“I want to give the message that we are a very diverse tribe” - Tahmima Anam
In an episode of Star Book Talk aired live on Friday, July 9, author-anthropologist Tahmima Anam and DS Books Editor Sarah Anjum Bari discussed Anam's latest novel, The Startup Wife (Penguin India, 2021). They discuss writing tactics, feminism in literature, and Anam's influences on the path to becoming an award-winning author.
Sarah Anjum Bari (SAB): There's so much being said about this novel—that it's a book about ideas, about the startup world, about feminism. What is The Startup Wife really about?
Tahmima Anam (TA): All of those things. I've described it as feminist satire, as romantic comedy, as "coming-of-rage", which is a phrase I want to coin. Although the woman in this novel does not become rageful or vengeful, she remains joyful throughout. But it's essentially the story of a woman—she's a scientist, she starts a tech company with her husband and their friend Jules. It's about how she becomes marginalised by something that she herself created, and how she comes to that realisation and what happens to their relationship/ love story as a result.
SAB: How did you start working with this idea?
TA: I've been on the board of a tech company, ROLI, which was founded by my husband 10 years ago. He founded the company literally weeks before we got married. So the journey of our marriage and the journey of our company has been deeply intertwined. I've been on the board from the beginning and while I was attending board meetings and investment pitches, I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to write about this world that was so unfamiliar to me? Wouldn't it be great to put a female inventor at the heart of the novel?
SAB: Did you have to do a lot of research for this? How did you navigate the jargon that's usually a part of conversations in the tech world?
TA: Of all the novels that I've written, it required the least amount of research. Obviously, when I wrote A Golden Age, it required a lot of research on 1971. I interviewed lots of people, I read a lot of books. This novel was a totally different writing experience. I was living in that world. And as an anthropologist, I was taking notes. I was thinking of these startup people as their own tribe, with their own rituals, their own societal order, and their own language. It was fun to write a novel that was contemporary and that didn't require that same level of external research.
I think we mine our own lives, the lives of our families. I think we're basically thieves. We steal experiences, hopefully not damaging anybody as a result. In this case, I just borrowed/ stole from my own life.
As for the jargon, I made Cyrus and Asha very unlikely startup entrepreneurs. When you see the world through Asha's eyes, she's learning the jargon as you're learning it.
SAB: Were any authors or books on your mind while you were writing this book? You've mentioned that Nora Ephron was one of them.
TA: Well, I love Nora Ephron. I think she's an underrated genius, in the sense that oftentimes when a man writes something funny it's seen as serious political satire, even though he's making jokes; somehow when women do it, we see it as being light.
The other writer who hugely influenced me was Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. We all know Sultana's Dream. That was a very serious story that she wrote about a world in which men were basically imprisoned and women ruled through science. She was saying something radical about her own experience of being in purdah and the societal constructs, but she did it with such a light touch. I just found that very inspiring when I was trying to write this book.
SAB: I'm curious to know how men have responded to this book so far.
TA: Many of you know that my nickname is Rose—my father, who studied history in school, named me after the Rosetta Stone—so I asked my agent to send this book to publishers under the name of Rose Lanam instead of Tahmima Anam.
It wasn't just that I was concerned about the reaction of men. But I was worried that I had written these very serious books and that people would think that this is light, this is frothy, this is not telling us something meaningful about the world. The humour and giving it that lightness was in a way more natural for me to write. As a person, I'm more light hearted. But putting my name on that book was a decision that I didn't take lightly at all.
SAB: I meant to ask you this later in the interview, but while we're on this topic—whenever I've read one of your books, I've come away with a clearer idea of your female characters. Or, to put it in another way, it seemed that the women in your books had more clarity of vision than the men in their lives. Is this a conscious decision?
TA: In a way, creating Cyrus as a slightly unknowable character is a conscious decision in the sense that I want you to see the world through Asha's eyes, and he's a bit of a mystery to her.
On the other hand, I think that it's a totally valid critique of my writing, that I just naturally gravitate to women characters. And I could tell you that it's my feminist vision. But maybe I'm just not as good at writing male characters. There was a section of The Bones of Grace that was from the point of view of a male construction worker in Dubai. And I was really proud of that. It was the first time that I had really written through the voice of a man. So maybe this is a skill that I need to hone.
I also think we work our politics into our writing, and I want to show the world through the eyes of women. In A Golden Age, I wanted to write a novel about 1971, but through the eyes of a mother, not the soldiers or guerrilla fighters. Because I feel like somebody else can tell that story. I wanted to tell the story I was better suited to tell. I felt a huge amount of empathy towards the mothers and the women who were left behind in the nationalistic fervor.
SAB: The Startup Wife is, among other things, a book about ideas. I loved these app ideas, especially Consentify, which I think we really need in Bangladesh. Can you tell us about some of these platforms that Asha's colleagues are working on? Did you have a favourite?
TA: When Asha and Cyrus launch their app, they're invited to a very secretive tech incubator, Utopia, where they go to audition. They are told that all the companies are there to prepare us for an apocalyptic world. So there's a guy there who creates food out of electricity in case food supplies die down. There's one called EMTI, where you subscribe and they send you an empty box every month. Let's say you have a little trinket from someone who broke your heart, and you put it in the box and they ritualistically get rid of it for you.
I love Consentify—when two people agree to engage in sexual activity, before they engage in it they pre-agree and sign up. It was really fun coming up with these fake startups. I even created a fake website for Utopia.
SAB: Can you tell us about when you wrote The Startup Wife and how you incorporated the pandemic into the story?
TA: I wrote the whole novel before the pandemic. I remember one of the last plane rides I took was to meet my new American publisher. My former American publisher hated it, and thought it was "shallow". This is just to say that everybody gets rejections.
So I flew to New York in November 2019. And I came back and my editor gave me a bunch of notes. By then there was a pandemic and a lockdown. I had already written the scenes where Utopia is designed towards an apocalypse. And I thought, there's an actual apocalypse now and I cannot leave it out. The novel ends when something major is happening in the world.
SAB: One of my favourite moments in the book was when Asha's mother tells her that "Marriage is an epic poem." I felt that that scene cinched the entire story. Can you tell us how you feel about that scene?
TA: Asha's parents are immigrants. They're pharmacists who moved to New York, but they both have artistic sensibilities. Her father wants to write a novel and her mother quotes Rabindranath and Shakespeare, and sings at the local Tagore community. I wanted to give an image of an immigrant family that wasn't a typical immigrant family. So when Asha decides to get married, instead of saying "Keno biye korcho na?", they ask her, "Keno biye korcho?" Why are you getting married so young, before your studies are over?
I wanted to give the message that we are a very diverse tribe. Asha's parents are liberal, her sister wears a hijab.
So her mother gets the sense that she's experiencing some problems in her marriage. that somehow her power is being taken away from her. Asha goes to her mother; she expects her to ask her to compromise, that everything will be alright. Instead, her mother says, I don't expect you to make the same compromises that I did. You're too smart for that. So she's not telling Asha to stay or to not stay with Cyrus. She's just giving her a feminist high five. And I wanted her mother to be the one to do that.
SAB: Along the same lines, this wasn't the typical book about an immigrant family or protagonist. The influence of race isn't made too obvious, but it is there at the back of Asha's mind. Can you tell us what role race plays in Asha's life?
TA: I wanted to write a book in which racial or cultural identity was part of her identity, but not her whole identity. Asha is second generation, she is a person of colour in a very white dominated world. She's the only person like herself in her own little world of AI research. When she enters the startup world she's even more of a lone figure. Because as we know, there are few women of colour in the tech world who are the scientific brains behind a platform or the founder or the leader. Imagine if Facebook was founded by a Bangladeshi immigrant—that is what I wanted us to imagine.
As the story continues, we realise that so many of the limitations that Asha is facing are because of these interconnected identities. Race is one of the threads. Gender is one of the threads. The fact that she's an immigrant is one of the threads. She thinks she's on top of the world. But even she can have her power taken away from her. That's the message of the story—that patriarchy rears its head no matter who we are.
SAB: It's easy to trace the anthropologist in you in all of these stories. Can you tell us about your background in anthropology?
TA: When I left Bangladesh when I was 17 and went to university in America, I thought I'd study sociology or psychology. When you're young you think you'll study what your parents did. But I met a charismatic professor who was teaching anthropology and I found out that it is not just the study of distant tribes. It's the study of culture, of how we identify ourselves as people.
So I started studying anthropology and did a PhD in it at Harvard; I realised it's a perfect training ground to be a writer. I was learning how to pay attention to the things that make up our culture. I was also learning how to see the world through other people's eyes.
I have always wanted to be a writer ever since I read Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. But I didn't have the confidence to pursue it when I was very young. I went to graduate school because I got a scholarship and I thought, it'll be something for me to do while I think about what I want to write about in my first book. That's the thing about becoming a writer—you just don't know if it's going to work out.
SAB: Do you have a favourite writer? And do you have a favourite character amongst the ones you have written?
TA: I would say Beloved by Toni Morrison is the best book I've read. I read it almost every year. As a reader, I love it because it's so absorbing and stunning and it has such interesting characters, and I can't pick just one, even if it's the story of a slave woman who has run away from her owners. It's a ghost story, it's a family story, it's about the trauma of slavery.
As a writer, it teaches me about the possibilities of writing and what you can do with language. It's funny when people ask you who your influences are, as if you believe you can do that. I don't think I could ever do that. But it's wonderful to know that someone can. It's hugely inspiring.
I can't choose a favourite character—it's like trying to choose a favourite child—but I have to say that Asha is the one that I wish I could be more like. She is totally fearless. You know when someone says something to you that's offensive, and two days later you're like, I know what I should have said! But you never say it! But Asha (because I wrote her) always says it in the moment. She's every sassy female friend that I have ever had rolled into one.
SAB: What's the story behind the bright, brilliant book cover?
TA: I love it so much. I can say that with complete abandon because it had nothing to do with me. I can't take any credit for it. The way that it works is that your publishers send you a book cover and say, "We love it! What do you think?" So, obviously, you feel obliged to love it too.
I have to say that all of my book covers have either been pink or have had a woman in a sharee or a hijab, or a picture of their hands or feet. I love women in sharee but it's a cliche that a South Asian writer must have a picture like that. I was so happy that I'd written a book that could have a totally different cover this time.
So the designer sent one cover that she had made and rejected, and that was the one that I fell in love with. It looks like lightning bolts coming out of this woman's head and that's exactly what I wanted to portray. My American publishers took on the same cover and they changed the colours and font.
Penguin India wanted a new cover. But I was so annoying about everything. I think they just got fed up with me. As a writer you have to strike a balance between being collaborative with your publisher—because they work so hard on bringing your book out into the world—and also sometimes standing your ground. I'm always hoping not to be that author that everyone is annoyed at because she wants to make so many changes.
SAB: The characters in this book are very strongly influenced by their parents, maybe Cyrus and Jules more so, given their history. What role has your family played in your journey as a reader and a writer?
TA: I come from a very bookish family, as you know. My grandfather, Abul Mansur Ahmad, was a satirist, journalist, and writer, and obviously my father, Mahfuz Anam, is a journalist. But there were very few novels in my house when I was growing up. My father's reading taste was so much into nonfiction. We had every single nonfiction book you could imagine, on history, economics, philosophy, politics. My mother, Shaheen Anam, who runs Manusher Jonno Foundation, is very much an activist who still takes to the streets of Dhaka when something terrible happens. My sister Shaveena is an activist, even though she reads a lot too.
But the novelist [genes] skipped a generation. I was very encouraged to be a writer but there weren't a lot of novels in the house.
SAB: I can relate to this, because when your father and I were discussing the launch of this page, he seemed so much into nonfiction. He'll go off on a tangent about a book on tennis that he's read. So he's constantly having to nudge me into making sure we include reviews of all kinds of topics, because he knows if it were up to me, we'd be talking about novels all day long.
TA: And if it were up to him, it would be biographies and history and other non-fiction books!
SAB: Exactly! You mentioned that while writing The Startup Wife, you put yourself in Asha's shoes. How did that process work while you were writing A Golden Age. What inspired you to pick that period for your first book?
TA: Obviously you guys know more about contemporary Bangla literature than I do. But it is my opinion that we all, in some way or another, write about 1971. And if you think about the people who were born and grew up in Bangladesh, or the Bangladeshi diaspora, of which I consider myself one person, 1971 weighs heavily on our minds and imaginations. It was such a moment of rupture, trauma, and possibility. Even if you think about Brick Lane, which is a very British novel, that character has his memories of '71 and understanding that makes you more sympathetic to him. There was a novel that came out last year in the UK, called Hashim and Family, by Shahnaz Ahsan, also related to 1971. And then there is the whole range of Bangla fiction that has come out in Bangladesh.
I wrote about '71 because I grew up hearing stories about the war. It was my parents reminding me of my cultural and social identity. Ultimately, when I was writing that story, I first thought it'd be like War and Peace, a big, epic, historical novel. Then I realised that what I was interested in was the perspective of a mother. She was an unexpected revolutionary, a little bit of an outsider in the same way that I was a bit of an outsider while writing that story.
SAB: What advice would you give to aspiring writers hoping to finish a manuscript and hoping to get published?
TA: I think many first time writers spend too much time explaining things rather than describing them. It takes a certain kind of confidence not to explain what's happening or what a character is thinking. But you could practice writing a story that is full of detail and trust the reader with understanding without explaining it to them. This is something I had to learn from writing many drafts: allow the reader to fill that space with their own imagination.
In terms of publishing: go to the back pages of the book that you think most resembles yours, and find out who the author thanked. They always thank their agent and publishers. And you should write to those agents.
Don't send them your whole book, send them a letter. Tell them what your book is about and give them a brief description. If they're curious they will write back to you. Somebody in that office will read your email.
SAB: You also attended an MA in Creative Writing program at Royal Holloway, University of London. Does one need to study writing as a craft in order to get published?
TA: I don't think one needs to. I did it because I needed a safe space to try things out. I learned a lot from the teacher and my fellow readers. I thought, here's a group of people who have no reason to be interested in me or in Bangladesh, and if I can get them interested in my work, then I'm doing something right. If you have the opportunity and the ability to do something like that, it can be really worthwhile. Not because they will teach you how to write, but because you can find your own tribe who also want to write, and that can be very exciting.
My last tip: George Saunders recently wrote a book about creative writing, called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. I would recommend anybody who is an aspiring writer to read it. He uses classic Russian short stories to give lessons about creative writing. He is a master of the short story.
SAB: Are you reading anything exciting these days?
TA: I'm reading Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour. It's about a Black man who enters this world of tech and it's a thriller. I love books that give you a social and political message while also entertaining you, and I tried to do that in The Startup Wife, and he definitely does it really well too.
SAB: What role does fiction play in this age of digital journalism and social media? What role does activism play in literature?
TA: Despite all the other media that we have access to, novels are still the only way that we can really try to get into the minds of other people. The more you read, the more empathy you gain. You realise, oh, it's possible for me to escape my own subjective prison and enter the mind of someone else. That can only be a good thing.
Tahmima Anam's The Startup Wife (Penguin India, 2021) is available at Baatighar Dhaka, Chattogram, and Sylhet.
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