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Why we need a new, truly global, prize for world literature

This article was published in The Dhaka Tribune and reprinted by Scroll India

Another October, another Nobel for Literature, another round of controversy over the awardee.

Some years, we hardly know the person, so we scramble to find out something about them, looking for bits of their writing online. Other years, like 2016, it goes to a more prominent person. Some are elated, others find the choice intriguing, while still others express disappointment that it didn’t go to someone else they consider more deserving.

But it is only one prize given to a single person, and truth be told, every year there are dozens of valid contenders from around the world.

I believe that the weakest critique of the Nobel is the one that criticises it for not recognising someone outside the European mainstream. From there, a question naturally arises: Why do we – whether supporting the Nobel choice or opposing it – behave as if the Nobel Committee is the anointed arbiter of world literature? Why do we act as if it’s the Politburo of the World Republic of Letters?

In reality, the Swedish Nobel Committee is merely a handful of jurors from a small country of less than 10 million, speaking a language that is one of the smaller ones in the world. The current committee has five full members and two associates.

They are all writers, some of them also professors, but I don’t know a thing about them or their writing. They are probably all white, and, for sure, all European and Swedish. It looks like three of the seven are women.

Nominations come from writers and academics around the world, and the committee probably has staff that helps them select and read nominees.

But, at the end of the day, given who they are, given where they are based, they will no doubt have a certain predilection for European/European-origin writers, and, over the long haul, will privilege European languages. Sometimes, they break the pattern of what’s expected of them, and those are always the interesting choices.

I understand that the Nobel Committee set up the Literature Prize to be the first global literary prize. That was certainly gutsy of them. It helped that this was virgin territory, and perhaps because there were no other contenders, the Nobel Literature Prize would become known as the world’s premier award for literary work. Of course, it helped that the prize was based in a small, more or less neutral, European country, outside of the big-power divisions of world politics.

But did people immediately accept it as the premier award for letters? Or was it seen as an interesting new fad, with people reserving judgment until it curated a list of awardees?

I doubt people all rose to applaud when the first prize was announced in 1901 for the French poet René François Armand (Sully) Prudhomme.

Yes, who?

Though it broke new ground here and there – awarding the prize to Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, for example – and to some truly deserving writers, for most of its first half-century, the Nobel Prize was known more for its misses rather than for its hits. It was more notable for who it left out.

What did it mean when it awarded Boris Pasternak, who’d been published outside Soviet censorship? Or then about Pablo Neruda, who’d sympathised with Soviet communism?

It is probably after the Cold War sparks dimmed, and the Nobel broke ground reaching out to writers outside the mainstream, that many of us came to expect it as the arbiter of people of letters even as only a small number were recognised. That’s vital to remember: Even in the Western tradition, more significant writers have been left out by the Nobel than recognised. And if we are to mention under-represented literatures, the Swedes must be among the unhappiest lot: their Academy has only rewarded seven over the life of the prize.

Still, despite outliers – two Japanese, two Chinese, a few from Africa and the Caribbean – the Nobel mainly privileges Western European writers and languages. When it reaches beyond, those of us from the world beyond Europe and North America applaud. But when it doesn’t, we are unhappy.

How long has it been since the decolonisation of most of the colonised world?

How long has it been that Japan has emerged as a major economic power from its WWII defeat? Or a number of Asian countries to emerge as developed economies? Or some African nations to rise as powerful countries?

Why is it that no one outside the West, no one in the South or East, has come up with a literary prize that might be more open to recognising talent from other corners of the planet?

Look at the alternatives to the Nobel. There are few. The Neustadt Prize is really the only other international award, and that’s run out of the University of Oklahoma.

Both its jurors and its nominees are often quite interesting, but we don’t line up like clockwork every two years to await the Neustadt Prize like we do the Nobel.

There are a few other prizes – the Man Booker International Prize, the International Dublin – but those tend to privilege the English language or translations into English.

There are some prizes specific to other languages, such as French or Spanish, and there are also some regional prizes. In Asia, until 2008, there used to be a Magsaysay Prize in the Philippines for “journalism, literature, and creative communication arts.”

There are plenty of billionaires and millionaires from the South and East today. No doubt a few among them might even be partial to literature. Maybe. But why is it that no one has come forward to fund another international award that might be smarter than the Nobel?

In the end, I think we are all complicit in handing over the role of “world arbiter of literature” to the Nobel Committee. Let’s admit it – deep down, we all look towards Europe’s approval to decide what’s best in the world republic of letters. Our disappointment in the Nobel is a marker of our own insecurities, our lack of confidence.

No doubt this will change one day. Perhaps someone in a country of the South and East, not tied up in international power politics, someone with passion and integrity, will bring forth a more inclusive international prize. Not just a copy of the Nobel, but a smarter prize. Until that day, we will perk up our ears every October and either celebrate or gnash our teeth at the latest decision from Stockholm. And after a new prize arrives, we will switch our glee or ire to that new prize.

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.

Bangladesh: Fighting for free expression in an age of death squads

In the wake of the murders of several bloggers in Bangladesh, I wrote this essay published on June 7, 2015 at Scroll.in

The death squads of fundamentalist Islam have taken the life of yet another Bangladeshi blogger. This time it was Ananta Bijoy Das in Sylhet who also edited a rationalist journal named Jukti. Some months back, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were killed in in Dhaka while Rafida Ahmed Bonya survived with serious injuries.

The champions of death promise more. Two years ago, the Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamist movement based in madrassas, delivered to the Home Ministry a list of 84 atheist bloggers they wanted punished for blasphemy. The crime of those included: they used words that offended the self-appointed guardians of Islam. Despite their belief in an all-powerful Allah, the death squads were not ready to leave judgement in his hands – what this says about their own belief in a supreme being is a contradiction they never address.

Though narrow and frequently precarious, there has long been room for free thinking and unbelief in Bangladesh. But with the country entering a time when more and more people are murdered for what they think and speak, I fear for the land of my birth. A certain opening that has existed for 20 years is closing.

Bangladesh: Stifling A Country

An essay of mine on the history of free expression in Bangladesh was published on April 24, 2015 at Kafila. It was also reprinted at Scroll.in.

When I think about the state of free speech in the land of my birth, my memories take me back to 1970-71 when I was a higher secondary student in Dhaka, a time of upheaval when East Pakistan was making its way towards independent Bangladesh. Officially we were still under martial law, Ayub’s decade-long dictatorship deposed in favor of Yahya’s rule that came with the promise of elections. Political parties could organize, detainees were set free, the press could publish with fewer restrictions, and people began to launch new magazines and newspapers.

Every stripe of opinion found expression in print. Pushing aside the go-slow conservatism of existing newspapers, new ones emerged. Bengali nationalism, socialism, communism of various hues – all found expression in print. The main Islamist party’s paper acquired a modern press. Books were not that widespread, but you could easily get your hands on Russell and English socialists, and Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Mao. I remember engaging in a mix of agnostic, atheist, socialist, and liberal discussions.

There is something in that sort of ‘spring’ that beckons the young to amplify their voice. Two friends and I wanted to publish a magazine. We came up with a name – The Rebel – and of course, a logo. We split the writing among us. I can’t remember much other than we were inclined towards independence for East Bengal. Our perspective was no doubt seditious but we couched our language with a bit of caution. Did we even know that British-era laws required that publications be registered? In that climate, we felt the state wasn’t looking all that carefully.

For the full article, read it at Kafila or at Scroll.in.

Letter from America: LIBRARY LOVE

This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on September 1, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
library
I work at a college. One morning talking books with a friend, I realize that although I read a lot of crime fiction – set everywhere from Laos to Iceland – I have yet to read Dashiell Hammett, the master of American noir. At lunch, I stop by the library and pick up Hammett’s Complete Novels. Within a week I devour three, including The Maltese Falcon. When the next reading whim arrives, satisfying it might be just as simple.

I appreciate my access to libraries. It’s easy to take for granted. Life reminds otherwise.

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Remembering Leila Abu-Saba (1962-2009)

Earlier this week, the morning, already dreary from the dampness and rain, brought the news that Leila Abu-Saba had died at her home in Oakland. Cancer finally took her. She had beat it before, but it returned.

It is a familiar, painful story. Eight years ago, my younger sister, about the same age, died after a three-year battle with breast cancer. I write these lines from her house where I’m temporarily staying, and I often remember her in these rooms as she struggled through chemotherapy, fought nausea and dehydration, and watched her world fade. She too had beat the cancer once, but when it returned, she chose to accept the inevitable. Leila, I understand, tried hard to fight it all the way through.

In our family we have often wondered, would my sister have lived if she had resisted? We have always had to face the sad truth: there are no guarantees. Some people do beat it and continue to live — others do not. A fierceness of spirit may help some, but with others it proves inadequate. There is so much that we do not understand about cancer. And yet when someone dies young, it is impossible not to be brought low by the utter unfairness of it all. We’d like to blame someone, something — but there’s nothing to blame. Sometimes death insists on its mystery.

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Eid Literature Specials 2008

Sometime in the mid 1800s, magazine publishers in England launched Christmas specials to provide cheap reading material to the aspiring middle classes. The colonial conduit brought the custom to Calcutta, and when Bengali periodicals emerged, they launched holiday specials for Durga Puja. In the early 1900s, when Bengali Muslims started magazines they pioneered similar specials for Eid. And so it has continued in Bengal, from Calcutta, India, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, and perhaps other places as well, a tradition of providing a gift of new prose and poetry on Puja and Eid.


This year’s Eid in Dhaka brought quite a bounty. Several specials were over 500 pages long.

I recently wrote an article on the recent Eid specials. It’s posted on the Words Without Borders blog.

Two pieces of mine came out in the latest Eid specials. The New Age carried a short story “Man in the Middle.” And the Daily Star included a personal essay “Will we ever know our fathers.”

Enjoy.

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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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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At the AWP in Austin

The first week of March I flew to Austin, Texas.
    When I stepped out of the hotel to find something to eat, the sun had  disappeared. My ears were immediately assaulted by a cacophony of bird sounds. The trees swarmed with birds that looked like crows but didn’t sound anything like crows. What birds were these?
    For dinner I chose the closest place I could find, The Boiling Pot on Sixth. It served crawfish, crabs, and shrimp, boiled up Cajun style. When my order was ready, the young waitress, all smiles, tossed it on the sheet of butcher paper that she had earlier rolled out on the table. With a friendly pat on my arm, she said, “You eat with your hands here.” No problem, I’m used to doing that where I come from. Next to me, four Japanese men snapped photos of their meals. I’ve done that too, but my dinner wasn’t photogenic. It tasted great, though.
    I was in Austin for the annual conference of the AWP (known today as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs). When I was in the MFA program at Mills College, I was familiar with the AWP through free copies of their magazine, the Writers Chronicle. But I’d never considered attending their conference.
    This year I was invited by the novelist Sorayya Khan to join a panel of South Asian writers on “Writing War, De-scribing Empire.”  Last year I had reviewed her book “Noor,” the first novel by a Pakistani writer to focus on breaking the silence on the Pakistani war that birthed independent Bangladesh. We came to discover that we shared an interest in writing about war, specifically the war in 1971, for me the defining moment of my coming of age. As it turned out, the same panel would also present a reading the day before at the University of Texas.
    I wasn’t sure what to expect in Austin, but I’m glad I went.

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