Writer by Passion
came into column writing by chance. But writing has been as
natural as breathing for her. Her words have the eloquence
and poetry that pleases the discerning reader and takes him
or her to places never visited, recreating their exotic ambience
as vividly as a photograph. Neeman Sobhan
began column writing in ‘The Daily Star's’ editorial page,
later moving on to the Star Weekend Magazine when it came
into being in 1996. Mostly writing on her adopted home, Italy,
she tries to take the reader into her own world, one that
is full of exquisite scenery and intense emotions. In this
SWM exclusive she gives a glimpse of herself as a writer living
in one of the most beautiful cities of the world.
does it feel being one of SWM's longest-term columnists?
my birthday month, so I am sharing SWM's anniversary and my
long involvement with it at a personal level! My columnist
avatar coincided with the birth of the Star Weekend Magazine
and has evolved with it. I always identified myself as a writer
first and a columnist only by accident, so initially I gave
secondary place to this public performance-oriented writing
rather than the one done in isolation. But the act of producing
a weekly column has been a learning and rewarding experience,
teaching me creative discipline and the ability to coherently
marshal my life experiences for an audience. You quickly learn
to sift the relevant from the irrelevant and to edit reality.
What better training for fiction writing?
started on The Daily Star's op-ed page with a political
comments column called 'Postscript'. I gave it up when I realised
how inane I find regurgitating politics to no useful end.
My other column 'Ruminations from Rome', was not only a literary
relief but became seminal to my evolving style which started
with SWM's very first issue, I think, as 'Antipasti: Notes
from Rome', running for years. When my most important reader
, my mother died, my column went into hiatus but re-emerged
as 'A Roman Column'.
the side effects of my writing for the magazine has been my
realisation of the abysmal standard of basic English among
college and university going readers. Many readers who write
to me are desperate to learn English, and cannot form even
simple, idiomatically correct sentences. Unless this is remedied
at the primary school level, I see no future for English,
much less for an English newspaper in Bangladesh. Few read
English books and turn to SWM as the only source of enlightenment
-- I think we have a serious responsibility here.
What has been the response to your book An Abiding
My book appeals to any armchair traveller of Italy and I keep
being asked why the book is not available in the US, UK,
and Pakistan. Well, my book is the property of UPL, and if
it has not made any efforts to promote sales outside the country,
what can I say? By my own effort it is selling well in Italy
and if it were translated it would do even better, but I am
a writer not a bookseller and not interested in wasting my
time on non-creative aspects of book publishing.
will be published in India soon where the English readership
is wider. But it's not of primary concern to me. I don't look
back and have moved on to newer things.
do Italians see Bangladeshis? Did you find it hard to be accepted?
To Italians now, the word 'Bangladeshi' signifies immigrant
workers, and they are accepted as a diligent group. We who
are part of the UN, diplomatic or professional, meet Italians
as social equals. Generally, the more Italian you speak the
easier it is to integrate with them; they are such an easy
people. Since I don't dress ethnic unless necessary, I am
accepted as an Italian until I open my mouth and make a grammatical
slip! The Italians are a complacent, self-absorbed people
who are not really interested in any other culture so my Bangali
side is kept private.
you ever feel isolated having lived in another country for
No. My home is wherever I am. And Italy is no longer just
another country to me. Also, isolation is about the inability
to either make friends or enjoy your own company regardless
of where you are. I have many friends and I also love solitude.
Being alone or isolated never bothers me.
you think it is more difficult for a woman writer to get recognition
for her work?
No. One is an artist before one is either male or female.
A good writer has to juggle the same combination of perseverance
and luck to get recognition. Sex is irrelevant. As far as
awards are concerned, I think they are as fair or unfair as
they can ever be. What I disliked was the Orange Prize for
female writers who did not get the Booker! That sort of female
protectionism is reverse chauvinism and degrading in the arts.
you come back to Bangladesh do you get a sense of disassociation
or do you feel like you are coming home?
Many ex-pats carry their country with them, then on visits
home find that the reality doesn't match with their internal
map, causing emotional dislocation. This happens when they
stay as guests with family and pampering relatives, relegating
them to the privileged place outside everyday life, becoming
observers rather than participants in the life they left behind.
Only those who come for longer stints and go around Dhaka
on their own as insiders, reclaim old bonds.
this from experience. Now, for the last decade, I have my
own establishment in Dhaka. So the feeling of coming home
is not just emotional but reinforced at the practical level.
From the airport we walk straight into our apartment, where
things are exactly as we left them from our last visit. I
realise that we are exceptionally lucky, but we made it happen
by choosing not to rent out the place in our absence, even
when we only came for a few weeks leaving it empty for the
rest of the year. The flat overlooks the lake, is full of
light, privacy and peace. People go to Tuscany to relax…I
come home to Dhaka to roost!
being a part of SWM, receiving the affection of my readers
give me a sense of belonging too.
are your favourite writers?
(I won't mention favourite writers in translation, otherwise
this will be an article in itself!) My list has changed with
time and age -- with some exceptions -- writers whom I adored
a few years ago have been supplanted. I admire flamboyantly
stylish and impressionistic writers. I love Nabokov, Julian
Barnes, Ian McEwan, Will Self, Annie Proulx, Anita Brookner…
I admired Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Satanic
Verses but the rest left me unmoved. I love his non-fiction:
he is a brilliant essayist. Sometimes I have a favourite book
rather than a writer like: Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines
and Vikram Seth's An Equal Music; I didn't like their
other titles. L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between and John
Knowles' A Separate Peace reflect the theme I love:
an evocative recreation of a bygone moment in ones life. Yann
Martel's Life of Pi and Arundhati Roy's The God
of Small Things hold special places. I can re-read Melissa
Bank's The Girl's Guide To Hunting and Fishing' and Dave
Eggers' 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius…Increasingly,
I prefer short story as a genre to the novel and simply adore
John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and Muriel Spark.
to say I have left out hundreds of my other favourites!
is your latest project?
My next projects are: a novel or a collection of short stories
dealing with family memories; involvement in a film script
for friend and film-maker Muzaffar Ali (of 'Umrao Jaan' fame)
for his next film on Sufi poet Rumi, as well as a resurrection
of my half-finished novel on 'Nur Jahan' towards a film and
perhaps even a film script on Tagore and Lalon. Publication
of my book of poems is pending… and my list goes on!