AN UNASHAMED IDEALIST
Farah Ghuznavi is a long time columnist for The Star, and one of the few new generation Bangladeshi English-language writers who have been published both at home and abroad. Ghuznavi draws on her experiences as a development professional for inspiration in her writing, and remains an unashamed idealist. She has worked for NGOs in Bangladesh, Britain and Africa, as well as with the United Nations, and the Grameen Bank. One of her stories recently appeared on the winners' list of the prestigious 2010 Commonwealth Short Story Competition as a highly commended entry. In an interview with The Star she talks about her work and what motivates her to write fiction.
Can you tell us a little more about the Commonwealth Competition and how the placement came about?
The Commonwealth Short Story Competition is an annual competition that was started in 1996 with the aim of promoting new creative writing in Commonwealth countries. The stories that make it to the winners list are, according to the judges, selected for a combination of merit, originality and voice.
The winning entries are then recorded onto a CD and sent out to broadcasting organisations and affiliates of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association in various Commonwealth countries, where they can be heard on the radio stations in countries as diverse as Canada and Trinidad, South Africa and India. So that is something quite unique about this particular competition the idea that your "voice" can travel so far around the world!
I belong to a group called Writer's Block, and several of us decided to send stories in to the Commonwealth Competition this year one of the great things about having a community like that is finding out about opportunities like this competition and pushing each other into making submissions!
Was it difficult to write science fiction? What is the underlying message?
Yes, it was difficult to write! But I don't actually view my story "Judgement Day" as science fiction. This year's competition sub-theme was "Science, Technology and Society" and since I don't know too much about the first two, I chose to focus on the third aspect of the theme for my submission!
This is basically a story about marriage set in the future; and while the environment described in the story may be unfamiliar, many of the issues that come up will hopefully resonate with 21st-century readers. The question that this story is asking is: what social changes can we expect with regard to an institution like marriage in view of the technological changes that will take place on the future, and which attitudes can we expect might take longer to change. You can read the story at the following link, if you look under Asia Region
What are some of the challenges of creative writing?
Well, I think you have to be really determined! Writing is actually very lonely work, and it can be demoralising when you're struggling to get a story finished. Real life and its demands often get in the way, as well. I find that it's really important to have a few people you can rely on to give you helpful and constructive feedback on what you are doing. Finding those key individuals is one of the hardest things you will do. On the one hand, if you end up sharing your stories with the wrong people, it's frustrating because they don't "get" what you're trying to do. On the other hand, one of the best ways you can learn to do better is by listening to what others experience when they read your writing, so receiving criticism and using it is really important. The trick is to learn to recognise whose feedback will make you a better writer, and whose advice just doesn't apply!
Most of your protagonists happen to be women. Is it a given that women writers will always have a female narrator?
No, I don't think it's at all a given that women writers will always tell stories in a female voice. I think perhaps initially, in particular - it is easier for us to write characters that are familiar to us, but as we learn more and begin to explore, it's also interesting to consider doing things differently. In fact, a recent piece of mine that was published in an anthology in Britain entitled "Journeys" is a story told from the point of view of a young man who returns to his village after the war in 1971.
In another story that has just been published in an anthology published by Marshall Cavendish in Singapore entitled "A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Shortcut stories", the main character is a pre-teen boy. So I think a female writer like a male one will choose a character or voice whose gender depends on the story the writer wants to tell.
It also works the other way around of course. Recently, I read a fascinating novel titled "The Other Hand" where both the central characters were women, but the author Chris Cleave was a man. And I've always been fascinated by how brilliantly Tagore understood the female mind, as demonstrated in his short stories such as “Strir Patra”, which is a personal favourite of mine.
What do you think has sparked an interest in Bangladeshi writers in the West? Talk about the anthologies. How did they come about and what were your stories about?
To be honest, I'm not sure there is that much interest in Bangladeshi writers in the West. Certainly, India has established itself in the western psyche as an interesting and worthwhile global player, and I think that there is a lot of interest in all things Indian. But I don't think that applies to the same extent to writers from other parts of this region, including Bangladesh. So I think we will have to do this the hard way! In general, I think that British readers are likely to be more receptive to Bangladeshi writing - probably because of the colonial legacy and the presence of expatriate Bangladeshis living in the UK. I think the US is harder for us to access.
There are currently three anthologies coming out which feature my writing. The "Journeys" anthology that was just launched at the Birmingham literary festival last week is one of those. Several members of the writers group to which I belong have had their work selected for that anthology. The "Woman's Work" anthology, published in the US, has only one story from Bangladesh and that is mine - there are a handful of other countries represented in that collection, but the majority of voices are from within the US, particularly African American and other minorities. The Singaporean publication "A Rainbow Feast" features a number of stories from Bangladesh, including one of mine. In all these cases, as in the case of the Commonwealth Short Story competition, there was an international call for submissions, and the organisers and editors selected their favourite stories.
The stories of mine that feature in these anthologies cover a wide range of experiences. Two short stories feature protagonists who are female, and the other two describe the experiences of male characters. In these four instances, the stories are told from the perspective of a girl child, a woman, a young man and boy respectively, and they feature characters on opposite ends of the social and financial spectrum, as well as being set in a time/space continuum that ranges from 1971, to the present, to a few hundred years in the future!
We have come to know you have a famous ancestor. Has she played a part in inspiring you?
Very much so. Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain is the sister of my great-great grandmother, Karimunnessa Khanum, and she is one of my heroes, as she has been to many other Bangladeshis of course. In fact, by a strange coincidence, my first story "A Small Sacrifice" was published in a collection by UPL entitled "From the Delta" - that anthology consisted of stories written by Bengali writers in English i.e. no translations were required. It covered 100 years and the first story in the collection was "Sultana's Dream" by Begum Rokeya written in 1905. Funnily enough, the final story was my one, written in 2005, but the editor was not aware of the family connection!
What are you working on now? Can we hope for a novel in the near future?
At the moment, I am still learning! I never thought I would write a futuristic story, for example, but that is exactly what I did for the Commonwealth Competition. I love experimenting with styles and stories, and feel that there are many things yet to be tried out. Hopefully a novel will come about, when the time is right - but I'm not ready to commit to that just yet!
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