‘The language movement did not reject the importance of dialects’: Syed Manzoorul Islam
Dr Syed Manzoorul Islam, one of the most prolific names in Bangladeshi academia, is also a prominent writer, translator, columnist, and literary critic.
His work includes five novels and eight short story collections. Of the latter, Prem O Prarthonar Golpo (Onnoprokash) received the 2005 Prothom Alo Book of the Year award. He published his first collection of short stories in English, named The Merman's Prayer and Other Stories, with Daily Star Books in 2015. In 1996, he received the Bangla Academy Award for literature, which is considered the most prestigious award in Bangladesh. Then came the Ekushey Padak award for his contribution to language and literature in 2018; in the same year, he was elected as the president of PEN Bangladesh. Professor Islam is the former Professor of English at the University of Dhaka. He is currently working as a Professor of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).
In this conversation with students at his university, Professor Islam sheds light on English writing in Bangladesh, its future, and the influence of the language movement on the Bangladeshi psyche.
How is writing in English considered in Bangladesh?
It depends on the perspective from which you are looking at writing in English. If you ask English medium students who have not been exposed to their mother language, then they appreciate this and quickly relate to this. But if you ask Bangla medium students, they will probably keep a distance from a process that is quite distant from their own experiences.
And it's a very small, niche market. Not everyone buys a book in English, only very specialised readers. So, the views are divided. But there is a section which is very antagonistic about writing in English. And you can classify this group into two categories. One that believes that this is an intrusion in our local culture, as if English language writers are cultivating a foreign culture, in touch with our own homegrown culture. That's one attitude. And another group believes that this is an elite pretension which goes over the head of most people. However, over time, readers have learned to accept different categories of writers. English language writing does not get that kind of hostile reaction at the present time. It's been centred now.
How do you see the future of Bangladeshi writing in English? Are you optimistic about it?
Yes, and optimistic for two specific reasons. I can see the emergence of many new writers who are based in Bangladesh and abroad. I have been on the editorial board of a journal called Six Seasons Review. We are reviving it.
We get contributions from young writers in North America, Europe, Australia, and almost everywhere in the world. They're the ones who have taken English as their mother language, because they have grown up in a culture in which English has to be spoken. And many of them cannot speak Bangla. That's not a [matter of] shame because they're living in a situation where they cannot exercise in other languages, but some of them insist on practising Bangla in their homes. I congratulate them, particularly their parents, who have kept a connection to Bangla. They, in other words, do not suffer from the identity crisis which is driving many people in different directions.
You see, inspiration travels. When you see four writers doing excellent, you know there'll be four more in the next year from different corners of the globe.
And now the internet has made connectivity so easy. You receive an email as soon as it is sent; the invitation for contributions doesn't take much time.
In Bangladesh, there are students both from English medium schools and from the universities and private universities who also believe that they can contribute to literature written in English, they're also very apt.
And the third factor in the optimism is the growing or expanding market of books written in English. In India, so many writers are writing in English, and many of them are in fact depending on their writing to sustain themselves, because the market is expanding. They choose an easy job like teaching, which gives them plenty of time to keep writing, and teaching also keeps them in shape, as they're using this language continuously, analysing, critiquing things. You can add Sri Lanka to the list which is thriving in the English literature market. Nepal is also contributing. In Bhutan, English is taught from the preliminary level.
Does the memory of the language movement in the national psyche anyhow affect Bangladeshis writing in English?
There is a difference between our generation and your generation remembering the language movement. We witnessed the direct impact of the language movement in our politics and in our culture. In a neo colonial setup, we could see how our language was in danger of culturalism. And it was such a supercilious attitude on the part of the Pakistanis–they considered everything as Hindu culture, without realising the front distinction Bangladeshis made in their own culture in terms of Hindu and Muslim practices. And increasingly, there is a division now because outside influences–I call them over the horizon influences–are dictating our tastes. We are becoming victim to another neo-colonial wave of control and domination.
We fought these kinds of attitudes. Therefore, in our psyche, the language movement has a deep effect. And we became activists; our generation invested everything in cultivating the mother language.
But now, I see there is a loosening of attitudes. People are not as concerned about their mother language, something which is very important.
And then comes the bazaar language dictated by neoliberalism, which believes that homogenization is important. This generation is falling into a trap. If everyone from Tetulia to Teknaf speaks the same dialect, you can pick up all the advertisements and branding and you become a continuous customer.
Dialects and regional languages are important. The mother language movement did not reject the importance of dialects. If you deny your mother language, then you grow up without a backbone and culture gets distorted in that battle. You pick up any other culture thinking that that is better than your own language. That has to be resisted.
I believe writers who are writing in English should not have any negative attitudes towards the mother language. The older generation, Kaiser Haq among them, has tremendous love for their mother language. Even today's generation of writers, notable ones–I can pick up their affiliation to their culture. So, I would answer this question simply: the psyche is effective, but not so strong now.
What differences do you observe in the writing of the older generation and the emerging generation of Bangladeshi English language writers in the post 1971 era?
Now, people read less or read in fragments. In our time, reading a whole book was supposed to be the norm. We did not read summaries, because summaries were not available.
Reading book after book opens you up to another culture. Thought is important, contemplation is important, analysis is important, reflection is important. Our generation sorts out the problems of people suffering, as we are all activists. We were all energised by the idea that we must contribute to national independence.
Modern writers, by which I mean the younger generation who are writing in English, are more globally conscious, more conscious of the different pushes and pulls in their time exercised by the liberal market. Education is becoming neo-liberal; conflict zones are constantly morphing into the world, for example, the Russia and Ukraine war, and the Rohingya crisis. Modern writers are picking up those global themes and placing them in the context of trying to find out how they fit in. I believe that each of these writers is opening my eyes to a different possibility, a different interpretation. I can see some of them are very inclined towards psychological explanations, towards treating paranoia, identity crisis, diaspora formation, and how our culture is disappearing.
Do you think translated works contribute to the emergence of writing in English?
No. There are two types of translation. One is self translation, where the authors translate their own works, which is as good as a new creation of writing in English. And there are translations done by others.
But translation does play a part in disseminating your literature. I don't like the divide between English language writing and Bangla language writing. I would call these, as a whole, literary output. Someone might even choose Spanish, and I know one young man who is writing in Russia, but his mind and his whole inheritance are from Bangladesh. It's not simply English language writing which is enriched by translation.
I believe translation helps in energising authors. A good translator picks up a good work in Bangla, translates it in English, which is read by many people, so others reading this work will believe that Bangladesh has a thriving Bangla literature as well as an emerging English literature.
Also remember–when books are translated from your culture, you have to accept that you are known, and you are valued. As of now, I can see an emerging interest in Bangla literature, so translations should be very helpful.
Do you have any personal connection with any of your writings? Does your writing sometimes reflect the emotions of your inner psyche, or your personal life?
Every author will have to admit that they cannot completely separate the man who suffers and the man who writes, or the man who feels and the man who writes. I am not a machine, so when I write, I write from my own experience, because you cannot pretend that you can write from somebody else's experience. I can sympathise with you, but I cannot feel your pain or feel your happiness to the extent that you feel it. Even psychiatrists tell me that not all pains can be understood through the science called 'psychiatry.' If this becomes part of someone's memory or trauma, then they can act in ways that you cannot predict.
As a writer, I have gone through many of these experiences, particularly 1971. You cannot imagine 1971. The sufferings people had, people killed in front of their family members, women forcefully taken away, being raped.
Emotions are space bound and time bound. I cannot imagine the same emotion for my readers, so I keep a distance, and I go through editing, and ultimately [the text] becomes something which is not attached with a particular emotion, so that every reader can find his or her own emotion by reading the writing.
As a writer of Bangladeshi origin, what motivates you to write in a language that is still seen by some as a colonial language?
I have only self-translated my stories which came out in a collection called The Merman's Prayer and Other Stories (Daily Star Books, 2015). I write in Bangla. I don't write in English because I don't believe this is my language and remember, every language is a cultural language. I have lived in England for some time. I have lived in America. I have also lived in Canada for a long time. But, if I start writing in English, I have to have the cultural knowledge of everyday life which keeps changing for me year to year. I can write in English without any mistakes and everything, but I wouldn't find the same satisfaction writing in a language which I don't naturally relate to. I am not making any judgement, but as far as I am concerned, I believe writing in Bangla satisfies me more than writing in English. But I can see some writers writing in English are doing an excellent job.
Does the language of choice make any difference?
It does. My language of choice is Bangla, as I said, because I can be more natural in this language, and I can pick up the whole history of literary writing and the history of cultural production in this language. So, it is easier to relate to this rich tradition which adds value to your own writing in that sense.
Why don't most Bangladeshi writers try to write novels instead of short stories and poems in English?
Writing a novel is a very long involvement. And writing a short story doesn't take much time and lots of preparation. I write short stories. I don't like to write novels because I believe novels are a different preoccupation. I have written four or five novels, I am very happy with two, but for the rest I would like to revise again and again.
With writers who write in both Bangla and English, one important difference is that if you are writing short stories in English, you can send it to different journals, so you have more prospects of publishing abroad. One of my short stories was picked up by Wasafiri, which is a very prestigious postcolonial journal which also publishes stories, and afterwards other publishers got in touch with me. I said, "No, I am not writing in English. This is a translation you should have read."
"Then send us translations", they said.
So I have translations published here and there.
These days, writers from Bangladesh are using Bangla words in English to glocalize the local expressions of Bangladesh with the world (which you also included in your short story in Bengal Lights' The Book of Dhaka). Do you think young writers of Bangladesh should follow the same pattern while writing and using Bangla words in English to glocalize our culture?
It's not only Bangladeshis; the trend was established by Salman Rushdie and many other Indian writers. The trend in the beginning was that if you use a local word like 'kula', you would have to include it in a glossary stating that 'kula' means 'basket', in which case you are assuming that the English reader is not aware of these other languages. You are giving him a very exalted position. The fact is, if you do not understand the meaning of 'kula', find it out.
You must have a reason to make your difference felt. If the reason is that you do not want to translate your untranslatable cultural terms and you want the readers to pick their own so that they engage with your language and your culture, which is a good thing, then you can do it.
How can platforms for Bangladeshi writers writing in English be increased?
By journal publications, by continuing to write more and having get-togethers among these writers. Lit fests can energise these writers. They can form groups, they can keep writing and improving themselves. And attending fiction writing courses.
Fairoz Anika, Manjuma Ferdoushi, and Sadia Tabassum are students of the MA in English program at ULAB.