Being a writer was never a choice; it was a compulsion. I distracted myself as much as possible to avoid succumbing to the call. I used other writers to avoid writing, lapping up their perfectly shaped sentences so I could say to myself: why bother? You are never going to be able to write like this: “Alone in the midst of the crowd on the pier, he said to himself in a flash of anger: 'My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse’’’ (Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
This is one of my favourite lines in all of literature. I even stole it once and used it in a love letter to a young man I was trying to distract myself with.
In the end, as compulsions are wont to do, it overwhelmed me. Characters poked at me to tell their stories, usually in my sleep. When I ignored them, they became more insistent and showed up during my waking hours, flooding my consciousness with scenes, colours, wisps of dialogue. It dawned on me that I was a bit depressed, and possibly nuts. There was a constant feeling of something missing no matter how full my life was. Still I fought it. I did the only thing I could think to do, I got married and moved to New York City.
Not even connubial domesticity deterred these characters from showing up unbidden. They forced me into graduate school to study storytelling. They became more patient with me once they saw how committed I was to telling their stories. Whenever I allowed my ego or fears to take the fore, they started poking again.
My most dogged muse is a stubborn young woman named Yasmine, who lives in 1943 Calcutta. Ten years ago she told me she is descended from the Nawab of Lucknow, but is really from Chittagong and is a famed courtesan’s daughter but cannot join the family firm because she can neither sing nor flirt. Her mother suggested she find another line of work. Yasmine made a compelling case, so I decided to do it. It has resulted in a novel that required tremendous research and forced me to slow down and re think my life several times over.
If there was no real discourse about the quality of the work being produced, mine included, then we would not be taken seriously on a world stage, and we have so much to offer, so many beautiful, powerful stories to share with not just the world but with one another.
At NYU, we were warned very early on that money and fame were elusive if one pursued writing. If that is what we wanted, then we needed to find another career, because writing is work, they also admonished; because authenticity is paramount, whatever its aim, and requires a professional approach. Stephen King talks about how writing is a job and it’s great if you can pay a bill with it once in a while.
NYU was tough. People did not spare criticism and why should they? I didn’t pay all that money to be told I am a genius. I wanted to become a master storyteller. I needed the truth. It was painful, naturally. I became aware of my limitations so quickly I almost gave up many times.
Besides the usual challenges of such a profession, I have to deal with what being a Bangladeshi-American writer means. It’s been a struggle in the West. I have been pigeonholed. Slowly, I am gaining respect and some small notoriety but it was in Bangladesh that I felt fully accepted as a writer. It was in Bangladesh that my first book, a short story collection, came out and was launched at the Hay Literature Festival in 2013. It was then I witnessed first hand, the hustle for reviews from the small pool of publications that would review works in English.
When my small collection was reviewed it was universally positive. Even if people had issues with some of the stories they didn’t express it. I noticed the other books that came out before and after were also being reviewed only positively. I mentioned to friends that this was odd. They explained to me how the English language literary scene, which was embryonic in Dhaka, worked. A small group of people ran the newspapers, everyone knew everyone. Writers would call up various editors and asked for a review, usually they were obliged, a positive review was written and thus, there would be no awkward encounters at dinner parties.
This dismayed me. It meant my work was then not part of a legitimate literary platform. If there was no real discourse about the quality of the work being produced, mine included, then we would not be taken seriously on a world stage, and we have so much to offer, so many beautiful, powerful stories to share with not just the world but with one another. This mutual back patting, and ego rubbing was ultimately going to obscure us. Another problem is that all of us were being lumped together; we were all somehow literary writers. This does a disservice to every one of us. It lessens the achievements of those who pay attention to craft and it gives those who could do with more attention to craft, a false sense of where they are as writers. All writers are simply not equal. I cannot, for instance, compare Dan Brown, who is entertaining and imaginative to Marquez or my latest love Elif Shafak, who are sublime.
And then it happened. I suppose it was inevitable. A critical review of a fellow Bangladeshi writer’s novel by another Bangladeshi writer was published in the Dhaka Tribune. I did wince when I read it, thinking about how the author must feel, how hard it is not to sink into doubt when one reads such things, but I understood what was happening. This was the first honest review of a Bangladeshi writer’s work ever printed in a Bangladeshi publication. What it meant was that the bar was being raised. Some may disagree with the reviewer, and this is the beauty of it. Do I agree with the reviewer? That is irrelevant to something more imperative. A genuine forum to examine and discuss Bangladeshi English fiction had been created. This can only mean good things for the burgeoning literary scene and the quality of the fiction being created in Bangladesh. It might be painful for some but it will also compel writers to up their game and take the necessary time needed to build a powerful story. If people understand what a valuable opportunity this is it will only elevate the work and the discourse around the work. Bangladeshis are intelligent and passionate people, and they take their literature seriously. We deserve our place on the literary stage, and we are starting to earn it. Part of that is having to endure criticism. I want to leave you with the words of another critic who pulled no punches: “Mr Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking. Here is an unmistakable talent unashamed of making itself a motley to the view. The Great Gatsby
is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.” — LP Hartley, The Saturday Review
This was not the only negative review of the novel I had to read in both high school and college. I feel if Mr Fitzgerald had to bear a few criticisms, I might humble myself to bear a few too.
Sharbari Zohra 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.