Through Foreign Eyes
Carl Bloom was born in Iowa in the United States. An English Lecturer at the North South University, he has been writing his whole life. The idea to write a story about three girls in Bangladesh struck him right after he began to blend in with everyone and understand the culture in Bangladesh. The book was launched at Words n' Pages on March 4.
Seen from this American's eyes, 'Three Girls' revolves around three little girls growing up in rural Bangladesh. What might seem interesting to the readers is that the narrator plays a significant role in the novel. He knows where their stories will end up, but he wants to retrace how it all happened. While writing about these events, he thinks about how he would like to change the stories, but refrains, afraid that the changes will not appear "realistic" to readers. Eventually, however, events take such a tragic turn that he cannot just watch and recount and decides to make some changes, at least to lessen the pain of their stories. Even that, however, causes a change in the real world through the character Taslima, not one of the three girls, but a "real person" who operates as a critic and as the consciousness of the writer. She sees his interference and misunderstands what he is doing, which in turn leads her to her own tragic fate. The writer, tired of being misunderstood, decides to stop writing and leaves the girls to "whatever Allah has in store" for them, despite the sad circumstances they are facing in life.
Bloom first came to Bangladesh in 2001 to visit his wife, a Bangladeshi. Married in the US back in 1998, she returned here after the death of her father in 2000. Due to her visa status, she could not immediately return, so he decided to come here and look for a job. He started teaching in September 2001 and has been living here ever since.
|Carl Bloom, the author
Photo: Samina Yousuf Esha
* What inspired you to write the book?
There were two factors. One is the Brac Primary Education programme. For some time, I worked as an English instructor for Brac, and I met a number of field operatives. They told me many stories about the problems faced by children in the villages and small towns, as well as the slums of Dhaka city. I also met a number of other NGO leaders and read reports about abuse, trafficking, early marriage and education. It helped me get a good idea about their problems. The other factor was a friendship I developed with a girl who worked in our house. From her, I could get a clear idea of the internal politics that maidservants face with other domestic workers. Also, I could tell that she was suffering from extreme depression. It was very hard to help her, and eventually she left our house. I tried for some time to maintain contact with her, but it became increasingly difficult and I realised that she was cut off from me because I am a foreign man and there are many stereotypes hounding me, which I have not been able to extinguish. Later, when I heard that another house was planning her wedding, I tried again to intervene, but it created more problems. I have since heard that she is now married and the mother of a daughter, though she is barely fifteen. I feel partly responsible and cannot forget her fate, though many people tell me, 'Why should you care? She's nobody. Just forget her.' It has been very painful for me.
* What's the significance of the narrator's role in this novel?
I have been writing and reading for a long time, and I always find that an "invisible" narrator is a little suspicious. Narrators are not reliable, but when they hide behind a silent mask, I find it disturbing, so I decided I would not mask my narrator in silence. Other writers that have influenced me in this regard are Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino as well as the New Journalism style of Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and William T. Vollmann. With this novel, I knew there would come questions of motive--why did I write this book; so I decided to tackle them head on. When I showed the draft to some of my peers, they reminded me that in theatre, this is a common practice, and especially in the tradition of Jatra. I am not very familiar with this form, but I know that in Western drama, there is often a narrator who stands aside and comments, and this is not much different than my narrator's role in this book.
* You introduce this little device called the 'ball o' narration' in your story, which shows you whatever you want to see. What exactly is this device?
Well, clearly this is an invention, but I was thinking mostly of TV, the little "techno" device that lets us to peer in on other people's lives. We forget sometimes how much we like to watch other people. In Bangladesh in particular, I think it is a surveillance culture. Everyone is always watching their neighbours or the streets outside, and gossip is prevalent among all classes of people. TV is a magical way of watching people in other lands, but it is increasingly becoming the "reality" of voyeurism. I have been using TV and literature as a way of increasing my knowledge about the lives of people in Bangladesh, so I included the 'ball o' narration' just to allow me to see what is happening without actually going there in person. I also wanted to reflect on the way God watches over us, and as a writer, I am the creator of my characters, but invisible to them.
* What made you write the story as Faruk Abdullah?
Well, to be accepted as a member or "insider" of a country, the name is important. My father-in-law gave me this name when I married his daughter, but I haven't done anything with the name until now. I decided to use it now to help me establish a "Bangladeshi" identity. When someone comes to America, if he is Mahfuz Alam Chowdhury, people will consider him an alien, even if he lives there for fifty years, but if he changes his name to Max, or Alan, he can begin to find (superficial) acceptance, at least when he uses correspondence. In person, his clothing, his skin and accent will give him away (maybe) unless he can also dress, talk and look like an American. I want Bangladeshis to think of me as a member of their country, not as a stranger or foreigner. My 4-year-old daughter, Alisha Nilofar Bloom, was born here, and I've lived here longer than anywhere else in my adult life. In fact, the artwork in the novel was done by Alisha. If I am not a Bangladeshi, still I am definitely a Dhakaite. I can get around the city pretty well on my own. I speak a little Bangla, I like to dress in local clothes, but I cannot hide my hair and skin colour. Still, I want to try to gain acceptance here.
* What are the cultural elements that shocked you after coming to Bangladesh?
I think the most shocking thing for me when I came to this country was the status of maidservants and domestic helpers. Both my sisters and my mother worked at different times as domestic help for upper class families (we were lower middle class), and their employers always gave them proper care and respect. I think the young people of this country also see these problems, but they cannot admonish their parents or senior relatives, and, instead, their sensibilities are also blunted over time. Also, there is the general class distinction and a great division between the classes in this country, which is there in America (and every country) but less pronounced.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006