Sanjukta Sharma laments the cold treatment that The Black Coat, a novel by Bangladeshi-Canadian author Neamat Imam, has received in his own country, Bangladesh
Recently, I was part of a chain mail with colleagues and writers about the grouses of Bangladeshi-Canadian author Neamat Imam. His polemical, Orwellian first novel The Black Coat has had little support in Dhaka so far. Imam believes reviews of the book have been suppressed in his country because it is a satire about the regime of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League now in power. Mujib led Bangladesh to independence from Pakistan in 1971. He is regarded as Bangladesh’s founding father, and the current prime minister Sheikh Hasina is his daughter. Mujib switched from parliamentary to a presidential governance, but his socialist zeal made him the hero, the Bangabandhu, that the new nation wanted. The euphoria soon waned. In its formative years, debilitating poverty and unemployment crippled Bangladesh. A famine in 1974 left tens of thousands dead.
A powerful fictional revisiting of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s troubled legacy in Bangladesh
This is probably the strangest English novel to come out of Bangladesh—one that employs a dispassionate, journalistic voice telling an utterly surreal story to convey the anger and pain that the betrayal of hopes leads to. Bangladeshi-Canadian writer Neamat Imam turns the horrifying reality of the famine that followed the country’s independence from Pakistan—which all but undid the expectations that freedom had brought with it—into an absurdist theatre of the privileged and the victims. In the process, he also challenges the notion of the golden age that prevailed for at least one generation in Bangladesh about the independence of the country in 1971 and its aftermath.
We are glad to present to you our first Kitaab Author of the Week Interview. The series is being kicked off with this interview of Asian novelist Neamat Imam. –Team Kitaab
“Becoming a writer is becoming someone other than your material self,” says Bangladeshi-Canadian novelist Neamat Imam in this exclusive interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum. “It is a new identity added to what you already are. Gradually, you are consumed by it and at one point replaced by it. You cannot go back to what you had been. You can burn all the copies of your books and throw away all your manuscripts into the river; still you will not cease to be a writer. It may sound scary, but it is not. It is the opposite of it, a blessing. It is a blessing because that is exactly what you wanted to happen to yourself; that is why you wanted to be a writer.”
The Black Coat, Neamat’s first novel, was published by the Penguin Group (Penguin Books India, in Hamish Hamilton imprint) in May 2013. Press Trust of India (PTI) has already declared it one of the “must read” books of 2013.
Neamat, born in 1971 in Bangladesh, lives in Edmonton with his wife He Wen Shu. “Bangladesh is probably the worst place for you if you want to be a writer,” he says. “Since the 1980s, we have a culture there according to which a person must publish a huge number of books to be recognised as a writer. I have friends who started writing with me in the 1990s but who have published over 50 books in the last 15 years. I hear that some of them have published even 200 books during the same time! A novelist may have 10 new books coming out in one calendar year and that is not news there. I think I will never be a writer in Bangladesh in the traditional sense.”