Neebiir Kamaal explores the highs and lows of Dhaka Lit Fest and the journeys of young authors so far
There are many ways of seeing the Dhaka Lit Fest that concluded yesterday. And when it comes to ‘Ways of Seeing’, it is rather difficult to miss remembering John Berger, the celebrated critic and novelist who had once said, ‘Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one’. Arundhati Roy chose the quote as the epigraph of the modern day classic The God of Small Things. Dhaka Lit Fest was not a single story, but rather a stage where many narratives played, simultaneously, interwoven.
Dhaka Lit Fest, which was originally known as Hay Festival Dhaka began on November 19 at Bangla Academy in the capital and concluded on November 21.
An attempt to celebrate literature in the midst of news of ISIS and Paris attacks that still seemed to hover around visitors at the fest, visiting authors making conversation over lunch about why Facebook is blocked in Bangladesh at the moment, the low number of local books that hit the fest, a 10-year-old asking a poem to be written that uses the word ‘Dinosaur’ at the ‘free on the spot poetry’ stall – DLF had it all. DLF also exposed, rather a bit too barely, what the Dhaka literary scene lacks, a general reluctance among the youths to read, and the dearth of initiative or effort from local publishing houses to find new local writers who write in English being at the top of the striking revelations.
‘Bangladeshi education system operates in such a way that it rather discourages wider reading and creativity, which is delivering a wave of generations who would hit their twenties cramming textbooks, and reading anything that is not in the exams, as little as possible. We are creating generations of nonreaders,’ says Iftekharul Alam, a stall keeper of University Press Limited (UPL) at DLF. ‘This is doubly true for readers of English literature,’ he adds. UPL released six titles at the fest.
New Age Youth kept an eye out for works of new authors who have broken into the mainstream literary scene. Fire in the Unnameable Country caught the fancy of many visitors at the fest. The novel is written by Ghalib Islam, a young first time author who was born in Bangladesh and later immigrated to Canada when he was seven. The novel portrays a fictional world that seems rather a bit too real, constantly under political and economic threat. Canadian poet, novelist and literary critic Margaret Atwood has called the novel ‘The 1001 nights of its time’. In an interconnected weave of stories within stories, Ghalib tells the compelling tale of Hedayat, a Muslim protagonist in a post 9/11 world.
‘Many have asked me the question whether the unnameable country is meant to be Palestine, but I leave that to the imagination of the readers,’ says Ghalib to New Age Youth.
Another new release, ‘Yours, Etcetera’ by emerging young Bangladeshi author Ikhtisad Ahmed who is based in London grabbed the attention of many browsers at the fest. The book, a collection of thought provoking short stories, is loaded with sociopolitical satire.
Ciku Kimeria, a young graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a first time author and publisher was one of the highlights of DLF. In her book ‘Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges’, the Kenyan author writes about the rocky marriage of a Kenyan influential couple and shows how instead of being a universal constant, ‘truth’ could fluctuate depending on who is narrating the story.
On her first trip in Asia, Ciku Kimeria conveys to the Bangladeshi readers that they would find her book very relevant as there are socio-cultural similarities between Kenya and Bangladesh than one might think.
‘The book has crosscutting themes. Kenya is a society where no matter how much a woman achieves, her success is still measured by her marriage. I learn that it is also like that for women living in Bangladesh,’ Kimeria tells New Age Youth.
She also reveals that it is extremely difficult for authors to publish their work that are written in English in Kenya. ‘95 per cent of the books published in Kenya are textbooks. It’s very difficult to find publishers for works of fiction. This is why the model is changing for young authors like me in Africa, we not only have to write, but also do the job of promoters,’ she adds.
After Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie was published, New York Times had likened Rushdie to a unique voice, a voice that was India’s very own. To a question that how far was Bangladesh in finding its own unique voice in English literature, especially among the young authors, Ikhtisad Ahmed says, ‘Bangladesh still hasn’t found that unique Bangladeshi voice, a narrative that truly captures the very essence of Bangladesh in English literature. We have greats like Tagore and Nazrul. Tagore became a defining voice because he was breaking rules, our young writers are not breaking rules, most are just trying to mimic former greats. The relationship of Bangladeshi writers with English language is rocky at best. We also have to note that we as a society made the decision of protecting Bangla as a language, which is why local authors have had difficulties in coming up with breakthrough work in English language.’
Ikhtisad also adds that young Bangladeshi writers have to learn to respect the craft and art of writing more. ‘Most young Bangladeshi authors write because they are after the label than the art. They want to go to a party and be known as an author rather than focusing on the art of observation and meticulous research. The infrastructure in Bangladesh also has to go a long way for writers to thrive here. Most of the renowned publishing houses don’t even scout for new authors. Some are even publishing works that have already been published as e-books,’ Ikhtisad remarks. ‘We are yet to include Sultana’s Dream, a milestone work by Begum Roquiah in the textbooks of English medium schools or even in the national curriculum. How can one expect the modern young writers to do commendable work if they don’t even get the opportunity to read classics from the past like this one?’ he asks.
Ghalib Islam, on the other hand, highlighted the perils of being a Muslim author who writes about the fast changing sociocultural setting in the wake of terrorism and imperialism. ‘I have been persecuted even in a seemingly lesser politically charged society in Canada for being a brown skinned Muslim author,’ he says. ‘On top of that my surname is Islam,’ Ghalib jokingly adds.
At the fest, Bookworm bookstall seemed to fetch many buyers, mainly due to their collection of the internationally released books. Nakib Abdullah Zia from Bengal Lights Books conveyed that even though they were offering 20 per cent discount on all books, the sales were short of what they expected.
Syeda Samira Sadeque, one of the volunteers at the poetry writing stall at the fest, conveyed New Age Youth that they were writing 50 poems a day on average free of charge for visitors. ‘The turnout is still good considering the alarming security situation in the country,’ she says. ‘Readership of English literature has expanded in the past few years, we are a growing nation, over the next couple of generations, a lot can be expected from Bangladeshis,’ she adds.
Young visitors also had the opportunity to hear talks from likes of Indian author Shobhaa De, Mahesh Rao and British journalist Jon Snow among a host of other writers.
Mahmood Sadat, another young volunteer from the poetry stall says that a lot more young people are writing these days, especially on social media and blogs. ‘Our literary infrastructure, however, does not give them the room or platform so that they could flourish. The established authors and publishers in the industry have to create space for young writers.’