By Marjiya Baktyer Ahmed, Munira Fidai & Sumiaya Kabir

In conversation with  Professor Firdous Azim

Illustrations by Jason Sabbir Dhali

Literature as a discipline, might on the surface seem like immersing oneself into an elaborate world of fiction and fancy. But art imitates life, and try as we might escape it in our books, what we really do is derive the courage to confront the world in the pages of fiction, question it and make sense out of it. The long quietened spirit of women writers rings defiantly through their body of work, throughout history to lay claim to the process of creating fiction. This spirit is at once singular in the bravery of women writers who have defied the norms, and uniquely collective in the emerging brood of equally ambitious fiction writers. Professor Firdous Azim, tells us that in this new digitized era, the world of fiction is accessible to anyone with a voice and the confidence to state it, and the power to shape it.

Women Writing Circles

Women writers are flourishing, not just in our country but all over the world. “More writing is done by women than anybody else,” Prof. Azim states, “They exist in such numbers with such vitality and have so much to say, but whether they are nurtured is a different topic altogether.”

It is mostly owing to the inherent sexism in the industry, that women have a difficult time entering the arena of fiction writing.

However, the situation is improving for younger women. Men have had the opportunity to organize writing circles where they promote each other’s works. “These discussion circles are inspiring, and women need to start organizing their own addas and begin nurturing each other,” she advises. “I think Niaz Zaman does a very good job of bringing women writers together, sharing their problems and their successes. We need to establish reading and writing circles where women writers can come together and collectively develop their writing processes and inspire each other. Peer discussions are creatively encouraging.”

Creating a Review Culture

In the global arena, writers are promoted through reviews and through the prizes they are awarded. “In Bangladesh, there aren’t enough avenues for reviewers,” she laments. We have literary sections in our dailies, but a literary magazine as such has not yet found a precedent. Speaking on this, Prof. Azim explains, “Unfortunately, literature pages of daily newspapers seem to have lost their influence over time.” We have established writers like Nasreen Jahan and Shahin Akhtar who have paved the path for a new generation of women writers. “When we think of English writers from Bangladesh, we have Tahmima Anam who leads the pack. We have an impressive pool of women writers. We need to begin developing reviewers now,” she further explains.

Tech – only a part of the Problem

The most common medium to consume content nowadays has become our handheld devices. It enables the masses to read on the go. While it may seem like a privilege, the flipside is that the average human being now has an attention span of eight seconds. Has the rise in technology robbed us of our ability to pay attention? Prof Azim debates, “I think people stopped reading before the rise in technology. Be it in my grandmother’s time, my mother’s time, or mine – our habit and our hobby was reading. This tendency to voraciously read hasn’t passed onto the younger generation.”

She shares an anecdote to explain how the act of reading is seen as a Eurocentric habit, rather than a simple luxury available to all who know how to read. “I was traveling once, and there was a Bangladeshi man sitting next to me who informed me that he had come to Bangladesh for the Ekushe Book Fair After a while I decided to open my novel and read, the man turns to me says, “You’re like a European”, as if reading was a farfetched notion for Bangladeshis. I had to point out the irony in his comment given that he was on his way back from a book fair.”

The enthused academic explains, “The practice of casual reading needs to be encouraged again. Even when I am teaching, I noticed that students don’t read anymore. Technology is only part of the problem. For our generation, reading allowed us to lead the life of the imagination. Maybe people don’t imagine much anymore, maybe they read less and live more. Because we lived through our books.”

Paperback over Kindle

Technology has been spearheading the rapid changes in our increasingly globalised world. The birth of the kindle excited young readers everywhere, because of the sheer volume of books one can horde in a device the size of your palm! But for a soul who grew up with the enthralling scent of a well-thumbed book, it is a hard habit to kick. Prof Azim explains, “I don’t have a kindle. I just love the sight of books. I love seeing them on my bookshelves. The material pleasure of owning, buying and purchasing a book is incomparable.” She further describes, “And then going back to look at it on your shelf, remind yourself of how it felt to read it. A book as a material object means a lot to me.”

She appreciates the convenience of online reading, stating, “I read a lot of things on the net. I read a lot of ebooks as well because they are not available and I have to read them. But, I don’t have that attachment to them, even things like journal articles.” She reiterates her affection for a bounded paperback, saying, “When I possess the journal and read it, the experience itself is different. The whole idea of publishing, or of being published, the process of publication that goes into a material manifestation, not that it doesn’t happen for online material, is very exciting.”

Retention is better than Distraction

Prof. Azim addresses the deterioration in our ability to retain information due to the proliferation of online reading and explains, “Let’s take journal reading, when I read it online, I find it hard to remember where I might have read it. Many times I print stuff, because I know I will remember it better. The memory part has definitely been affected by this shift in reading tendencies.” According to the acclaimed academic, reading on a desktop or a laptop is better rather than the norm of scrolling on our phones through a plethora of information just to keep ourselves distracted while in traffic. “It is essentially just a quick form of distraction rather than a medium to absorb information,” she states.

Shining the Light on Young Literates

The state of our education system is pretty miserable. With a rote-learning culture strongly in practice, the study of literature is not taught with the intention to inspire students. Instead, it serves the purpose of completing the syllabus, where literature is compressed into a few short stories and a handful of poems. Prof Azim says, “Going from school to college to HSC, how much of literature do you have in the curriculum? Very little. Students pass their HSC without having to read a single novel, whereas a writer or a particular novel could have been in the syllabus. There are short stories and a few poems, but not enough to motivate a student to inculcate a love of reading.” Despite the bleak reality of our school system, she remains hopeful of the redeeming prowess of our universities, explaining, “At the university level, I think people who enter literature departments, may get inspired.”

The English and Humanities department of BRAC University has launched Resonance, a student-led literary magazine that began as an online departmental magazine. This time submission was open to the entire university, and the overwhelming response from students in computer science and engineering departments highlighted the hidden literary potential in the students of our country. Following the success of the issue, Prof Azim muses, “This makes me feel we should really have a magazine which comes out regularly. I think extracurricular activities like this can be very effective. Resonance is a very good step forward, and I’m sure that universities are doing similar things, it’s worth looking into.”

Publishing Sector V. Women Writers

Turning the conversation to the larger publication sector, Prof Azim says, “I think one thing is true in the case of all identity publishing. If you want to publish, say for example, as someone from the hill tracts in our country, it might work in your favor or not. You may enter a niche and get compartmentalised, or become a best-seller.”

An interesting thing has been happening in India, where a lot of publishing houses have been set up by women for women writers. This practice began in England with Virago in the 1970s. The publishing history in our country has women journals, such as Begum, where short stories and poems written by women writers were being published. “Not the Shanonda type, but a proper literary journal,” Prof Azim explains. Women have been aware and have created platforms for themselves, but today the question is do we need such a platform any longer? She answers, “We do and we don’t. I think there are a lot of women out there; I think many writers would say we don’t need to be compartmentalised as women writers. But at the same time, there are many aspiring women writers who may not be able to enter the mainstream, and these are the avenues that would help them become writers.”

Breaking Down Barriers

Apart from challenges in the professional writing arena, women writers have to also overcome some deeply ingrained personal challenges. Prof Azim expounds, “The first thing I think of is self-censorship. There is a lot of inhibition to overcome.” She suggests, “This is an internal barrier that women have to overcome, not just women writers.” As people, we have to find the courage and confidence to state our truths and not look over our shoulders. It’s an internal barrier that needs to be brought down. She further explains, “I think there are constraints to writing anyway, but the biggest constraint is to find your place as a woman, to find your voice, and the confidence to express what you want to say. As a woman, I think that is the biggest constraint.”

Sexuality poses the biggest barrier. Talking about sex, talking about religion, talking about parents, family, all of these become censored areas for women. Prof. Azim reiterates, “Somehow we have to overcome these censors, break these barriers or negotiate them. Find wonderful ways of expression. Censorship is sometimes good; it helps you find more creative ways of expressing yourself.”

There is another barrier confronting women fiction writers and that is the figure of a woman that has served as a metaphor for many concepts, such as fertility, purity, sexuality or exoticism. As a literary trope woman signifies an established metaphorical tool, and for women writers, it means having to grapple with this tradition, trope or metaphor and take on the challenge of reshaping it. Prof. Azim explains, “One of the ways women writers have been dealing with it is by demystifying the female body, by talking about menstruation, rape, childbirth, all the pains that a woman’s body undergoes; rather than sexualising it, objectifying it. But is that a writing back or is this a new voice? Are we adding to the trope? Have we done something else to the trope? I don’t know. That’s what makes it very interesting to be a woman – that the writing being done is an exercise in self-reflexivity. This is very interesting in women’s writings.”

She thinks that the book that has successfully accomplished this feat in practice is Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook”. According to Proz. Azim, “I felt that she talks about everything a woman undergoes and in a way that comes with the narrative, the story, and the characters, including a mental breakdown. So it is not adding to the trope, it is not breaking the trope or anything, but it is opening up a dimension that fiction has not looked at so seriously.”

The Torchbearers

Bangladesh has been home to notable women writers who have dared to push the boundaries on what it means to be a women fiction writer. Bold barrier breakers like Taslima Nasrin have brazenly snatched the space for women writers to explore complex topics in their body of work. Prof Azim fondly lays praise on one of her favorite homegrown authors, saying, “In Bangladesh, my favorite is Shaheen Akhtar, she is very established and has a lot to offer. I am looking forward to reading a lot from her. The reason I like her is that she is very experimental with language.” She continues, “When we read, we kind of read to find a social reflection of things around us. But I think she goes beyond that, to play with language, and that is something that women writers do not embark on that so easily. And that is what sets her apart for me.”

Putting Pen to Paper

As an avid consumer of all things written, Prof. Azim has published an impressive volume of critical and academic writing. The brilliant academic expresses her intentions to tread into the world of fiction writing. She says, “I have started my foray into it through translation. I am at the moment translating a novel, and I hope to finish it. It’s like easing myself into the craft, language and the process of fiction writing,” she continues,“I did write short stories before, never published them. It’s been a long time since I have written fiction, so I am starting with familiarising myself with it. I am hoping my translations will help me, so I can build upon it.” She humorously adds, “I remember my son telling me when I was little, how can you write, you have no imagination. Maybe being in the world of imagination, will get my imagination running too.”

The Evolution of Writing

The beloved academic exudes a keen curiosity to constantly keep learning. Her determination to uphold literature as a viable option in this constantly evolving global landscape is a testament to her commitment to the world of writing as a whole, and her deep understanding of the adaptable process of writing. She expounds on an article she came across, saying, “I just read this wonderful essay about the dying literary culture. The writer was talking about people dying and a particular way of life and culture dying with them. It was an obituary, beautifully written. But while I was reading it, I thought, My God this is the high culture at its highest. She is talking about parties in New York and Fifth Avenue.”

The rebellious glint in her expressive eyes gave way to a resounding statement, whereby, she says, “I think that the death of that culture is opening up a whole literary world which is not confined to the parties, coffees, and champagne parties. I think it is becoming much more pedestrian.” The idea that writing is reserved for a specific class is no more an accepted truth in the current landscape of rapid automation and digitization. It is these changes in our globalized world that have made writing accessible to anyone with a basic understanding of the written word. Prof Azim gleans hope in this new world. She says, “You don’t have to belong to a certain cultural sphere in order to be a writer. I think in that way the literary world is opening up.” She observes a ray of revival in the arena of the spoken word as poetry emerges into the new world with a new look as poetry slams. “Another avenue is opening up as our world becomes more digitized so literature is not confined to the written word. The spoken word is making a comeback through poetry slams. I hope drama and the theatre also regain their vibrancy. New forms of literary expression may come up with time as well,” she concludes.

In conversation with Selina Hossain, Writer

Illustrations by Jason Sabbir Dhali

A Bangladeshi novelist, Selina Hosain has won all the major national accolades that a writer of her caliber can win. But more than awards like the Bangla Academy Literary Award in 1980, Ekushey Padak in 2009 and Independence Day Award in 2018, her work has won the hearts of readers all over the world. Her literary works such as Hangor Nodi Grenade and Poka Makorer Ghor Boshoti garnered immense praise when released and they continue to be some of her most notable works. As a devoted practitioner of the novel, Selina Hossain tells us that a writer with a strong voice cannot be silenced, and that the literary stream is alive and thriving through the groundbreaking work of the country’s current literary lot.

Voices of Women and their Uprising

Women globally, have had a hard time proving their worth in any sphere of work they have chosen. How accepting and nurturing is the writer’s world in Bangladesh then, for the females? Are we nurturing good women writers in general? Selina believes that this profession has no gender. Women must carve the space out for themselves as must men- through their words, their talent and their hard work. She gave an example of Chandraboti, a female writer, and how she alluded to women empowerment in the Ramayana, 500 years ago, when she called Lord Ram foolish for trying to test Sita’s chastity. She also mentioned the poet Khana, from the 9th or 12th century and the finesse with which she spoke about poetry, agriculture, and politics. She mentioned that Khana was such a force unto herself, that her own family tried to cut off her tongue for speaking so eloquently about seemingly controversial topics. That is the kind of dialogue women writers must have, to be compelling enough, to be able to stick around. That is how to carve a space out in a society that is essentially patriarchal. If women so many centuries ago could do it, we can do it. “History does not forgive a male writer for writing badly and it is the same for a female writer. If you cannot write well, you will invariably be silenced.”

Technology- an Unavoidable Hindrance

A dramatic rise in technology has taken place in the last few decades and that has left an impact on the way people find avenues for entertainment. With so many ways to amuse themselves is it right to say that the rise in technology is impeding the ability for readers to fully commit themselves to read a novel? “The way technology has flourished in the past few decades and where it stands now in terms of connectivity to the global world, cannot be denied. If we do that, we will stay back in the past and the world will move forward without us.” If technology is impeding the readers’ ability to finish a novel, their time must be compartmentalized into time spent on books and time spent on other devices. This is where parents and teachers must play a role. A handheld device is no substitute for the actual book. The feel of the book, the smell of it and the rustle of pages is what makes for an unparalleled reading experience. However, this generation has more access to handheld, distracting devices rather than books. If books are kept near them, on their bedside table or around their recreational area, it may encourage them to pick it up and read.

Paperback benefits- It’s Just Science

Studies have shown that the retention power of a person who reads from an actual book is higher than someone who reads off a screen. Was reading from a screen is as good as reading from a paperback, in terms of not just retention, but feeling too? “The retention power of the reader is way higher when they read an actual book, instead of a screen. But as I said earlier, if we disregard the benevolence of technology, we will fall behind. Because all international literature comes to us in this form. There is sometimes no other way to access those books. But if you can download a book from the net, print it out and read it, it is best for retention. The medium of obtaining the book may be different but I cannot think of actual reading and retention of literature outside of the physical book.”

Fledgling Writers

Writing is a skill that is best honed from a young age. Much of this identifying and polishing of good writers must take place in schools. Selina spoke about Shishu Academy and how she sees children read and actively seek out books. “There is hope, not all is lost,” she says. Children go with parents to the Shishu Academy Boi Mela (book fair). They look for books and parents buy those books for them. They have open places outdoors where they sit and read. All this is heartening. Still more can be done to instill the love of reading in children. “We are working now on how to make this reading culture even stronger for children in schools. This may involve exposing children to different books on a holiday and encouraging them to read, summarize or recite choice lines from those books and not just books from their syllabus. It could become a sort of book festival, a way to celebrate books and reading. This will bind them closer to literature. If we can make this plan heard on a government level, I think this will spell huge progress. Encouraging writing competitions also helps. It helps us identify and encourage young writers who have potential. Giving books as prizes and awards also helps. The idea is to bring a child close to books from a school-going age and make it an inseparable part of their life.”

Publishing Sector- For or Against?

Women face a lot of challenges to prove themselves in any field. When it comes to creative forms of expression, things tend to become more difficult. Art is often heard, read and seen differently when created by women than when the same is created by their male counterparts. How difficult is it then, for women to establish their merit as a writer to the publishers? Selina mentions that if the topic and the writing merits publishing and is acceptable to society, there are no barriers. Selina does not feel that female writers have any more of a barrier than their male counterparts. Publishers nowadays look for compelling stories- they want to publish; this is why they are in the trade. If the writer, male or female, has a strong voice, then nothing should stop the publishers from publishing their books. “As I mentioned earlier, the content is written should be strong, should focus on current issues that women face and should be written respectfully. If you intend to write pornography and pass it on as freedom of speech, it will not be accepted by our society. And if it not accepted by the readers, the publishers will censor it. Of course, the issues faced by women must be brought to light. But in a way that forces people to think about them, rather than fantasise.” Selina mentioned that she too, had once written about relationships men and women have outside of marital boundaries but she had done so in a manner that made society accept it as a current issue that should be dealt with. Overly sexualising that which can be approached in a more sensible way, or in a way where the writer’s true potential as a storyteller could be maximised, is not going to sell.

The Future

There are a number of up and coming female writers who wish to keep the literature scene in Bangladesh alive and vibrant. They have done wonderful work and intend to carry the baton forward. Selina declined to name favourites for a very simple reason- “I cannot name one and hurt another,” she gently nodded. “However, female writers and writers in general today are doing great work and the stream of literature has not yet been allowed to run dry and it will not happen at the hands of these current writers.”

Diversification or comfort?

Selina is a celebrated novelist with no end to her success. However, with the kind of command she has over literature, one but wonders if she ever wished to foray into other genres of writing. She was very direct in her answer that she has always written novels because she never wanted to branch out into other genres. “I have always wanted to put forth people’s problems through my writing. It pulls me very strongly, peoples’ strife and how I can portray that into the literature I create. For my books,

I have always chosen real people as subjects. Maybe this is why I never had the lure of writing for other genres.”

In conversation with Shazia Omar, Author,  Development Professional & Yogi

Illustrations by Jason Sabbir Dhali

A decade has passed since Shazia Omar’s fantastic debut novel Like a Diamond in the Sky hit the bookshelves in both Bangladesh and India, stirring the souls of 20-somethings who could relate to the harrowing realities of her characters living in the belly of Dhaka. She penned her novel in a time when Dhaka had barely one or two publishers of English fiction. “We had a lot of Bangla fiction for sure, but with Bangla, we cannot engage with the whole global community. So in terms of the English narrative coming out of Bangladesh, there was very little,” she comments. But a lot has changed since. Shazia Omar talks about the promise of literary festivals, and how through the introverted isolation of writers creating, spaces can be formed for the marvelous misfits of the nation.

Wearing Many Hats

Before we dive into talking about the literary world, we backtracked a little to look into her personal life in the last decade. Juggling the works of a social psychologist, a development professional as well as a yoga instructor could not have been easy. She admits that for the first part of her thirties, it really was a struggle. “But I’ve gotten better at managing to bring them all together, and that is how I’ve kept it authentic. If I was doing just one of any of those, I would’ve felt trapped, as if a very big part of me wasn’t getting the space to express itself. Besides taking yoga classes, being a writer and taking care of my kids, working in development was very important to me because I wanted to do something meaningful for the community I’m embedded in,” she says.

Remaining true to that sentiment, she was conflicted when she began her career as an investment banker. “I made a lot of money, but it did not seem authentic enough. I needed to earn a living but, in a way that was noble, honest and helpful.”

For most people nowadays, finding that fine balance between work and personal life can be quite a hassle. It’s always a gamble between making money, career growth, and staying true to yourself. “I think it’s worth it if you want to explore mind-body-spirit, art and other aspects of your own self,” says the writer pulling it off so well.

Her overall calm demeanour in the middle of a busy day at the café did not come as a surprise to me perhaps because of her yoga practices. “I’m a yogi, I meditate a lot, so I can easily get cut off from the real world and be very much in my own space. Development work happens to be my link to the outside world,” says Shazia when asked where she blends it all.

The Changing Landscape

While she was busy gracefully taking on life’s challenges, Dhaka was growing on its own in the art scene. She comments optimistically that with the initiative of daily English newspapers including creative writing columns, and the beginning of Hay Festival (now known as Dhaka Lit Fest), more authors came onto the scene and more buzz was created.
“However, it’s a slow journey forward. We definitely need more writers! I think writers emerge as readership grows, and that’s where we are lacking. We still don’t have that many English speaking readers,” says Shazia. Despite her books being set in areas of Dhaka relevant to the readers, such as Gulshan or Baridhara, she doubts how many are out there reading her work and supporting local writers altogether.

United They Stood

When asked how we can improve this situation, she enthusiastically tells us a little about the book clubs she used to be a part of. ‘Writers Block’ was a community she had started in 2007 with twelve other writers who’d meet every other Saturday and share their work, and helped nurture a “supportive, insulated atmosphere” according to her. The book club lasted for seven years and at the end of it almost everybody had something published. When ‘Writers Block’ ended, the second round became ‘Pen Warriors’, which was smaller but with a few more committed writers who to this day still meet and greet to share and inspire.

“It’s great that there are other outlets such as Instagram, Facebook, blogs or vlogs, and radio, but Pen Warriors and Writers Block really helped us as a community because as artists we really need that safe space to get the strength to share our work with the public. Anybody else who’s an artist I would recommend should group together and help each other out,” she adds.

The Gender Gap

Before any of her identity as a yogi or a development professional, she is first and foremost a woman. When asked to comment on women fiction writers in the publishing industry, Shazia Omar observes that as with any industry, the gender gap prevails.
“Everywhere in the world there are way fewer women writers than male writers, even though readers are statistically more often women, and that’s a political and patriarchal decision, it’s not a coincidence. It’s a result of choices made by the establishments – women are just not supported as much as men are!” Shazia says.

But to remain in line with her tone of positivity, she includes that it is not impossible to be changing this scenario. Books written by female authors should be reviewed more, and if those novelists were interviewed more as well, alongside the development of more book clubs, and reading across bookshops, a lot could improve.

“Because we want successful women! We don’t want women to be always dependent on a man, and that’s what society creates to uphold patriarchy. For example, there was a women’s magazine that I saw that was all about ‘ten ways to look better’, ‘what to do when your boyfriend dumps you’ or ‘how to get a flat stomach’ as opposed to the men’s magazine that was more about robotics, astronomy, science, and nothing about your self-worth is dependent on other people’s perceptions of you,” she adds wittily.

Some of the female authors Shazia herself reads frequently include Dhaka’s Srabonti Narmeen Ali (‘Broken Voices’), Sharbari Zohra Ahmed (‘Dust Beneath Her Feet’), and Tahmima Anam to name a few. Globally, some more writers she recommends include the fearless Arundhati Roy and classic Maya Angelou, as well as Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel and J.K.Rowling.

The Difficult Part

Writers are often more comfortable on paper than in speaking, but with Shazia Omar it was an absolute delight to converse. On having that quality in the digital era where self-promotion is accessible as well as an essential, she says, “It would be fun if, as artists, we didn’t have to self promote, and our fans would promote us, because self-promotion is a very tricky space, especially for writers! Writers tend to be isolated introverts; I definitely am! I like wallowing in my art by myself, alone in my room, but to have to go out and make people read it? That’s really hard for me.”

For a woman who gives off the impression that nothing troubles her, she comfortably admits all the difficulties of a being a woman, an author, and of living in Dhaka.
“In Bangladesh, being me has been hard. I’m not seen as entirely Bengali because of my accent since I grew up abroad, and on the other hand, when I was in Canada I was not seen as fully Canadian either because of my skin color, so fitting in has always been kind of a struggle for me,” Shazia recalls.

But an important message to take away from this particular conversation with the beautiful author is that it is not important to always fit in. “For me now it’s more about creating a world where other people can come fit in instead. It’s very empowering.”

What’s Coming Up?

Our little rendezvous becomes hard to leave, but with a person as beautiful inside and out as the celebrated author Shazia Omar, you know there’s always something more to look forward to. Amidst all her adversities and consequent realisations, something new that Shazia Omar has been working on to engage further with her followers is the use of a YouTube channel, a platform she is maintaining to collect and curate different video she has personally enjoyed, mostly on positive living, fitness, and well-being.

She is also working on another novel, about a woman cop. After her books on drug abuse and Dhaka’s history, “It’s quite dark again, and draws from a lot of my experiences from working at the International Organization for Migration, which dealt with human trafficking and modern-day slavery – topics that I want to explore and expose,” Shazia says. The book comes out in 2020!