Photo: Flickr / Kayla Sawyer
Photo: Flickr / Kayla Sawyer

The task of writing

In conversation with Bangladeshi writer Farah Ghuznavi.

Farah Ghuznavi is a Bangladeshi writer and the author of Fragments of Riversong, a collection of short stories. Her writings have appeared in publications in the UK, US, Canada, France, Germany, India, Nepal, Singapore and Bangladesh, and she was Writer in Residence with Commonwealth Writers Website in 2013. She studied development economics and NGO management at the London School of Economics, and has since then worked for Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and the United Nations, besides others. Her development work has touched on issues like political participation, microcredit loans for the poor, adult education for women and human rights. Whether short stories or newspaper columns, Ghuznavi writes about people and issues closest to her heart; topics that are not widely represented, or talked about. In this interview, Fehmida Zakeer talks to Farah Ghuznavi about her work, and writing in general.

Fehmida Zakeer (FZ): How would you describe the present state of writing in Southasia? Do you find that the writings from different countries in the region share similar concerns?

Farah Ghuznavi (FG): It seems to be an exceptionally exciting time for English-language writing in Southasia. Indian writers have long been producing interesting work, and in recent years, Pakistan has seen the arrival of writers like Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie. Now, alongside the likes of Manjushree Thapa from Nepal and Shyam Selvadurai of Sri Lanka, we are seeing the emergence of a new crop of writers from Bangladesh. So much so, that it feels as though we have reached a critical mass, a takeoff point of sorts. And as an optimist, I believe that there are more good things to come.

In terms of content, there are undoubtedly some common themes that emerge among countries in the region: the state of governance, the cancers within society, the wealth and lifestyle disparities, etc. But the treatment of those themes varies enormously, not only by the country, but to an even greater degree depending on the individual writer addressing them.

FZ: Given that you are primarily a writer of short fiction, do you find that there are limitations or advantages to the form compared to other literary genres, such as the novel? Do you have any plans to write a novel in the future?

FG: I think it's difficult to compare. Novels, short stories and creative non-fiction all bring different things to the table. Perhaps the greatest challenge with a short story is that there is so little room to maneuver. You have to create a believable situation within a limited number of words, something that will leave an impression on the reader's mind. By contrast, in a novel there is much more scope for 'padding', and the superfluous words can be absorbed into the larger whole without making the writer look less technically competent. I would love to write a novel myself someday, and I believe that these things develop organically and happen at their own pace. The best first novels that I have read have clearly lived within the mind of the writer for a long time before making their way to the reader.

FZ: In the past you've talked about how the Dhaka of your childhood was a very different city from what it is now. What are the changes you see in the city today?

FG: Dhaka has changed almost beyond recognition. In the city where I grew up, the biggest danger that we were warned about as children consisted of kidnappers and madmen (in that order). I never heard of anyone who was kidnapped, and only once did my friends and I encounter someone who was strange enough to worry us a little. But he turned out to be harmless. I rode my bicycle everywhere, something that's unthinkable now for a ten year old girl. Parents worry, with some justification, about everything from kidnappers and ransom demands to traffic accidents. And the urban sprawl has taken over even the most traditional neighborhoods. Apartment buildings and shopping malls mushroom everywhere, and gardens are a thing of the past, which makes me a little sad.

FZ: Do you think of yourself as a 'woman writer'? Is this a valid term when we think of the literary market today? Does it allow us to think of the relationship between gender and writing?

FG: I am a writer, who also happens to be a woman; therefore by definition I am a 'woman writer'. However, I have to say that I find that classification very unhelpful, even more so the related issue of so called women's writing. All it does, is to indicate – wrongly, I feel – that writing by women is somehow not of interest to men. After all, we never speak of 'men's writing', do we? The sex of the writer is often used as a marketing ploy to capture a certain segment of the market. But writers are writers. And for readers, whether women or men, the criteria for selecting their reading material should be based solely on how much they enjoy a particular writer's work. I find it provocative, and deliberately misleading, to suggest otherwise.

FZ: Is there a method or routine you follow for creative writing? For example, do you sit down with an outline or framework before you begin or is it less systematic than that?

FG: Embarrassing as it is, I have to admit that I don't have much of a routine when it comes to creative writing. Managing to sit down and put the words on paper in the midst of life's distractions is enough of an achievement, most of the time! Also, the process can be different for different stories. Sometimes I've had an idea, and sat down and free-written something; at other times, I have a rough outline indicating where I want to go with the story. Mostly, it's a combination of the two. I will sit down with a general idea of what I want to do, but the story can take on a life of its own, and the characters head off in unexpected directions. On those occasions, I'm happy to go along for the ride.

FZ: What kind of literary or artistic influences do you find in your writings? Both within Bangladesh and outside.

FG: It's not really easy for me to identify literary or artistic influences, because I find it presumptuous to suggest that I produce work similar to the work of writers whom I admire. But there is probably something to the idea that we write what we like to read. I am fascinated by the stories that lie beneath the surface of everyday life, the personality quirks that remain hidden and the masks that people wear. And I enjoy fiction from different countries that offer an insight into those cultures, especially literature from China, Turkey, Iran, Nigeria and South Africa.

FZ: Migration is a recurring theme in the stories in your collection. Has this theme in some way become more relevant in the recent past, such that more and more contemporary writers are dealing with it in their works?

FG: It is an interesting that you say migration is a recurrent theme in my work, because I don't actually think that it is. Most of my stories on the theme deal with rural-urban migration, but those are still largely set within Bangladesh. International migration is less interesting to me, because it is a theme we have been seeing for decades now, even though individual stories can still be fascinating. For many publishers, it's also a theme that is considered 'marketable', but that's not a reason to do it, as far as I'm concerned. On the other hand, we live in an increasingly globalised world, so I do think that different kinds of migration stories, including those of people escaping conflict, and those undergoing family reunification or travelling as economic migrants, are likely to be a recurrent theme in contemporary literature.

FZ: You have tackled issues of racism and abuse in schools, allowing us to see how they affect children. What made you take up these issues in your stories?

FG: I strongly believe that children need the adults around them to look out for their interests. Sometimes that involves more subtle realisations about what is actually happening in a child's life. I have seen too often the consequences when adults don't really listen to what children are saying. We need to learn to listen to not only to what is being said, but also to hear what is left unsaid, and to decipher the meanings that lie between the rhythms of a child's words.

FZ: How has your background in development work in any way impacted your fiction?

FG: My background in development work has been an enormous influence on the kind of stories I want to tell. I have met many fascinating people through my work, some of whom will never have the opportunity to tell their own stories. Those encounters have inspired me, as have my own political beliefs, not least in terms of each individual's right to be treated with dignity. It doesn't really matter who you are, every person – and therefore every character – has their own story to tell. And almost any story is interesting when it is told right.

FZ: In many works of translation we tend to see the more everyday issues of home and hearth while writers in English appear to have to deal with contemporary issues which have a broader, even global, perspective. Your thoughts on this?

FG: I think that most contemporary writers, even when they write in the vernacular, are coming to grips with the challenges and themes of globalization. Benyamin's novel Goat Days [a 2008 Malyalam novel] is an excellent example of that. With writers who write in English, perhaps there's also a greater awareness of the need to appeal to a market beyond one's own country. In my case, I can't say that I have consciously attempted a global perspective, but I am conscious about the need for authenticity when I am writing about contemporary Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, as a country, is very often misunderstood and misrepresented. Along with the challenges we face, we have made enormous strides, for example in terms of gender indicators, where Bangladesh is out-performing its much larger neighbour, India. We have a young female mountaineer, Wasfia Nazreen, who has already achieved the better part of her goal to climb seven summits on the seven continents in order to show how far Bangladeshi women have come since independence. The country is adopting digital technology at a dizzying rate, according to no less a person than Bill Gates. These aspects of the country's development are not widely known, even within the region, and the portrayal of Bangladesh in the western media continues to be a dismal stereotype of poverty and natural disasters. That is something I want to address through my work, providing a more nuanced picture of the realities on the ground.

FZ: The partition forms a backdrop in stories by writers of the Subcontinent and you too have touched upon this. What do you make of the continuing interest in partition literature?

FG: For the three nations involved – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – Partition remains an enormously traumatic part of our history. The movement of people across the borders and the sense of loss regarding one's homeland continue to shape individual family histories today. And the collective memory of what has been lost has left a lasting sense of rupture, much like the unsettling sensations of a phantom limb. The political tensions that followed Partition have not helped. In a way, I think that the continuing interest in Partition literature reflects a lack of closure for all concerned. Over time and generations, that interest is likely to fade, but we have not reached that point in history just yet.

~Fehmida Zakeer is a freelance writer based in India. Her short story 'Question Marks' was the winning entry in the short story competition held by Himal Southasian in 2013. Her fiction and poetry have been published in The Linnet's Wings, Bewildering Stories, Out of Print, The Asian Writer and Pangea.

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