Shazia Omar discusses conformity, community spirit, and connections in a candid conversation
It’s 3:00pm, and Shazia and I are sitting in her comfy, book-lined living room, doubled over, clutching our stomachs and laughing till our sides hurt. The “joke” that got us going isn’t really funny at all – we’re commiserating over the trials of being a writer in the great age of self-promotion. Her latest novel Dark Diamond, published by Bloomsbury India was released recently to mixed reviews, causing no small ripple in the relatively small community of local readers of books in English. If either the praise or the flak is getting to her, one can’t tell by simply looking at the popular yogilates practitioner, who maintains an aura of serene acceptance.
“You learn and you grow from every experience. I’m just happy to have completed it [Dark Diamond] and brought it out. I’m not really promoting this one as enthusiastically,” she admits, of the book that has been described by William Dalrymple as a “rollicking, rip-roaring, swashbuckling romp”. She expands a bit about the scope of the project, the research involved, and the truth behind the cliché about the suffering and self-flagellation required to produce a novel. “And then you have to go put yourself out there and try and convince people to pick up your book, even though no one really reads any more,” she exclaims, setting us both off again.
And putting herself out there for this book could not have been a pleasant experience. As effusive as the compliments have been from the fans, the criticism from the detractors has been particularly excoriating. Both parties latch on to the subject of the research and factual accuracy in the novel, so that’s where we turn our attention. Dark Diamond required some five years of reading and researching on the period in Bengal history that provides the setting for the story. “The history of this region isn’t as well documented as it is post Partition [of the Indian Subcontinent]. I mean, you just have so much more material on 1971 and the events leading up to it, but go a little further back and you mostly have to lean on work by other biographers and historians. We haven’t preserved that much.”
Creativity comes totally from a place of authenticity. Nobody could create what you created, it’s so individual, so I don’t think you’re being inauthentic if you’re not writing from your own experience. But you may not be credible
Doesn’t this put restrictions on creative licence, I ask her. She references Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel, who urges for creative writing to be viewed separately from fact. “Of course accuracy and fact are important, but you also need to have fun with it!” Does she feel that the literary scene for writers writing in English leave us at a disadvantage by its suspicion of anything that isn’t literary fiction? In part. “There’s this idea that everything you write has to be [Zia Hyder Rahman’s] In the light of what we know, which is a great book, but is that what readers always want? Sometimes you want to lighten up, have an adventure, otherwise how can one be creative?”
The focus then, is on who is reading the kind of stories Bangladeshi writers writing in English can write authentically about. “As you said, it’s such a closed, small pool here, everyone reading it also knows the author [laughs]. The niche that we fit in is so small, like Bangladeshi English writing, and then living in the tri-states, our experiences are super narrow. Maybe because we’re not the mainstream public – if we were living like we are now, in Boston or something, we would be the mainstream public. It works in our favour because everywhere you go, there’s crazy stuff happening in Dhaka, and they don’t have to read about it, but we can write about it [laughs], but then who would be reading all this? I mean, we’re relating to a Western, American/Eurocentric frame of thinking, ideals and norms and when we write, we’re writing to that same kind of thinking, but then maybe they’re first of all not reading it, and secondly wouldn’t really connect to it.”
How hard or important is it to be authentic in this country? “I definitely feel like we’re living in a very homogenous society, if you look at religious norms or social behaviours and family patterns, in general people seem to have the same kind of expectations, so to be yourself, to express yourself, to be how you want to be somewhere where everybody else isn’t doing that so much, you get noticed, you get singled out, your life might be threatened – it’s not appreciated. It’s stamped out: Conformity is super important. It’s difficult, then, to be authentic. In terms of writing authentically, do you write something to be true to something you’re passionate about or something that is important to you? Not confining yourself, not just for the sake of fantasy or imagination, but it can also be a security issue – do you write about Islam, which is very relevant and important in the world today, and maybe to you, but if you step outside of the homogenous zone…” she trails off with a meaningful look. “Creativity comes totally from a place of authenticity. Nobody could create what you created, it’s so individual, so I don’t think you’re being inauthentic if you’re not writing from your own experience. But you may not be credible[laughs].”
She laments on the disappearing bookstores, the proliferation of smartphones and digital entertainment that distract readers
We swap stories about writing exercises of the past. In addition to her writing, her yoga, and her work in the development sector, Shazia is also known amongst her friends for her tireless efforts at building support networks for aspiring writers. Having spearheaded the writers collective Writers Block, and currently involved with a different group called Pen Warriors, she’s a great believer in the community. “Without Writers Block, I don’t think I could have done this book at all … just going in every week, sharing … Like a Diamond was completely done while at Writers Block. Dark Diamond started off with the whole group, but then was done with input from two or three members giving weekly feedback, multiple readings. And then there was the publishing, and I worked with an editor, also very helpful. It was a very collaborative process, and I think that’s something we need to keep us sane. That, and remembering to have fun. It’s advice I need to give myself a lot too [laughs].”
Wrapping up on the note about community and collaboration, Shazia takes a moment to address the fact that more people need to read to allow for a diversity of readers, which in turn help creative writers. She laments on the disappearing bookstores, the proliferation of smartphones and digital entertainment that distract readers, especially young readers, and hopes that parents, teachers, and writers can come into some kind of concord so that reading can be fun again.
Sabrina F Ahmad is Features Editor, Dhaka Tribune.