On a Long-Awaited Critical Anthology of Bangladeshi Literature in English
For anyone with academic or amateurish interest in Bangladeshi writings in English this must be a long-awaited book. The publication of Mohammad A Quayum and Md. Mahmudul Hasan–edited Bangladeshi Literature in English: A Critical Anthology (July 2021), possibly the first-ever of its kind, thus came as a welcome piece of news, and I congratulate the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh on publishing it in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, this three-hundred-page useful collection with befitting hardcover and flawless compose.
In the "Editors' Introduction" it is pointed out that the history of Bangladeshi Anglophone Writing is not to be understood as being coeval with the birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation, rather the tradition dates back to the early days of the colonial encounter, in the British Bengal, when The Travels of Dean Mahomet (1794) had been published. This can, thus, be regarded 'as one of the oldest and most illustrious English language literary traditions outside the English-speaking world.' The editors do not fail to register contributions of English medium schools, university English departments, English Dailies and their literary pages, literary anthologies occasionally published by newspaper presses— like The Daily Star Book of Bangladeshi Writing (2006) or The New Age Short Stories (2006)— literary festivals (like the Dhaka Lit Fest) to the growth of this creativity in the post-independence Bangladesh. Contrarily, as they record, the writers have to eternally encounter practical and ideological challenges thwarting their smooth flourish: the still persisting linguicism of Bangla, and the essentially duplicitous position of the political/intellectual elite in this regard— a point also raised by Kaiser Haq in his interview here with the co-editor Mohammad A Quayum, that although English is widely used in the country and adopted by writers as their creative medium, it still "has no official standing in the culture or the constitution of Bangladesh."
By now Bangladeshi English Literature (hereafter BEL) has been a substantial body of writing traversing different genres and themes, and the present anthology, understandably, cannot be exhaustive or fully representative of the tradition; it rather represents, in the words of the editors, "some of the best critical material on Bangladeshi literature in English…, balancing it with discussions on the maximum number of new or established writers we could accommodate." Interestingly, majority of the articles in this critical companion including two of the three interviews focus on women writers, and this is precisely because more critical scholarship of acceptable standards is available on their works. The same logic explains why the chapters could include discussions only on fiction and poetry, or why the works of Bangladeshi diasporic writers occupy more than half of the book-space.
One cannot but praise the neat organisation of this collection: fifteen chapters are divided under four separate, aptly titled sections; within the sections, again, chapters are arranged chronologically according to the seniority of the writers covered. The inaugural section, "A Pre-Independence Pioneer" devotes two distinctive chapters to Begum Rokeya that explore some less-trodden areas of Rokeya-criticism: Co-Editor Mahmudul Hasan engages with "Rokeya's encounter with and representation of Europe" while Ayesha Tarannum focuses on Islamic imageries in Rokeya's oeuvre. Hasan's use of the phrase "Muslim Bengal Writes Back" in the title of his chapter is indeed significant.
The next section, "Writings from Bangladesh" contains three chapters: Sabiha Huq discusses how Niaz Zaman's novels offer an insightful network of micronarratives that capture individual women's destinies enmeshed in historical upheavals and national crises while Tahmina Ahmed shows how Kaiser Haq's poems are replete with allusions from diverse cultures and continents. In the final chapter of this section Rifat Mahbub and Anika Saba deals with three 'Partition Stories of East Bengal/East Pakistan' by Syed Waliullah, Abu Rushd, and Ashraf Siddiqui—all collected from Niaz Zaman's anthology, The Escape and Other Stories.
The largest section, "Writings from the Diaspora" consists of seven chapters: Adib Khan and Monica Ali receive special attention with two exclusive chapters dedicated to each of them. Stefano Mercanti explores tensions of displacement and belonging and the protagonists' restless quest for self-knowledge in Adib Khan's Homecoming and Spiral Road while Andrew Hock Soon Ng decodes the "politics of deformed body/space" in Khan's The Storyteller. In this section Mahmudul Hasan writes on Monica Ali's Brick Lane and argues that 'transplanting the south Asian model of domestic seclusion in the diaspora' proves 'a futile patriarchal attempt' as women 'will find ways to interact with the outside world' in this era of technological advancement and omnipresent social media. Susan Stanford Friedman, on the other, reads resonances of two classic narratives of early twentieth century British and Irish modernism— Joyce's Ulysses and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway— in Brick Lane, advocating the ambiguity and creative tensions of cosmopolitan multiplicity. Ali appears again, together with Tahmima Anam and Zia Hider Rahman, in the chapter contributed by Fayeza Hasanat. Very interestingly, Hasanat finds parallels between Dickens' and these writers' characters: Brick Lane's Chanu turns a "postcolonial Pip" while The Good Muslim's Sohail builds his own Satis House on the edifice of religion. There is a separate chapter on Anam's fiction too, where Farzana Akhter discusses how women, through the "politics of active national forgetting," confront a 'masculinist erasure' of their contributions in war and nation-building. The remaining chapter of this section is on Dilruba Z Ara's Blame where Sanjib Kr Biswas and Priyanka Tripathi delineates this Swedish-Bangladeshi writer's story to show how 'blame' appears to be a pretext in the garb of which family, society, nation—all try to nullify their respective crime against the biranganas.
The last section is something special about this compilation showcasing some intriguing/engaging conversations— the first two with Dhaka-based acclaimed first generation writers of the post-independence period, and the third with a British-born Bangladeshi artist. The interviews offer insights into their creative journey highlighting the challenges encountered, inspirations behind their works, their achievements, issues that engage them most and also what they intend to write or take on in the future. Jackie Kabir talks with Niaz Zaman and brings out the many-sidedness of her creativity and the unbelievable amount of work —as professor, publisher, writer, editor, translator—that she has managed to accomplish mostly 'from behind the scene.' The phrase in the title of Kaiser Haq's interview, "a highbrow hijra," highlights, albeit playfully, Haq's ambiguity about himself as a writer. About his iconic poem "Ode on the Lungi" Haq reminisces: "the poem took a while to germinate, but once I hit upon the idea of bringing in Walt Whitman, everything fell into place." Sanchita Islam is also a versatile genius— writer, photographer, music composer, painter— who believes, as she tells her interviewer Elisabetta Marino, that art can address mental maladies as well as many other diseases of our time.
There are attempts at historicising a literary tradition, manifest in the editors' meticulous survey of the literary landscape from its inception to its becoming visible and vibrant, as well as in their anxiety for maintaining chronological order for the materials presented in the volume. Attempts are there too for appropriating and foregrounding the discourse of BLE into the broader spectrum of Bangladeshi life, history, and culture in general. It is thus important that the editors consider the appellation "Bangladeshi Literature in English" for their title, along the line of M K Naik's History of Indian Literature in English (1990).
While the anthology will surely render a considerable service to BEL it could have been a bit more ambitious in terms of its critical coverage of writers and genres. In fact, the editors themselves express their dissatisfaction at not being able to include chapters on writers like Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Razia Khan Amin and others, and on drama, autobiography, travelogue or other types of prose. A major share of the book is taken up by fiction, and the lone article on poetry does not really measure up to the achievements of the poets, especially the host of younger poets. Despite these limitations, Bangladeshi Literature in English: A Critical Anthology remains to be an impressive collection and a rewarding read, and I trust that the volume will be able to inspire creative writers as well as academic practitioners to thrive more enthusiastically in this old yet still evolving literary tradition.
Maswood Akhter is Professor at the Department of English, Rajshahi University.