It wasn’t long ago that Farah Ghuznavi avoided calling herself a writer, a fact she doesn’t shy away from in her posts for Commonwealth Writers, where she served as the Writer in Residence last year. Ghuznavi was more focused in the past on building a career in the development sector – which she did, working with organizations like Grameen Bank and the United Nations. The spur to write fiction came unexpectedly, from a newspaper report about child abuse. She wanted the issue addressed beyond newspaper reporting and her editor at Star Magazine, where Ghuznavi contributes a weekly column, encouraged her to tackle it herself.
“I was reluctant, because I felt that people who abused children wouldn’t be interested in reading a column,” she writes. She replied to her editor: “It has to be a story, one where they (the readers) get engaged before they see where it’s heading. And it needs to be written from the child’s point of view, so that other people – those of us who see what happens in these households but too often look the other way – really have to face up to the consequences of what happens…and start thinking about how we can handle these issues differently.”
Three days later Ghuznavi had her first story at hand.
Nowadays there is no denying that Farah Ghuznavi is a leading short story writer from Bangladesh. “Judgement Day,” a flash fiction piece, was Highly Commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. Ghuznavi’s stories are frequently anthologized at home and abroad and she edited an anthology of Bangladeshi writers —Lifelines: New Writing from Bangladesh published in India — that has been much appreciated as the first of its kind in Bangladeshi literature.
In 2013, Daily Star Books launched Ghuznavi’s first collection of short stories, Fragments of Riversong, which quickly became a bestseller at the last Hay Festival in Dhaka.
Ghuznavi talks to us, over email, about her writing process, the recent evolution of literature in Bangladesh and the writer’s approach to literary festivals.
Thanks for talking to us! Tell us about your new collection of short stories Fragments of Riversong. What inspired the stories in this collection? Also, how did you come up with that enigmatic title?
Titles are always a challenge for me! There are certain internal criteria to be met: how a title reflects the story (or stories) contained therein, the wordplay or “logic” that underpins a title, and also how it sounds when spoken aloud. With Fragments of Riversong, there were a number of keywords that I played with, but it took a while to hit on the right combination.
The idea originated from an image of puzzle fragments and my awareness that this collection was an attempt to piece together an authentic picture of contemporary Bangladesh. The stories interweave contrasting elements of chaos, beauty, contradictions, and progress to reflect a country that is still an emerging mosaic. And because Bangladesh is a delta, I also wanted to use as a metaphor the role played by the river currents that make and break up the land: the constant interplay of destruction, re-creation and resilience.
Finally, the title attempts to bridge the gap between some of the older romantic traditions – for example, the stories told through the songs of the boatmen – with the reality of Bangladeshi life as it is lived today.
Your stories are frequently anthologized around the world but Fragments of Riversong is the first compilation of your work. What were some of the things you considered when putting it together? Did your approach to writing change at all when looking at this bigger canvas?
My approach to writing is essentially determined by the stories that demand to be told, so I have less of a say than I might like as far as that is concerned! But my main aim in putting together this particular collection was to demonstrate diversity of content and style. I am puzzled sometimes by how different my stories are from each other. The good thing about that, of course, is that just because a reader doesn’t like one story, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he or she won’t like some of the others! So Fragments of Riversong features stories told in the voices of children and adults (occasionally, even teenagers); women and men; and characters who range from wealthy to middle class, nouveau riche, garment workers and slum dwellers. The stories also cover a range of subjects, from family relationships to humorous misadventures, and from science-fiction to contemporary social issues. My only concern was that each story should say something authentic about the Bangladeshi experience, whether it takes place in cities like Dhaka and Chittagong, in villages and small towns, or in the US or elsewhere.
When you were the Writer in Residence for Commonwealth Writers you discussed the craft of writing in many of your insightful posts. What is your personal writing process like?
My personal writing process is not to be recommended to anyone who wants to retain any semblance of sanity! Routine would be a luxury, because the many and varied demands of life – not least, earning a living – too often get in the way. But seriously, I write whenever I can, and in whatever spaces and units of time I can carve out. Probably the only constant is the corner of my bedroom where my work desk and computer sit, which I refer to as my “cave”. If I’m lucky, I will manage to bang out the first draft of a short story over a period of three or four days. Getting that first draft down on paper is probably the most difficult aspect of writing for me; and it’s also the most anxiety-inducing, in the sense that I’m afraid of being interrupted before it’s done. By contrast, the multiple revisions, which inevitably (for a reluctant perfectionist like me) follow, can almost be considered fun, though it is often quite hard work as well.
You tackle both fiction and non-fiction as a short story writer and a columnist. Do you approach fiction differently from non-fiction when you are inspired by something in real life?
Real-life, in one form or another, is almost always the inspiration for what I write. But most often it is the thought or an idea that comes from real life, which is the starting point. Beyond that, the content of a story usually takes on a life of its own.
I don’t really think about genres as such. The story will decide the format in which it wants to be told. But I definitely find it easier to write non-fiction, because I think that there is a skill and craft involved in writing articles in particular, which can be honed over time through practice. Fiction, by contrast, is a rollercoaster ride – far more unpredictable and much harder to control in terms of process. At least, for me!
“Lifelines: New Writing from Bangladesh” an anthology of Bangladeshi writers that you edited recently has been well received internationally. How have you experienced the reaction to this work
The book has been surprisingly well-received, as you say. But promoting it and putting it out there has been an enormous amount of work, particularly for a first-timer like me. At the time when “Lifelines” came out, I had no background as a writer or literary editor, nor did I have the kind of contacts that are useful in such a situation. I have had to build that from scratch, and social media has been very helpful in that process. The effort put into the learning curve has paid off to some degree, but I would say that the better part of the last year has been spent on the promotion of that book. The good news is that I think that some of the excellent work published by various Bangladeshi writers in the last few years has really had an impact in changing the perception of English-language writing from Bangladesh on the international scene. I think there’s the beginning of a greater interest, and more of a willingness to engage.
As a veteran of the English writing scene in Bangladesh, where do you see the field going in the future?
I think the future looks promising, provided we can produce enough high-quality work. There is a growing interest in English-language writing in Bangladesh, but I think the real challenge will be to make sure that what is produced is up to scratch. Writing is actually quite hard work. It’s time-consuming and very far from glamorous. I’m not sure that the harsh reality of that is always fully understood by many budding writers.
In a piece published by Dhaka Tribune, Ekram Kabir advocated for introducing creative writing courses in Bangladesh. What are your thoughts on this topic?
I think there is a place for creative writing courses, though I have never taken one myself. My own background is in development economics, and my career path reflects that, from my work in the UN and Grameen Bank, to national and international NGOs. Under the circumstances, you probably won’t be surprised that I tend to believe creative writing courses can only develop the skills of those who have a natural talent for writing. I don’t believe they can “create” gifted writers. So I think they need to be careful about what they promise versus what they can deliver. But that’s just my opinion.
Let’s talk about the Hay Festival. How does the writer experience a literary festival like this?
I think literary festivals can be enormous fun, for writers and readers – indeed, for anyone who loves books. Personally, I find it enormously stimulating to listen to people talk about their creative process and how they come to grips with the challenges involved. And of course, the groupie in me loves having the opportunity to interact with writers whom I admire or getting their books signed. I met Amitav Ghosh at the Kolkata Lit Meet, quite unexpectedly, in the author’s lounge, which was a memorable encounter. And there have been a number of those at the other literary festivals I’ve attended; you end up making some friends at each festival, which is wonderful.
You recently attended the Jaipur Literature Festival, often billed as one of the largest of its kind in the world. What was your experience like at the Festival?
Jaipur is a venue that really puts in the “festive” into “festival”. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a carnival! I had an amazing time, and I met both authors I admire, and fans. A number of people came to get their copies of Fragments of Riversong signed after our session, and on another occasion I was buttonholed by a young woman on the festival grounds, who insisted that I wait for her while she went to the bookstall and bought a copy of the book for me to sign. While I was waiting, I suddenly wondered what would happen if she had mistaken me for one of the other authors, and came back with the wrong book! I was torn about whether I should just go ahead and sign the book pretending to be someone else, or confess and disappoint her – but luckily, it turned out that she had correctly identified the author she had in mind. After my reading, I was approached by a police officer who said he had found the story I read particularly interesting. This was about a woman who murders her husband using herbal toxins, so I wondered if he meant the police would be looking into such possibilities more carefully!
One of my favourite sessions was by the historian Mary Beard who spoke on Pompeii with a combination of erudition and humour. I also had the opportunity to interact with Peter Godwin, a Zimbabwean writer whose non-fiction I have loved reading over the years, and to chat with the feminist icon Gloria Steinem. I was amazed to look out from the stage during our session and see her sitting in the audience! And I felt very privileged to share a stage with the Nepali author, Manjushree Thapa, whose work I have admired for a long time. Our session was moderated by publishing legend Ritu Menon, and can be viewed online.
What was the perception of Bangladeshi writers there?
I think the perception of Bangladeshi writers writing in English is still developing, not only in places like Jaipur or elsewhere on the international scene, but also within Bangladesh itself. My sense was that there is a kind of surprised pleasure at the prospect of good English-language writers now emerging from Bangladesh. I think audiences in India and elsewhere are becoming increasingly open to that possibility.
Who are your literary influences?
I’m not altogether comfortable talking about literary influences, partly because I never really thought of myself as someone who was going to be a writer, and also because I feel it would be slightly presumptuous of me to imply that the writers that I admire are somehow reflected in my work. But there are certainly many writers whose work I have enjoyed over the years, from the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, to Chimamanda Adichie (Nigeria), Andre Brink (South Africa), Hillary Jordan (US), and closer to home, the Indian authors Shashi Deshpande and Prajwal Parajuly. And I still maintain that nobody writes a short story as beautifully as Rabindranath Tagore, whose work I read in Bangla when I was growing up. His story “Strir Potro” remains a particular favorite of mine, even after all these years.
What’s next on your reading list? Any recommendations?
Land Where I Flee by Prajwal Parajuly is a book I’m looking forward to, as is Nilanjana Roy’s The Hundred Names of Darkness.
After Fragments of Riversong what is the next book by a Bangladeshi author our readers should pick up?
I really enjoyed Killing the Water, Mahmud Rahman’s short story collection published by Penguin, so I recommend that one highly. I also like the short story collections by Sharbari Zohra Ahmed and Kazi Anis Ahmed (who, I hasten to add, aren’t related to each other – or, for that matter, to me).
Have you thought about what you might be writing next? Any chance of a novel in the works?
I prefer to let things develop organically, because I don’t believe that the writing process can be forced – namely, that you should do things because everybody else thinks that you should, or because” it will sell”. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in discipline, though. But I think that the best first novels are the ones that the author has carried inside themselves for a while. You can tell if that’s the case when you’re reading it. I am actually more concerned about producing the best work that I’m capable of, than about what form that work takes. As it happens, I have another eight short stories in various stages of development that I would like to finish before I take on a longer work. So let’s see!
Finally, just for fun. Shingaras or samosas?
Oh, shingaras, no question about it. Hot tea and shingaras are an unbeatable combination!
Fragments of Riversong is available from Daily Star Books here and from Amazon here.
You can read Judgement Day online here. Farah Ghuznavi’s posts for Commonwealth Writers can be found on their website.
You can follow Farah Ghuznavi on Twitter, Facebook and her own website.