Bangladeshi writer FARAH GHUZNAVI says she writes because she has stories to tell – – often those of other people – and they just won’t leave her in peace until she put them down on paper. The short story writer, columnist and development professional had recently edited an anthology of short stories in English by Bangladeshi women titled ‘Lifelines’. An exclusive interview with Teresa Rehman
Where do you get your ‘food for thought’?
Pretty much everywhere! From the interactions that I witness, to the stories and complaints that I hear, to the small things that amuse or annoy me on a given day (travel is particularly good in facilitating such realisations because journeys and encounters with oddballs go together). The one thing I consciously try to avoid is cannibalising other people’s personal stories or confidences for my fiction. My own experiences as a development worker and my overactive imagination have so far been sufficient in providing inspiration for that!
Please tell us about your early years, your family, home? Was there there anything in your childhood that shaped your life as a writer?
I was raised in a family where reading was encouraged, indeed more or less mandatory. Each family member has their own collection of books and favourite genre – magical realism, science fiction, poetry, feminist novels. I was a precocious reader, devouring everything I could get my hands on – from the inevitable Enid Blyton books, to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I was 12. My mother disapproved of the fact that I read comic books such as Marvel’s X-Men (and earlier, Amar Chitra Katha), but once I had pointed out to my father some of the words I learned from the X-Men series, including “arcane” and “vindication”, I won him over.
My parents were reasonably strict about not showering us with too many toys – though we were not deprived, presents were for special occasions. But books were different matter altogether. Whenever one of them travelled, they would take a list of requested books and bring back several. I was also taken to the British Council for my regular “fix” several times a month. Those library visits were the highlight of my week, and I remember being thrilled when I graduated from the children’s allowance of four books at a time, to the adult allowance of eight, as a teenager!
I have to give my parents credit for encouraging my early efforts. They read and commented on everything that I wrote – from doggerel to bad poetry, plays to short stories. They were never uncritical, but they did make me believe that what I was writing was (or could be!) worth reading.
And although I didn’t learn this until much later, there were some writers in the family. Like my mother’s aunt, who wrote a novel in Bangla that was acclaimed by the critics of that era. And on my father’s side my great-great grandmother Karimunnessa Khanam was a poet. She was also the older sister of Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, who is considered the first Muslim Bengali feminist and is the renowned writer of stories such as Sultana’s Dream. Rokeya credits her older sister Karimunnessa and her brother Ibrahim Saber for nurturing her talents. So although I didn’t know it at the time, it seems the writing gene runs through both sides of my family!
How would you describe your connection with India?
India has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Both my parents grew up in Kolkata, in British India, though their families were from East Bengal. And visits to family members and friends meant that travelling to Kolkata and Delhi, in particular, was very much a part of my childhood. As an adult, of course, I’ve had the opportunity to make my own friends across the border, and I cherish those relationships.
How was your recent trip to the Shillong CALM Festival 2013?
I had a wonderful time at the CALM Festival. There was a relaxed vibe and the experience of northeastern hospitality was memorable. I made some good friends, and enjoyed a number of world-class sessions at CALM 2013. My favourites were the panel discussions that featured David Davidar, Jerry Pinto and Stephen Alter.
What is your biggest moment of bliss – the commercial success of your work or a fanatic fan appreciating your work?
The most important thing for me is hearing from someone who “gets” my work, who understands what I’m trying to say through my writing. So, hands down, the biggest pleasure is hearing from a reader who can explain why they appreciate my work or what it is about a particular story that speaks to them. Of course commercial success is nice, too!
How easy it is for a Bangladeshi woman to carve a niche as a writer?
I think it’s hard for anyone to carve out a niche as a writer, unless you’re talented and very well-connected! It’s hard work and there’s tons of competition out there. India has its own internal market and a vibrant publishing industry. But I think the fact that English language writing in Bangladesh is still a relatively new phenomenon makes it more difficult for us.
One of the editors in the US who accepted two of my short stories for successive issues of their literary journal admitted to me later (and he is the child of immigrants himself) that he had never heard of Bangladesh. He encouraged me to ask other Bangladeshis to send in submissions to their journal, because, as he put it, “After accepting your first story, I actually did some research to find out where Bangladesh was! And after reading both your stories, and learning what I have from my research, I feel that I actually have a relationship with Bangladesh now.” So every time one of us receives some form of recognition, I feel it benefits all of us – as Bangladeshi writers writing in English – because it’s part of putting Bangladesh on the global literary map.
Which is your best creative work so far?
That’s a tough question. It’s a bit like having children, I suspect. It’s hard to pick favourites. But if I were to suggest some pieces of work I wouldn’t mind being judged by, I would say Getting There – which is my short story that appears in the Lifelines collection of new writing from Bangladesh recently published by Zubaan Books India – and Judgement Day, my flash fiction piece that made it onto the winners list at the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2010; as well as my short story Waiting for God.
How would you view the publishing scene in South Asia? Can we visualize a pan-South Asian readership?
I think we’re well on the way to establishing a pan-South Asian readership. In the Western world, I think we are already seeing a shift towards an interest in writers from this region – and in a way it’s a more egalitarian kind of interest, because they’re willing to try out new authors without necessarily knowing exactly which country they come from within the South Asian region. What we need to see happening more in South Asia itself is people stepping out of their “interest zones” (e.g. Indians reading books by Indian authors, Pakistanis reading books by Pakistani authors etc), and demonstrating a greater willingness to explore other writers in the region, whether it’s a Shyam Selvadurai from Sri Lanka or a Manjushree Thapa from Nepal and so on.
You are also a development worker? Please tell us more.
I think we would need a separate interview to cover that properly! I was raised by a feminist father and an activist mother, with the results that you might expect. We discussed issues like child trafficking around the dinner table when I was growing up, and it was a bit of a shock to my system when I realised that my classmates were not having the same conversations in their homes. I have worked for multilateral organisations and international NGOs, as well as local organisations like BRAC, Grameen Bank and others.
I’d always thought that if I hadn’t been a development worker, I would have wanted to be a journalist, so I wrote columns for one of the national dailies alongside my development work. I never actually thought I could write fiction. It took a rather traumatic experience, when I read about the death of a child domestic worker at the hands of her employer, for my outrage to finally break through my conviction that I couldn’t write fiction. That child’s (imagined) story was the first piece of fiction I wrote, entitled A Small Sacrifice, and it was the kick-off to everything that has happened since.
I feel that my experiences in the development world are a big part of informing my short stories as a writer. For example, my story The Mosquito Net Confessions is about two young women who go on a field trip with the Grameen Bank. One is struggling to prove her worth as a staff member in an alien (rural, male dominated, Bangla speaking) environment, and the other is the child of expatriate parents (who speaks French, but not Bangla!), hired as an interpreter for this trip, which involves taking around visitors from the Ivory Coast to meet the beneficiaries of the Bank.
It is, in many ways, a very funny story. But it’s also about finding unexpected resources within yourself when you face challenging circumstances. And the title refers to the fact that power cuts and insect attacks force the two main characters to sit in the darkness under their mosquito nets and swap stories and impressions – in the process unwillingly getting past their initial judgements of each other.
You also write columns for newspapers. So how do you differentiate this from your creative writing?
It’s very different. The columns are non-fiction and I see them as an extension of my role as a social activist. I’m dead set against preaching, but there are ways of advocating for certain values and attitudes through humour and the sharing of anecdotes. And of course, at times it functions as a form of therapy for me, because the world is such an insane place, and sometimes you just need to vent your frustrations – I did a lot of that during the Bush and Blair years! By contrast, the stories are fiction, although they have been inspired by things that I have seen and heard and experienced. I also find the process of writing short stories much harder than writing columns, and not just because of the length. Having said that, as someone once said, “I don’t like writing, but I love to have written”! I feel a greater sense of achievement from my fiction writing.
Do you really think reading habits are dying?
Yes and no. There are times that I worry that the pace of life in the contemporary world is not conducive to reading. I suspect that the internet (which I love), social media (which I also love) and online games (which I hate) all contribute to a generally shortened attention span. Something that is much more evident in younger people. Apart from anything else, I’m not sure how good this continuous bombardment of information and stimuli are for our brains!
But I also think that reading provides the kind of escape and relaxation that is rarely found elsewhere. And certainly not quite so easily and cheaply! Hence I’m hoping that what we’re seeing is a change in reading habits rather than the death of reading. People will always need to read when they study, and I think that they will also need to read for relaxation.
Storytelling and the absorbing of stories is wired into our brains. That’s clear even when you see how much people enjoy being in the presence of a good raconteur. Hopefully it’s just the form in which individuals read that will change, whether it’s from print to digital, or in terms of different formats (i.e. the relative popularity of novels versus short stories versus flash fiction versus poetry). I particularly hope that what stays the same in the years ahead is the level of appreciation that currently exists for a good story.