A Journey to Redemption
Shazia Omar writing from Bangladesh is one of the few Bangladeshi English fiction writers to be published abroad. Very recently, Shazia, also a member of Writers Block, had her first book published from Penguin, a well-known international publishing group. The book 'Like a Diamond in the Sky' is about urban youth in present day Bangladesh. In an exclusive interview with the Star, Shazia talks about coming face to face with hard truths while working on her book.
Can you tell us a little about the book?
The story is about a couple of university kids who study at North South and try to make sense of their lives while abusing drugs to escape from an overwhelming feeling of alienation. It's not only about sex, drugs, and rock n' roll in the chaotic metropolis of Dhaka city, it's also about the social fabric of the community around them.
It's the type of book you pick up at an airport and finish by the time you reach your destination. The protagonist, Deen, (din duniya) struggles to find a spiritual connection, but he is unable to transcend his physical reality, all the more so because of his addiction. It's his journey to redemption.
What inspired you to write this particular book?
I have some close friends who are recovering addicts. Their strength inspired me to write this book. Drugs are a growing problem in Bangladesh, especially among the youth. Addictions, mental illness, depression, these are all considered 'taboo' topics here, so no one talks about them. People need to know more about addiction. I hope some of the young people currently hooked on yabba will read this book and realise how dangerous their so-called-party scene is for their health and well being.
You are probably one of the first published writers in Bangladesh (living in Bangladesh and writing a novel in English). Can you please tell us how Penguin approached you?
I was very lucky to have some supportive mentors, Lubna Marium, Firdous Azim, Niaz Zaman, who introduced me to a group of publishers from India. The publishers were in town for an India Bangladesh Festival of Books and Writers organized by the Indo-Bangla Cultural Initiative and IUB. That was a great initiative and I hope there are others like it in the future, perhaps organized by British Council, BBC, or the American Embassy, to give us even greater outreach and exposure.
I'm a member of a group called Writers Block. We invited the publishers from India to have tea with us at Red Shift Café (thanks to the owner, Sal, who has given literature tremendous support through his space). There I gave them my manuscript. I was lucky that they chose to publish it and take a risk with me, an unknown Bangladeshi writer. I am grateful to God for these opportunities.
What is the significance of Writers Block in your professional life as an author?
I couldn't have come this far without the support and love of Writers Block. We critique each others' work and help each other grow as writers. When we launched our website a few months ago, www.writersblock.com.bd, there was so much interest, that we're now looking for sponsors so we can develop an online community that will help other writers connect and thrive. We want all English fiction writers in Bangladesh to become members of this Virtual Bloc. There'll be a forum to upload short stories, give feedback and rate pieces. We want to host writing competitions and give out prizes to encourage writers.
Sitting here in Bangladesh, solitary writers may find it difficult to get their voices out there. Writers Block has come a long way in terms of making connections with publishers, agents, other writers and readers. I hope this encourages all aspiring writers in Bangladesh they now have a resource to turn to for information, support and knowledge. I hope The Virtual Bloc materializes and becomes a writer enabling space so that Bangladesh can produce more English fiction. We have a culture rich with literature, though not so much in English, yet. I also hope more young writers translate some of our Bangla treasures.
Why did you launch the book in India before launching it in Bangladesh?
We have a lot to learn from India in terms of English literature. India has a vibrant community of writers, publishers and literary folks. Such a community is necessary for writing.
India also has a thousand (literally!) bookstores. Here there are only a handful of bookstores, Bookworm, Omni, Words & Pages, and the English readership here is very small. We lack both the supply and the demand. Perhaps here, teachers and parents need to do more to encourage kids to read and write. There needs to be more reading clubs, libraries and bookstores. Also, books should be cheaper. The 70% tax we slap on imported books does not help.
Another thing India has done right, is give their writers freedom of speech.
Pakistan is also doing something right. In the past ten years, Pakistan has produced several great writers, Mohsin Hamid, Kamilla Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Moinuddin (who incidentally, went to the same college as me)
Bangladesh is slowly warming up. In the next ten years, we'll have another ten writers to boast about. Mahmud Rahman and Iffat Nawaz have collections of short stories coming out later this year. There are a handful of others who are almost ready. Also, there are now new outlets for fiction in English, such as newspaper anthologies and cafes that have invited writers to do reading events, like Le Saigon, Kozmo and Roll Express. There's also a new energy here that's very exciting new music, new films, creative new designs in fashion.
However, the main reason my book was launched there is that my publishers are there.
Do you think that readers of English being limited in this country, might take you or another English writing author a longer time to establish oneself as compared to a Bangla writing author?
Yes, certainly. While we have a growing population of English readers, there are still not too many. It's a shame, because I feel it's important to nurture English (and English fiction) in Bangladesh if we are to engage with the world. Translations of Bangla fiction would also help - there aren't enough of those around. A translation of Shaheen Akhtar's work is coming out later this year. I'm looking forward to that.
Bangladesh is a place most people don't have any access to. Globally, people are only familiar with the country's monsoons… and micro credit schemes. While micro credit is a cool, innovative way to empower the poor, it's still all about poverty. We need to develop a way to share our art, our culture, our thoughts, our voices, our ideas.
What sort of research did you do to write this book?
I spent a month in a village talking to ultra poor women to explore their understanding of happiness in order to do the research for my thesis I was doing a masters in social psychology at the London School of Economics. That shaped one of the characters in my book, Falani, the drug dealer who lives in the slum. (I wrote the book a few months after finishing my thesis.) LSE is also very leftist and socialist and some of that political discourse made its way into my story.
Through my friends, I had the good fortune of meeting Doctor Yusuf Merchant who runs a rehab in Mumbai. I spent a month there, learning from him, about addiction.
I took a ten-day creative writing course that was very helpful.
Do you think sticking to reality is important?
Well, magic realism is my favourite genre. Imagination and fantasy are wonderful. I'm a social psychologist, so maybe that affects my writing. The incidents in this story are completely fictional, but it's all backed by my observations and insights about the human psyche and about how society and individuals shape each other. The beauty of reality is that it's so complex. I've tried to explore plural realities to dispel certain myths, such as the misconceptions hovering over addictions and the false.
Do you think female authors handle certain themes in different ways?
Who you are emerges in your writing. Your gender affects your emotions, experiences, thoughts, and also how you relate to the world. Your age, education, family, where you've lived, who you've met, all these things play a role too. And then there's the creative element, which comes from a tap of magic water, according to Harun from the sea of stories.
Do you believe an author's gender in a way decides her narrative voice?
I'm very much a girly girl, but you might not guess that from this novel. This novel is pretty dark and my protagonist is male. I tried to get inside the head of a 21 year old university boy who is an addict, which means his overriding characteristic is that he's very negative. That set the tone and narrative voice, though I myself am a positive and optimistic person. There are other characters in the novel who don't think like me at all, whom I strongly disagree with, but I've also tried to give them a voice, to share their perspective. I've tried to show how different Bangladesh is for different people.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009