The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Wasi Ahmed
By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
For the most part, I write to see myself in a state of self-questioning. Reality, for me, is important in as much as it stokes the sparks that hurl me into writing. But reality often remains a narrative on the surface only. This surface reality has its limitations, in that it can at times be a misrepresentation of the inner, true essence—a simplification, so to say. I sometimes tend to see it as the reality of the unreal, for surface reality can be deceptive, unable to lend a critical understanding of the inner content. How much does a visual object tell us about what it’s actually about? You don’t get to know the dancer from her dance.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I’ve almost finished working on a collection of my stories in English translation. I myself did a few; others were done by competent translators. A different version of the stories in a different language may be a curious experience, interesting too.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
Ever since I started writing, I tried to remain reticent, and never lose sight of the unbecoming and the skeptical aspects (not necessarily in conveying a message or in questioning – self-questioning to be precise).
Who are your favorite authors?
Many. Not all favorites come in the same order, and over time I tend to shift my fancy. Naming celebrated authors not in my list would have been easy. Serbian author Millorad Pavic, for strange reasons, is a long-lasting favorite. So is Milan Kundera. In my country, the author I revere most and hardly find a parallel elsewhere is Akhtaruzzman Elias. His stories are extraordinarily unique in craft and content. Proper translation of his works, an extremely difficult task, would have earned him a rare feat in global literature. It’s our collective guilt that an author of his stature remained confined by the limits of geography and language in the so-called globalized world. An archeological dig might retrieve him some day!
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
It was a novel of more than 80,000 words. The theme had been with me, though largely shrouded, for more than 10 years; but I hardly ever thought of writing it. When finally, I was kind of charged to write it down, I found out that there were elements of history that I must take along. The subject was land slavery that prevailed in the eastern part of Bangladesh – which was part of Assam in pre-partition India — for centuries. When I got into the task, I told myself I’ll have to build my own storyline skirting around the historical elements in a way that history should not at all interfere with the flow of the story. This, I think, was quite a challenge. The name of the novel is Tolkuthurir Gaan (Songs from the Abyss).
What’s your idea of bliss?
Being alive and still kicking in one of the most impoverished lands.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
When my computer misbehaves with all kinds of glitches it’s capable of.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Not sure if I’ll take any book at all. If any, it might be The Dictionary of the Khazars by Millorad Pavic – a lexicon novel, which to me is the most incredible work of human imagination.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
My memories as a memento of the ruin.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
To remain content with what I’m capable of.
Wasi Ahmed is an award-winning novelist and short story writer whose works, in the original Bengali as well as in translation, have been anthologised extensively in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. He has also co-authored and edited an anthology of South Asian short stories. Currently associated with an English daily in Bangladesh, Ahmed will participate in the International Writing Programme – Fall Residency, hosted by the University of Iowa, in 2016. His short story “The Widening Gyre” (translated by Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman) 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.
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab