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English-Language Literature Finds Its Place in Bangladesh

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Despite the immense popularity of English-language writing from South Asia, including impressive recent debuts from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, it makes sense that the language has been regarded with more suspicion in Bangladesh. The country's movement for independence, culminating in 1971's Liberation War that resulted in the massive murder of ordinary Bangladeshi -- at that time East Pakistani -- civilians by the Pakistani army, began with the Language Movement of 1952, when Bangladeshi students at Dhaka University protested Bangla's exclusion as the one of the divided country's official languages. The twin shadows of Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam loom large over contemporary literature and society at large, though few remember that Tagore's self-translation introduced Bangla literature to most of the outside world for the first time, because of the poet's active engagement with the English language.

That might be changing. This year Tahmima Anam published her second book, The Good Muslim, a New Yorker Best Book of the Year. And here in Bangladesh, with her help, the Hay Festival returned last week in an expanded format. After its inauguration on Thursday night, the book and arts festival ran all day on Friday and Saturday, over the Bangladeshi weekend, 15 -- 16 November, and attracted an enthusiastic crowd of over 4,000 readers to its panels, performances, and book stalls. Founded in the small, book-loving town of Hay-on-Wye, Wales, the festival now boasts 15 locations, from Istanbul to Xalapa, plus Dhaka. At the Dhaka Hay's opening ceremony, which inaugurated the stately Bangla Academy's new auditorium, General Director Professor Shamsuzzaman Khan said that hosting the festival at the Bangla Academy "means greater exchange of ideas and new literary perspectives... greater cooperation and increased exposure for writers and Bangla literature."

2012-11-20-GMKKissinger_front.jpgThe festival featured events in both languages, as well as poets and writers from minority languages like Chakma, but placed a special emphasis on emerging English-language writers like K. Anis Ahmed and Maria Chaudhuri. In Lifelines, a much overdue anthology of writing from Bangladeshi women, writer-editor Farah Ghuznavi collects short stories by fifteen younger Bangladeshi women writers. In her introduction Ghuznavi recalls Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein's Sultana's Dream, suggesting the poet first wrote her best known work in English "to make the thoughts and ideas of Bengali women accessible to a larger readership." The festival also featured the launch of Bengal Lights, the new English-language literary journal edited by Khademul Islam, himself a talented writer. The stylish biannual journal is one of the most important English-language print journals in all of Asia, and paired with Ghuznavi's anthology, introduces the most exciting Bangladeshi writers working in English today.

K. Anis Ahmed, whose debut book of short stories Good Night, Mr. Kissinger was launched before a standing room only crowd in Dhaka last week, documents the city's transition from drowsy regional capital to chaotic mega-city in stories written in a social vocabulary that is particularly Dhaka's. Ahmed's own history is deeply entwined with his nation's--he was separated from his parents for the first three years of his life, as they were unable to return to the country because of the Liberation War. In a recent conversation, he reminisced:

I grew up in Dhanmondi, the oldest neighborhood of post-Partition Dhaka. The house I grew up in, built in 1950, is among Dhanmondi's oldest houses. We are one of few families who have lived in this neighborhood continuously for the last sixty-plus years. I grew up bicycling freely though the neighborhood, and at times far beyond, in the '80s. Today, it is unimaginable for any 10-year-old to be able to do that in any part of Dhaka. The city is now heavily inflected by near-constant chaos, congestion, confinement, and provocation, including, at times, sudden violence. I lived for seven years in New York, and compared to the intensity of Dhaka, I found New York idyllic. My stories are about finding a vocabulary for this new urban intensity. Lives are both peculiarly crammed with intimacies and oddly desolate in their alienation. The way such contradictory and strong pressures lead to unique sparks of consciousness is what fascinates me.

Here on Dhanmondi's traffic-blighted streets I'm already addicted to the chaos, and I'm counting on Bangladesh's new generation of English-language writers to recount it to the world.