The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Shaheen Akhtar
By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
I write because not writing feels uncomfortable and hollow to me, like hovering in a void. I feel alive when I write. Writing a novel makes me feel as if I’m discovering the world anew. I derive enormous pleasure in engaging myself in this process. Writing is truly my most significant method in understanding things. This encounter is primarily with my own self: with the known and unknown worlds, as well as with times that I have not witnessed or lived through. Although my writing self is fairly vulnerable, still I adore that persona.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
At the moment I’m writing on the 1940s and the 1950s. This was a very important period for South Asia. The fates of millions of people were determined without their knowledge; I’m talking about the 1947 Partition. In the twinkling of an eye, people were turned into minorities; they lost their homesteads, their known worlds. There seems to be no end to it—a process that is still ongoing. At the center of my new novel is undivided Bengal, a province of pre-Partition India. A time when the Hindu elite had grown afraid and embittered at the gradual empowerment of the majority but backward Muslims; when this region was beset by the second world war, the Bengal famine, Hindu-Muslim communal riots, the Partition and its immediate fallout. The deeper I explore these questions, the more the Partition appears as inevitable as fate. There was no way for this to not happen. I’ve forgotten what I set out to write in the novel; now I have to wait and see what this novel makes me say.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
What I can say about aesthetics? Rather let me talk about my writing style. I write at a slow pace. I enjoy experimenting with forms. These days I’m increasingly attracted to words, phrases, and idioms that I heard in childhood, or expressions which aren’t used much anymore. I can tell that this attraction is gradually turning into an obsession. I always strive not to write two novels in the same structure or style.
Who are your favorite authors?
That changes. Presently, Orhan Pamuk. Also, I adore Alice Munro’s stories. Reading her is like listening to a favorite piece music at low volume, which you can listen to all day. You never lose focus when you’re reading her stories, you never feel monotony. As if she has a divine gift.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
Any piece of writing is a challenge to me—whether it’s a short story, a non-fiction piece or a novel. I suffer anxiety about whether I will be able to write it or finish it. Generally, with a novel, I have to pay attention to the behavior and dialogue of the different characters, the description and details of the narrative. This time, in addition to all this, I have to be careful about the topic itself. Because I’m dealing with a controversial issue. And that is the linear approach to defining identity. There exists a constant tension regarding our identity, whether we are Bengali or Muslim. This crisis is century-old. During Partition (because the demand for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims was raised) our identity was defined primarily as Muslim. When we fought for our independence in 1971 against the Muslim rulers of West Pakistan, we were considered only as Bengalis. This mode of thought emerged not only from our opponents, but also from ourselves. As if our Muslim identity would somehow detach us from the idea of secularism and hitch us to militancy. On the other hand, sticking to our Bengali identity would endanger our religious identity. Certainly the two are at loggerheads—as if there is no way to encompass the two simultaneously. Because of the topic I’ve chosen, my novel is trying to give space to this question of why our religious-cultural identity should clash with our regional/geographic identity. It’s a tough test.
What’s your idea of bliss?
A blessed room where, other than writing, no thoughts can intrude.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
The current state of the world. Specifically, when I hear about the Rohingya genocide, when I look at Syria or when I recall the plight of the Palestinians.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Books that I cannot make time to read would get priority during a retreat. There are plenty of those—old classics, modern novels. And definitely a notebook. If I don’t have a notebook with me, I mark the pages while I read.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
If possible, my computer hard disk. I use a desktop for my writing.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
To nurture the dream of writing a novel, thoughts of which will keep returning to my readers like a joyful memory.
Shaheen Akhtar is the author of four novels and five collections of short stories. Her short story ‘Home’ (translated by Arifa Ghani Rahman) is part of a collection titled ‘The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction’, published by Comma Press in co-edition with Bengal Lights Books. In 2004, her novel Talaash won the Book of the Year award from Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s most widely-read newspaper. Akhtar was presented with the Sera Bangali 2014 award in the field of literature by India’s leading Bengali news channel, ABP Ananda. She received the Akhteruzzaman Elias Kothashahitya Puroshkar 2015 for her novel Moyur Shinghashon. More recently, she was awarded the Bangla Academy Shahitya Puroshkar for fiction in 2016. Akhtar currently works for the Bangladeshi human rights/ legal aid organisation Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK).
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab