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Dhaka Tribune

Hermitage Residency makes a return for aspiring novelists, fiction writer

This is Bangladesh’s only writing residency bringing in award-winning authors from around the world

Update : 21 Oct 2023, 08:27 PM

Creator of The Hermitage Residency Arif Anwar speaks with Dhaka Tribune about his inspiration for establishing a special writing retreat in Dhaka. Coming back in November 2023 with new mentors and the same potential promise for fiction writers and novelists. 

In an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune’s Michella Chowdhury, he discusses his ambitions for the future of the residency, the importance of writers gathering to write, and the workshops. 

What made you think of having a writing residency in Bangladesh? What opportunities will writers get from this residency?

As far as I'm aware, Bangladesh doesn't provide any writing residencies—at least not in English. We have mostly seen this structure in the West: a writer can go somewhere solely to have the physical and mental space to write, to be immersed in a community of authors, and still be able to participate in masterclasses that enhance his or her craft. I desired to alter that.

We are offering a fantastic opportunity this year. Anjali Singh, my literary agent, will be among the mentors. Before becoming an agent, Anjali had an amazing career as an editor at the publishing houses in New York. Additionally, having her in Bangladesh will enable writers to learn about the global and American publishing landscapes and pitch real literary agents from New York. This truly is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

Who can apply and what are the requirements? Is this fully funded or does one need to pay out of pocket?

Anyone with a background in English fiction, or someone with a background in English literature who has an eye toward writing fiction (preferably a longer work like a novella or a novel) can apply. Ideally, this person has a draft of a novel already in the works.

This year, attendance at the classes and workshops is completely free. Last year, it cost Tk1,25,000 per person to attend, but it also included room and board and transportation. This year, while we are unable to cover room and board, The Hermitage Guesthouse in Srimangal will offer a discounted room rate of 50% for attendees who wish to stay there. In the future, ideally, we hope to cover everything, but we are not there yet. At this time this residency is funded solely by myself and retired BBC journalist John Darby of Toronto, who is a good friend.

I want to note that while attendance is completely free, we are asking that attendees send a security deposit of Tk5,000 as a show of good faith. This amount will reserve their space and will be refunded to them once they arrive. 

We have implemented this system so that we only reserve seats for participants who are serious about participating. However, in case of serious financial hardship, even this amount can be waived.

How do the workshops function? Will each day concentrate on a different aspect of the writing process?

Every day, we will have lectures on various topics related to writing fiction, such as dialogue, characters, tension and suspense, etc. We will concentrate on pitching projects to literary agencies, composing query letters, and an overview of the global publishing environment because my literary agent Anjali Singh will also be there. As of right now, Julia Phillips, myself, and Anjali Singh have been verified as mentors. We will be making more announcements in the next few days.

Arif Anwar

Why is it essential for individuals with a similar objective, in this case, to advance in the writing process to get together? Do such retreats also help writers overcome writers' block? 

I believe that everyone, regardless of craft, benefits from immersion in a community of practice. Since writers are by nature lonesome individuals, a residence like this one gives them the chance to interact with peers both domestically and abroad. I hope that writers will be inspired both during and after their stay at Hermitage. In that regard, I do believe that a writer's residence can help to some degree with "writer's block."

Is there a reason that this residency is genre-specific? Can we anticipate future residencies to concentrate on genres other than fiction?

Well, fiction is my speciality and since I'm one of the mentors I thought to focus on what I know best. I have plans for more genres such as non-fiction and poetry in the future.

Is there a limit on the number of participants who can work under one mentor to ensure that each participant receives sufficient time and that mentors are well-rested?

We generally keep it at a 3:1 participant-to-mentor ratio. That seems to work well given the length of the residency.

You mentioned that choosing to start this residency was mostly based on the location and your accessibility to Srimangal. How important is nature, in this case, the picturesque setting of Srimangal, to the creative process and this residency, in your opinion?

Writing is always facilitated by quiet, and Srimangal has plenty of both. Ultimately, though, the difference is determined by the community of practice. No matter where you are, you will create quality work if you are surrounded by the proper people.

How do you see this residency evolving over the years?

Well, it hasn't been easy. It's just the second year and we've been very lucky that my friend John Darby and I have been able to fund it so far. I have also made a commitment to keep it free going forward, but it's going to be difficult without external sponsorship. I am determined however to keep it going.

I also remain awestruck at the calibre of mentors we've been able to get so far at Hermitage: Omar El Akkad, Julia Phillips and Joan Silber last year. This year we have my agents Anjali Singh and Julia Phillips returning as a mentor. I intend to lean on my network in the years to come and reach beyond it to continue to bring the best writers in the world to The Hermitage Residency.

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