Farah Ghuznavi is part of a generation of Bangladeshi writers beginning to make a significant impact on the international stage. A ‘(barely) recovering workaholic’, she writes poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction, has a regular column for The Daily Star (Bangladesh’s biggest English-language paper), and works as a professional translator from Bangla to English.
Last year, she edited Lifelines, an anthology of stories by Bangladeshi women. Farah is currently writer-in-residence for the Commonwealth Writers, and her work was included in World Literature Today’s Bangladesh on the World Stage feature. Outside writing, she has worked extensively on development issues — political participation, microcredit loans for the poor, adult education for women — with organisations such as BRAC, Grameen Bank, and the UN.
Here, Farah talks to The Missing Slate’s Jacob Silkstone about the dangers of conforming to stereotype, the hidden riches of Bangla literature, and the five main reasons not to be a writer…
To me, you seem to be an incredibly energetic writer — in addition to being writer-in-residence at Commonwealth Writers, you’re a columnist for The Daily Star, you’ve participated in a number of literary festivals and you recently edited an anthology of new writing from Bangladesh, Lifelines. Even so, you recently wrote about that overwhelming ‘desire to procrastinate’. Are you sure that’s something you suffer from? (!) Do you find yourself prioritising fiction over journalism / editing / public readings?
Actually, it’s the other way around! Writing fiction is more mysterious and far more challenging for me than the familiar environs of column writing (which I’ve been doing for years, and am far more disciplined at), editing or translating. I suspect that’s because I feel more in control with respect to the latter three categories. With fiction, you’re never quite sure whether you can do it until you have actually done it. And even when you get the words down on the page, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the story has emerged in the form that you’ve visualised it — far from it.
With regard to procrastination, I think what I meant was that I put off the more challenging task, the one I am most dreading getting to grips with, for the longest time. In the interim, I’m still working — I’m just working on everything else! I’m a (barely) recovering workaholic. Ideally, I should be attending one of those support groups, because I fall off the wagon with monotonous regularity, getting caught up in all the things I need to do and then suddenly looking around a month later and realising how much time has passed. So I understand that it might sound contradictory, but it’s true that I work almost continuously, even as I put off working on the things that I am most challenged by.
I can’t speak for others, but in my case, my development experience and my wider political views directly influence my writing. Many of the things that I’ve seen and experienced, and the people that I have spoken to, have left a strong impression on me — and a profound desire to communicate those stories to a wider audience. It’s partly what you write about, of course. Murder mysteries or chick lit might not require a great deal of political analysis! But I think it’s important for writers of contemporary literary fiction to engage with the ground realities of the world that they live in. That doesn’t necessarily mean direct involvement in politics per se. But I do believe that truly authentic writing comes from a deeper understanding and application of context. There’s a wonderful line from Margaret Atwood, who says that “Fiction always has a moral dimension because human beings have a moral dimension.” I think that holds just as true if you substitute the word “political” for the word “moral”, because in the final analysis, we are all political animals, whether we realise it or not. I certainly am!
Your work has appeared in a number of online magazines, and you’re very active on social media — do you feel that the internet has led to any significant changes in the writer’s role? Do you feel that your online presence has genuinely helped you to reach a wider audience?
Yes and yes. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s no question that the Internet has opened up more opportunities for writers to put their work out there, whereas earlier, traditional publishing could only accommodate a limited number. On the other hand, self-publishing and the democratic nature of the Internet has also meant that there is a lot of mediocre writing out there, and it can be hard work to sort the good from the bad from the indifferent. I guess in the end, you have to be selective about what you read, and hopefully the best e-zines and websites will eventually rise to the top.
The same applies to the issue of online presence. I know many writers who are very active on social media and spend a lot of time promoting their work. In fact, we are all told that a writer’s job description now includes an enormous amount of self-promotion. I understand and sympathise with the writer’s dilemma, but I think it’s dull for readers to be bombarded with sales messages, so I usually try to provide interesting free content, and I’m not particularly hard-line in my approach to promoting it – especially in comparison with some of my peers. I’m also grateful to have some wonderful supporters, who help out a lot by spreading the word. If you like a writer’s work, then that’s the best thing you can do for them, as a reader, or a friend.
As for the writer’s own approach to promotion, I think the best thing you can do is to put your work out there, and if people want to read it, they will. If they don’t, no amount of pushing/promotion is going to make a difference. What I actually like best about the Internet and social media is that it has allowed me to connect with fellow writers – and other people with common literary interests – as well as, of course, people who are interested in reading my own work.
In his introduction to the World Literature Today feature on Bangladesh, David Shook writes that “English-language literature in Bangladesh has taken longer to assume its role in the subcontinental boom pioneered by writers from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.” Why do you think that is? Do you agree with Shook’s suggestion that contemporary Bangla literature is a ‘closed system’ which rarely engages with world literature?
After the War of Liberation in 1971, the English language took a back seat in Bangladesh. For political reasons, we had an entire generation of people who received an education almost exclusively in Bangla. As it happens, I’m one of them! With parents who grew up in English-medium schools during the tail end of the British Raj period, I was the sacrificial lamb sent off to Bangla-medium school to compensate for everyone else’s shortcomings in Bangla. Until the age of 16, my entire education took place in Bangla. I still do any mathematical calculations in Bangla first, and then translate the numbers into English. I learned my English primarily at home, also as a result of being a voracious reader. But in national terms, I feel we essentially lost a generation of potential English-language writers to the teaching policies of that period, and are just beginning to make up for that lost time now.
I don’t know enough to speak authoritatively about contemporary Bangla literature being a “closed system” or otherwise, but I do feel that the enormous riches of contemporary and earlier Bangla literature have not been made sufficiently available to an international audience, and that is primarily due to the lack of skilled translators. I would really like to see that change. I am delighted to have been able to connect the wonderful Bangla novelist Selina Hossain, to a friend of mine in India who is a brilliant translator, Arunava Sinha. After I gave Arunava a copy of Selina Apa’s novel “Mohini-r Biye” — with the strategic aim of interesting him in her work — he immediately expressed an interest in translating that book. So “Mohini-r Biye” will be joining the ranks of well-translated Bangla novels sometime in 2014!
Earlier this year, Tahmima Anam was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. She also appears in the World Literature Today feature on Bangladeshi writers… Do you think there’s any concrete difference between a ‘British novelist’ and a ‘Bangladeshi novelist’? Is it reductive to group writers by nationality?
Well, in Tahmima’s case, I’m guessing that she has dual nationality, and she can certainly claim to be both. In more general terms, there appears to be considerable debate on the world stage about which writers can claim to represent a country or nationality. Tope Folarin’s recent success has brought that debate into sharp relief, with many raising the question of whether he can be considered an “African writer”, given that he was born and grew up in the US and has only been to Nigeria once, as a baby, for his naming ceremony. I think there’s probably a useful distinction to be made between writers who write from their country of origin or have very close ties to it, and those who belong to the diaspora. As for whether or not it’s reductive to group writers by nationality, until we come up with a better criterion, that one is probably here to stay!
As vibrant as Bangladesh is, it has to be acknowledged that the country faces a number of problems: climate change, corruption, millions living below the poverty line… Do you feel that it’s essential for a Bangladeshi writer to address at least some of those problems in their work? Perhaps we can apply this question on a larger scale: is our writing somehow less valid if we choose to be apolitical?
I don’t really think anyone can tell a writer what they should be writing about — I certainly would not presume to do that. People should write what they want to write, and readers can decide whether or not that’s what they want to read. But I do think that if a writer wants to tell a story about Bangladesh, then they have the responsibility to render a reasonably accurate picture of the society that they are claiming to describe.
As I said earlier, I don’t think there is such a thing as “apolitical”. There is a conscious decision to address — or choose not to address — certain issues, which is a personal choice. What I consider far more problematic is the claim to address an issue, and the subsequent failure to do so with any degree of authenticity or accuracy. The latter is more common than we might like, partly because writers who come from or write about developing countries are often expected to “tailor” their stories to a Western audience. Chimamanda Adichie has written about the danger of a single narrative, and I think she is spot on in her assertions in that regard. Feeding into stereotypes, which are often inaccurate — or at the very least, blunt force instruments — does not in my mind speak of great integrity as a writer. And that is not the kind of literature I like to read, either. The desire to reach a wider audience or to sell more books may be understandable enough, but it cannot be the only — and in my opinion, should not even be the primary — determinant of what a person writes.
Farah Ghuznavi on her top five…
…Ideal dinner party guests:
I’m afraid they would probably all be writers — and it would be very hard to choose just five! So I’m just going to mention the first five people who come to mind. Based on their interviews and (in some cases) personal conversations, I would choose André Brink, Manil Suri, Elif Shafak, Samit Basu and Nilanjana Roy. As I said, those are just the first five that sprang to mind. There are many, many others I would like to add, given half a chance – beginning with Chimamanda Adichie, Amitav Ghosh and the dancer, Alarmel Valli.
I will leave out the Lifelines anthology contributors, because I might be accused of having a bias in that respect! And once again, I’ll go with the first five that come to mind. So let me say Selina Hossain, Mahmud Rahman, Anisul Hoque, Shaheen Akhter and of course, one of my heroes, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain.
…Reasons not to be a writer:
Hmm, you might be spoilt for choice with that one! I think I’ll go with:
a) The frequent lack of satisfaction with what you actually manage to write
b) Questions of mental health (I mean, let’s face it, you’re writing stories based on the voices in your head!)
c) Innumerable neuroses/profound insecurity — not unrelated to the previous point
d) The inability to enjoy most experiences without (at least internally) taking notes
e) Dealing with rejection on a regular basis
Honestly, I can’t imagine why anyone would write if they weren’t driven to!
Jacob Silkstone is Literature Editor for the magazine.