Interview with Arif Anwar, author of 'The Storm'
Bangladeshi-Canadian writer Arif Anwar's entry into the literary world has been remarkable with his debut novel, The Storm. It has been published by HarperCollins in Canada, Simon & Schuster in the US, and Aleph in India. It is scheduled to be published in Germany, Italy, and Turkey as well. Born in Chittagong, Anwar worked for BRAC and UNICEF Myanmar on poverty alleviation and public health issues. He has a PhD in education from the University of Toronto. In this interview with Dhaka Tribune’s Mir Arif, he talks about his literary journey, his passion for reading, and how he has tapped his bilingual experience to write the book.
Your debut novel, The Storm, is receiving rave reviews including one in the famous New York Times Book Review. Did you anticipate getting such good reviews?
As a writer you always hope and dream for these things but I was not optimistic. My novel has an unusual structure, many characters and plot lines is set in a country that North Americans are not very familiar with. There also wasn’t a lot of advance hype because I am a new writer without any kind of network in the publishing or creative writing world. But my agents and editors were very excited and accomplished authors such as Shilpi Somaya Gowda, who were so kind to blurb me, really loved the book. So, those were some early signs that gave me hope.
Tell us a little about your literary journey, when, why, and how you started to write.
I always loved reading, but never thought of trying to write until my early thirties, so I’m a late bloomer. I guess I always enjoyed consuming fiction so much I never realized that it might be fun to create as well. I took one class with Dennis Bock at The University of Toronto on novel writing. I met a group of aspiring talented novelists through that class and we kept meeting after the class was over. I was working on a novel during that class. I’d written more than 400 pages of it before I realized that it wasn’t really going anywhere. Some of the stories and characters from that novel were incorporated into The Storm.
The Storm traverses many historical epochs, from 1970 Bhola Cyclone to partition of India to WWII. What did you actually set out to write this book and did it require a lot of research?
I recently read a review of my novel where The Storm was called “a thousand page novel in three hundred pages,” and that was pretty much where I was going with this book. I challenged myself to see how many characters and events I could pack into a standard sized novel, one that harkened back to the epic novels of years past yet still maintained a page-turning pace. I also wanted to see if I could pull it off with an unconventional but very deliberate structure.
The Storm did require a lot of reading and research, including into the Burmese Theatre during the Second World War. It’s a good thing I enjoy that part of the writing process.
In contrast to linearity, The Storm has a very malleable plot. Fragments of stories create a larger whole, providing tasks to readers to connect these fragments. How did you develop this complex yet beautiful plot?
The book is structured for circularity and disorientation, in some ways mimicking a cyclone, with a “build-up,” an “eye”, and the “surge”. As I said earlier, it was a challenge to myself to see if I could pull it off. The risk with this design is that it calls for faith on the part of the reader to forge through the initial disorientation before reaching the reward of all the pieces coming together in the second half. In that way, the structure of the novel creates its own momentum.
In an interview with Bengali Literary Resource Center in Canada you said you brought some of the sensibility of Bengali language, especially its emotive aspects, to writing The Storm. Was it a deliberate process on your part?
I want to quickly acknowledge BLRC, a fantastic group of Bengali literature lovers in Toronto who were some of the firsts to bring attention to my novel.
Bangla is my first love. I admire its capacity to become charged with passion and emotion, its incantatory aspects, its lyricism. I first learned to read in Bangla, so it has always been the groundwater that feeds my imagination. In that way, I think of The Storm as a Bangla novel—an uponnyash—conceived of and written in English.
In a recent tweet, you said you'd never published a single short story before publishing The Storm. Tell us how difficult it was to get published for the first time by big publishers.
It was difficult. I faced many rejections from agents before Ayesha Pande offered to represent me. Similarly, all US publishers passed on the book but for Rakesh Satyal at Atria Books (Simon and Schuster). The fact that both these individuals are of South Asian heritage is no coincidence. It's an example of the additional challenges faced by writers who are people of color trying to break into the North American market by telling stories of places and people that are unfamiliar.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Write every day.