Essay on three contemporary female fiction writers from Bangladesh
Like other parts of South Asia, Bangladesh’s literary landscape in recent decades has witnessed the emergence of many talented female poets and fiction writers who have brought new waves of imagination and creativity, experimentation and bold expression, and multitudes of experience to our literature. In this article, I briefly sketch the writing career of three female writers (Rashida Sultana, Shagufta Sharmeen Tania and Afsana Begum), whose stories and novels, due to their sheer brilliance, have earned them a lasting place in Bangladesh’s fiction. All three of them were born in the 1970s in the newly independent Bangladesh, grew up in the same tumultuous phase of post-independence, yet they are widely different from each other.
Shagufta Sharmeen Tania
Shagufta Sharmeen Tania, winner of Syed Waliullah Literary Award 2019, started writing at a very young age when she had barely learned to write full sentences. Her language is distinctive; just by reading a page or two it is possible to identify her language. She loves playing with words; the metaphors and imagery she uses are uncommon but apt. She conjures up many archaic but appropriate words which aren’t usually found in contemporary literature or everyday language. Though her genre is fiction, the fact that she is a poet is also discernible in her writing. The portraits that she sketches are of sensitive and wounded people with deepening nostalgic feelings. In her predominantly character-driven narratives, she offers lenses to readers through which they can see things that they don’t usually notice.
An expatriate in London, Shagufta has explored the lives of immigrants. In her two short story collections Aanbari and Pakhishob, she has captured their yearnings for home and loved ones and the perpetual struggle of finding new home in a foreign land. Her Uttar-Dakshina (Post-Dakshina), a retelling of Dakshinaranjan Mitra Mazumder’s timeless classic Thakurmar Jhuli, is a critique of patriarchy and an important addition to the feminist tradition in Bangla literature. Her latest book Ditio Bhrantipash, published in the Ekushey Book Fair 2020, is a collection of 16 variegated short stories. The recurrent themes found in them are about memory, nostalgia, melancholy, unfulfillment, yearning for loved ones, and desolation and forlornness of women’s existence. Two stories are based on mythical characters which aptly question patriarchal double standards. In “Uttorottor Kando”, Draupadi of Mahabharata and Sita from Ramayana recall how they had been treated unfairly and how they would have written their own stories. In “Kuri Kuri Bochhorer Paar”, Greek mythological character Penelope has been drawn differently from her portrayal in Homer’s The Odyssey. Homer’s Penelope is the ideal wife who remains faithful for 20 years while waiting for Odysseus to return. In Shagufta’s story, Penelope is clever enough to satisfy her desires secretly, when her husband is sleeping with the nymphs on some distant island. The last story of this book, “Modhubata Rritayote”, creates different streams of thoughts on the possible reasons of a woman’s unnatural death. All the streams converge to create a conflux that represents the reality of violence against women. This intricately patterned story connects several real incidents that happened in Bangladesh in the recent past.
Shagufta is a good translator as well. Her translation of Susan Fletcher’s Eve Green is as free-flowing as her original writing.
Afsana Begum started writing rather late in her life. Her first book was a volume of translation of Nadine Gordimer’s stories, which was published in 2013. In 2014, she was awarded the Gemcon Young Literature Award for the manuscript of a story collection called Doshti Protibimber Pashe.
Afsana writes novels, short stories, science fiction and young adult fiction. Her prose is well-thought-out, well-organized and sometimes has an unaffected tone. Not only does she write in diverse genres of fiction, but her writing touches on diverse themes as well. She is a socially-conscious writer; she deals with many contemporary issues and crises in her fiction.
In her first novella Jibon Jokhon Thomke Daray, she portrays the lifestyle of a decadent segment of the upper-class community in Dhaka —devoid of any sense of responsibility, or sexual restraint. Here she deals with issues like drug addiction, cybercrime and rich people’s immunity from the law. In her other works, she has written stories about marginalized people such as domestic workers and prostitutes. The protagonists she creates possess social conscience and sensitivity. Discrimination, injustice, corruption, terrorism and religious fundamentalism affect them and they react quietly and helplessly. They sigh at the thought of unfulfilled dreams and scream in silence. However, in her latest novel Kolahol Thamar Pore, the protagonist is a victim of domestic and sexual violence who fights back and despite many obstacles she manages to create an identity as a strong independent woman. The trauma of repeated assaults in adolescence, the bitterness and pain of a broken family cannot deter her from creating a happy family of her own. To critique the political and societal realities indirectly, Afsana has written a number of allegorical stories like “Kolom”, “Ramer Deshe Rabon” and “Somobeto Sangeet” which offer readers alternative ways of encountering reality.
Rashida Sultana has not published many books in her literary career but her works have never failed to leave a lasting impression on the readers. She started her career as an Assistant Superintendent of Police under the Bangladesh government but later joined the United Nations. Her different jobs, it seems, have always contributed to her writing by enriching her experience. Her language is straightforward—direct and succinct; there is also a rawness about it which is intense and authentic at the same time. In just a few lines she can draw a character convincingly. As a narrator, Rashida does not place her characters in the binary of good and bad and is not keen to attribute moral obligations to them. Her characters are flawed human beings; sensitive, vulnerable, obsessed and sometimes unkind or selfish, all of which are very human. She frequently shows in her writing how women are “slut-shamed” in this country. The complexities and quandaries of modern-day relationships, particularly conjugal relationships, have been explored in her writing in a way that is unique in Bangladeshi literature.
Her novella Shada Biralera was published in 2013 to huge critical acclaim. Set in Japan, it shows us a balcony and the mesmerizing views that it offers; the inhabitants living there at different times, particularly the ones who are somewhat social outcasts, grow deep connections with both the balcony and the views it offers. They get immersed in the silence of the quiet place and find their inner selves. They abandon friends and families but eventually, they have to abandon the balcony too, as that apartment is university property available only for students. But they return again and again, helplessly, as if pulled by a force. The narrative sometimes becomes magical and ambiguous and leaves room for the reader’s imagination. The novella has an implied ending that makes readers think.
Rashida’s selected short story collection came out in 2017. The novel that she has been working on for some years is expected to be published in the Ekushey Book Fair 2021.
These three talented writers in their not-very-long literary career have contributed fresh ideas, new visions, and experimental approaches to our literature. Sometimes they have changed our tastes, offered us new lenses and unsettled the core values that we nurture. Undoubtedly, their works have made the depiction of both male and female characters in Bangla literature more grounded, more authentic.
Rifat Anjum Pia is staff writer, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.