrate on their ideas and images and plots and characters. That is the time when their inner selves can float freely like a cloud, anticipating that one day there will be rain. This freedom of time affords them the opportunity for their creative selves to leave the shores of rationality and delve deeper into the depths of the ocean of irrationality; they return from this journey renewed, and filled with fresh insights. There is certainly evidence in literature to prove that relaxation and daydreaming promote creativity. Murphy stressed the importance of relaxing when he said: “There are latent creative powers which wait to move forward to their work when freed from the restless downward pressures of the alert mind; creative powers which spring into being when once the narrow, nervous, preoccupied world of waking activity steps aside in favour of a quiet integration of all that one has experienced; when one is willing to let the mind leave harbour and travel fearlessly over an ocean of new experience...” (Ref. 1, p.374)

The same concept was aptly described by Hutchinson in these words, “The half drowsy moments of a lazy Sunday morning are as good a time as any in which to do real creative thinking. It is surprising how fertile the mind becomes when not interrupted or restricted by criticism in the free and often fantastic expression of its ideas. The best moments are those I find, in which I let the imaginative thought BECOME A GAME.” (Ref. 5, p.424)

Singir wrote, “One might anticipate that persons engaging in frequent daydreaming would be characterized by a considerable exploratory tendency, at least at the ideational level, and perhaps by creativity in their story telling abilities. (ref. 1, p.375)

Writers need time to be introspective and meditate and they can do that only when they are temporarily cut off from their routine work.

Some writers I interviewed tried to steal time for themselves from their busy schedules on a regular basis while others like Abrar Hasan waited till his family went away for a few weeks to finish his incomplete projects.

II  Travelling

Leaving day to day work and taking a break from routine responsibilities is also possible when writers go on holidays and relax. Abrar Hasan and Munir-ud-din Ahmed acknowledged that travelling was creativogenic. I think travelling lets the creative self surface and the writer can feel re-energized and adventurous, can toy with different ideas and finish his incomplete projects. Travelling provides an opportunity to do one’s work in an uninterrupted way. Baidar Bakht shared that he completed his translations in the plane or in hotel rooms when he travelled to his conferences. It is interesting to note that Jawaid Danish had not planned to write a travelogue when he left home the first time. As he travelled he got so inspired that he started writing letters to his friends and family members which gradually evolved into a travelogue. He said: “I was always obsessed with travelling. I wanted to see the world, I had never dreamed that I would be living in North America one day. I am very fond of India and in spite of all its problems, Calcutta is dear to me because that city played a major role in my literary and cultural awareness and growth. I started travelling when I was quite young. I saw many cities of Pakistan and India in my student life. I used to teach and save money so that I could go around the world one day but still I could not save enough. In 1979 I got the opportunity and I left. I had no intension of writing a travelogue, but when I arrived in Paris I started writing detailed letters about my experiences to my brother, sister and friends. In this way the travelogue came into existence. At first it was published in a local newspaper ‘Mashriq’ in Calcutta and later on it was published as a book named ‘Aawargi’.”

III  Reading

When a writer has free time, he can talk not only to himself but also to other writers with privacy by reading their books. Many writers find selective reading intellectually stimulating. It may produce a chain reaction within their minds which might end in a newly created product. Those newly created products are inspired initially when one reads someone else’s books. Translations are the exception. Writers who translate derive their work directly from their reading.

IV  Retirement

Taking some time off work or taking a vacation are temporary arrangements which allow one to steal some free time from a busy life. A retired life can provide that on a permanent basis. Ikram Brelvi shared that since he retired he had ample free time to pursue his creative endeavours; and Munib-ur-Rahman was looking forward to the day when he would not have to fulfil his university responsibilities and could devote most of his free time to the creative adventures he wanted to pursue.

V  Editing/Organizing

Some writers are not only interested in their own writings, they also want to create a literary atmosphere for their fellow writers whether it is by editing a magazine or arranging literary activities, seminars and conferences. Shaheen, Iftikhar Arif and Ashfaq Hussain had been quite active in this regard. They acknowledged that editing a magazine or organizing activities channelled their creative energies in a different direction. Those activities fulfilled their other needs although they also took away from their personal productivity. These people remind me of actors who become directors and producers of movies. There are always exceptions, one of which is the director who will sometimes act in his own movie.



The more we try to understand the creative process, the more we are faced with the personality of the writer, the artist, the creative person. In spite of a lot of work done in this area there are still mysteries that are intriguing and questions that are unanswered.

During my literature review and interviews with writers I became aware of a number of characteristics of artists and writers, which give us a general outline of creative people and their personalities.

Phyllis Greenacre has written a number of articles discussing different aspects of artists’ childhood. She wrote, “From the subjective accounts of creatively talented people writing of their own work and lives and especially from some descriptions of the creative process itself by those gifted ones who were experiencing it, it seems possible to describe the basic characteristics of a creative individual under four headings:

First  .. the creative individual has greater sensitivity to sensory stimulation


Second ..          he has unusual capacity for awareness of relations between various stimuli


Third  ..            he has a predisposition to an empathy of wider range and deeper vibration than usual


Fourth ..           intactness of sufficient sensorimotor equipment to allow the building up of projective motor discharges for expressive functions.” (Ref. 7, p.53)


I  Shyness

During my interviews the first characteristic I noticed among the writers was shyness. Most writers openly acknowledged that they were shy as children and many of them were introverts even as adults. Some of their responses to my question on that issue are as follows:

“I have always been shy and nervous. I’ve always had difficulty speaking in public. Even now the first day of teaching every term is plain hell for me. I have trouble facing a large audience. Luckily I have managed so far. But I’m always fearful. One of these days I might collapse.” (Faruq Hassan).

“I was very shy, very introverted. I didn’t have the time or opportunity to mix with other children of my own age. I could not open up.” (Shaheen)

“I was always shy ... When people see me making a speech or conducting a ‘mushaira’ they wonder how I could possible be shy. But I realize how shy I feel inside.” (Ashfaq Hussain)

“I was a very shy boy. I stayed to myself. I didn’t make very many friends. I still have that part of my personality. I still do not have very many friends and the few friends I have, I cherish. As a matter of fact, most of them have passed away and I feel very lonely now.” (Munib-ur-Rahman)

When I listened to these writers I wondered whether their shyness was because of their hypersensitivity as artists and being shy and withdrawn was a protective measure against the outside world, or whether they were so preoccupied with themselves that they did not depend upon other people’s company. When I talked to Ikram Brelvi he thought that fiction writers spent so much time in their creative work that they could not afford to be social.

II  Modesty

The second characteristic I noticed during my interviews was that a sense of modesty prevailed. Although most of the writers I interviewed were quite well established in literary circles and well known because of their contributions to Urdu literature, still they had a tendency to be modest and downplay their achievements. When I mentioned to Munib-ur-Rahman, that other people considered him quite successful he said:  “To tell you the truth, I think I could write better or do more. I don’t think I have made a great contribution. Sometimes, I feel that I have done my job as well as I could. I never felt that I would be disappointed if my name wasn’t mentioned in the history books. Even if only a few read my writings, I would be quite satisfied.” (Munib-ur-Rahman)

Baidar Bakht expressed his modesty by saying, “Before I answer your question I want to make it clear that this is not an interview. By calling it an interview I would have to acknowledge that I have a certain place in literature which I think I don’t have. I am a humble student of literature and I have done some translations but that does not give me such a stature that you should interview me. Maybe we can call it a conversation.”

When I listened to such comments from different writers I wondered whether their modesty was partly cultural. I am quite aware that in the Asian culture and Urdu circles modesty is a highly valued characteristic and is admired by most people.

III  Self Confidence

The third characteristic I observed was an abundance of self confidence. In spite of being shy, introverted and modest, most writers were quite confident. Their faith in themselves was remarkable. They seemed to have an internal locus of evaluation. Although they listened to others and took the opinions of their family and friends seriously, they did what they thought was right for them. There are a number of examples in the interviews to highlight that characteristic.

I will quote Humaira, who expressed her development of self confidence in these words: “Coming out of the home helped me to meet new people and think openly. It gave me self confidence and helped me in developing my personality. Other girls who worked in the radio station presented the material as the producer gave it to them; but I used to make some changes. I was lucky that the producers did not feel offended, they continued to let me make those changes. They knew that I was talented. Sometimes I altered whole paragraphs. I used to conduct a programme called ‘Aabshar’ (Waterfall) which consisted of one verse and one song. I used to present it in a dramatic way. I conducted that programme for two years. When I left, the programme stopped. That programme had evolved to such an extent that nobody else could maintain that standard. The listeners refused to accept it from anybody else.”            

Ashfaq Hussain said: “I graduated from high school in 1966 when I was fifteen. Then I looked for a job. I found part-time employment in a local library. Then I worked in a factory and with the police force for a short time. After I graduated from college my family and friends wanted me to try the departmental examination so that I could become an Assistant Sub Inspector of the police but I wanted to become a lecturer and teacher. So I left my job and entered university full time. There were no evening classes in the university at that time. I used to teach students to earn my living. Now when I look back I feel good that I listened to my own heart and did what I really wanted to do.”

Such confidence seems to be a cornerstone of creative personalities.

IV  Open-mindedness

The fourth characteristic I noticed in writers was their open-mindedness. Artists and writers are generally known for their flexibility in thinking and personality. They are adventurous people and are open to new ideas, new concepts, new experiences and new ways of looking at life. Carl Rogers described that aspect of the creative personality in these words, “This suggests another way of describing openness to experience. It means lack of rigidity and permeability of boundaries in concepts, beliefs, perceptions and hypotheses. It means a tolerance of ambiguity where ambiguity exists. It means the ability to receive much conflicting information without forcing closure upon the situation. It means what the general semanticist calls the extensional orientation. The more the individual has available to himself a sensitive awareness of all phases of his experience the more sure we can be that his creativity will be personally and socially constructive.” (Ref. 2, p.353)

A good example of such an attitude can be quoted from Baidar Bakht’s interview. When he was discussing his children’s upbringing, he said: “One day my daughter asked me, Dad what religion am I? I told her sincerely, Look! You have an opportunity to learn about three religions in your life:  your father’s religion, Islam, your mother’s religion, Hinduism and your friends’ religion, Christianity. I suggested why don’t you learn about the basics of all the three religions and not make a final decision as yet. When you become old enough then you can choose your own religion. There aren’t very many people who get a chance like that.”

V  Unconventional Thinking

The fifth characteristic I noticed about the writers was their unconventional thinking. Because of the open-mindedness and abundance of self confidence the writers were able to think independently and have ideas and philosophies of life that were quite unconventional. They had a unique way of looking at life.

When I asked Iftikhar Arif about his views on marriage and family he said, “This is my genuine and honest opinion. It is very cruel and ruthless but as a writer and poet, it is my personal opinion that a writer should not marry or should not have in any way a family bond because it restricts his mobility, mobility in every sense of the word. Now I am talking purely as an artist. Maybe as a Muslim I should have said something else. Maybe as a social man and as a husband and a father I shouldn’t have said that, but then I would have been very dishonest to myself.”

When I was interviewing Faruq Hassan he gave a novel interpretation of man’s relationship with God. He said, “In school I was religious but going to college changed all that. I haven’t been religious since. It is too much work, and it is not my favourite kind of discipline. It is better to try to get to heaven by writing books. I like the “sufi” way, where you have a passionate feeling for your creator, and you can relate to him in a personal manner. I cannot understand people who can unashamedly talk about their relationship with God. I cannot do that. It sounds so boastful, even vulgar. For me that relationship between man and his creator is a sacred and private thing. It’s somewhat like being married: you do not go around telling everybody how you relate to your wife in bed, what you do and what she does. It has the same kind of sanctity for me.”

VI  Nontraditional Lifestyle

The sixth characteristic that was apparent during the interviews was that these particular writers lead non-traditional lifestyles. The writers’ unconventional attitudes were reflected not only in their thinking and philosophy, but also in their day to day existence and in the important decisions made in life. Most of the writers I interviewed had broken traditions in one way or another. Some writers had a liberal attitude inside the framework of their family and cultural traditions, while others went out of their way to find a unique lifestyle of their own. They followed traditions as long as they did not interfere with their personal growth and progress, and when they created a conflict, they listened to their own hearts and minds rather than following the traditions blindly. This characteristic was quite obvious in their choices of spouses. I will quote a few segments of my interviews with Ikram Brelvi, Baidar Bakht and Munib-ur-Rahman to prove my point.

Sohail:  “Is your wife a member of your family?”


Ikram:  “Yes, she is my cousin. She is my poophi’s (father’s sister’s) daughter. We have a good relationship.”


Sohail:  “Whose selection was it?”


Ikram:  “She was my own selection.”


Sohail:  “Good for you.”


Ikram:  “I was the first man in my family who brought my wife home without a veil. I burnt the burqa (veil) because I didn’t like it. She came from Bareilly to Delhi without a veil.”



~  *  ~



Sohail:  “What year did you get married?”


Baidar: “We got married in 1968 in London.”


Sohail:  “How did your family react to your marriage?”


Baidar:   “I was afraid to tell my mother and father that my wife was a Hindu. My father was a very strict Muslim. So for fear that he would be very indignant, I didn’t even tell him. In 1978 I wrote to him and told him that I had married a Bengali Hindu woman and would like to visit him if it was okay. I received  the reply that they knew about our marriage and had even distributed sweets to celebrate.”


~  *  ~



Rahman:           “When we decided to get married, I wrote a letter to my father and told him that I was marrying her. My father wrote me a long letter in Urdu saying, “I am not against you getting married but you know that the conditions in our family and society are different. For example there is no privacy here. I wonder if she could adjust to that kind of lifestyle. She can marry you but she has to decide whether she would like to live in India. It will not only be her problem it will be your problem too.”  He described all the difficulties that we might encounter if we went back as a couple. So I translated the whole letter and sent it to her. She wrote back saying that she was willing to accept that, so we went to India.”


~  *  ~


One can imagine what unconventional lives those writers are leading who are married to people from different cultural backgrounds.

VII  Motivation

The seventh characteristic of creative personalities is abundance of motivation. What makes an artist start a creative work? What makes him go through the whole process to its successful completion? These are difficult questions to answer. Writers and authors have varying views on this issue.

Freud believed that the creative person experiences a need to represent his conflict or his ungrateful wishes through artwork.

Roth considered conflict “one of the two great motivating forces for original work, the other being the desire for self-expression imminent in all of us.” (Ref. 1, P.29)

Greenacre believed that creative work was invested with a lot of libidinal energy. She wrote: “I would want to make clear that my own conviction is that creative activity is highly libidinized and that without this libidinal change it could come to naught.” (Ref. 7, p.67)

Cocteau went to the extent of saying, “Writing is an act of love ... If it isn’t that, it’s handwriting.” (ref. 7, p.58)

VIII  Intelligence

The eighth characteristic of writers and artists is that they are very intelligent.

There has been an ongoing debate among psychologists about the relationships between intelligence and creativity. There seems to be a general consensus that although creative people are quite intelligent, yet all highly intelligent people are not creative.

Some psychologists focus on the fact that Darwin, Einstein and Churchill did not do well in school while Johnson reported that “in general, great philosophers averaged I.Q.’s of 170, novelists and dramatists 160 and scientists 155.” (Ref. 1, P.342)

It is generally felt that conventional I.Q. tests focus on convergent thinking while creativity utilizes a great deal of divergent thinking. A number of research workers are trying to devise new psychological tests to evaluate divergent and creative thinking.

Guilford suggested that “divergent production was an important factor in creative thinking and has used and produced many tasks which measure this ability at various levels and with different contents ... in order to identify these intellectual characteristics many “open-ended” (no limit placed on the number of possible answers) tests are being used.” (Ref. 12, p.175)

It was quite clear that the writers I interviewed were quite intelligent. Many of them had been very successful academically and were also involved in teaching at universities, while others were quite accomplished at whatever they pursued.

V  Wisdom

The ninth characteristic that could be observed in writers was wisdom. There has always been a feeling among students of human psychology that there is a close relationship between creativity, intelligence and wisdom. Robert Steinberg wrote: “When we think of Solomon, we think of him as having been wise. Einstein we remember as intelligent and Milton as creative. What makes one man wise, another intelligent and a third creative? Clearly, any one of these men might be remembered for any of these three attributes. Certainly Solomon’s solution to the problem of how to determine the true mother of a child was intelligent and creative as well as wise. Einstein’s formulation of the theory of relatively bore extraordinary elements of creativity and elements of wisdom as well as of intelligence. And Milton’s Paradise Lost shows prodigious intelligence and wisdom as well as creativity. Yet, we remember each of these great man for a different attribute. Much as the attributes many overlap, they also seem to have distinctive characteristics that set them apart.” (Ref.13, p.142) 

David Robinson wrote, “The wisdom-loving person - the - philo-sophia - is one who searches for the timeless and unchanging truths, never content with the shifting phenomena of the material world.” Whereas Lucinda Orwoll and Marion Perlmutter believe that a wise person’s “self-transcendence facilitates perception of the world with humanitarian and global feelings of concern.” (Ref. 13, p.164)

It was quite clear during my interviews that the writers I talked to were preoccupied with bigger existential issues. All of them shared their wisdom in their own unique way. Ikram Brelvi shared his philosophy of life by saying, “My main religion is Humanity. I cannot tolerate social injustice. I cannot tolerate human beings exploiting other human beings.”

X  Humanitarian Philosophy

The tenth characteristic of writers I interviewed was their commitment to humanitarian values. During my interviews I was struck by the fact that although each writer was born into a specific family, culture, language and religious tradition, they had transcended that position and had developed a humanitarian philosophy. They were concerned with issues of social reform and justice and were struggling in their own unique ways to contribute to the betterment of society around them. They had developed a keen interest in the welfare of all mankind. They felt that we as human beings were affected by each other so we have to focus on our evolution and growth collectively.



Whenever we try to understand the mysterious relationship between writers and their creations, we are faced with the reality that writers are constantly affected by their environment. We all know that writers are not born in a vacuum, don’t live in a vacuum and don’t die in a vacuum. The question is that from birth to death, from childhood to old age, how are they affected by their surroundings and how do they respond to the stimulating and inhibiting influences of the people around them, and how do those ongoing interactions affect the creative process.

I  Family Influences

The first environment every potential writer faces is the environment of family. We all now how our families shape our personalities and how they prepare us for the future responsibilities of life. Family in one way or another transmits values from one generation to the next and prepares the children and young adults for the society around them.

It is interesting to see how some families are supportive of creative talents in their children and encourage them to become artists and writers, while others focus only on the education which will ensure a job in the future and discourage any creative activities.

During my interviews I realized that on one hand there were people like Munir-ud-din Ahmed and Jawaid Danish who found a literary atmosphere at home while there were other writers such as Brelvi who felt afraid; they were strongly discouraged from pursuing literature.

Jawaid Danish said, “My father was not only a well educated man, he also had good literary taste. He used to write poetry and translate essays and short stories. I inherited my literary taste from my father.”

When I asked Munir-ud-din Ahmed about the reaction of his family when he started writing he said: “It was a natural thing in our family. My grandfather has been writing throughout his life. He lived most of his life in the village, from where he published almost a dozen books, out of which some were reprinted three or more times.”

When I asked Ikram Brelvi whether he shared his writings with his family members he replied: “No, not at all. In the beginning I used to write under the pseudonym A. H. Parvana, because of the fear of my father.” It is interesting to notice that Ikram Brelvi, like many other writers, did not give in and stop writing; rather he pursued it and even succeeded in it, in spite of the discouragement by his family.

II  Literary Atmosphere

The second environment that many writers experienced was the atmosphere in the school, college and university. We are all aware that some educational systems are more creativogenic than others because they encourage creativity while others force students to “act normally” and follow the rigid traditions of the system.

Whether it be availability of books, interaction with established writers, exposure to media or ongoing discussions with other writers and artists, all constitute different parts of a literary atmosphere.

During my interviews a number of writers commented on how such atmospheres helped them to blossom as writers and creative people.

Jawaid Danish and Munib-ur-Rahman who studied at Aligarh University, although years or even decades apart, are very proud graduates of that university. Their comments during the interview highlighted how an academic atmosphere can enhance and foster self confidence and creative growth in writers. I asked Jawaid Danish, “You seem to have a special association with Aligarh. You even write “Alig” with your name. What was so special about those three years that you spent there?” He responded: “Aligarh was a centre of culture and literary activities. That university produced a number of distinguished writers. Aligarh was like a dreamland for me. Alongside regular education, being involved in social, cultural and literary activities gave me a lot of confidence. When I was in Calcutta, I was considered a local figure, but after going to Aligarh, I became involved in dramatic activities at a national level. When I was working with Delhi Radio I met a number of writers and critics who were well known nationally. I felt as though I had come out of a well and had started swimming in an ocean. It was a golden period in my life.”

When I interviewed Munib-ur-Rahman about the university, I asked:  “You mentioned earlier that after coming to Aligarh your creative self blossomed. What was it about Aligarh that inspired you?. He said:  “It was the atmosphere there that inspired me. I met poets like Majaz and Jan Nisar Akhter. There were also literary gatherings. We used to get together quite often and discuss literary problems. These activities created an interest in me for writing. When you know that your writings are being noticed and discussed, then you want to write.”

If alongside a general literary atmosphere a writer also finds a teacher or a mentor who takes a special interest in his creative growth and gives him meaningful feedback, it motivates him. Munir-ud-din was fortunate that way. He said:  “My mentor in short story writing was Sher Muhammad Akhtar, the editor of the literary weekly “Qandeel” in Lahore, and himself a renowned short story writer of that time. I regard myself as his student and in a way his discipline. Whatever I wrote in my college days, went through his hands.”

After writers finished their education and are ready to leave the family nest, they have to make two important decisions:  the decision of employment and the decision of a partner in life. It is interesting how these two decisions affect a writer’s creative life.

III  Effect of Job

It was quite amazing to see how some writers I interviewed had kept their jobs quite separate from their creative work while others had tried to bring them together. Even those who worked in the literary field had mixed feelings. Some felt it helped while others felt it was a hindrance to their creative work.

Shaheen and Baidar Bakht are two writers who had pursued professions which had no relationship to literature. When I asked them about one’s effect on another, Shaheen said:  “I treat them as two separate airtight compartments. I work as a policy advisor in the Rail Freight Programs division of Transport Canada. My work involves performing statistical and economic analysis and advising the department on policy issues concerning grain transportation and handling in Canada. I also draft a variety of Orders in Council which are published in the Canada Gazette. Although sometimes my colleagues buy my books from book stores, I have kept a clear-cut demarcation between my work and my literary life. I hope neither one suffers. I don’t allow my literary career to be an obstacle to my profession or the other way around. Of course if I had all the time for myself and didn’t have to worry about putting bread and butter on the table for the family, I would produce more. That may not come to pass, but I think there would be more potential to create more.”

Responding to the same question Baidar Bakht described his situation quite poetically by saying:  “I am quite busy professionally, and reading poetry is like taking a rest. Walking long distances is engineering and then sitting under the shadow of a tree is reading poetry. For me there is no conflict. They complement each other.”

When I talked to Faruq Hassan who teaches literature in the university, I was surprised to know that he did not consider teaching literature a great advantage in his creative work. He said: “If you think that teaching is any help in writing, you are totally wrong. Teaching actually drains you. Whatever creativity I have in me comes out in the classroom, and it is wasted. It is of no use to me. I can take advantage of my ideas only if I write them down. I usually just blurt them out in the classroom to people who least need them. After three or four hours of teaching I am so exhausted that I don’t have the energy even to recall what I had said. Creativity just evaporates. Every year I come up with a few new ideas as I am relating to a new group of students and their questions and concerns are different. It is not really a blessing for a writer to be a teacher. If I were a banker, using calculators instead of words, I might have preserved my creative energy for literary work. Teaching takes away some of the creativity from me.”

Munib-ur-Rahman on the other hand felt that teaching Persian literature at times helped him in his project of translating  Persian literature into English. He said, “For instance, reading and teaching Persian literature helps me in my translations.”

IV  Effect of Married Life

When I discussed with the writers the relationship between married life and creativity, the responses were quite varied. Iftikhar Arif felt that married life was too restrictive for a writer. When I asked Faruq Hassan how his family life affected his creative endeavours he said, “It is not conducive to it, certainly not helpful. Nobody is out there making life easy for me so that I can sit down and write. My whole day is neatly and precisely budgeted and accounted for. If I am not too exhausted, I can do some work late in the evening. But to be honest, there is not too much room in my kind of life for creative work. One needs space, more room in which to think creatively. It’s hard to get that in our average Canadian household. Teaching has its own demands. Getting away to Saudi Arabia for a longer stretch was helpful in that I had more time to think creatively and to write.”

The views and experiences of Munir-ud-din Ahmed were quite different. He felt that his marriage played a significant role in his creative growth. When I asked him how his marriage to his wife Uta affected his literary life, he said:  “Uta affects my life very much. Uta has lived in so many countries. She was born in Austria to a German mother and an Austrian father, had her schooling for seven years in Italy, did her B.A. in Chile, lived for a few years in Peru and then came to Hamburg for higher studies in Literature. She had excellent knowledge of German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese languages and literatures. I learned much about them from her.”

After listening to those writers I wondered whether the people writers married were more important than the institution of marriage itself.


V  Effect of Being a Parent

It was interesting to note during the interviews how different writers were affected when they became a parent. For some of them the experience of becoming a parent did not affect their creative lives while for other writers it was a significant motivating factor for their creative thinking and expression. Some of the creative works of Baidar Bakht and Ashfaq Hussain were directly related to that experience.

For some writers having children was an experience that broadened their existential horizons and enriched their personalities. When I asked Abrar Hasan “How do children affect you?, he said:  “They are a great pleasure and a source of utter joy. I have often felt that if I have experienced God it is in the sharing of tender loving relationships with my family. This transmittal of love binds one to an unbroken chain of the hereafter. I have learnt a lot from observing my children grow and develop. The importance of the uninhibited need to make mistakes in the process of learning, is a case in point. I have observed how an infant attempts to gauge heights or distances by dropping his/her toys or spoon from a high position numerous times. This is but one among countless examples. I cite this because I use to be literally horrified at the prospect of making mistakes, and yet it turns out to be an essential element in the learning process - the reasonable freedom to make reasonable mistakes a reasonable number of times.”

V  Social Freedom

Creativity can be seen as a liberating experience both individually and collectively and it will prosper only if there is enough freedom to grow.

Franklin Roosevelt advocated that “one may fairly assume that if a society sponsors the “four freedoms ... freedom from fear and want, freedom of speech and worship, more people will strive toward creativity than in a society deprived of these freedoms.” (Ref. 1, p.313)

Carl Rogers made the point that when we talk about freedom we should differentiate between its symbolic and its practical implications. He highlighted his point by saying, “Note that it is complete freedom of symbolic expression which is described. To express in behaviour all feelings, impulses and other forms may not in all instances be freeing. Behaviour may in some instances be limited by society, and this is as it should be. But symbolic expression need not be limited.

Thus to destroy a hated object (whether one’s mother or a rococo building) by destroying a symbol of it, is freeing. To attack it in reality may create guilt and narrow the psychological freedom which is experienced. (I feel unsure of this paragraph, but it is the best formulation I can give at the moment which seems to square with my experience.)” (Ref. 2, P.356)

The writers I interviewed experienced social freedom and restrictions in their own unique way. Ashfaq Hassain felt so suffocated that he decided to leave his environment and immigrate to a different country.



One of the main reasons for me to embark on the literary adventure of recording these interviews was to explore the relationship between creativity and immigration. An immigrant writer faces dual dilemmas - the dilemmas of any immigrant and the dilemmas of a writer. During my interviews I tried to get an idea of the issues that those writers felt were important to their survival and growth as writers. I will focus on a few of them in the following pages.

I  Stage of Adjustment

Writers, like other immigrants, go through an initial stage of adjustment. This stage is usually shorter and easier if the immigrant knows the language of the new country, has a prearranged job, a place to stay and a social or family network. He has to deal with the issues of survival before he can deal with issues of creativity and writing.

Abrar Hasan described how he felt lost during the first year he came to Canada. Munir-ud-din, who emigrated to a country where the language was German not English, took quite a few years before he could go back to his creative writings in Urdu. He said, “I did lose contact with Urdu during the early years after my arrival in Germany. I had made a pledge to myself that I would not use English in my daily life, not even to buy an English newspaper to encounter the language problem. I wanted to concentrate on German. I had also decided not to write anything in Urdu for a period of ten years. In fact I had already been more or less an established writer before leaving Pakistan. I regarded my stay in Germany as an opportunity for learning German literature. But I gradually realized that I was losing contact with Urdu.”

Sohail:  “Ten years is a long time.”


Munir:  “Yes. It took me longer than ten years to decide that I should write in Urdu again. I began by translating German literature, then went on to writing original works.”


Munib-ur-Rahman felt that he had difficulties in adjusting to the new environment because of his age. He said, “In North America I feel isolated. Age counts a lot too. When you are young you can adjust easily. At my age it is difficult.”

II  Effects of Language

An immigrant writer is in an interesting dilemma as far as his relationship with language is concerned. He is surrounded by a society who speaks one language while he continues to write in a language that very few people in his environment speak. As a result of that, his relationship with his language of expression changes and it does not remain very intimate. 

When I asked Faruq Hassan whether he had noticed any difference in his creative style since he moved to Canada he said, “Oh yes, of course. The differences are written all over my poems. The imagery and the language have become simplified. In Pakistan I used to live in the language; I talked to people in Urdu all the time and discovered new combinations of words. Words that were forgotten would return. I played little games with words and they revealed themselves in new combinations. I was more aware of their presence. But in Canada I am always talking and writing English. The language of my work is English. I talk to my children in English. The only people I talk to in Urdu are my wife and some friends. This is not enough to generate an atmosphere or an ethos in which words come easily and new words can be formed.

Since I’ve come to Canada, my vocabulary has become very simple and straightforward. It is very functional. It is less overtly literary and figurative. Maybe if my contact with Urdu were more frequent and elaborate, I might be writing more. I’m quite conscious of this loss. Maybe I should sponsor Urdu speaking friends into Canada.”

A segment of Munir-ud-din Ahmed’s interview highlights the effect of German language and literature on his writings.

Sohail:  “Did you find that reading German literature has affected your writing?  Do you think you write differently now?”


Munir:  “Definitely so. I not only write differently now, I think differently. This occurred to me some time ago that even the type of Urdu I was writing was constructionally different from what I had previously written whether in India or in Pakistan. It has been suggested that my writings belong to the German literature which is incidently being written in Urdu.”


Sohail:  “Can you highlight the differences?”


Munir:  “You will find very often in my writings images and expressions which are new if not entirely alien to the Urdu language. I unconsciously put the sentences in such a way that it sounds like a perfectly constructed German sentence. I sometimes use German proverbs which might be strange to the Urdu reader, but the German reader would have no difficulty in understanding them.”


When I asked Abrar Hasan if he had noticed any significant change in his poetry either in expression or in content after he came to France he said: “There are some noteworthy changes in both the style and the content. My style has assumed greater simplicity and makes less use of persianised words. Without being immodest, I think I can say that the artistic expression has improved significantly. The change in the content is equally marked. It seems as if, after having explored the inner world of conflicts and ideas, I have begun to peer at the surrounding environment. Poems written about Paris, its parks, about France’s southern coast are symptomatic. The canvas has widened in another direction ...  I have treated some political themes more explicitly. Poems about Israel, South Africa, Islamabad, the bloodletting in Karachi are

some examples.”

III  Effects on Writer’s Attitude

After living in the new society for a few years and being exposed to new ideas, new experiences, new lifestyles and new philosophies, there are significant effects on the writers’ attitude. Since the literary creations are intimately related to the writer’s attitude those changes can be seen in the writings.

Ashfaq Hassain acknowledged that his values concerning social issues and especially towards women and family have changed. He feels that the Western society has helped him to think in a more open, democratic, and liberal way. Nasim Syed also expressed that in North America she had an opportunity to discuss religion and philosophical issues openly. Those discussions helped her adjust her views. She claimed that she did not accept those values anymore which were not logical or rational.

Shaheen expressed his views on the changes in his thinking and writing and their relationship by stating: “It is different but it hasn’t changed completely. I was in exile when I was living in India and Pakistan, and my poetry reflected this state of existence, but being in exile is a state of mind. One can feel comfortable living in North America and not feel in exile while one can feel in exile in one’s own country. I couldn’t identify with my surroundings in India. I used to read a lot of international poetry. I read French and German literature and was aware of movements in world literature and art. When I read my poetry of Rag-e-Saz now, I see that I had used some metaphors unconsciously that I had read in other literatures. When I came to Canada I came face to face with other realities and there were a series of shocks. Although the basic human needs are the same, the ways they are fulfilled are different. I will give you an example from the movie Dead Poet’s Society in which the teacher asked a student to stand on the table and look at the world around him from that position. Things look different when you look at them from a different angle. Coming to Canada has given me a different perspective and with that my thinking has changed. One becomes open to ideas that are taboos in one’s own country. One has to face those realities not as taboos but as facts of daily life. There is a head-on collision. One has to absorb the shock and accept the reality of the situation.

As a person of my height, weight, skin colour, eye and hair colour, I am a separate, distinct entity. It gives me a place in society which might not be pleasing to some. I am what I am; other people are what they are. Sartre said Hell is other people. So that’s how I look at things.

My poetry has changed over time. My themes have changed. I think that over the years whether one stays in one’s own country or abroad, changes do take place. Even being older provides a different perspective.”

In the beginning, Eastern writers living in the West might feel good that their views have become more open and liberal but soon they realize that the same liberalization which brings them closer to the Western people and writers, also starts to distance them from Eastern people and writers. When they send their writings to the writers of their motherland the editors might have difficulties accepting and appreciating them. Munir-ur-din Ahmed expressed his dilemma in these words: “Basically it is not the Urdu language which lacks sophistication. It is the society that employs Urdu which shuts its eyes on realities of life. The editors of the literary journals are subjected to pressure by the Government as well as their readers. Lately, a reader objected to my using the words “pimp” and “prostitute” in a story. He said, his ten year old son also reads the magazines, and he felt that his son should not be confronted with such stark phrases.”

IV  The Future of Immigrant Writers

When one looks at immigrant writers, one sees a wide range of assimilation and integration.

On one hand there are those writers who were so overwhelmed by day to day struggles, issues of survival and difficulties in learning a new language that they could not maintain their interest in creative writing. Some of them have not written for years.

Then there are writers who have changed their views, attitudes and styles of writing but have a strong feeling that they no longer fit into Eastern tradition because of their liberal views and mode of expression. They do not feel part of the “mainstream” in the new country because they don’t write in the host country’s language. Such writers feel very disillusioned.

On the other end of the spectrum is a small group of immigrant writers who feel that growing up in one culture and living in another culture gives them an opportunity to partake of the best of both worlds. They have an opportunity to read world literature, interact with international writers, share their experiences with the Western audience directly or indirectly through translations, and benefit from Western writers personally by reading their works and translating them for Eastern audiences. Such writers have a predominant feeling of optimism and hope that one day their talents will be acknowledged and appreciated in the East as well as in the West. Iftikhar Arif shared this optimism in his interview. He voiced:  “People living in the West can meet the Western writers or read the translations of the great twentieth century poets and writers. So much French, Spanish and German literature has been translated into English and Urdu. Writers living in Pakistan do not have access to the world’s literature. Some people might buy books when they visit Europe but most people are deprived of them. Writers living in the West have a natural advantage being exposed to the Western way of life. They can create a synthesis of both traditions. Every generation has some questions and they need to be answered. The present day questions are not of the East only. Present day questions are raised by international ethos. The terms of reference have changed. The questions are universal so that answers should also be universal. That does not mean that we are negating our local identities. Without being a Pakistani I cannot be universal. If you are not committed to your own land you cannot be committed to any universal idea. Your commitment to your own soil is very important.

Living in the West you can enrich that culture and it can enrich you. The West can learn a lot too. There is sometimes hostility and tokenism in the Western establishment but I am sure it has always been there. But if you are honest and truthful they cannot ignore you. They could not ignore Pablo Neruda and Najeeb Mehfuz although they came from third worldish backgrounds. If you have talent and merit, then nobody can deny it.”



The relationship between women and creativity is so complex and interesting that dozens and dozens of books have been written on the subject. A couple of years ago I edited a book entitled “Western Women, Literature and Life’ in which I tried to capture an overview of the women’s liberation movement in the West and its effect on women’s creative writings. In one of the translations I had quoted a page of Anais Nin’s diary which is titled ‘Gender and Creativity’. In that diary she remarks:  “As to all that nonsense Henry and Larry (Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell) talked about, the  necessity of I am God in order to create (I suppose they mean I am God, I am not a woman). Woman never had direct communication with God anyway, but only through man, the priest. She never created directly except through man, was never able to create as a woman. But what neither Larry nor Henry understand is that woman’s creation, far from being like man’s, must be exactly like her creation of children, that is it must come out of her own blood, englobed by her womb, nourished with her own milk. It must be a human creation, of flesh, it must be different from man’s abstractions.”

(Ref. 14)

It is quite obvious that over the centuries women have not been given many opportunities to express themselves freely. This affected all their creative ambitions and suppressed their potential. Conditions have been worse in the East where women had limited choices. Either they had to give in and had a life of submission or express themselves freely and pay the price by sacrificing many social privileges and rights.

In this collection I have included two interviews of women Urdu writers. Although there are only two interviews with women compared to ten with men, yet those two interviews have enough information, views and experiences to impress upon us the significance of their contributions to literature.

One of the interviews includes Humaira Rahman who considers herself a lucky woman because her parents were very supportive of her creative activities and after marriage her husband and in-laws encouraged her to establish herself as a poetess. In spite of her success, it was significant that as a teenager she wrote a poem which challenged traditional social values; her father questioned her and asked her not to write such poems. That discussion had such an inhibiting affect on Humaira Rahman that she did not write for a few years. Humaira herself enjoys the support of her friends and family members, but when I asked her about the problems of other Urdu women writers she responded: “There is a lot of social pressure on those writers. They want to write many things but they are forbidden to do so. That leads to frustration. Sometimes those frustrations, those pains and those sufferings are expressed in unhealthy ways. Some women feel pressure from their husbands, others from their in-laws. Some women were not accepted for marriage because they wrote openly. It is not that women don’t write, it is just that they are not acknowledged or published.”

The problems that Humaira mentioned could be seen in the interview with Nasim Syed. Nasim Syed who was a creative young lady at university, was discouraged from expressing herself freely after marriage. She felt under such pressure that she stopped writing. When she was reminiscing about those years she said, “I suffered being an Eastern woman. The society had carved a role that I was supposed to live and in that role there was no room for poetry and literature. Poetry was not considered a respectable thing for a woman, so I stopped writing. When I was at university I was actively involved in literary activities. I used to attend the literary meetings. Many times professors like Abul-Lais and Jameel Jalibi used to come to those meetings and share their critical appreciation. Once I presented a poem and Farman Fatehpuri Sahib admired it so much that I was extremely encouraged. But then after my marriage I did not write for fifteen years.”

It is interesting to see how Nasim Syed regained her creative strength and managed to reach a stage in life where she could write again. She was fortunate to be able to fight and win a battle which many other women in her situation are unable to do. Understanding Nasim Syed’s dilemmas helps us understand the dilemmas of many other women, and understanding her process of liberation helps us understand the process of liberation of other immigrant women. Nasim Syed managed to take a few steps in Canada which she could not take in Pakistan. The first step was gaining financial and economic independence. After she gained economic independence she could assert herself more and could stand firm on her views and decisions. She had to fight battles not only with her surroundings but also with her own self. Finally she had to come to a stage where she had to let go of a traditional family, expectations of others and unrealistic expectations of her own self. It wasn’t easy, nor has it ever been easy for anyone to free oneself from the past and everything that comes with it. But the point is that she did it and she did it as gracefully as she could. And once she took that step, many doors opened to her. One of them was writing poetry and expressing not only her own dilemmas, but also the struggles of other women and other oppressed people. Nasim Syed took those steps in three years, which many people cannot do in a decade.

It is quite interesting to see that on one hand she had friends and family members, for example her brother, who supported her all the way. On the other hand there were some people in literary circles who did not accept her creative achievements wholeheartedly and wanted to patronize her. Nasim Syed has been quite sensitive to the attitudes of people around her. When I asked her if she thought she was treated differently in literary circles because she was a woman she said, “Being a woman, I am expected to be shy and timid and dependent which I am not. Many men writers give me suggestions as if they are my masters. But all writers are not like that. Some of them treat me equally and as a friend.”

It is quite clear from those two interviews that we have a long way to go to fully appreciate women in general and women writers in particular and create an atmosphere where women writers can be encouraged and supported in their personal struggles and creative adventures.



This project has been a humble attempt to understand the process of creativity and the dynamic and mysterious relationship between creative people, their creative products and social environments. I am quite aware that in this overview I have provided only a few glimpses of these phenomena. I hope that these interviews will spark some inspiration in others as they did in me.




1.   ARIETI,                             CREATIVITY - The Magic

      Silvano                               Synthesis.

                                                Basic Books, Inc. Publisher, New York


2.   ROGERS,                          ON BECOMING A PERSON

      Carl                                   Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston


3.  GREENACRE,                   PLAY IN RELATION TO

      Phyllis                                CREATIVE IMAGINATION

                                                Sophia Mirriss Memorial Lecture, San Francisco, California, March 2, 1959


4.   PATRICK,                        WHAT IS CREATIVE

      Catharine                           Philosophical Library, New York



      Eliot Dole                           HUMANS PSYCHIATRY (1939)

                                                2: 323-332


6.   NOY,                                INSIGHT AND CREATIVITY

      Pinchas                              Presented Sept. 1976, New York Psychoanalytic Society


7.   GREENACRE,                  THE CHILDHOOD OF THE

      Phyllis                                ARTIST

                                                (Libidinal Phase Development &


                                                Paper panel discussion, American  Psychoanalytic Association, New York, Dec. 1956



                                                University of Marburg


9.     HUTCHINSON,              THE PERIOD OF

        Eliot Dole                         FRUSTRATION IN CREATIVE ENDEAVOUR


10.   ARIETI,                           INTERPRETATION OF

        Silvano                             SCHIZOPHRENIA

                                                Basic Books Inc. Publishers, New York


11    MAY,                              THE COURAGE TO CREATE

        Rollo                                Bantam Books, New York


12.   TYSON,                          NEW HORIZONS IN

        Moya                               PSYCHOLOGY

                                                Edited by Brian Foss, Penguin Books, England.


13.   STEINBERG,                  WISDOM

        Robert                              Cambridge University Press, New York


14.   NIN,                                THE JOURNALS OF ANAIS

        Anais                                NIN

                                                Quartet Books, New York