An outsider's perspective on Dhaka Lit Fest
We were sitting on the steps of an outdoor auditorium alongside an assortment of families, couples, and groups of friends. I’d just attended a session on independent publishers, where I was reminded of how, three or has it already been four years, I’d pulled my manuscript from a small publisher. I felt a distinct sense of discomfort. I’d been worried at the time about the lack of experience of this small publisher, and I decided in the end to try a more established publisher. But the speakers here made me realize that there is something in trying to create a community where there is none, and that that small publisher back in Singapore was doing exactly that in carving a niche as a specialist publisher of creative nonfiction. If I could do it again, I’d be more encouraging this time.
The festival was an eye-opener for my students Sadeka and Aziza. Sadeka had been a garment factory worker in Dhaka and Aziza a refugee from Afghanistan. The Asian University for Women, where I work, has used its global connections to reach some of the most disregarded communities in Asia and the Middle East: garment factory workers in Bangladesh, the Rohingya communities along the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Syria; Sri Lankan Tamils; religious minorities from Nagaland and tea plantation workers in Assam. Sadeka and I were having a coffee, or rather, I was having a coffee and Sadeka was not. She didn’t normally drink coffee or tea, except in situations that required it, such as studying for exams. I was asking her about her decision to dress in ‘western’ and not the salwar kameez she normally wore at the university, and she explained that while she was comfortable in jeans and top, her parents would prefer that she wear traditional dress, particularly when she was back in the village where she was born. We sat quietly for a while, taking in the scene. It was in the late afternoon, the sun was out, and in the midst of people, my attention was drawn to two young women wearing colourful carnival hats while sitting cross-legged on the grass. I noticed a lone individual, painfully thin, wearing a large brown sports jacket, and wondered why he was dressed so warmly. He soon walked off. I wondered who he was and where he was going.
I thought about the sessions that I’d attended so far. I’d been moved by some of the authors’ readings of their works. But more than anything else, I was somewhat giddy with ideas, about literature in relation to gender, to politics, to language, and to society. I thought about state surveillance and the individual, and the author Annie Zaidi on her journalling ‘what I’m afraid to say’. I thought about technical points, such as when it was more appropriate to write in the past or the present tense. Did it have to do with genre? Was I idiosyncratic in my preference to write in the past tense, particularly when writing about the past? And why do we say that certain books are character-driven or that certain books are plot-driven? Is it a disjunction, that a book is either character or plot driven, or is it more like a continuum with character-driven on one end, plot-driven on the other end, and a range of possible positions in between? I decided that it was the latter. It was a good long day, and I’d been thirsty for some literary nourishment. The coffee was frothy and milky the way I liked it, deeply satisfying. So was the Dhaka Lit Fest.
Chan Lishan is Director of the Writing Center and Writer-in-Residence at the Asian University for Women.