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     Volume 4 Issue 1 | June 25, 2004 | 8th Anniversary Issue


   Editor's Note
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   Nothing if Not     Serious
   Slice of Life
   A Roman Column
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A Roman Column

A Writer by Passion

She 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.

How does it feel being one of SWM's longest-term columnists?
June is 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?

I 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'.

One of 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 City?
My book appeals to any armchair traveller of Italy and I keep being asked why the book is not available in the US, UK,

India 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.

My book 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.

How 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.

Do you ever feel isolated having lived in another country for so long?
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.

Do 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.

When 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.

I know 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!

Also, being a part of SWM, receiving the affection of my readers give me a sense of belonging too.

Who 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.

It's safe to say I have left out hundreds of my other favourites!

What 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!








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