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‘We have to embrace all aspects of our history and look where we don’t want to look’

  • Published at 06:18 pm September 8th, 2018
Nadeem Zaman
Photo: Rajib Dhar

Interview with Nadeem Zaman, author of 'In the Time of the Others'

Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and grew up there and in Chicago. He studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Louisville. His fiction has appeared in journals in the United States, Bangladesh, India, and Hong Kong. In this interview, he talks about his debut novel, In the Time of the Others, forthcoming from Picador.

What made you choose the Liberation War of Bangladesh as the subject matter for your first novel, In the Time of the Others? 

Stories of the Liberation War were a staple in my life since I was born. No matter what my parents or grandparents, uncles, and aunts were talking about, they would invariably come back to or reference the War. And they would do so in the most vivid details. My mother and father told the stories so well and with such rich descriptions that eventually I started imagining the scenes in my head. By the time I was an undergraduate in college I was convinced the Bangladesh Liberation War had to be presented and known about on an international platform. On a personal level the stories were so deeply imprinted on my mind that I had to make a novel out of them to process them my way. I think this is a topic about which we’ve only begun the scratch the surface on a mass, worldwide level. So many people still have no idea about the Liberation War.

It’s hard to strike that perfect balance between highlighting historical injustices and telling a story that isn’t tied down by the burden of politics and morality. How did you achieve this?   

I focused on my work and job as a writer and a storyteller. As people we all have biases of some form or degree. The Liberation War is a sensitive event and hugely emotional, not just for those who lived through it but also for those of us who grew up its shadow. The challenge was to separate myself from biases and first and foremost tell a story. Within that story as events happened, as they affected people and the way those people dealt with them or reacted to them, I kept that narrative at the forefront, not worrying about the politics or the morality. The other big challenge was to keep sentimentality at bay. Sentimentality isn’t bad, but it would encroach on the narrative and not, I believe, produce an experience for the reader that allowed them to feel what they felt naturally and come to their own conclusions. Also, who wants to be lectured in a novel? We read novels because we want to be told a story above all. If in the course of that story we find morality, politics, lessons, perspectives that we abhor and those we share then wonderful. As a writer my job is not to try to achieve a perfect balance that’s going to satisfy every single reader. That is an exercise in futility. Once a novel is out in the world it becomes subject to all its range of reactions. As long as I’ve told the story I wanted to tell to the best of my abilities, I’ve done my job.

How do you deal with the difficulties of writing sympathetic characters that come from backgrounds (such as Biharis) that played controversial roles in the narratives of our history?

I think this is one those areas of controversy and sensitivity that has not been fully reckoned with, or needs more nuanced and in-depth discussion. We have to embrace all aspects of our history and look where we don’t want to look, no matter how much it hurts. We can’t pick and choose and we can’t erase what happened. Erasure doesn’t mean something didn’t happen. During the war and after the Pakistan army outright denied the mass killing of Bengalis, trying to erase it from history. But they failed. Because those who had lived it didn’t allow it to happen. It’s because of such people that to this day we have valuable information about the Liberation War preserved and kept alive.

My mother’s father had a friend on whom one of the characters in the novel is based – a proud, homegrown Bengali who never thought of another home besides Bangladesh, but because his forebears had come from a so-called “non-Bengali” background generations ago, he was targeted as a “Bihari,” and therefore a sympathizer with the Pakistani regime, and killed. But written within the narrative are hints of why this man (in my book) was targeted, and it was because of others like him who were anti-Bengali that had frustrated and angered Bengalis into lashing out en masse, and in several occasions killing good people, Bengalis and supporters of Bangaldesh’s independence.

Tell us a bit about how Picador ended picking up In the Time of the Others?

The simple answer: Thanks to my inexhaustible agent Kanishka Gupta of Writer’s Side. We didn’t know of each other until I sent him a query with samples after hearing about him from another publisher I’d been in communication with, Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Publishing in Leicester, UK, and within days Kan asked to see the full manuscript. Shortly thereafter he offered to represent In the Time of the Others, and about two months later Picador made the offer to buy and publish it. They were among eight or nine publishers Kan had sent the book to, and I was over the moon when they so enthusiastically made their offer. It all happened within a period of two months or so. 

You mentioned you write every day. Is there any other aspect of the craft that you think writers should pay more attention to?

The work is all that needs attention and dedication. Everything else is non-essential. Nothing is a substitute for sitting down every day and getting those words out. The best way to learn to write is to write.

What are you working on next?

I’m thankful to be working away. There’s so much anxiety about following up a first novel with a second as soon as possible that it’s enough to have a reason to get back to work every day. I’ll leave it at that…for now.