Breaking New Ground
The fluency required to write creatively in English does, to some degree, represent a level of education not available to all Bangladeshis. Ten or fifteen years ago the number of Bangladeshi writers who wrote in English could be counted on the fingers of a hand. Now it is a flourishing literary community. The reasons for this are partly a matter of circumstance. Many of these young writers have been educated, at least partly, in Britain or America. It also has to do with their determination to counter what they see as a stereotypical picture of Bangladesh, of floods and political turmoil, commonly presented to the world. To achieve this, they have decided to silence the world—with words written in English, the universal literary language.
These are writers with a historical awareness and an appetite for polyphony that are equal to the immense demands of the material they seek to illuminate. “The first notable writer in English from Bengal was Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain,” says Professor Niaz Zaman, academic and one of the country's senior writers in English. “In 1905 she wrote a story called Sultana's Dream. Then there is a big gap. In the 1950s Syed Waliullah and Sayeed Ahmed wrote in English. Now we have writers like Anis Ahmed and Farah Ghuznavi, for example, who are products of an international education. They have a worldview not very dissimilar to the people in the west. They use their Bangladeshi roots but they have an international outlook. Another good example is Tahmima Anam. She wrote about the liberation war and brought it to an international audience.” Tahmima Anam belongs to the group of writers who were born after the liberation of Bangladesh. Her novel A Golden Age (2007) is set in war-torn Bangladesh. As an English fictional work on the independence war (1971), Anam's novel has made history. It won the Best First Book winner Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2008. Her The Good Muslim (2011) has earned critical acclaim both in Europe and North America. Ophelia Field of the Daily Telegraph called her “one of our most important novelists.”
The first generation of Bangladeshi writers in English includes a few poets. Dr Razia Khan, eminent litterateur and English professor at Dhaka University is one of the pioneers among Bangladeshi writers writing in English. Her collection of poems Argus Under Anaesthesia (1976) and Cruel April (1977) bear the stamp of her preeminence among poets writing in English in Bangladesh. Her translation of her own novel Draupadi is considered by critics a major literary work. She also wrote short stories in English that appeared in anthologies and journals.
And of course no discussion about English literature in Bangladesh is complete without mentioning Kaiser Haq who is one of Bangladesh's contemporary leading poets in English and one of its most outstanding writers in English. A recipient of senior Fulbright Scholar and Royal Literary Fund fellow, among several other fellowships and scholarships, he has many books to his credit. Published in the Streets of Dhaka (2007), The Logopathic Reviewer's Song and Other Pieces (2002), Black Orchid (1996), A Happy Farewell (1994) are some of his works that earned him a permanent place in the reader's mind. He is also a prolific translator of many works by major Bangla poets and writers.
English-language literature in Bangladesh has taken longer to assume its role in the sub continental boom pioneered by writers from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. But now that a new generation of English-language writers like Tahmima Anam, K. Anis Ahmed, Maria Chaudhuri, Mahmud Rahman, Adib Khan, Farah Ghuznavi, Sharbari Ahmed, Saad Z Hossain, Srabonti Narmeen Ali, Munize Manzur, and Khademul Islam have emerged, the nation's literature is poised to extend beyond its own boundaries and the boundaries of the subcontinent.
The recently held Hay Festival served the same purpose for the English writers of this country as the 'Ekusher Boi Mela' has become a platform for Bengali writers over the years. This year's Hay saw the launch of stories and fiction by Farah Ghuznanvi, Sharbari Ahmed, Saad Z Hossain, Srabonti Narmeen Ali, Munize Manzur among the many Bangladeshi writers writing in English.
Farah Ghuznavi, one of the winners of the 2010 Commonwealth Short Story Competition is a Commonwealth Writer in Residence who started writing in 2005. Her collection of short stories Fragments of Riversong was launched at this year's Hay. In an interview, she says her biggest challenge is to produce good work and then find a publisher. She believes that the notion that Bangladeshi writers writing in English are not good enough is changing fast. “I think that is beginning to change, though not everyone is writing at the same level,” says Farah who also writes a column for the Star magazine. “A handful of us are gaining recognition for our work, both inside and outside the country. I was invited to a number of literary festivals in other countries this year, and it has been an amazing experience. Within Bangladesh, I think that people should take a good look at the quality of writing being produced by Bangladeshi writers in English, before dismissing them.”
Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is a writer, film maker and columnist whose play Raisins not Virgins was well received by audiences home and abroad. Her first collection of short stories The Ocean of Mrs Nagai was launched on the second day of Hay. “The whole point of writing is to tell a human story,” says Ahmed who also wrote and directed a short film called Duniya. “As human beings we are all subject to the same frailties, the same fears, aspirations and disappointments. I am bearing witness to the times I live in.”
Also launched were Syed Monzoorrul Islam's translated short story anthology The Mermaid's Prayer and other Stories, Kaiser Haq's new collection of poems Pariah and Other Poems, Sranbonti Narmeen Ali's Hope in Technicolor, a novel about the anomalies of the 'upper class' Bangladeshi society, Saad Z Hossain's Baghdad Immortal about life in the Green Zone during the Iraq War, Munize Manzur's debut anthology Voices and Ahsan Akbar's collection of poems Devil's Thumbprints. Born in Dhaka, Akbar lives in London and is currently working on a novel.
Some of the writers that did not get mentioned in the Hay Festival but have earned international recognition are Mahmud Rahman, Adib Khan and Ruby Zaman.
Mahmud Rahman appeared on the Bangladeshi literary scene with his debut publication Killing the Water (2010). It is a collection of a dozen short stories published by Penguin India and covers a wide range of themes ranging from the liberation war of Bangladesh to the racial violence against newly arrived immigrants in the US.
Adib Khan is a Bangladeshi author living in Australia. His novels Seasonal Adjustments (1994) Solitude of Illusions (1996); The Storyteller (2000); Homecoming (2005); and Spiral Road (2007) are mostly concerned with themes of self-identity, sense of belonging, migration, and social dislocation. His style is characterised by lucidity and sarcasm. Seasonal Adjustments won the 1995 Commonwealth Writers' prize for Best Book.
Invisible Lines by Ruby Zaman is a fictional take on life in East Pakistan before its liberation and the birth of Bangladesh, the atrocities that went hand in hand with the liberation war of Bangladesh and the rebellion that created a country even as it tore its families apart. Few books have looked at the liberation war as critically as Invisible Lines.
These writers and poets are a sliver of the Bangladeshi community of writers, but the sliver is growing. In these brilliant young writers and poets, Kaiser Haq and Syed Manzoorul Islam who have been carrying the baton of English literature in Bangladesh for a long time now, have companions who can take it to the next level. The stories and poems in this article merely scratch the surface of contemporary Bangladeshi English literature, a rich and richly varied sampling from one of the world's most heavily populated nations, an emerging economic player with a strong tradition of artistic production.