Bangladeshi literature has historically been insulated from the world, floundering, thriving, and existing in a cocoon of its own making. To that end, the advent of Bangladeshis writing in English has been a catalyst for change. As Bangladesh adds its literature to the world’s, we speak to novelists Nadeem Zaman (In The Time Of The Others and Up In The Main House And Other Stories) and Arif Anwar (The Storm) – two prominent voices amongst the nascent Anglophone literary scene of the country – about being writers, being Bangladeshi, and being both. They offer a glimpse of the trials and triumphs of the lives of writers, especially of those from lesser-known nations of global literature, of being from the global South and writing in the world’s lingua franca, and of the realities and aspirations of Bangladeshi literature.
Shuddhashar: Let us begin at the beginning. Why do you write, and what is your writing philosophy?
Nadeem Zaman: I love language. I love putting words together to build sentences and sentences together to build worlds. I love stories. I’ll go so far as to use the well-worn reason many writers give for why they write: to work things out, give order to my thoughts about my world, and about the specific parts of it that keep me from letting my brain shut off for one second. You know, as far as philosophies go, I don’t know that I have any set ones besides doing the work because I must and tell the stories because I must. Philosophies beyond that are, to refer to a philosopher, like the unexamined life being constantly examined. That is, they are in constant flux. What I held as a philosophical driver in my work five years ago or ten years ago has changed, grown, reshaped, been re-examined, whether I did it deliberately and consciously or not. That constant state of evolving keeps me aware and alert. The only unchanged philosophy is that the work needs to get done, and for that to happen I need to be at it with discipline and dedication and do the work honestly. I say “need” instead of “have to” or “must” because with me it is a need.
Arif Anwar: I write because an idea, thought or story is compelling and has a hold on me that will not relent unless I put it down on paper and explore it. To badly paraphrase Toni Morrison: I write the novels and stories that I would want to read myself but haven’t found in the bookstores and library yet. I came to writing (fiction) later in life (early thirties) so I have a lot of catching up to do, which lends impetus to my pace of writing. I don’t have a particular writing philosophy other than that fiction should first entertain, and that if I don’t enjoy reading what I’m writing then the readers likely won’t either. With every piece of writing, I produce I say to myself, “it’s very possible that no one will read this other than me, but that’s alright.”
Nadeem Zaman: Arif’s hit on some other fundamentals that, I believe, are common among writers, hence I pointed that out in my answer. Yes, I’m writing books that I would love to find at stores and in libraries, that I wish I had when I was budding as a writer. Hopefully, we’re doing our part through our work to fill this gap. Well gap is an understatement. It’s more like complete absence and invisibility.
Shuddhashar: This compulsion is something that unites the two of you. The similarity of this driving force belies the divergent paths you have taken to being writers. What is less known about you is that your relationship dates back to childhoods in Dhaka. In many ways, you are simultaneously of the first generation of Bangladeshi writers writing in English, and its latest big hopes. We would be remiss not to talk about the serendipity of two friends breaking through as writers around the same time – about the friendship that developed during a time and a place that have evidently informed your writing today.
Arif Anwar: Nadeem and I are the same age, and we both played tennis at the same club (alert: we both had very privileged upbringings). For a short time we attended the same school. After Nadeem left for the US, almost thirty years ago now, we fell out of touch, which was easier to do in those day.
Nadeem Zaman: Arif and I, as he mentioned, go back to being friends at Dhaka Club. Our upbringings certainly had their privilege in common. I left Dhaka in 1991 quite suddenly and without much planning on our part. Because it was easier to fall out of touch quickly in those days I did indeed become a ghost to my whole circle of friends for many years. Shortly before reconnecting with Arif, actually, I’d heard through mutual friends in Dhaka that he did a PhD and is a writer. Then in 2018 I sent him a Facebook message, having forgotten this tidbit. Here we are.
Arif Anwar: Yes as Nadeem says, one day there was a message from him to me on Facebook and he addressed me thinking I was my older brother. It was amazing to realize that after 25 plus years we were both novelists with our debut novels coming out the same year. Funnily enough, his novel in terms of history picks up just four months after mine (1970 Cyclone led to ’71 Liberation War) and his novel too came out four months or so after mine!
Shuddhashar: Your writing to date has been rooted in Bangladesh. It isn’t simply a case of following the adage of writing what you know, since you have written about periods before your births and after your migration – in other words, what you are not familiar with. Nadeem refers to addressing an invisibility. Does that apply to Bangladeshi stories? Do you feel the need to be representatives of Bangladesh? Is it a blessing or a burden?
Nadeem Zaman: I don’t see myself as a representative, and I don’t imagine I ever will. I think that detracts from doing what I’m supposed to do: write, and write stories that are important to me. This doesn’t mean that I’m not conscious that the stories I’m writing, the books I want to write, need to be part of a larger presence of writing in English from Bangladesh in the West. In that sense, if I am to represent Bangladesh in any way it is as a place that is as rich with stories as any other in the world. What makes those stories unique, what is important about them being about Bangladesh/being Bangladeshi is more important than making them representative of “Bangladeshi writing.”
Arif Anwar: I don’t feel the pressure, and Kazuo Ishiguro has expressed disdain for dogmatically clinging to the idea of ‘writing what you know’. I mean, how do you grow as a human being, much less a writer if you only keep writing about people like yourself? I write what I want to write. Yes, more often than not it might be situated in or deal with South Asian characters or deal with the lingering effects of the shared colonial history, but not always. With The Storm, while I didn’t feel pressure to ‘represent’ Bangladesh I was intentional about ‘putting Bangladesh on the map’, figuratively that is. I didn’t want to do a ‘small novel of quiet power about an immigrant family’, but something epic and extravagant and spectacular that still revolved around Bangladeshi history and the histories of other peoples and cultures with which it’s intertwined. As for my second novel, which I am about a third of the way through the first draft, there isn’t a single Bengali character nor is Bengal or the region even mentioned.
Shuddhashar: Bangladesh does feature quite significantly in your identities as writers of colour, though, does it not?
Arif Anwar: Please elaborate. But in short: no, not everything I’ve written.
Nadeem Zaman: Yes. Every one of my published works has featured Bangladesh or being Bangladeshi.
Shuddhashar: To elaborate, the question of identity is part of the mainstream conversation at present. We can only hope that it becomes firmly so, rather than simply being of the moment. Both of you have spoken and written about being writers of colour – how could you not, since the alternative would be to believe that you are somehow white, Western writers, and convince everyone else of it. Regardless of whether the characters you write are Bangladeshi or not, nor if your stories are set in Bangladesh or not, Bangladesh shapes your identity as writers. As such, you are well-placed to inform us about how that manifests itself for each of you, what challenges and opportunities it presents, how you make it a part of the global literary discourse (for you are both writing in English, for a global readership).
Nadeem Zaman: I frankly have not yet figured out substantively where in the spectrum of “writer of color” I fit in. To clarify, I say this within the framework of the US/Western publishing industry. I don’t know how a book I write would be received by agents and publishers if it had, for example, white characters instead of Bangladeshi, or was predominantly white, because I haven’t written such a book. There are authors of various backgrounds, including Bangladeshi, that do that, completely leaving aside their ethnic identities. In other words, they’re writing books they want to write and the stories have the characters the book calls for. For the foreseeable future, I see my stories and books centering Bangladeshis, Bangladeshi-Americans. How those works, especially novels, will find a place in the narrative of writers of color in America I don’t know. I prefer not to think in monolithic terms. I do wonder, though, if we’ll ever see a person of Bangladeshi descent in big US publishing. If we are thinking identity-wise, and if we’re looking for champions of our work specifically as writers of Bangladeshi background, then I would love to see how someone who (hopefully) understands those stories goes to bat for them. There are big, needed, and wonderful changes taking place in the industry right now. How I fit into that change vis-a-vis identity remains to be seen.
Arif Anwar: “There are authors of various backgrounds, including Bangladeshi, that do that.” That’d be me! I don’t doubt that being Bangladeshi has shaped me. I mean, how could it not, given that that’s where I spent the first twenty years of my life. And I understand the inevitability of engaging with questions of ‘identity’ at least early in the career of writers of color who write in English. I can think of very few writers who have built up the escape velocity from ‘Planet Identity’ by publishing steadily more impressive works: Kazuo Ishiguro being the most prominent example. No one asks him about being Japanese any more, although they used to early in career. Rushdie being another, although his career has evolved in a more interesting way in that the presence of his ‘identity’ as a South Asian has steadily attenuated in his work over the years to the point where such matters are more subtly incorporated now, if at all. Although I would say that the quality of his work has been on a mild but steady decline over at least the last two decades. So for me, the Bangladeshi part of me I’d rather have as a room I can quickly go into when needed rather than it be the house that I live in. That’s why it’s great that Nadeem and I are different in our respective interests and style. We all shouldn’t be telling the same stories. I want to write what I want to write, and not be constrained about what I can write because of my ethnicity. In interviews I sometimes tell this story about a British review of my novel complaining about how my British characters were kind of stereotypical, to which my response was “Great! British writers have been writing brown people badly for so long now we can turn the tables.”
Shuddhashar: What was your experience of rendering Bangladesh’s history in your fiction – both the act of writing it and that of it being received once written?
Arif Anwar: I learned a lot especially since it was something (Bhola Cyclone) that has been overshadowed by not only our own history, but also world history given that it was the greatest natural disaster in history. In the West the response generally has been along the lines of ‘I learned a lot about the region and Bangladesh from the book’, which is nice. Again, I didn’t start with the intent of educating people on the history of Bangladesh rather just have the setting as an effective backdrop for the characters. It’s not surprising that the reaction in Bangladesh is different. It’s more like a ‘check the box’ thing. ‘Oh, you’re of Bangladeshi descent? Great. Oh your book was well reviewed and published in the West and translated? Even Better”. The focus is more on ‘are you representing us well’ rather than explicitly with the content or the questions raised by it. And the questions also tend to focus around navigating the Western publishing industry and my experiences of it. Which is all good. After all, people are curious.
Nadeem Zaman: Well, seeing as how Bangladeshi history is known well mostly in Bangladesh and the Subcontinent, reception of my novel was different there and here. By here I mean the US, where it wasn’t published, but had a small readership via word of mouth of friends, family, relatives, and colleagues at the college where I teach who added it to their syllabi. The experience of writing was very satisfying, when I didn’t care about publication or if US/Western readers will pick up on every element and significance of the history. As with writing in general for me, the more I concentrate on the work, and shut the door on thoughts and worries of finding an agent and publication, the more I enjoy the process. That’s how it’s going with the revision of my current novel. I’m really not interested if US/Western readers will get 400 years of Dhaka’s and Bangladesh’s history. If I get caught up in those concerns I’ll be miserable and fail at writing the book I set out to write. I’ll also privilege the very Gaze that I want to dismantle, and sabotage my own work in the process. Reading is a joint experience between the writer and reader, and reading is work. The reader needs to meet the writer halfway, be challenged, learn, investigate, not expect to be handed everything.
Shuddhashar: Using something Arif has touched on as a segue: “Nadeem and I are different in our respective interests and styles” – let us explore this. The convenient category for both of you would be “Bangladeshi literary fiction”, with the complexities of identity you have spoken about absent in general and wider discourses. While both of you write literary fiction – and do expound on if this was a conscious choice – you are different writers. Since we have both of you here together, could we have each to talk about the other’s writing?
Arif Anwar: If there is such a thing as a literary writer, then Nadeem is that much more than I am. I’m more of a bottle-blonde literary writer; read me long enough and my hacky, genre roots show through. Nadeem’s writing is cleaner, more classical and less stylized than mine. And I think he’s better at the things I think I’m the weakest in: character, dialogue, interiority, etc. He also does the minutiae, idiosyncrasies and vagaries of relationships much better than I do. I’m also more likely to delve into speculative fiction than he is.
Nadeem Zaman: Wow, thank you. I agree about trying to figure out what we mean by “literary writer” or “literary fiction.” It’s true that in the lingo of the book business that’s where I see my work fitting, but it really is enough for me to call it fiction. Arif’s language is rich with imagery. There’s more poetry in it, if that’s the right word. There are scenes in the book that are just breathtaking. I don’t want to go into comparisons not only because I don’t believe in it but because that says nothing about our work as writers. Arif does point out correctly that, style-wise, we’re different. It took me the better part of two decades to “find” my style, whatever that means, and my “voice,” also whatever that may mean. If what we’re doing serves the story, that’s really what matters.
Arif Anwar: “If what we’re doing serves the story, that’s really what matters.” This is an important point because I’ll often think of a story and then ask myself, “What style should this be written in?” The style serves the story, rather than vice versa.
Shuddhashar: You have managed to dispel the myth of the Bangladeshi writer as a homogeneous entity. They come in many guises, with different stories to tell in different ways. I cannot but sense strong senses of respect, camaraderie and support between the two of you. Does it come naturally, owing to your shared childhood, or is this something you make sure to work on, deriving the benefits of collective strength?
Nadeem Zaman: I’m wary of creating homogeneous identities because they create one-size-fits-all narratives. So, I’m glad that it’s come across that we’re dispelling that notion here. It becomes more important for us in the context and space of US and Western publishing because there are so few of us in it. I will always get hopping excited to see Bangladeshi/Bangladeshi heritage writers on the scene. But I won’t expect their experiences and stories to match mine, nor their works to address the same concerns as mine. As you said, many guises, with different stories to tell in different ways. Support and camaraderie are a different issue, in that, yes, I’ll make every effort to support Bangladeshi voices and works. I would respect Arif’s work and support it no matter what. I say this in keeping with what I’ve said above. Even if I didn’t know him, I’d be excited to see the emergence of a Bangladeshi writer in the “mainstream” literary space of the West. If I had to work on to find that respect and camaraderie, there’d be a problem. What I mean by this is that if we don’t support each other, then we can’t expect to get the support of the world in which we exist and have to navigate, that is, the insular, myopic, boxing-in world of Western mainstream publishing.
Arif Anwar: It’s quite dramatic isn’t it, what are the chances that the two of us would get in touch so many years later and we’re both novelists. It’s great that I can connect with Nadeem on multiple levels: personal and professional, as artists and artisans. It’s nice to have someone who understands the challenges, frustrations as well as the immensely rewarding life (in terms of art) that writers inhabit. I do think of Nadeem first as a writer, and only then as a Bangladeshi or any other hyphenation writer. It’s also nice that we’re both around the same stages of our careers so that we have more to relate to. I think it’s so great that we’re writing different kinds of stories that still have as their foundational bases our shared upbringing. If we can presume to advise the upcoming generation of Bangladeshi/South Asian writers it would be this: don’t ever let anyone tell you what kind of stories you should write or are expected to write.
Shuddhashar: Fellow Bangladeshi writer Kazi Anis Ahmed identified in an interview to the Financial Times a few years ago, the dearth of political writing coming out of Bangladeshis despite the rich material available. The two of you have written books and stories that are political – at times directly, at others subversively – almost as a corrective to his observation (albeit unrelated). What has drawn you to telling these stories? Is this something you hope to keep doing, especially since socio-political stories are what, arguably, expedite the arrival of a country’s arrival and understanding on the global stage?
Nadeem Zaman: He’s right. There is a dearth, and I think that’s an understatement. Since I don’t know what definition of “political writing” Anis bhai was operating under I’ll go with my own. When I hear the term I think it’s writing, fiction or nonfiction, that hits at the political moment with unabashed, unhindered, rigorous force, whatever that moment happens to be. Writing that isn’t beholden to sycophancy or threatened by authoritarian oppression in the form of “laws” like the Digital Security Act. Writing that isn’t hobbled by what the head of state wants the “national narrative” to be and lays bare facts. Yes, rich materials are available, and there are driven, courageous, and intelligent people in Bangladesh that are fighting odds every day to do their best. But Bangladeshi political writing will continue being threatened as long as the regimes that rule the country stand in the way, bully, abduct, and terrorize writers. Can you imagine a long form investigative/analytical essay with the title “Why is Sheikh Mujib’s the Only Legacy Allowed?” or “Bangabandhu: From Man to Myth,” or a hundred other possible pieces of the like appearing anywhere in Bangladesh without severe repercussions? Would the current PM laud freedom of speech if an in-depth, researched, and factual article or book about her family, her father, and her party’s creation of post-independence Bangladesh, for good and bad, were published? And whenever the opposition party comes to power, we take this same model and apply it to them. How exactly do we define “political writing” if there can be an exact definition? The other problem is just the relevance and presence of Bangladeshi politics outside Bangladesh. The last time I remember Bangladesh taking up space in mainstream US media was in 2016, during the live coverage of the Holey attack. So there’s another problem. Bangladeshi writers can pitch ideas to platforms outside Bangladesh as fast as we can write them down but they’d likely not be touched with as much urgency as, say, stories from India or Pakistan – unless, of course, it’s severe enough as a terror attack or if Bangladesh were to go nuclear and get the attention of the West in “language” they understand. There’d be a cottage industry of Bangladeshi political writing and punditry then, I bet, (most likely lorded over and monopolized by white men).
Arif Anwar: Whoa. Nadeem’s answer is brilliant and I think says it all. It takes immense courage to write politically in Bangladesh, especially now when it’s perhaps at its most repressive state since the Liberation War. The people and the intelligentsia have wearied and I guess one can’t really blame them. We fought the Liberation War, and then there were oppressions, military coups, dictatorships, an overthrow of a dictatorship, followed by twenty years of general strikes and political chaos and corruption and finally a decade plus autocratic rule. The country can’t be in revolution mode for 50 years. At some points even these zealous stars run out of fuel, and entropy begins to set in. For me, my writing didn’t really delve into the politics of Bangladesh at its present, when the time is right for that I think I will delve into it. I do worry about how much my writing will resonate given that I have not lived in the country in well more than a decade. I’ve always thought that the main difference between novelists and essayists is that having agendas drives the latter and hinders the former. I can’t approach fiction with an explicit agenda of “haha, wait till they get a load of this bit of social commentary” because that makes the writing turgid, artificial and off-putting. Case in point, anything by Ayn Rand. Politics or social commentary in fiction is at its most powerful when it emerges organically from the story, when it’s the backdrop against which human lives are enacted.
Nadeem Zaman: My novel and my story collection were just stories I wanted to tell and had been wanting to tell as long as I’d been writing. Especially the novel, since 1971 was such a fundamental part of my childhood into young adult and adulthood, and continued being a central part of my development as a writer and scholar. The other drive was to bring that event, in my way, to large-scale attention. I hope to keep writing works that are relevant to or at least speaks to “a country’s arrival and understanding on the global stage.” How or through what kinds of stories that happen will show themselves when they happen. That’s to say that while I have ideas churning in my head all the time, too many of them sometimes, they’re bits and pieces trying to come together as a whole, or sparks that sometimes catch and sometimes don’t. The ones that catch and grow show themselves once I start putting them down, and even then they may not pan out as expected (which is a big part of writing); I might find that the spark was good but there wasn’t enough there to sustain a prolonged narrative fire, or it might begin as one thing and end up (hopefully in a good way) leading to a discovery. As one of my professors used to tell us, which I have taken and pass on to my students: “Writing is discovering.”