Another Nobel for Literature, another round of debate

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, read some snatches of their writing available online. Other years it’s a more prominent person and many of us express our disappointment that it didn’t go to someone else we think would have been more deserving.

But why do we, whether supporting the Nobel choice or opposing it, tend to behave as if the Nobel Committee is the anointed arbiter of world literature? Why do we act as if it is the Politburo of the World Republic of Letters? When in fact all that it is is a committee 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, two associates. They are all writers, some of them also professors, but I don’t know anything about them or their writing. They are probably all white, for sure all European and Swedish. It looks like three of the seven are women. I am sure they have staff that helps them pick out and read and discuss 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 no doubt privilege European languages. Sometimes they break the pattern of what’s expected of them, and those are interesting choices.

I am not sure when the Nobel Literature Prize became synonymous with the premier world award for literary work. I doubt it happened right away when the Prize was first announced. It of course helped that the Prize was centered in a small, more or less neutral European country.

But the rest of us are of course complicit in how we have handed over that role to the Swedish committee. From where I stand, the weakest critique of the Nobel is when we criticize it for not recognizing someone outside the European mainstream.

How long has it been since decolonization of most of the colonial world? 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 recognizing talent from our sides of the planet?

Look at the alternatives to the Nobel. There are very 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 Impac Award from Dublin – but those tend to privilege English or English in translation. None of these awards are based outside North America and Europe.

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. Very deep down, we all look towards European approval to decide what’s best in the world republic of letters.

Perhaps 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 smarter international prize. Until that day, we will meet every October and either toast or gnash our teeth at the latest decision from Stockholm.

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, 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.

Down a Slippery Road: Increasing Religious Persecution in Bangladesh

More murders and religious persecution in Bangladesh. I wrote this essay published on May 5, 2016 at The Wire

In Tangail, Bangladesh, Nikhil Chandra Joardar, a Hindu tailor, was hacked to death by machete-wielding on a motorcycle. Several years ago he had spent some time in jail for supposedly offending religious sentiments – Muslim ones, that is.

A week earlier, two schoolteachers – Krishnapada Mouli and Ashok Kumar – were jailed for offending the religious sensibilities of Muslims in Bagerhat. Parents had apparently been outraged when a child reported that a teacher had said something critical of Islam. Soon, a mob had gathered outside the school with plans to punish the teachers. A court with special powers made a judgement on the spot and convicted the teachers. The reports I have seen in the Bangladeshi press are short of details. I wish some journalists had gone down there to investigate the ostensible crime committed by the teachers instead of accepting at face value what the locals and police claimed.

This is not the first time teachers have been persecuted for comments made in their classrooms. A friend reported on Facebook that back in 1993 a relative had come to him to report of a colleague, a science teacher, who had been paraded around with a garland of shoes. His offence had been to teach that the earth revolves around the sun. My friend reported that he had tried to get some of the press to report on the incident but no papers were willing to touch it; no one would stand by a poor teacher trying to teach science. He believes that stories like this may well be common around Bangladesh. They will no doubt become much more so.

There are mobs that can easily be whipped up. There is the state with its colonial-era law on offending religious sensibilities. And now here come the machete-wielding self-appointed Islamist executioners.

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

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

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

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


On the Dearth of South Asian translations in the U.S.


Part of my library of translations published in India

August 2014: I’ve published a series of columns at the Asymptote Blog on the near invisibility of South Asian translations in the U.S. From the first post:

A small percentage of literary books published in the U.S. are translations. The translation program at the University of Rochester maintains yearly databases of translated titles available in the U.S. South Asian languages barely make these lists: in the last five years, out of 2121 books, only 19 were from South Asian languages (only Urdu, Hindi, Bangla, Tamil). No surprise that European languages dominate, but given the vibrant literature from South Asia and a somewhat growing interest in translated literature, it’s a serious problem when so few titles and literature from so few languages find their way to American readers.

Yet within South Asia, especially in India, there has been a small explosion of translations into English. The quality has improved. In Bangladesh and Pakistan, however, most translations are still poor. From the Indian scene, a few titles have been republished in the U.S. In a future article in this series, I will explore the translation scene in the subcontinent and look at how works from there travel here. For this and the next several posts, I focus on conversations with translators, critics, and publishers based in the U.S.


Here are all the posts:

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.
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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This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on October 12, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
Step back fifty years.

Monday evening, 28 October, 1963. Hundreds take their seats at the Race Course in Dhaka, excitement buzzing through the crowd.

On the stage stands an upright bass and a drum set, along with a piano brought over from the Goethe Institute. There is a slight dampness in the air, and a piano tuner has been asked to stand by. After an introduction, more than a dozen musicians from the U.S., mostly black men, take to the stage. The horn section brings along their well-loved trumpets, saxophones, and trombones. The silence of the night is broken by the melody of Billy Strayhorn’s composition, “Take the A Train”, familiar to some because it is the theme of the Voice of America’s Jazz Hour. It will be followed by other tunes like the wistful “Mood Indigo” and the swinging “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” For an hour and a half, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, with some of the world’s finest jazz musicians – including Paul Gonsalves and Sam Woodyard – will make the Dhaka air reverberate with the soulful and sizzling sounds of jazz.

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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.
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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