On November 1, 2020, author Shaheen Akhtar was awarded the 3rd Asian Literary Award for the Korean translation of her 2004 novel Talaash—which traces the lives of Birangona women decades after the 1971 Liberation War. We spoke to author Shaheen Akhtar and translator Seung Hee Jeon about their writing process and the book's legacy as a testament to female war trauma.
Sarah Bari/ Star Books (SB): Most of us are familiar with Talaash and its critical acclaim. For yourself as a reader and author, how has Talaash evolved over time?
Shaheen Akhtar: Honestly, Talaash has grown a bit distant to me. It was published 16 years ago in 2004. I finished writing it even before that. I actually wanted to create this distance—I haven't written about the liberation war since 2004 and writing Talaash triggered some trauma in me. I wanted to erase the subject from my mind.
Of course, I never expected the kind of acclaim it received upon publication and it was back then that I tried to re-read the book through the eyes of readers or critics. Naturally I wanted to change some things.
The Asian Literary Award came as the real surprise. By then, Seung Hee Jeon had gotten in touch with me in 2016, having read the English translation of the book, The Search (Zubaan Books, 2011). I was touched by her interest because Seung Hee's country also has a terrifying history of war, particularly the experiences of the "comfort women" who were tortured at the hands of Japanese imperial forces during the Second World War—just like the Birangona women of our own country.
I was elated to think that Talaash was able to capture the emotions of the Korean people. I could see how the characters stepped out of their borders, and exchanged places with the female victims of a war that took place almost 25 years ago, in another frontier of Asia. We could hear it resonate with the jury of the Asia Literary Awards.
SB: How do you think history and memory (personal, political, national) evolve over time, and what role does literature play in these transitions? How well do you think your novels and short stories do this job?
The background of my writing contains my experience working on the 1971 Oral History Project, which the human rights organisation Ain o Salish Kendra started in 1996. The interviews of the Birangona women were eye-opening. Their stories of torture and survival were not confined to the nine months of the war, but rather they spoke more about the present times. Moreover, their post-war experience is often overshadowed by the war experience. When I started writing, I had a collection of up to 28 years' worth of memories. I reminded myself: I may be writing a novel about the war of 1971, but I was writing it in the year 2000. How could the memory of these 30 years after the war go unaddressed, when my characters are still the victims? A novel written about Birangona women would have to cover the post-war times—this was my logic.
Truth is, like the invisible stream running beneath quicksand, whether we see oppression with our naked eyes or not, it will be immortalised in the pages of the book. Talaash demanded reconstruction of post-war memories, and for them to break and expand beyond the shackles of the war. Otherwise, many stories of oppression would be discarded and erased. Many stories of persecution would go unheard. Literature is able to fill in these gaps of history.
Seung Hee Jeon: As has been well discussed by now, writing is an excellent way for an individual to think through their own experiences and ideas. For trauma survivors, living in a time when the same history that imposed traumatic events on them is still lingering and influencing individuals and society while it evolves, writing is a special way to process overwhelming experiences and fragmented memories. Indeed, my dissertation was about such women authors who had accomplished this.
However, for various reasons, not all survivors may have the means to do that, precisely because of their traumatic experiences and the circumstances surrounding them. Also, as human beings, all of them must eventually die and disappear from the world. Fiction or docu-fiction is a great vessel for containing this kind of experience both for the survivors and for fiction writers, because it allows for multiple perspectives, which enables writers to present a more comprehensive picture of a traumatic event, intimate and personal to the one who has experienced it. The Search is a superb example of this achievement of both personal and universal representation.
SB: How and why did you decide to translate The Search into Korean?
Seung Hee Jeon: To answer this question adequately I might need all day—because I can say that my life's experiences led me to the discovery, appreciation, and love of The Search (smile). But I'll try to be concise.
I grew up in South Korea, a country that, ever since my birth, and until today, has been struggling with the legacies of colonialism and superpowers. Growing up in that divided country, under successive military, dictatorial governments backed by foreign powers, I felt very acutely that Koreans were living under the shadow of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Since my parents' generation lost, on average, about 1.5 individual per 10-member family during the Korean War in particular, I could see the traumatic effect that war had on them, everywhere and every day. One might even be able to attribute the wonderful liveliness of South Korean society today, which we witness in the blooming of K-culture and its successful industries, partially to the energy of trauma survivors.
So, as a student and scholar of literature, I found myself drawn to stories dealing with war trauma, and how individuals and societies cope with it. I feel that many of those stories cogently give our societies directions for creating a better future. As a result, I wrote my dissertation on the search for truth by female war-survivors through creative writing, what might aptly be called "docu-fiction". It seems to me that their writings often bring perspectives to war that are simultaneously highly personal and comprehensive, and thus powerful and effective.
Soon it became clear to me that belonging in a minority group or colonised and marginalised nation brings one a different perspective on the experience of war. This realisation led me to turn my attention to third-world countries and their literatures, including Asia and Asian literature. In 2006, I had the opportunity to serve as an editorial board member for a bilingual Asian literature quarterly, Asia, which I did for more than a decade. In that capacity, I encountered The Search. I was immediately absorbed in it: its stories sound so familiar, and were so moving and fascinating in the author's superb mastery of literary techniques, which were both so personal, and yet historical and typical, tragic and farcical at the same time. As a literary translator, I felt that I had to make it available to Korean readers.
SB: Can you tell us about the translation process from your end? What stood out to you about the book and what did you think would resonate most with Korean readers?
Seung Hee Jeon: The process on my end was mostly about learning about Bangladeshi history and, in a way, it turned out to be an experience of continuously being surprised at the many similarities between the Bangladeshi and Korean histories, although of course they are at times quite different, too. As I said, it seemed to me that The Search would resonate with Korean readers because of the shared history of third-world countries during the modernisation period, and, in particular, the plight of women in them, in the midst of the whirlwind history of colonisation, partition, military dictatorships, and wars. Maryam's experience shows all women's plight in a patriarchal society, but more intensely and inflected in a particular way, because of her wartime experience as a sex slave. As Korean women suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese military during World War II, so did Bangladeshi women from the Pakistani military during their war of independence.
Another aspect that resonated with me was the plight of the Bengali language during their domination by Pakistan, because Korean people underwent six or seven years of intense language persecution during the Japanese colonial period from late 1930s to 1945, until independence. The crises of "minor" languages have been going on for some time in the contemporary world; but the experience of language persecution Koreans and Bangladeshis underwent might be more intense than many others, because both Bengalis and Koreans nurtured major civilisations for thousands of years through their languages.
SB: Talaash is dotted with strong characters. Can you tell us about what went into writing them? How did you strike a balance between authorial intent and giving your characters independent thought and opinion?
Shaheen Akhtar: In this case, perhaps the role of history was secondary. The story building necessitated the characters. For instance what is the role of Ramiz Sheikh in the liberation war? Just that of a parasite. But I feel that readers of Talaash will never forget Ramiz Sheikh.
Talaash has many voices, many tunes. It is full of characters that are sympathetic and unsympathetic, just like the people around us. Everyone has something or other to say about Birangonas or women who are survivors of rape. Sometimes, at the cost of the opinions of another. The protagonist Mariam expresses her excitement quite a few times; she harbours doubt even towards the objective of Mukti's research. Eventually, she disappears after leaving Mukti in dire straits. Mariam is perhaps most vocal against objectification of women in the novel. Even if it was unintentional on the author's part, Mariam does undoubtedly seem to bear the author's wishes.
However, it would not be right to rule out intentional attempt. For instance, in the chapter "Nirjatiter Conference", the oppressors themselves do not spare each other, instead they attack one another. I feel that an agreement between the author and the characters occurs in that instance.
Seung Hee Jeon: The novel abounds in characters one might call representative, from Maryam's opportunist uncle, who favoured Pakistan but then transformed himself into a patriot and politician, to Tuki, a wartime rape survivor and Maryam's friend, who managed to avoid the fate of becoming a prostitute unlike many other survivors, yet in the end was extremely frustrated by the inverted way society has been treating them, as opposed to all the opportunists who could transform themselves as quickly and as often as needed.
Throughout her life, Maryam has many important relationships with men, from a young relationship who helped her with academic success yet abandoned her at the first hint of trouble, through her first love, Abed, a self-righteous political opportunist, and two Pakistani military officers who actually might care for her in a twisted way, to her two distinctive husbands, one a post-war black marketer who is using Maryam, a Birangona, as a shield, and a gay man forced by neighborhood elders to marry her. Impressively, all of them are both individual and typical of their kinds or classes of people, so that they conjure the entire society, in all its intimate details. Among other aspects, I feel these characterisations are why the novel is so engrossing and so successful.
SB: Metaphors play a big role in this novel—they seemed to pervade almost every other sentence. What is the power of metaphor in portraying and/or navigating violent and traumatic events?
Shaheen Akhtar: Indeed, Talaash has a lot of metaphors! They reflect the horrifying memories of the war without directly showing details of violence. They also assist in highlighting certain scenes with the contrast of light and darkness, at times making it extra meaningful in a way that even surpasses reality. The last chapter of Talaash is metaphoric from beginning to end. If I had to write Talaash more than once, I would keep the final chapter unchanged.
SB: Since many Bangladeshis do not speak Korean and might not be able to read your translation, can you tell us about how the book changed or developed through the process of translation? Did you find similarities between Bengali and Korean language and culture?
Seung Hee Jeon: Although I learned Bengali for this translation, I needed a lot of help from Shaheen, the wonderful Bangladeshi author and translator Shabnam Nadiya, and my co-translator, Farhana Shashi. It was in a way easier for me to learn than European languages, because Korean and Bangla share many basic characteristics, such as their structure of subject + object + verb and the use of post-propositions rather than prepositions, among other things. So I did not have to change the sentence structure as radically as I do when translating between Korean and English.
One task I need to work on in the future, though, is capturing more connotations of this novel's language. As my exposure to and experience with Bengali and its culture are not so copious, I'm sure I could not help missing many layers of meaning and cultural resonance. A clear example lies in the title itself. I understand that "talaash" in Bengali has many resonances, a word that can mean both literal and metaphorical searches—those of Maryam, all the raped women who simply disappeared into the backdrop of history through abuses, neglect, struggles, and of the missing persons, including soldiers, during the war, the hunt for imaginary and real enemies, and the pursuit and quest—a sort of soul-searching—for the truth of all the Maryams and Montus, the victims, ordinary individuals, and society as a whole. It seems that the English equivalent "search" can convey similar connotations, more or less, but in Korean all those connotations and resonances are attached to different words with individual meanings: the hunt, search, quest, pursuit, and so on. Since the title of a novel is like its face, I had to think long and hard about an adequate title. In the end, I decided on Yeojareul Wihan Naraneun Eopda, which roughly can be translated into English as: "No Country For Women." I thought that, although much longer and more prosaic than the original, this title might capture the overall ethos of the novel. And this title summed up the last—and supremely evocative—scene in which one character looks toward the land they have left behind and exclaims, "How beautiful is our country!" and Tuki responses, "The country for which we shed our blood."
Besides these fundamental matters, there was the matter of striking a balance in depicting elements unfamiliar to the target language and culture, but common in the original language and culture. For example, a hizal tree is a common plant in Bangladesh, but entirely unfamiliar and exotic in Korea. Often, Koreans use the transcription of English names for unfamiliar things, but here I opted for transcribing the Bengali sound into Korean, as it somehow felt both more common and friendlier. Some of my Korean readers actually told me they liked it! On the whole, I feel that I was able at least to capture major historical and literary allusions, with the help of many other people. I also take pride in the fact that the Korean version has been moving Korean readers—so much so that they recognised the greatness of this novel enough to give it the Asian Literature Award.
SB: Talaash seems to be written very much for a new generation that didn't witness the war first hand—it feels like we're all Mukti when we read the book. Was this deliberate?
Shaheen Akhtar: How amazing! When I wrote Talaash, I thought of myself as Mukti too. If readers of today are also considering themselves Mukti, it's honestly unbelievable!
The novel has many events, many characters. I needed someone to thread it all. This need probably was felt during the second draft. Back then, when I read interviews of Birangonas, I felt that the interviewers were writing more about their own trauma than that of the survivors. I decided then that Mukti should not be granted this same indulgence. Even if she spends sleepless nights, her hardships should never surpass that of the victims. She would come when the story needed her, and then take her leave. In other words, I kept her at a distance. Perhaps that is why the readers of today from a time far away from the war, having never witnessed the war, can feel a deeper connection to her.
SB: Who or what are you reading these days?
Shaheen Akhtar: For some time now, the 'subject' of the book has been getting more priority from me rather than the writer. I'm a bookworm. I spend more time reading than writing. Besides, I find myself seeking the solace of books in grief and anguish. Recently the poet Al-Khansa entered my world. Her two brothers lost their lives to the Pre-Islamic era's tribal conflicts. In grief, she wrote the elegy Morsia (Cassida). Recently, losing my younger brother to cancer left me similarly disconsolate. The way she shed private tears through her poetry, soaked in love—for this reason, Al-Khansa will remain close to my heart. My table at home is also, slowly, getting covered with Jorge Luis Borges's books.
SB: What kind of literature draws you in as a writer and translator? What are you working on next?
Seung Hee Jeon: I enjoy all genres, including graphic novels and fantasy. If I had to choose a favourite genre, it would be novels that concretely and realistically depict our history and reality, ones that delve into them deeply and in detail and, by doing so, move us into awakenings and action.
As a college and graduate student, I favoured 19th century English novels, some of which I have translated into the Korean. For the past couple of decades, I have been increasingly drawn to contemporary Asian authors, such as Turkish novelist Yasar Kemal, Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, Indian-Canadian author Rohinton Mistry, Indian novelist Bisham Sahni, Urdu author Saadat Hasan Manto, and Vietnamese author Bao Ninh, to name only a few. And there are many wonderful authors belonging to a younger generation that I also enjoy, such as Indian author Arundhati Roy, and three authors who participated in the 3rd Asian Literature Festival with Shaheen Akhtar: Mongolian novelist Ulziitugs, Chinese writer Chi Zijian, and Korean author Han Kang. I also enjoy many modern Western or European writings, including Svetlana Alexievich, Margaret Atwood, and Alan Hollinghurst.
Currently, I'm finishing a translation of Booker Prize-winning British author Alan Hollinghurst's first novel, Swimming Pool Library, while also working on a translation of South Korean novelist Kim Nam-il's Cha Sang-Moon, the Genius Rabbit, which is simultaneously a moving depiction of a talented, yet ill-fated boy, a hilarious socio-historical criticism, and an astute criticism of modern Western civilisation. I'm excited about both translations, and I feel blessed to be able to live with such works, which never tire me out, but rather fill me with joy and enthusiasm, no matter how many drafts I have to go through.
Shaheen Akhtar's answers were translated from the Bengali by Towrin Zaman, a contributor to Daily Star Books.
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