by Rheea Mukherjee, Blogs Editor, Kitaab
Ikthisad Ahmed sticks firm to his views as he eloquently expresses the hum and tune of Bangladeshi writing: “Ours is a nation of struggle, ours is a culture of struggle. Bangladeshi writers, regardless of the language in which they write, have acute senses of justice, anguish and humanity. We burrow deep to find the revolutionary spirit inherent to us, and extract beauty from those wells.”
Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is not as convinced and believes that those of Bangladeshi descent can at best provide a diluted sense of the identity. Moreover, she believes, there is the need to be recognized as writers without the frills and thrills of Bangladeshi exotica. She lays down her opinion with thick confidence: “When I was starting out, agents and editors were disappointed and unwilling to accept the fact that I was not exotic in my style or interested in the ‘displaced immigrant ‘ theme. One actually said to me, ‘Can you write more about being Bangladeshi and American at the same time?’ The problem was that I was not culturally conflicted enough. My Bangladeshi and American identities were not constantly at odds. That feeling of being an ‘other’ happened more powerfully after 9/11, when being Muslim and American was deemed mutually exclusive. But I was not conflicted by it.”
What role, then, does Bangladeshi writing have in a publishing world that either slots literature as authentic translations, or westernized exotisized South Asian literature? Is the roar of revolution and the country’s immense history owed more attention and regard from the outside world? Kitaab’s Asia Uncensored presents two positively compelling sides of the story, if not to persuade you to one side, then to keep you informed of the larger picture, and the grey strokes of literature, nationalism, and identity.
Descended from immigrants and revolutionists
The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, edited by Amit Chaudhuri, is an excellent study that provides an illuminating portrait of the Indian literary voice and its development. The starting point of this journey, the very first section of this book, is titled, “The Bengal Renaissance and After”. The first name to appear, a writer who predates all the other entrants, is Michael Madhusudan Dutt. He was born in present day Bangladesh.
The Partition of Bengal in 1905 was aborted in 1911.The British Raj demonstrated rare humility in accepting as ill-conceived its political ploy to divide in order to be more assertive, to oppress further. Ideas cannot be killed, however; once thought or expressed, they continue to germinate. The next opportunity to realise this particular one as something tangible was gleefully seized by the colonial rulers. Bengal was definitively divided in 1947. Michael Madhusudan Dutt, like Rabindranath Tagore, whose links with Bangladesh are well-known and undeniable, has since been claimed by Indian literature, has shaped Indian literature, has laid the foundations for an Indian voice.
Bengal’s history of the last two centuries is replete with names of literary giants who have defined Bangladeshi culture, but Dutt and Tagore, and their appropriation, suffice to make the salient point about a Bangladeshi voice: On the world stage, in English, the lingua franca of our times, it is still floundering in search of a concrete identity. Quality translations of the Bangladeshi canon, especially post-independence, is conspicuous in its absence. That Tagore may well have been overlooked by the world had he not translated his own work highlights both the importance of translation and Bangladesh’s severe deficiency. It is, thus, easy to dismiss the nation’s literature, since the terrain is not only unknown, but unwelcoming and giving the appearance of being uninhabitable.
Writing from France to a friend, Dutt famously said, “If there be any one among us anxious to leave a name behind him, and not pass away into oblivion like a brute, let him devote himself to his mother tongue. That is his legitimate sphere, his proper element”. His literary misadventures in Europe, which, like the English he wished to emulate, he aborted, led him to rediscover his fealty to the language of his birth and forever change its landscape. It is his life before Bengal, however, that warrants a closer look. Dutt embraced Christianity, emigrated to England and wrote in English. He even proudly boasted having “a fine English wife and four children”, followed by an English partner whom he did not marry. He embodied an Englishman, superior to the pesky brown-skinned immigrants of which the alarmists wished to cleanse their pure Western borders. The bar has been lowered in recent times to allow anyone fresh off the boat to raid their sacred settlements, but in Dutt’s days even distinguished persons were deemed unworthy of such benevolence.
Globalisation and Western soft power has seen Bangladeshis queue for English language educations, a privilege equated to a better life. Members of the elite class, meanwhile, take a Dutt-approach to life, donning the skin of the white man. A blue or maroon passport is as valuable, and as prevalent, as a Swiss chalet or a Mediterranean villa. Some of those riding the crests of waves during the shifting tide take up pens and write. Most may be pretenders, doing so out of boredom, but there are honest and talented wordsmiths amongst them. Names such as Zia Haider Rahman, K. Anis Ahmed, Sharbari Z. Ahmed, Saad Z. Hossain and Ahsan Akbar–a smattering of those transplanted to Western shores by the waves in body as well as spirit, beside those who breathe Bangladeshi air into their Western minds–are beginning to be heard. They and others like them may not know it, may not even want to bear the responsibility, but they are creating the space for a modern Bangladeshi voice to be explored and heard on the international stage.
Like Dutt before them, they are influenced by global literature, allowing them to produce work which can contribute to it. Unlike India, the third largest English language market, Bangladesh does not have the structure, system or population to support and sustain English literature. The English literature coming out of Bangladesh and Bangladeshis, therefore, is for a worldwide readership. This demands a standard whereby those of us writing in the tongue of the imperialists need to stand shoulder to shoulder with what the world, not the nation, has to offer, and be recognised. The borderless wasteland of the twenty-first century requires adoption of a global policy to achieve this higher standard. We need to own the specific shade of our brown-ness in English to conclusively and legitimately define the broad parameters of the universal Bangladeshi voice.
Ours is a nation of struggle, ours is a culture of struggle. Bangladeshi writers, regardless of the language in which they write, have acute senses of justice, anguish and humanity. We burrow deep to find the revolutionary spirit inherent to us, and extract beauty from those wells. From Dutt and Tagore via our National Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, that is the unique Bangladeshi voice, not thrust on the mental and physical immigrants writing in English, but genetically ingrained in each and every one of us. We, the rebels, are conversing with the world, speaking about ourselves on terms it understands. When there are enough of us screaming ourselves hoarse, so that we are impossible to disregard, to dismiss, a Bangladeshi voice will be firmly established at home and abroad. That day is looming on the horizon. The world is noticing, and our words are beginning to echo.
There is no 21st century Bangladeshi Literary Voice—that we know of.
Sharbari Zohra Ahmed
When I was at NYU, getting my MA in creative writing I handed in a story set in present day Bangladesh about a young woman who was trying hard to please her mother-in-law and, in the process, accidentally burns down the ancestral manse.
The story was well-received. However, the feedback suggested that I further exploit my rich Bangladeshi heritage, but do so for pedestrian details and turmeric-tinged Indo-exotica that made it enticing to the Western sensibility. Essentially they wanted less character study and more arranged marriages, saris fluttering in the wind or elaborate cooking scenes involving cumin. I am still baffled by the enthusiasm of my fellow classmates for this story and not the others, most of which eventually saw print. My instincts were that they could not reconcile my “brown-ness” with the non- brown characters I sometimes wanted to explore. In the end I did not add more “cultural” touches and the story still got published.
When I was starting out, agents and editors were disappointed and unwilling to accept the fact that I was not exotic in my style or interested in the “displaced immigrant ” theme. One actually said to me, “Can you write more about being Bangladeshi and American at the same time?” The problem was that I was not culturally conflicted enough. My Bangladeshi and American identities were not constantly at odds. That feeling of being an “other” happened more powerfully after 9/11, when being Muslim and American were deemed mutually exclusive. But I was not conflicted by it. I knew who I was; it was George W. Bush and Homeland Security who were not so sure.
Growing up, I did not wax nostalgic about my home back in Dhaka because I had no home back there. I will say that my name, Sharbari, is as Bengali as it gets and was hard to pronounce for most Americans. My mother’s insistence on wearing only saris everywhere was sometimes embarrassing for the child that I was. Everyone would stare at us in McDonald’s. It did not help matters when she once asked for a Whopper instead of a Big Mac. I wanted to sink into the floor. But these were tiny artifacts in my writer’s vault that I usually passed over. I did not hold them in my hands, mull them over and then weave them into my fiction. That will probably change but that is not where I am as a storyteller.
I want to write about people who are confused, or heart-broken, or trying to navigate their lives with some measure of control and finding it challenging. I want to explore situations that reveal something about the human condition in our time. I could be the daughter of a Norwegian herring fisherman and write about the same things because they are the most universal of human desires, the need for love, acceptance and recognition. There is nothing particularly Bangladeshi about that. There’s nothing specifically Norwegian about it either. My latest story to be accepted for publication has an African American male protagonist in it.
That being said, a novel like The Great Gatsby is very much about the need for love and acceptance, but F. Scott Fitzgerald’s exploration of these themes is extraordinary because it is a perfect storm of an undeniably American voice set in a period of history that was definitive in its mood, ambitions and reactions to the terrible war it had just experienced. It is seminal because of its voice, which perfectly embodies a generation of a newly-minted 20th century and still resonates today.
In that context, I don’t think my voice qualifies as a Bangladeshi one. Western agents and publishers want to place all us “coloreds” into neatly labeled boxes that make their marketing and publicity departments happy, so that my voice, whatever it is, is not an easy fit for most of them.
Despite this, western publishers and agents are slowly starting to notice writers of the Bangladeshi diaspora, and I am personally benefiting from that. I just do not feel any of us writing from a place of diaspora can be described as having Bangladeshi voices, especially if some of us merely exploit being Bangladeshi to be exotic and inviting to the Western palate, and do not write with honesty and understanding.
In Bangladesh itself, it is a unique time for fiction being written in English, because it is only being written by those who enjoy a degree of privilege. Besides some being genuinely talented, most are getting published in western markets because they are the only ones writing in passable English. Plus, it is a novelty. But if they are living in Bangladesh and experiencing it every day, even from an ivory tower, I am inclined to view them as more authentic Bangladeshi voices than those who have either been born abroad or spent the lion’s share of their adult life abroad.
However, I do not think they can be described as the modern writers who are capturing the heart and soul of Bangladesh in a way that will be read and taught generations from now. I feel that in order to do that, one has to be writing mostly in Bangla.
Bangladesh is not investing in properly translating works written in Bangla and sharing what must be gems with the world. As a result, our Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Orhan Pamuk is hidden from global view. Marquez’s voice defines Latin American storytelling for us because his work has been widely translated.
At this moment there is a void in the Western literary firmament, in the shape of a wise, compassionate and unflinching voice who can illuminate for all of us the maddening, beautiful and sometimes horrifying complexities of Bangladesh. They exist right now, and the world needs them to reveal themselves. I know I do. But I, like so many others, need them in perfectly translated English because I can’t read Bangla.
Sharbari Ahmed is an award- winning writer of fiction, plays and screenplays. Her debut short story collection The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai: Stories, was published by Daily Star Books in November of 2013. Her fiction has appeared in various publications, including The Gettysburg Review, Caravan Magazine, Wasafiri, The Asian Pacific American Journal, Catamaran, and in the anthologies, A New Anthem (Tranquebar 2009) and Lifelines(Zubaan, 2012) and the political journal Inroads (Canada). She is currently working on her first novel Dust Under Our Feet set in 1940’s India and writes for TV.