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English fiction from Bangladesh: A vibrant prospect

  • Published at 01:23 pm April 13th, 2019
Bangladeshi English fiction

Essay

Since Bangladesh went through many historical stages in its search for identity during and after the British colonial rule—East Bengal (1905-1911) and East Pakistan (1947-1971)—it’s really challenging to periodize the corpus of Bangladeshi writing in English. The historical watersheds in the subcontinent changed identities of writers, poets and ordinary people over the last two centuries. So, while fiction produced in English from this part of the world stretches back to the 1860s (Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote his first novel in English, Rajmohan’s Wife, in 1864 and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain wrote a feminist utopia in English, Sultana’s Dream, in 1905), what we now call distinctly Bangladeshi English fiction can be traced—for a comprehensive discussion—from the emergence of Bangladesh as a new country in 1971.

The first generation of English fiction writers from Bangladesh started their writing career before the 1971 Liberation War. Evidently, Syed Waliullah was among the earliest creative writers in English from Bangladesh. Though he wrote mainly in Bangla, he translated many of his writings into English; he also wrote in English a novel, The Ugly Asian (which wasn’t published until 2013 by the Bangla Academy), and a few short stories. However, it was Razia Khan Amin, a faculty of English Department at Dhaka University, who wrote prolifically in this period. She proved her bilingual literary prowess quiet early in life, writing her first Bengali novel, Bot Tolar Upannayas, when she was only 18. But her English fiction, Draupadi, came out much later.

Arguably, this first generation comprises only a handful of English fiction writers at home—Syed Manzoorul Islam and Niaz Zaman are two other fiction writers writing in English—both coming from the English Department of Dhaka University. The Dance and Other Stories, a short story collection in English by Niaz Zaman, was published in 1996. Khademul Islam, editor of Bengal Lights Books, wrote quite a good number of short stories including “An Ilish Story”. 

But why didn’t Bangladesh see the emergence of a significant number of fiction writers in the 1970s like its other South Asian counterparts: India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka? It’s not difficult for anyone familiar with Bangladeshi history to understand that since the country was created out of a language movement, creative writing in English was not very popular during this time. As Khademul Islam points out in his article, “Life and times of literary magazines” and Fakrul Alam in “In the streets of Dhaka”, it was rather difficult for aspiring creative writers to ward off the nationalist sentiment and start writing in English just after the independence of Bangladesh. This trend continued throughout the 1980s and early the 1990s.

However, from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s English fiction from Bangladeshi/Bangladeshi-origin writers witnessed a considerable boom. And the first major success came from writers of Bangladeshi diaspora. Australian-Bangladeshi writer Adib Khan wrote a painful account of a middle-aged man coping with loss and struggling to identify with a nation, culture, and family in his debut novel, Seasonal Adjustments, which won the 1995 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book. It’s important to point here that preceding and during this period, there was already a profound and ever-growing international appetite for fiction by South Asian authors. Indian authors like Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, and Arundhati Roy were familiar to anyone with a passing interest in contemporary writing, as they often appeared on bestseller lists and won prestigious awards. Like other South Asian countries—India and Pakistan—Bangladeshi culture was also getting popularity around the world. So when Monica Ali, a Bangladeshi-born British writer, wrote her debut novel, Brick Lane—a book about the immigrant milieu of East London through the eyes of two Bangladeshi sisters—it didn’t fail to earn its due international acclaim. In fact, it did quite well with a gallant entry into the 2003 Man Booker Prize shortlist. 

Also, there are a host of other Bangladeshi diaspora writers who produced a significant body of work in the early and late 2000s. Bangladeshi-born Rekha Waheed explored dilemmas faced by modern Asian women in Britain in her fiction, The A-Z Guide to Arranged Marriage (Monsoon Press, 2005) and Saris and the City (Little Black Dress, 2005); Kia Abdullah with a similar background looked into the trials and tribulations of living between two cultures in Love, Life and Assimilation (Adlibbed Ltd, 2006); and Swedish-Bangladeshi Dilruba Z. Ara portrayed a young girl’s struggle against the superstitions and constraints of a rural society in A List of Offences (CreateSpace, 2007). 

However, it was toward the end of 2000s that a new wave started both at home and abroad. This new generation of writers seems more politically conscious, and has already shown a genuine effort to limn the history of the new nation into fiction. British-Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam drew a significant amount of attention to Bangladesh’s history with her debut novel, A Golden Age (John Murray, 2007), winning the Best First Book in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2008. Set against the 1971 Liberation War, the book tells the story of a middle-aged widow who does everything she can, facing death and destruction, to protect her two children. Anam also has two other novels—The Good Muslim (HarperCollins, 2011) and The Bones of Grace (HarperCollins, 2016)—to her credit. 

K Anis Ahmed, who embarked on the scene with short fiction, published his debut novel, The World in My Hands (Random House India, 2013), to wide acclaim. His book is a political satire chronicling the fate of two friends who find their bonds bitterly tested when they are caught on opposite sides of a crisis that upends Bangladesh’s social order after an army takeover. Ahmed’s first published novella, Forty Steps (Minnesota Review, 2001), was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He also published a collection of short stories, Good Night, Mr. Kissinger & Other Stories (UPL and The Unnamed Press, 2014).

In 2014, Bangladeshi-born British novelist Zia Haider Rahman published his debut novel, In the Light of What We Know (Farrar), to international acclaim. Set mostly during the war in Afghanistan at the beginning of this century and the 2008 financial crash, Rahman’s book bristles with ideas about mathematics and politics, history and religion. He won the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize, among other international accolades, for his novel.

In the new wave Sanchita Islam’s Gungi Blues (Chipmunka Publishing, 2008), Mahmudur Rahman’s Killing the Water (Penguin Books India, 2010), Manzu Islam’s Song of Our Swampland (Peepal Tree, 2010), Neamat Imam’s The Black Coat (Penguin Books India, 2013)Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country (Hamish Hamilton, 2014), Tanwi Nandini Islam’s Bright Lines (Penguin, 2015) and Shazia Omar’s Dark Diamond (Bloomsbury India, 2016) have also expanded the Bangladeshi English fiction scene in the literary world. Each year, more and more writers are enriching the recent wave that has started since the late 2000s. Earlier in 2018, Bangladeshi-Canadian writer Arif Anwar emerged remarkably with his debut novel, The Storm (HarperCollins Canada). Then came Bangladeshi-American writer Nadeem Zaman, whose debut novel, In the Time of the Others (Picador India, 2018), was published last year. This year Bangladeshi-American writer Sharbari Z Ahmed’s debut novel, Dust under Our Feet, is going to be published from Amazon IN/ Westland Publishing and late Numair Choudhury’s novel, Babu Bangladesh, from HarperCollins India. 

It is often claimed that diaspora writers creating fiction in English cash in on Western appetite for exotica, and perhaps the charge has an element of truth. But writers have always been stimulated by an eager audience. We see that readers in the 1960s and 1970s developed an appetite worldwide for Latin American fiction, and many fine authors emerged to supply the demand. The fact is that Bangladeshi diaspora has produced an impressive crop of talented authors who benefit by having an eager international audience for their work. In the long run, their books sell not just because readers abroad are interested in Bangladesh or South Asia; those readers often became interested because they liked the books these authors produced.

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The soaring success of Bangladeshi/Bangladeshi-origin writers in the global literary scene brought a new tide of creativity among the homegrown writers. But what also inspired them was the emergence of new publishing houses and launching of new literary magazines in Dhaka. Bengal Lights Books (BLB) came into being in 2011 shortly after the first Hay Festival in Bangladesh. Under the aegis of K Anis Ahmed, and with editor Khademul Islam and poet-essayist Kaiser Haq on board, BLB has published a significant number of short story collections and novels by homegrown and Bangladeshi diaspora writers. Some of the publications of BLB in fiction include: Forty Steps by K Anis Ahmed; Truth or Dare by Nadia Kabir Barb; The Lovers & Leavers by Abeer Y Hoque; Zak & Zara by Samir Asran Rahman; On the Side of the Enemy: Short Stories in Translation, translated by Khademul Islam; The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction, edited by Arunava Sinha and Pushpita Alam; The Bird Catcher and Other Stories by Fayeza Hasanat. BLB has also published Ikhtisad Ahmed’s debut short story collection, Yours, Etcetera, which was launched at the Dhaka Literary Festival 2015. Ikhtisad has also three other plays—The Deliverance of Sanctuary, Esne in Taberna and MADE—to his credit.

Dhaka-based writer Saad Z Hossain has made an impressive journey into sci-fi fantasy genre with his two acclaimed novels, Escape from Baghdad! (Unnamed Press and Aleph, 2015) and Djinn City (Unnamed Press, Aleph and Bengal Lights Publications, 2017). Both of his books have appeared on the year-end lists of various media such as Scroll.in and Financial Times. His new novella, The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, is forthcoming from Tor Books. 

Earlier in 2014, BLB launched the first issue of Bengal Lights, an international literary magazine published from Dhaka. In the same year, Arts & Letters, a monthly literary supplement of Dhaka Tribune, came out to offer a new platform for both aspiring and accomplished fiction writers. Six Seasons Review, a literary magazine of Bengal Publications, also brought out its new issues after a long hiatus in 2013 under the editorship of Fakrul Alam. It is also important to note here that these new literary magazines inherited largely from old, defunct journals, such as Form (brought out by Shawkat Hossain, Kashinath Roy, Firdaus Azim, and Kaiser Haq) and New Values (brought out by K S Murshid). Undoubtedly, all these new establishments along with the existing ones—University Press Ltd. (UPL), writers.ink, Daily Star literature page, and New Age literature page (now defunct)—has given a boost to the English literary scene in Bangladesh. Daily Star Books (DSB) published a few new authors from home and abroad: Sharbari Z Ahmed’s debut collection of short stories, The Ocean of Mrs Nagai (2013); Farah Ghuznavi’s Fragments of Riversong (2013) and Syed Manzoorul Islam’s The Merman's Prayer and Other Stories (2013). Bengal Publications is another publishing house that publishes quality creative writing from Bangladesh and around the world. Voices by Munize Manzur, Piazza Bangladesh by Neeman Sobhan and Baghdad Immortals by Saad Z Hossain are some of their best titles till date. 

The number of English writers in Bangladesh is many, and the themes they address are too varied and numerous to detail in the scope of this article. However, before moving on to the concluding remarks, it would be enlightening to touch upon a few new faces in fiction who have already shown their brilliance by writing short stories for literary supplements and magazines. Rafee Shaams is the author of a short story collection, Who Even Cares Who Cares? and is set to work on his debut novel, Haramistan; Charles Pick Fellowship winner Rahad Abir is finishing his debut novel, Blue Bengal; and Marzia Rahman’s debut novel is forthcoming from Bengal Publications. There are also a growing number of fiction writers across the country who regularly writes short stories for literary supplements of different English dailies and magazines. 

The launching of Dhaka Lit Festival has contributed significantly to Bangladeshi fiction writing in English. With growing enthusiasm for indigenous and community culture, live readings and literary events, the DLF has given aspiring writers a wonderful opportunity to know many aspects of writing from prominent writers around the world who speak at the festival. 

Undoubtedly, Bangladeshi English fiction is now expanding rapidly with more and more writers contributing to the corpus every year. The diversity and energy they are putting into words is something that any country’s literature should be proud of. Their creativity and innovativeness would certainly stimulate the growth of the new generation of writers from Bangladesh. 

[Note: The following articles have been consulted in preparing this essay: Khademul Islam’s “Life and times of literary magazines”; Fakrul Alam’s “In the streets of Dhaka”; Afsan Chowdhury’s “English voice in moonsoonland”; Rashid Askari’s “How are Bangladesh’s English writers doing?”; and Niaz Zaman’s “Syed Waliullah Existentialism, Nostalgia, Nationalism”.]

Mir Arif is an MFA (Creative Writing) candidate at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He writes fiction regularly and some of his short stories have appeared in Kitaab, Himal Southasian, The Penmen Review, Six Seasons Review and Arts & Letters.