Sharbari Z Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-born American fiction writer. Her debut short story collection, ‘The Ocean of Mrs Nagai: Stories’ (Daily Star Books) was published in 2013. Her first novel, ‘Dust Under Our Feet,’ is forthcoming. She also writes for TV and films. In this interview, conducted via email, she speaks to Dhaka Tribune's Sabrina Fatma Ahmad and talks about her work and shares her excitement about joining the Dhaka Lit Fest this year.
In your last interview with Dhaka Tribune, you mentioned a number of projects like The Line (in collaboration with fellow DLF speaker Ikhtisad Ahmed), the screenplay for Dervish, and we’re also excited with the news that you’ll be writing the screenplay for The Rickshaw Girl. How’s all that going? On that note, how do you juggle so many large projects?
I’ve finished Rickshaw Girl and it is now in the hands of the director, Amitabh Reza Chowdhury. That was great fun to write because it involved animated bits and magic realism, and Mitali Bose Perkins’ novel of the same name, on which it is based, was delightful. Dervish, which is based on a short story I wrote for Wasafiri in 2015, is on hold for the moment as I focus on two things: a TV show I am developing and The Line, which we envision as a limited TV series about Bangladeshi immigration to the US. Ikhtisad Ahmed, my co-writer, and I have divided up the episodes — three each — that take place during various presidential administrations. I was working on Rickshaw Girl , so Ikhtisad got started on his episodes. We actually plan to work on it when we meet in Dhaka before the DLF. A tiny writer’s room of two. Working with an up and coming talent like Ikhtisad has been a joy.
As for juggling: Sometimes I work simultaneously on things — for instance I worked on Rickshaw Girl and when I needed to step back a bit I worked on my short fiction. Sometimes it’s just one thing at a time–like with Quantico.
Your work with Quantico was particularly encouraging for viewers here, because showrunners were finally bringing in female writers of South Asian descent to add authenticity to the characters. Considering the recent success of writers like Aziz Ansari, and actors like Riz Ahmed making history, do you feel like there’s finally a movement for greater inclusion for artists and writers of different racial and religious backgrounds, or are we still sitting on the runway, waiting to take off?
There is greater inclusion. We are light years behind the UK in that respect, but yes there is change. Quantico was a game changer. When the network cast Priyanka Chopra, they made history, as did she and continues to do so. The show kicked that diversity ball down a very long field. I was moved and excited when Riz and Ansari won Emmys. I am hoping it means more complex and nuanced roles for deshis in Hollywood. Priyanka is developing a new sitcom for ABC. This is very good news — as long as they stay away from stereotypes and jokes that are low hanging fruit. I am very hopeful. But only time will tell what is really being accomplished. Are we mere tokens? Are awards being handed out to mollify restive people of colour? Hollywood has a tendency to think: Oh, let’s throw them some bones to prove how inclusive and liberal we are and yet continues to put forth work that is one dimensional and cements harmful stereotypes. The way Muslims are often portrayed still needs to be rectified. Though strides have been made. Fewer terrorists. Quantico was instrumental in that.
What do you think your field will look like in 25 years?
In 25 years we are going to see more women directors helming films and more people of colour at the forefront. I hope we also have studio heads who are both women and of colour. I think TV will surpass films and streaming entertainment will make it almost unnecessary to leave the house. Which is not that great. I don’t want to watch Star Wars Episode 85 on a TV. We are also going to see more fantastic writers of Bangladeshi origin emerge and storm the international scene –hopefully a lot of women — who don’t only write about being Bangladeshi — who are just great storytellers.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience of Dhaka’s literary scene so far?
Ah, Dhaka’s literary scene. I can only speak about the one where writers are writing in English. Bangladesh has a long and noble tradition of storytelling in Bangla. The English literary scene is in its infancy. Well, I am on the margins of it. I don’t live in Dhaka and I have also branched out, writing for TV and films. This is what I have observed and I could be wrong: It’s a burgeoning scene, in the throes of labour. As such, it is both exciting in its potential and still immature. It is ruled by the elite as of now, is insular and cliquish. So, there are dilettantes and wannabes who don’t actually grasp that writing is an arduous craft, and that one has to be willing to lay oneself bare to write a single true sentence and then there are really committed talents who are working hard, taking their time and creating works of art. They are willing to be vulnerable, even ridiculed and criticised. Just because one is born into an insular and privileged world does not mean one cannot be a wonderful writer or bear witness to the human condition, conversely an English medium education is not going to guarantee that one is Atwood or Keats. I have received a lot of support from writers in the scene and count one or two as great friends. I have high hopes.
What are you looking forward to most about this year’s DLF?
I am looking forward to just being in Dhaka, connecting with other writers and leading thinkers, and soaking in the literary atmosphere. I think the directors have put together an amazing line up and will continue to do so in years to come. For me it is also an opportunity to reconnect with my roots. I am hoping to leave recharged and inspired to continue working. I have a lot on my plate and being around other writers–my tribe–will be a boost.