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|Volume 11 |Issue 44| November 09, 2012 ||
Writing the Right Way
With the Hay Festival Dhaka next week, the Star's SORAYA AUER met with Kazi Anis Ahmed, the Bangladeshi writer, about the literary event, his newly published collection of short stories, and how, once upon a time, his stories sucked
With an ego and talent to match, Dr Kazi Anis Ahmed's 20-something-year-old self was certain he'd make it in his dream career. “From the time I was 10 years old, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Like this was my deepest passion, this was what I've always wanted to do,” says the established businessman.
Despite a love of words from a young age and pursuing creative writing in and out of university, Dr Kazi Anis Ahmed had retired his hopes of having his fiction read by others. Fourteen years since he last tried to publish anything, the 42-year-old now has a collection of nine short stories Goodnight Mr Kissinger and Other Stories (published by The University Press Limited) launching today, in time for Dhaka's literary Hay Festival next weekend.
Now comfortable in his skin and voice as a writer, Ahmed reflects on his journey to this point as a Bangladeshi writer of English fiction. “It was such a circular route for me,” says the now Director of Gemcon Group. “Unlike a lot of people writing in English from this part of the world, from Bangladesh even, I am actually very much a product of Bangla-medium. I did SSC and HSC and never went to English-medium schools.”
While pursuing his Economics undergraduate degree at Brown University, USA, Ahmed would write stories in Bengali on the side. “My brother was the only one there who could read Bengali so I would give my stories to him and he'd tell me that they sucked,” he remembers with a smile. He adds, “If I may say so myself, I am fluent in Bengali and I could write a perfectly sound academic paper on post-structural theory in Bangla, but fiction is just something that's not ever really come out for me.”
Ahmed's brother continued to reject his attempts in Bengali for two more years until Ahmed decided to give a writing class a shot. “I finally decided to swallow my ego; that was like my first reckoning that clearly I'm not a genius because even my brother thinks my stories suck,” Ahmed chuckles. The now Co-founder and Vice-President of University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh translated a Bengali story into English to submit to his writing class and again gave it to his brother to assess. “My brother read it and said, 'this is fantastic'. So that's why I have become a writer of English fiction.”
After graduating, Ahmed returned to Bangladesh but longed to get away again. “I realised I couldn't pursue writing living here,” he explains. “Being the son of a business family, being so young and the way I felt I was getting consumed by the business, I thought that if I really wanted to pursue this, I had to go away.”
He enrolled in a two-year writers' programme at Washington University in St Louis where he says he made important friendships with other aspiring writers and got exposure to visiting great authors. “I listened to talks by and lunched with J M Coetzee, Martin Amis, Amitav Ghosh, Paul Auster and others I can't even remember now, it was a great experience.”
Inspired and (over-)confident, the writer recalls, “At 28, I had a novel on the desk of an Editor. It was going like Cinderella, they loved the first 30 odd pages and said, show us the finished stuff, but however good and well received the short stories and first pages were, the finished novel was not as good and even I knew it and they didn't take it.”
By this point, Ahmed had begun his PhD in Comparative Literature and found the academic work took him further away from his creative writing. “After the disappointment of all that, I thought, maybe writing isn't my thing, maybe I'm not actually cut out for this.”
Ahmed married and returned to Bangladesh to join his family's business. But dramatic and heartbreaking as his conclusion in his late twenties was, Ahmed matured to realise writing was still very much in his blood. “Other people have lesser egos and more maturity at a younger age so can write well early on, but for me, it came much later,” explains the father-of-one. “At 35, I realised what was holding me back and why my novel wasn't good. I would write invented stuff that didn't have the kind of energy or traction that the real has and I'm not talking about a real event in life but there are these emotional touchstones that you need to have for your writing to have that charge and if you're not going even near it, then you can't do it.”
In 2005, Ahmed began to write the short stories, all set in busy Dhaka, which now feature in his newly released book. “I started to learn to access my real material, dramatically, psychologically, emotionally, imaginatively more and more and as a result, I think the writing has got more effective and I'd like to think, richness and credibility. It has also become fun, like a game of dare with myself but,” he adds, “someone reading it won't see this.”
Ahmed also credits his wife Juditha for his ability to write as freely as he does. “She read my first story, liked it and said, 'you know, as a writer you might need to write something about me and it might be hurtful or unflattering, but I give you permission because I understand it's a story and not you.' That really opened me up. I thought if my wife can deal with it, then the world can deal with it.”
However, Ahmed's well-written collection of short stories is not controversial in theme or content. The stories have a natural and elegant narrative that guides the reader through the characters' thoughts and actions and while the collection reads well together, each story is engaging in its own right.
During next weekend's Hay Festival Dhaka, Ahmed will speak alongside internationally acclaimed novelist, Mohammed Hanif, and chair a panel with Kashmiri journalist and writer Basharat Peer and other established Bangladeshi authors. He admits, “I'm very excited and flattered.”
Ahmed attended Bangladesh's first Hay Festival last year and noted how the event is a real opportunity for Bangladeshi writing in both English and Bengali. “I remember in the 90s, when Indian writing in English started making a splash globally, Bangladeshi writers who wrote in Bangla would confidently say 'yes, English is a language of India but it will never be a language of expression for Bangladesh.'” Ahmed believes that with the rise of English as a primary language for Bangladeshis living or studying abroad and those going through an English-medium education here, it is possible for Bangladeshi English writing to capture a global audience's interest in future. He says, “Not only is English emerging as a language of expression for Bangladesh, but that kind of doubt in English's ability to do that is now lower. I think that fear that authenticity adheres to the medium is less because there is a more complicated idea of what authenticity can be now.”
“Through English and through Hay, a door is opening to the rest of the world and for the rest of the world it's going to become a window to Bangla as well. For those Bangladeshis writers who would want to be part of a more international dialogue, this is also an opening,” he says.
When asked about his future as a writer, Ahmed is confident, without the ego that plagued him 20 years ago. He even hopes to write stories in Bangla once again. Ahmed is currently working on a new novel which he says is more likely to see the light of day because he has no illusions of grandeur, just a passion for writing.
“Once you're 30, you know you're not a prodigy,” reflects Ahmed. “I realised I'm a nobody, I'm just a guy and when all those pressures were off, I suddenly knew and understood what it meant to write for myself.”
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