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In Bangladesh, writing fiction about the liberation war may well become impossible

Bangladesh is about to pass a law making it illegal to ‘misrepresent’ the liberation war of 1971. Will all writers have to tell the same story now? My take on the subject, published in the Dhaka Tribune and reprinted at Scroll.in, June 22, 2016.

All signs suggest that the Parliament will soon pass the Liberation War Denial Crimes Act.

This law will give anyone the right to file a complaint with the police or the courts. While history is defined as settled, the law’s clauses about history are vague, and it goes on to consider it a crime to be “representing the liberation war history inaccurately or with half-truth in the text books or in any other medium”.

Other writers have expressed anxiety about what this means for the freedom to research the complex and polyphonic history of the entire movement for independence. I share those concerns but as a writer of fiction, I also fear for the burden this will impose on creative writers.

The Aerogram Book Club discussion on Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol

girl.with_.the_.golden.parasolI was asked recently by The Aerogram Book Club to organize a discussion on a translation of a book from South Asia. I proposed Uday Prakash’s The Girl With the Golden Parasol, originally published in Hindi. The book was translated by Jason Grunebaum.

Here’s the conversation between me, Daisy Rockwell, and Kevin Hyde:

 

Aerogram Book Club on The Girl With the Golden Parasol

 

Letter from America: FICTION FACTORIES

This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on November 3, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
hardy-drew
I took a journey back in time.

At the local library, I wandered to the children’s section and spotted a neatly stacked row of hardcovers with familiar blue spines: The Hardy Boys. I was transported back to the library on the second story of the old St Joseph High School building in Narinda, Dhaka. I was again eleven, beginning to devour the juvenile books the Brothers had stocked there.

That year the school moved to its current Mohammadpur location, and I continued my frenzied reading of the adventures of the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Tom Corbett. My classmates and I soon consumed the entire stock. Then we came to grips with puberty and moved on from the chaste world of these boys to sexier material: James Bond and our own Bangladeshi superspy, Masud Rana.

I decided to loiter in my childhood by borrowing two Hardy Boys novels. I added a Nancy Drew, familiar to my young self through my sister who studied at Holy Cross. What would it feel like to read these books again, so many decades later?

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Letter from America: NOIR ALGERIA

This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on July 7, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
Khadra-cover
I remain preoccupied with Algeria.

This spring when the police battled Jamaat supporters on the streets and war crimes opponents rallied at Shahbagh, a lot of easy talk began to fly around about civil war. Having witnessed 1971, I shuddered at the thought of Bangladesh plunged into another war.

To imagine what such a war might look like, I searched for fiction that would bring me to ground level. Algeria came to mind. In the 1990s, the banning of Islamists triggered a war that led to the entire country living in daily peril, to the deaths of thousands, to many writers and artists choosing exile instead of death.

My search led to a writer I had encountered once before: Yasmina Khadra. Three years ago I journeyed to an artists residency in Montana to work on my novel. I was in a tiny town, 6000 miles high in the mountains, the nearest bookshop thirty miles away. With reading my only entertainment, I treasured the books left behind by past residents. They included The Attack by Khadra where an Arab surgeon in Israel discovers his wife among the victims of a suicide bombing, only to be horrified when he realizes she was the perpetrator.

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Letter from America: A DETOUR TO ROME

For a few months now I’ve been publishing a “Letter from America” in the monthly Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh. I’m reposting them here after they’ve been published. This one was published on May 6, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
clash
A few years back I made several road trips across the United States. One afternoon I was leaving a small town in Massachusetts when I stopped at a roadside store. It was run by a Bangali couple who had come on lottery visas. Not finding work elsewhere, they had agreed to manage this store owned by another Bangali. They looked miserable.

Now and then, I hear of Bangladeshis in remote places. In Mali, on the edge of the Sahara. In the Amazon, waiting to cross a border. Meanwhile in countries like the U.S. and even in Japan and Italy, there are now settled communities.

Bangladeshis abroad are also showing up as fictional characters – not just in narratives created by our own émigrés but by outsiders too. In some, they are major characters, as in the Korean film Bandhobi, Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth, or Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds.

Recently I was transported to Rome in a novel originally written in Italian by an immigrant from Algeria. Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio has a cover with six hand-drawn characters. They include Iqbal Amar Allah from Bangladesh. I’m not sure why Lakhous spelled his name this way; we’d know him as Iqbal Amirullah.

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A new translation: Once Again Love

Over at the Words Without Borders website, they’ve published their April issue. It includes Once Again Love, my translation of Shaheen Akhtar’s Bangla story “Abar Prem Ashche.” While you’re there, check out some of the other fine pieces too.

Here’s the link to the story.

I first heard about Shaheen Akhtar in late 2004 from Yasmine Kabir the filmmaker. We had met at a film festival in San Francisco. When we found a chance to talk, I asked her about contemporary Bangladeshi writers who she liked. She mentioned Shaheen, highly recommending her novel Talaash. A few months later during a visit to Dhaka, Yasmine introduced me to Shaheen and I brought back a copy of Talaash. In another year I had read the book, found myself riveted by it, and felt that it is one of the novels from Bangladesh that deserves to be taken to readers outside our borders. I was happy to learn that an English translation was being prepared by Zubaan Books in Delhi, India. It will be published later this year.

Shaheen is an author I’ve long wanted to translate. For a reading in Austin, Texas on International Womens Day in 2006, I had translated and read a short excerpt from Talaash. Then, when I was living in Dhaka recently, I read more of her work and chose this story “Abar Prem Ashche.” I’m excited to see it published. I appreciate the help Shaheen gave me in preparing the final translation, and I also want to thank Shabnam Nadiya for her support and assistance and WWB editor Rohan Kamicheril for his careful editing. It was a pleasure working with all three.

Remembering Mahmudul Haque (1941-2008)

"One day everything becomes a story"

An abridged version of this article appeared The Daily Star on 2 August 2008.

Three years after partition, a ten-year-old boy nicknamed Botu moved from Barasat, now across a border, to Dhaka, settling with his family in the new flats built in Azimpur for government employees. At West End High School, the teacher slapped him. "That was my shopnobhongo." His crime, he learned later, was that he had gone to school in half pants and did not wear a Jinnah cap.
     He also found the teacher hard to follow. To his ears, Dhaka rang with strange new dialects. Dialect could bewilder, though later he would learn that it could infuse richness in his own prose. In Mahmudul Haque’s writing you will thrill to the melodious voices of 24 Parganas, Bikrampur, and Dhakaiya.
     If Pakistan meant such abuse, he wanted no part of it. Without any money, the boy set off all by himself to reverse the journey that had brought the family to Dhaka. Train to Narayanganj, steamer to Goalundo, train to Barasat.

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Yaba Sundori: real life clobbers fiction

One hot release at this year’s Boi Mela was the novel Yaba Sundori.
     The phrase had only been coined last November with the police campaign against the methamphetamine drug marketed as Yaba. That was our News of the Hour, the Sensation of the Month.
     What a sensation that was. It began with a circle of upper-class youth arrested in Banani. Then a midnight raid in Gulshan bagged a drug kingpin. There were rumours of pretty women as suppliers. The aura of sex fringed the whole affair. In one arrest, the seize list included One Viagra Tablet. I hadn’t realized Viagra was illegal. If so, it must be to preserve the monopoly of the thousands of ‘homeo clinics’ in Bangladesh that promise you local medicine for a harder, longer dampotyo jibon.
     Then came the Really Big Drama. The ultimate Yaba Sundori hiding out with her lover. And just as they were about to surrender, the RAB netted them and paraded them before the cameras.
     She came into our lives as Nikita. A village girl from Brahmanbaria who climbed up by marrying an MP. He gifted her a Banani flat. She acquired internet skills and found her way to an online affair with a probashi in Korea. The marriage collapsed and she rejected the lover too. Her final catch, the hotel MD. He had her skin whitened in Bangkok. Flew her to Japan. Showered her with jewellery.
     Thanks to the RAB commander and our informative media, we learned of her taste in lingerie. From Brahmanbaria to Victoria’s Secret — here was our own B’Sharpe. Perfect material for a reincarnated Thackeray.
     Would Moinuddin Kajal’s book deliver? Topical novels are tough. But this is Dhaka where authors and translators churn out three, four, seven titles in one year.

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Masud Rana: Super Spy Of Transplant Fiction

Yet another Bond movie has come out, this time a remake of Casino Royale. Ian Fleming is long dead, but his creation, the debonair James Bond, Agent 007, keeps popping up in a new face. Bond's grip on the male psyche is tenacious. And why not? He zips to exotic locales and outwits vicious enemies while fingering cool gadgets and bedding impossibly hot women.
    But Bangladeshi teenagers are not entirely deprived of heroes with cachet like Bond. In cheap newsprint, for a fraction of the price of a ticket at Basundhara where they screen Casino Royale, Bangla readers can enter the world of our very own super spy. In flesh and blood a pukka Bangali, he scales mountains, harpoons criminals undersea, and brings to justice crime lords from Hong Kong to New York.
    He is of course Masud Rana, Agent MR-9.
    For forty years he has appeared in novels written by Qazi Anwar Husain and published by his Sheba Prokashoni. The crowds swarming the Sheba stall at the Ekushey Book Fair confirm that Masud Rana still has a loyal following.
    Each Rana paperback opens with these lines: "An untameable daredevil spy of Bangladesh Counter Intelligence. On secret missions he travels the globe. Varied is his life. Mysterious and strange are his movements. His heart, a beautiful mix of gentle and tough. Single. He attracts, but refuses to get snared. Wherever he encounters injustice, oppression, and wrong, he fights back. Every step he takes is shadowed by danger, fear, and the risk of death. Come, let us acquaint ourselves with this daring, always hip young man. In a flash, he will lift us out of the monotony of a mundane life to an awesome world of our dreams. You are invited. Thank you."
    With the books selling at 32-62 Takas, undoubtedly among the cheapest fiction titles in Bangladesh, Sheba is still churning them out. Their 2007 catalogue lists 372 Rana titles. You can buy used copies at 10-15 Takas at footpath booksellers from Paltan to Nilkhet.

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Remembering Octavia Butler, 1947-2006

Forget inspiration, forget talent, don’t worry about imagination: her advice for a new fiction writer was simple.
     "Persist," she said.
     Around the time I discovered Octavia Butler’s writing advice, I was still new to writing fiction. I was anxious about both inspiration and talent. I worried about imagination, since in my rather complicated life I had picked up a thousand or more ‘real life’ stories, enough to write many, many pages of narrative. I remember telling my first fiction workshop teacher, Elena Rivera, that I wanted to learn how to break out of the grip of real-life experience.
     Twelve years after I typed out my first ‘story,’ I have to say, Octavia was on point. Persistence rewards.

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