Unbound 2016: Highlight Arts Pakistan

Highlight Arts focuses on Pakistan in this year's Unbound – the result of a period of collaboration between artists from Glasgow and Lahore, swapping stories across continents through translation and empathy. There will be words and music and celebration

Feature by Galen O'Hanlon | 28 Jun 2016

When you think of Syria, Iraq, or Pakistan, you probably don’t think of their poets. Conflict obscures all but the most brutal and wretched faces of a country: we see only the soldier, the refugee, the bombed-out building, the toothless skyline. But what about the people, cultures, and stories buried by the conflict? Highlight Arts works to uncover these, through festivals, events and workshops.

The organisation’s most recent project has connected artists and storytellers from Glasgow with their contemporaries in Lahore. A group of Scottish poets, illustrators, songwriters and novelists travelled out to Pakistan for the Lahore Literary Festival in February. They worked with fellow artists on collaborative pieces and translations of each other’s work – and now they’re coming to Unbound, to share the music, art and stories they found.

It’s a remarkable way to create a deeper connection between two cultures, says poet Ryan Van Winkle, who coordinates the project for Highlight Arts. “Understanding another culture, another country, is not about learning statistics or chatting about the weather,” he says. “Understanding comes from noticing a myriad of differences and similarities. We note the quality of light. We note the riverbanks, the way meals are cooked and shared.”

This is cultural immersion on a different scale – but it’s not the first iteration of the project. It began in 2014, when the British Council invited Highlight Arts to organise translation workshops for two poets based in Glasgow and two in Lahore. “The idea was to explore the 'twinning' of these two important and vibrant cities in a human, personal and artistic way,” says Van Winkle. “It was an incredible experience for us and for the poets on both sides of the exchange. We loved Lahore, we loved the poetry and we loved working with Sang-e-Meel Publications, the largest Urdu-language publisher in Pakistan.”

The project was designed to go far beyond any kind of surface-level meet and greet. “We knew when we presented the work in Lahore for the first time that, through the intimate act of translation, authentic relationships between poets were forged and were palpable to our audience,” he explains. “We were very excited about this because, really, creating empathy, understanding and appreciation across cultures is a kind of alchemy and you never know how it will go.”

Ryan Van Winkle on translation

Based on the success of the first project, the British Council asked Highlight Arts to expand it. So in 2015 Van Winkle took more poets out to Lahore, and held events as part of the Alchemy Festival in Glasgow and London. This year, the Edinburgh International Book Festival supported their work in Lahore, and they’re presenting the widest collection of material so far at Unbound.

At the core of all of this is the act of translation. Nobody here is a professional translator, but the gap in fluency seems to give rise to a connection on a level beyond language. There is always common ground, as Jim Carruth found during the project. “Family relationships are a difficult business,” explains the Scottish poet, “but something that most of us have in common. Maybe translation, by its nature and especially with living poets, is a bit like that too.” 

It’s about noticing things, says Ryan. “When Highlight Arts brought two Scottish poets to Lahore and four Pakistani poets to Glasgow we were reminded that the act of translation is one of noticing – of interpreting difference and similarity. All the artists, poets, musicians and storytellers came together with empathy, expecting differences of style and content, and all bared themselves without shadow in an effort to inhabit the other's work. These artists have all sat across from each other, face to face, and were reminded of the bonds we, as humans, share.”

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And what of the artists who will appear on stage at Unbound this year? For Ian Stephen, a storyteller, poet and seaman from Lewis, the week in Lahore was intense. “Swapping stories as we looked for shared themes and imagery was friendly,” he says, “but it was also stimulating.” He spent time sharing tales with Pakistani storyteller Mujahid Eshai, and again it was about finding the common strands among the glittering differences.

“In times of political unrest and armed conflict,” he continues, “it reminds you of the shared human psychology which results in narratives and imagery with astonishing similarities. For example, the myth of lovers separated in life but united in death occurs in the Outer Hebrides as well as the Punjab. We also have witty trickster tales in common.”

For Stephen, working with Mujahid didn’t feel like previous translation projects that he’s worked on. “In this project it was not so much about translations as finding parallel tracks, story for story, assisted by the stunning and detailed imagery produced by Kate (Leiper, a Scottish illustrator working on the project) and her own collaborator. I'd contrast that with poetry translation projects I've been involved with which are about close scrutiny of language and sound and craft.”

From Lewis to Lahore

And while he won’t reveal too much of what’s in store for Unbound, he will be focusing on the shared ground of riddles, ballads and songs that are the foundations of Scottish and Pakistani storytelling. Together with Shazea Quraishi, a UK-based poet and storyteller from Lahore, they will riff on each other’s stories.

There’ll be music and poetry too. Sarah Hayes from the band Admiral Fallow worked with Sara Kazmi in Lahore, and the pair are looking forward to performing at Unbound. Once again, folk traditions are a rich source of creative material, but they also found similarities in the two cities' industrial heritages. “Working in a cross-cultural collaboration like this was a new challenge for Sara and me,” says Hayes. “We were keen to find a meaningful musical connection and create something brand new from our respective folk traditions. We settled on our material pretty quickly, drawing parallels between the textile industry in Glasgow and Lahore, perennial themes of love and loss, and the use of bird and animal imagery to illustrate wider subjects.”

This is a rare opportunity to see a new blend of folk tales, says Van Winkle. “It's such a pleasure to see how Scottish and Pakistani folk songs and poetry meld together in their set – in which all sorts of Pakistani and Punjabi influences mingle with classic songs from artists such as Nancy Whiskey.” It’s a fascinating project, and promises to be a lively night.

From Lewis to Lahore, Sun 21 Aug, 9pm, free