Syed Manzoorul Islam: “A Veritable Man of Letters” | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 20, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 20, 2018

Syed Manzoorul Islam: “A Veritable Man of Letters”

Dr. Syed Manzoorul Islam – or SMI sir, as he is popularly known to us, his current and former students – is one of the most dynamic people I know. I first met him about twenty-five years ago in an undergraduate classroom where he taught us poetry by Herrick, Browning, and Eliot (I was so taken by his style – SMI's, not Eliot's - that I even memorized several lines from “Prufrock”!), and of course, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. I knew him then as a teacher I could only admire, and later, as a writer of incredibly diverse genres. Witty, versatile, friendly, energetic, extremely talented, and not one to mince his words, he is a man I remain in awe of till this day. This interview was my chance to get up close and personal with the legendary SMI.

Congratulations, sir, on recently becoming president of PEN Bangladesh! Would you tell us why and how important it is for Bangladeshi writers to be associated with an international body such as this?

SMI: Thank you! PEN International is truly a global body. It actively supports freedom of expression and firmly stands behind authors who are under threat from any quarter. It also facilitates exchanges of ideas and creative encounters among writers of different countries. Bangladeshi writers can benefit from PEN international's support in these areas.

So how do you plan to use your position as PEN president to promote Bangladeshi writing in English?

SMI: PEN's charter actively promotes translation, and this is where Bangladeshi writers stand to benefit. Besides, PEN International can support Bangladesh writers writing in English by linking them up with writers and publishers worldwide. It may also provide them with a platform for their work.

This is indeed a great opportunity for Bangladeshi writers, and with you at its helm, I'm sure PEN Bangladesh will provide the much-needed support for local writers. But now let's talk about you. You are a teacher and a writer. I believe those are your two predominant identities. Would you tell us then which came first – your teaching or your writing? How has one influenced the other or what impact has one had on the other?

SMI: Well, I published my first short story in weekly Bichitra in October 1973, and took up teaching a year later. Technically then, writing came first, but teaching has always been my first priority, if you ask me. Unlike in most western countries, writing hasn't emerged here as a profession. And when I began teaching, the pressure of proving myself put writing on the backburner. It was not until the 1990s that I took it up with the zeal and intensity it deserved.

Teaching for me involves a great deal of reading; so, to answer your second question here, I'd say my journey through European and Latin American fiction helped me hone my skills and my style. I believe a fiction writer's creative thinking and imagination do help in understanding literary texts and theory in a more intuitive way.

Did you consciously choose to write fiction or did fiction choose you?

SMI: I guess fiction chose me. My first story, Bishal Mrityu ("The Magnificent Death") came to me while I was sitting by the bed of a dying man, watching him struggle to hold his last breath. That is not an experience out of which a story should emerge, but it did.

I think I know what you mean. But wouldn't you say that it is intense experiences like these that make you think and feel enough to want to write about them?

SMI: Certainly. The act of writing is like climbing a rock face. It's not simply the exertion or the pressure of bringing something out of nothing that you must feel; you've also got to know how and where to plant your feet and haul yourself up. But the reward is great when you reach the top!

Let me turn to another aspect of your creative life. You are such a busy person – a teacher, “a veritable man of letters,” a celebrity, a media personality. How do you find the time to write? Do you have a favorite/preferred time to write?

SMI: I squeeze in some time to write whenever I have the compulsion. I have no particular schedule – I choose my time and place to write. I write in airport lounges, on airlines flights, even in my dentist's chamber when there is a long wait! This helps me manage some zero-anxiety time while I get some work done.

Interesting! So, have you ever turned to anyone for advice on writing? If not, what might you have done differently if you had such advice or known of some of the experiences you've had?

SMI: No, I've never asked for advice from anyone because I believe that the act of writing – from imagining a story to putting it down on paper -- is such a unique and personal undertaking that no matter how worthwhile someone's advice may be, it has little effect on the way a story evolves. Advice from a master narrator may be helpful when the story is forming inside your skull, but once it assumes a life of its own, it takes its own course. Had I ever had advice from someone, I'd of course thank the person but I'd probably lose sight of it when I sat down to write my story!

So, considering the recent growth in the number of Bangladeshi writers writing in English, would you have any advice for them? If so, what would that be?

SMI: No. No advice – just a few words of encouragement to these young and upcoming writers. There is a readership for you out there which is ready to receive good writing. Anyone with new ideas should start writing.

What then do you think of Bangladeshi writing in English as a whole in comparison to South Asian writing?

SMI: South Asian literature in English mostly comes from India, some from Sri Lanka and Pakistan, but very little from Bangladesh. India has a long history of creative engagement with English and a long line of accomplished writers. There is also a substantial market as well as publishers, and prizes for writers. We are still far behind. There is talent here, no doubt, but we have just begun. I'm sure, in the not so distant future, we'll be there too.

That is indeed very encouraging to hear! You yourself are a prolific writer and have published in a variety of genres. Which is your favorite genre and why?

SMI: I get the most pleasure from writing fiction, especially short stories. I do enjoy writing about art, literature, and society, but these need a great deal of preparation and an active engagement with ideas and theory. In writing stories though I can let my imagination run free. I am most myself when I enter the world of creative writing.

I recently translated a short story of yours, “Meye.” In doing so, I was especially struck by how naturally you brought together a picture of the harsh reality of a lower middle class family and the surreal appearance of their unborn daughter. Would you consider this your signature style?

SMI: I grew up at a time when poverty was endemic and women were the worst sufferers. But when I met them – my mother always helped poor women with food and money, so there were a few in our house every now and then – I was surprised by their resilience and their capacity to imagine things. “Meye” is my tribute to these women. The story is not quite a signature one – I am still searching for my signature – but it comes close.

You have been compared with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Would you say you have been influenced by him in particular? Which other writers have influenced your style?

SMI: I don't know who compared me with that Titan, but let me relish it before the generous person decides to go back on it! No, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is incomparable. While I admire him immensely, I don't think I've ever been influenced by him, or by any other writer. I have found some authors very inspirational – Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut, Mario Vargas Llosa, for example – but I never thought of following them.

Let's talk about translation. You have translated your own stories in The Merman's Prayer and Other Stories. Based on that experience, would you tell us what you see as the advantages and risks of such an endeavor?

SMI: Self-translation gives you the freedom to change your story wherever necessary so that it reads well in the target language. It allows you to get rid of the problem of cultural equivalence and helps you better contextualize your characters and events, and situate them more firmly in a historical or cultural frame – which may not be necessary for the readers of the source language. One risk I find in the process though is that the target language version may turn out to be quite different from the original one if too many alterations are made.

In other words, you may end up writing a new story altogether?

SMI: Yes, a wrong story, which may be fine in its own right in a different language. But then, haven't translation theorists told us that every work of translation of a text produces a different text?!

That's certainly true! Now, you've written five novels in Bengali – do tell us if you have any plans to translate these or write one in English. Any plans for a much larger work of fiction in either language?

SMI: I myself don't see the prospect of self-translation of any of my novels but Dhaka Translation Centre (DTC) is bringing out the English translation of one of my novels, Ajgubi Raat, in February. I do, however, have plans to write a novel in Bengali this year or the next – I already feel its ghostly presence inside my skull. And, in another 3-4 years, if I am still alive and kicking, I might come up with a novel in English.

That is great news! I, for one, will be looking forward to it. But, at the moment, what is the most significant thing you're working on?

SMI: I am writing a series of 1971 stories based entirely on the lives and experience of grassroots people. I have been to many villages to talk to people who fought in the war or simply survived the war, and are still around. Their stories – fascinating narrations that are very local, very unassuming – are nothing short of magical.

I can imagine! That's something else I will certainly watch out for. My final question,  sir. What question do you wish someone would ask about your work, but never has? Tell us what it is and then answer it.

SMI: One question no one has ever asked me is: “Who writes your stories?” If anyone were to ask me this question, I'd say in reply, “Many SMIs.” What I mean is, when I write a story, the truant school boy SMI in search of roadside Punthi-readers (amazing story tellers, they!), Sharif Mia's canteen regular SMI of the Dhaka University days, too long in the west (5 years in Canada is indeed too long!) SMI, the all season addabaz SMI, the English Professor SMI – all come together. The story, as a result, becomes a mosaic of many micro-narratives, many encounters, and many shades of experience that collectively define its architecture.

What an interesting way to describe yourself. Indeed, our collective experiences do shape our thought processes and express themselves through our work. On behalf of our readers and myself then, let me thank you very much for this edifying conversation, sir!


Syed Manzoorul Islam has just retired from  D. U. and now teaches at ULAB.

Arifa Ghani Rahman is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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