Interview with Farah Ghuznavi and Sharbari Ahmed

The Bangladeshi Connection: In Conversation with Farah Ghuznavi and Sharbari Ahmed

by Shilpa Kameswaran

Farah Ghuznavi is a writer and newspaper columnist, with a background in development work. She holds a Bachelor’s and two Master’s degrees from the London School of Economics, and has worked in International Farah-1Development with various Non-Governmental organizations and the United Nations. She remains an unrepentant idealist despite the existence of empirical evidence that suggests it might be better to think otherwise. Farah began writing fiction in the desperate hope that putting stories down on paper would send them on their way and out of her head. So far, this strategy appears to be working, one story at a time. Farah’s work has been published in the UK, US, Canada, Singapore, India, Nepal, and her native Bangladesh. Her story Judgment Day was highly Commended in the Commonwealth Competition 2010, and Getting There placed second in the Oxford GEF Competition. She is finalizing a manuscript of her short stories, and has most recently edited and contributed to Lifelines, an anthology of new Bangladeshi writing for Zubaan Books, India. She is currently Writer in Residence at the Commonwealth Writers website, and has a number of pieces that can be viewed at www.commonwealthwriters.org.

Sharbari Ahmed received an MA in creative writing from New York University. Her fiction has appeared  Sharbari-1in The Gettysburg Review, Caravan Magazine, Catamaran, and the Asian Pacific American Journal, among other magazines. Her short stories have been published in the anthologies, The New Anthem: A Subcontinent in its Own Words, (Tranquebar, 2009), and Lifelines (Zubaan, New Delhi, 2012).  In 2003, she won the First Words Literary Award for South Asian American writers.  Her screenplay, Raisins Not Virgins was selected for the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival All Access Program.  It was also presented as a stage play and produced in New York, Boston, Dhaka, and Los Angeles. She is a regular columnist for the Daily Star Weekend Magazine–the largest English language daily in Bangladesh, and teaches English 101 at Norwalk Community College. Her collection of short fiction, The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai: Stories, will be published in the fall by Daily Star Books in Bangladesh. It is also available on Kindle.  She lives in Connecticut with her son, and a host of anarchic wildlife in her back yard.

Shilpa Kameswaran: How far along and how up close have you both known each other? You both share a great social-networking rapport for one and seem intellectually and culturally close-knit. What does this mean to your literary personalities? (With Farah being the social activist, development worker, and writer based in Dhaka and Sharbari being the American Bangladeshi Playwright, teacher, and author).

Farah Ghuznavi: We haven’t actually known each other that long, but there is a family history to this that I will let Sharbari tell you about. We met briefly a few years ago, and then really got to know each other over the Internet, mainly through Skype conversations. Our personalities are very different, and that’s even without going into our literary personalities! Our cultural influences and perspectives are also quite different, in that there are parts of Sharbari that are very American, and parts of me that are very Bangladeshi. For one thing, I was educated in Bangla medium, and switched to studying in English just prior to going to university in London. But we do have an excellent rapport – perhaps partly historical, as you’ve already heard. The best thing about Sharbari – even when she’s on a rampage about something that has set off her inner Bengali agitator – is that she can be talked down from the ledge! We communicate often because we work on sharing ideas, and we like and respect each other a lot, which probably shows.

My literary personality, if I can call it such, is shaped very much by my development experiences and my political beliefs, which are essentially liberal. It’s also based on certain values I hold dear, related to community and the promotion of Bangladeshi writers. My interactions with Sharbari partly come out of, and partly reinforce that, because we meet on a number of these issues.

Sharbari Ahmed: It’s a great and serendipitous story. Unbeknownst to me, our mothers actually grew up together in Calcutta right before Partition!  In fact, Farah’s mother taught mine how to ride a bike.  Farah and I became friends four years ago when we met in Dhaka.  I guess we are just continuing our mothers’ stories.  We are the sequel. But we understand each other, and we both feel that we have an obligation to raise and expand Bangladesh’s literary profile, while working on our craft.  I still feel like a neophyte sometimes.  I have been writing for a long time.  That short story collection took me 15 years, including two years of grad school, to put together.   I am not sure I have a literary personality.  I don’t know what that means.  People tell me I have more personality than I know what to do with, so taking on a literary one might be a bit too much.

SK: Farah, in the preface of Lifelines, the anthology of short stories you recently edited, you explain the reason for choosing the title – “Most of the characters in these pages are making journeys of their own – physical and/or psychological – to reach resolutions that are often unexpected, if not always unwelcome, and transforming themselves in ways which they never anticipated.This holds true for the diverse characters in Sharbari’s The Ocean of Mrs.Nagai: Stories. Talk to us about the primary role of ethnicity and social class of the protagonists involved in the plots and pursuits of your stories.

FG: My stories focus mostly on Bangladeshi characters (frequently with a wider ‘supporting cast’ that includes non-Bangladeshis), but not those belonging to a single ethnic/religious group or class. I want to provide readers with an authentic and nuanced portrait of contemporary Bangladesh and its people, not the broad-brushstroke stereotypes that are all too common in the international media, so that means my characters tend to come from all walks of life. For example, in ‘Waiting for God,’ the same set of events are related from the perspective of three very different characters – a teenage girl from a regular middle-class family, a nouveau riche businessman’s wife and a young boy who lives in a slum with his family. The story is about a brief moment in time when the lives of these disparate characters intersect, and the consequences that result from that intersection.

I think that if my characters have anything in common, it is the fact that many of them represent more marginalized or vulnerable segments of society – one story is about a child domestic worker, another is about a madwoman in a village; a third belongs to a religious minority. But I like to focus on characters that represent the changes taking place in Bangladesh in the new millennium and tell the story of a society in transition – like that of a young woman who wins a scholarship to study architecture at a private university in “Getting There,’” (which is the story of mine that appears in the Lifelines anthology), or an urbanite who is nervous about going on a field trip to a rural area as part of her first job in “The Mosquito Net Confessions.” Both of these characters have college educations, so they are not financially underprivileged, but they each come with their own background stories and their emotional baggage.

SA: Well, I guess I am writing somewhat experientially. The protagonists in this collection are female for the most part– one of the stories features a little boy at the lead, if you will. Most of the characters are also Bangladeshi because that is what I am—though Mrs. Nagai of the title tale is Japanese.  They reflect years of writing and figuring out how to tell a story.  I am changing though as a writer and creating from a different place.  One of the pieces I am working on now has a white, male protagonist.  As for social class, well I am not sure how conscious I am of those things when a character nudges at me and whispers, “hey, you there! Tell my story.” Because that is how it really happens for me.  I guess I just write about what speaks to me.

SK: There is a persistent yet, subtle ambience of Bangladesh’s socio-political tension that is laid out in each story in Lifelines. In The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai, the issues are more global (ranging from the Israel/Palestine conflict to global terrorism and racial tension in North-America) and fiercer in the way they affect the decision-making and judgment of the characters.

I see this inseparable yet, intense interdependence between both your (Sharbari and Farah’s) fiction and non-fiction writing, the latter which appears in The Daily Star and elsewhere.Tell us about these forward and backward linkages. How does it affect your writing style and your creative processes?

FG: I’m a self-taught writer. My university education in Social Sciences consists of a specialization in development economics, so the analysis of socio-political tensions pretty much comes with the territory! My subsequent career path has involved working in a range of development organizations – from local organizations in Bangladesh to international non-profits and the United Nations. And my choice of career i.e. working in development, was prompted by my interests as a social activist, so it’s all interlinked.

My columns for the Daily Star sit well with those interests – I’ve written on a range of issues including international politics and US foreign policy, racism, extremism, human rights, climate change, humor, and social commentary. In many ways, I see my fiction and non-fiction as complementary. They reflect certain attitudes in common, but serve different purposes, reach out to different audiences and fulfill different needs within me in terms of expression and communication.

Writing fiction is very different from writing columns, in my experience, and my style of writing the two is very different. My columns are often humorous and draw on personal anecdotes and experiences, even when the subjects under discussion are serious. By contrast, I’ve been told that I write fiction in a more literary style, and my handling of similar subjects is often more serious in tone. But there are undoubtedly backward and forward linkages, and a degree of complementarity.

My journey to becoming a fiction writer has been a somewhat roundabout one – and I started late, less than a decade ago! In that sense, my journey has been very different from Sharbari’s. Having said that, many of my professional experiences and the people I met in the course of my development work have directly influenced my writing, particularly what I write about and whom I write about.

The incident that drove me to write my first short story – and I use the word “drove” advisedly, having always feared that I couldn’t write fiction – was seeing a headline about a child domestic worker who was killed by her employer, and feeling strongly that this story needed to be told as fiction in order to reach out to a wider audience, in a different way, than I could do as a columnist. In the final analysis, I am a very political animal, as I think we all are – whether we know and admit it or not – and those views are undoubtedly reflected in my choice of subjects and my approach to my characters.

SA: My writing, more often than not, has a political undercurrent to it.  I have been both lauded and criticized for that.  One of the most recent reviews of one of my stories says I “barely avoid being didactic”.  Yeah, I memorized it.  You can tell it smarts.  But also, it reminds me of what I already know, that I need to be aware that my Bengali-ness, i.e. my inherent need to make some sort of social point in every story needs to be tempered at times, because it can get in the way.  Sometimes, because I write this column for The Star, and have almost carte blanche to write about anything I want to, including my global political views, it can affect my fiction writing and take away from the purity of the storytelling.  I have to be careful.  But, yes, being Bengali, and genetically pre-disposed to political agitation is very much a part of my creativity.  For better or worse.

SK: The urban woman is the center of the universe in every story – whether she is a student, spouse, tourist, or working professional, the first-generation immigrant woman in New York City or Vancouver or Tokyo or Dhaka who sparingly interacts with the ‘rural’ or ‘indigenous’ Bangladesh/Bangladeshi culture and topography.

The reader also gets the feel of Generous References to Western popular culture. How much of this is a literary ‘mannerism,’ and how much of it has to do with each of you growing up, living, and working in different cities across continents. Talk to us about this.

FG: That is true of Sharbari’s collection, but if you’re referring to my Lifelines anthology, the collection contains at least three stories written from the perspective of a male protagonist, and there are several stories set in non-urban environments including a provincial university campus, a small town where an American volunteer arrives, and a village setting.

In terms of my own writing, I draw on different phases of my life. I grew up in a Dhaka city that was very different from the sprawling urban behemoth that you see now. We knew our neighbors well, and there was more of a sense of community and enough green spaces for children to play in. Also, in the early years of my career, I spent a lot of time in different parts of Bangladesh, travelling to rural areas with the non-profits I worked for and with the Grameen Bank, an organization that gives small loans to disadvantaged women living in the countryside. So a number of my stories are informed by those experiences, and by the stunning natural beauty of rural Bangladesh. But one thing that is certainly true is that I write most often from women’s perspectives. It’s partly writing what I know, and it also reflects my interest in human rights and my engagement with the women’s movement in Bangladesh.

As for Western influences and popular culture, I lived in Dhaka until the age of 19, and spent only one year of my childhood in London, so my primary influences have been Bangladeshi. But we did travel to the UK a lot, and I used to love those trips. I soaked up everything around me – movies, pop music, comic books – like a sponge, so some of that is bound to show up in my writing. And I was raised by a feminist father and an activist mother, so I am sure that shows too! Finally, and rather importantly, many of the books I grew up reading were from Britain and America, and the rest of the world, so my imagination was always roaming around, traveling well beyond my immediate surroundings.

SA: Well, I have lived all over the world from a very young age.  I first boarded a plane when I was three weeks old, but the majority of my time has been spent in the US, hence the Western Influences if you will.  I have always lived in largely urban areas, Addis, NYC, Beijing.  I really don’t feel it is a literary “conceit” in any way, at least for me.  Thoreau drew his inspiration from the woods of Massachusetts, I found myself ruminating more on what happens when people are shoved together in an urban sprawl, and yet, feel rootless.

SK: Bangladeshi women writing in English have been ‘stand alone’ authors thus far, their writing few and scattered far apart on the international literary scene. However, in the recent past, there seems to have been a new ‘collaborative’ and ‘collective’ creative force shaping up between authors of the Bangladeshi Diaspora abroad and those living and writing back home. How do you see this phenomenon affecting your craft?

FG: I think Sharbari and I are very much on the same page on this one. We both believe that any recognition for a Bangladeshi writer – whether diaspora or ‘local’ Bangladeshi – ultimately benefits all of us in the long run, because it makes “Brand Bangladesh” more recognizable. Both of us also subscribe to the idea that being part of a wider community is about giving as well as getting support – whether we are talking about sharing contacts, providing critiques, or promoting the work of others. Her current project “The Line” is a wonderful example of how creative and effective a collaborative approach can be.

My own decision to take on the task of editing Lifelinescame about as a direct result of my desire to bring an authentic taste of Bangladesh to a wider audience, and it meant signing off nearly 2 years of my life to edit other people’s work, when in all honesty, I had already been struggling to find enough time to write myself. But it’s been an amazing experience working on this anthology, despite all the challenges and deadlines – and there have been plenty of those! – I’ve learned an enormous amount about how to work with disparate personalities, how to promote a book, and most importantly, how to write better. There is nothing like revision, and editing a story, any story, that teaches you to what to do and what not to do!

SA: Really? There is such a phenomenon?  Just kidding. This is a great question and one topic actually Farah and I talk about quite a bit.  I am going to be so bold as to say there is not enough of this sense of collaboration and community among Bangladeshi writers of the diaspora.  I feel it’s generally been very individualistic, with a sense of, well, the spotlight is only so big i.e. the pesky Indians keep hogging it so we need to get ours.  However, this notion of there being a finite space, and only one or two anointed Bangladeshi folks being allowed to occupy that place in the sun is such a fallacy!  Indeed, art is further fueled, as is inspiration when people support one another.  I won’t bore you with my theories of what I call post-colonial shock syndrome, where we brown folks think that until The Man deems us legitimate literary figures, we are ghosts, so we need to greedily grab at whatever scraps of approval they throw our way and not make room for anyone else.

Farah and I suffer from no such malady.  She really got the ball rolling with this marvelous anthology, bringing together writers who reside in Bangladesh and those who live abroad, and I have started working on a collaborative theater project, called The Line, where we select 8 stories submitted to us from Bangladeshi writers from all over the world, and weave it into a play.  All the stories have to do with the visa line outside the US embassy in Dhaka.   My partner, the Target Theatre Co in the UK, and I are doing this because we want Bangladeshi writers to take center stage, literally and figuratively.  We have gotten so much encouragement and support for this project I think partially because of its spirit of collaboration and community.

Besides what I have mentioned, in Bangladesh, there is also the complicated issue of those educated in English Medium schools and those in Bangla Medium.  The former type of education is a definitive mark of class.  There are so many wonderful, brilliant writers in BD writing in Bangla, whose works have not been properly translated.  The world needs to know these writers, as they will then get an even richer picture of what this scrappy, perpetually-in- upheaval-and-yet-evolving little nation is all about, and see the talent that is out there. For me personally, I feel this will affect my craft wonderfully.  Collaboration and community will only enhance it.

SK: What are you each working on currently?

FG: There are a lot of interesting things happening at the moment, I’m the new Writer In Residence at the Commonwealth Writers website. I’m also working to finalize my own short story collection in the very near future. My fortnightly column entitled Food for Thought is ongoing and I’m working on a story “The Liar” for Sharbari’s theater Project The Line.

SA: I have three things happening at once: I am currently revising my novel Yasmine, set in Calcutta during WWII.  It is the story of a courtesan’s daughter who opens a night club to cater to the American GIs and officers pouring into the city en route to Burma. I am also preparing to direct my first feature film Villa Duniya, in Bangladesh in 2014, and I’m starting to sift through the submissions for the theater project The Line.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Visit Farah Ghuznavi’s web site and read her work:

http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/farah-ghuznavi/

http://www.zubaanbooks.com/zubaan_books_details.asp?BookID=205

http://theasianwriter.co.uk/2011/06/judgement-day/

http://www.worldschildrenonline.org/?p=273

Visit Sharbari Ahmed’s web site and read her work:

www.sharbari.com

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CZKS2VW

An excerpt from her forthcoming novel Yasmine may also be found here.

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