Bangladeshi novelist Tahmima Anam discusses cultural identity and her latest novel The Bones of Grace

“I don’t believe you can ever go home. I don’t believe you can make [global] movements and remain unchanged. I don’t think it’s just the condition of the immigrant. It’s the condition of modern life. So few of us are born, grow up and die in one place. Those movements fundamentally alter us.” If ever […]

“I don’t believe you can ever go home. I don’t believe you can make [global] movements and remain unchanged. I don’t think it’s just the condition of the immigrant. It’s the condition of modern life. So few of us are born, grow up and die in one place. Those movements fundamentally alter us.”

If ever a writer embodied the ever-shifting identities of globalised, transcontinental 21st century existence, it is Tahmima Anam. Born in Bangladesh in 1975, Anam grew up, variously, in France, the United States and Thailand, before returning to Dhaka aged 14.

After a complex reentry, she left to pursue a PhD at Harvard before settling in London, where she wrote the novels that earned her a place on Granta’s 2013 list of the best writers under 40. A Golden Age and The Good Muslim explored the schisms and aftermath of Bangladesh’s war of independence, winning several awards and plenty of critical plaudits.

I talked to Anam on the morning after this year’s Man Booker International Prize ceremony in London. She was one of the judges who handed the prize to Han Kang’s extraordinary The Vegetarian. Anam sounds weary, but thrilled with the result. “It felt like a real celebration. I think [The Vegetarian] is going to become a classic of modern literature.”

Anam’s own new novel is The Bones of Grace, which concludes a trilogy, of sorts, and also represents a distinct change of emphasis. Anam has, for the first time, drawn deeply and directly on her own life and experience in her work.

“I felt freed from the some of the grander narratives in the first two books. In a way it felt more personal. Its themes became more intimate and more about the transformation of one person than trying to tell the story of a country or a national movement.”

The one person Anam has in mind is Zubaida, who reviews the dramatic events of her past year: the truth of her mysterious birth; making amends to the two lovers she wronged in different ways; and finding redemption, personal and political. Characteristically weighty themes are threaded throughout: identity, home, migration, exploitation, justice. But these are subservient to the romantic triangle connecting Zubaida, her Bangladeshi husband Rashid and her would-be American lover, Elijah.

“This book is fundamentally about a woman trying to win back the love of her life. When I realized that it really helped to shape the whole thing.”

Nevertheless, Anam credits maternal rather than romantic feelings for shaping her emotive new voice. To be specific, how the birth of her son three years earlier inspired what she calls her “most honest” book. “You have to let your guard down in such a deep way when you are with a child who has no boundaries. For me, I have to be more honest about the love story, and less afraid of taking risks or writing a book that may not feel it has the kind of weight of history or commentary.”

One of these risks might include Zubaida, who is an eerie deadringer for her creator. Both studied at Harvard (albeit with Zubaida choosing whales over Anam’s history), both married a Bangladeshi man before falling for an American: Anam is married to the musical inventor Roland Lamb. And while Zubaida was born into poverty before being adopted, they share a similar liberal upbringing in the shadow of the war of independence.

“Zubaida is the child of revolutionaries. She longs to have their certainty about the world, and she can’t – she didn’t live through that war. It doesn’t belong to her even though her parents tried to pass it on like it is part of her inheritance. I too was the child of revolutionaries. I too grew up with that kind of certainty.”

The most obvious antidote to the intensity of this political focus is the shifting geographical, social and cultural diversity of Zubaida and Anam’s own lives. “Living away [from Bangladesh] changed [Zubaida], but it also pointed to a sense of alienation that she had always felt, because of her adoption, and because she is an in-between species. She’s a misfit. It doesn’t work for her to be a passive guest in [Bangladeshi] culture. She has to stand at a critical angle to it in some way.”

Anam might as well be speaking about herself. She was just two when her parents left Bangladesh, settling in Paris thanks to her father’s job at Unesco.

“It totally changed his life. [My parents] had never left Bangladesh. They had no idea how to live on their own. They didn’t speak French. It was just the three of us. Paris is intimidating to anybody. Imagine being there in 1977 and being totally uncosmopolitan.”

The disorientation did not last. The Anams eventually fell in love with Parisian culture. “They really did make the most of that experience,” she recalls. After Paris, she lived, first, in New York City and finally Thailand. By this time, Anam’s father was desperate to return after 14 years abroad.

“We lived outside of Bangladesh, but all they talked about was when they were going to go home.”

On their return to Dhaka, Anam’s father Mahfuz founded The Daily Star newspaper, now Bangladesh’s most popular and controversial English newspaper. “He has been for the last 25 years a very outspoken critic of the government, getting into all kinds of trouble.”

His most recent trouble has consisted of lawsuits, totalling Tk 60 crore (Dh43.34m), brought by Sheikh Hasina, prime minister and leader of the ruling Awami League party. Back in 1989, however, the happy homecoming for Anam’s parents proved deeply unsettling for their fundamentally unrooted teenage daughter. “It was terrible. It was so complicated for me. [Bangladesh] was a place I had difficulty fitting into. But I had that added difficulty of feeling like it’s a place where I should have felt I belonged. And yet I catastrophically didn’t belong there.”

Anam says her post-war generation shared one defining pressure. “I was repeatedly told, You are a very privileged citizen of a very poor country. What is going to be your contribution to that place? Your job is to give back. There is a real sense that your life cannot be frittered away. It has to mean something.”

Anam is quick to highlight that her parents were more enlightened than most about what exactly constituted a meaningful vocation. “They never told me I should be a lawyer or doctor or engineer because that is the sensible thing to do. They said, do whatever you want. Just make sure it has significance.”

Anam’s father, a journalist by training, was the first to advocate a literary career. His daughter wasn’t so sure. “Unlike a lot of writers I didn’t have the confidence to plunge into fiction in my 20s. I had always dreamed of being a novelist but I was terrified that I would be really terrible. I had something important I wanted to say, and I wanted to understand what that was before I wrote a novel.”

Anam completed extensive academic research before starting her first works of fiction: her Harvard PhD was a project based on oral histories about war, memory and post-independence Bangladesh.

The Bones of Grace confronts more contemporary issues. The character of Anwar is a poor labourer who builds shopping malls in Dubai and breaks ships in Bangladesh to provide for his family back home. The portrait is characteristically ambivalent.

“Anwar’s movement to other places and return are very painful, but also gives him a sense of the world. He is no longer going to be the passive recipient of his fate. If he wants to change his life he has some small power in the world. Of course, he gets crushed in the process. Because he is poor and that is what happens to poor people.”

Anam is troubled by the current scaremongering about immigrants in Donald Trump’s Republican presidential campaign in the US and the EU “Brexit” referendum in her adopted homeland, England. “I think there is a fundamental fear of the ‘Other’, and fear of the changes that the ‘Other’ will bring,” she says.

“The Syrian refugees do not want to live in Europe. They want to live in Syria. They are running for their lives. For us to treat people with such contempt feels like there is a great vacuum of empathy in the world right now. That makes me sad.”

Anam can sound similarly melancholy when discussing her homeland. “I have sometimes felt that I have to take a somewhat ambassadorial position towards Bangladesh. It is hard to get beyond the headlines.” These have made grim reading in recent months, something Anam addressed in a playful article for The Guardian newspaper listing all the problems she does not want to discuss: fundamentalism, religious violence, misogyny, Bangladesh’s record on climate change.

Anam insists she wasn’t turning the other cheek, but projecting a more peaceful present. “I wish such things weren’t happening so I wouldn’t constantly be answering those questions. Every time someone gets hacked to death I get a phone call asking, ‘Please explain this to us.’ I don’t want to be afraid to open the newspaper to see what new horrible thing has happened.”

Nor, Anam continues, are the majority of Bangladeshis ignorant about recent attacks on gay rights campaigners.

“People in the country are talking about this. The newspapers are reporting. There is a huge public sense of uncertainty and outrage.”

Anam directs her anger squarely at the authorities. “We haven’t seen a commitment to act. I think the very least the state could do is actually admit this is a big issue, instead of blaming the victim, justifying the killing somehow. That is not the job of the authorities. The job of the authorities is to find out who did it and punish them. To strike fear in the hearts of a person contemplating doing it again. That is why it keeps happening, because there is no punishment.”

Her preference would be to focus on Bangladesh’s success stories. “Most of that has to do with the resilience of ordinary people. The spirit of can do-ism. All those young men who work in the Middle East. All those young women who work in the garment factories. All the farmers who produce three rice crops a year, which has managed to feed this exploding population.”

As for Anam herself, after 10 years writing her trilogy she is ready for a break. “I am thinking about different forms. I think it will be a little while before I write another novel.”

This doesn’t reflect any weariness with her craft. “I think that it’s important to understand the limits of what you are doing and to have a deep-seated respect for people who take more direct action to enable social change.”

She mentions the work her mother and sister do for NGOs in Bangladesh. “It’s just a different sense of purpose. But I definitely think I am going to remain a writer. That feels like it’s going to be my contribution.”

James Kidd is a freelance reviewer based in London.

Source: art & life

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