Category Archives: Bangladeshi American

Author Interview: Tahmima Anam

In spite of the fierce, wrenching content of her books, Tahmima Anam in real life is a gentle, warm, incredibly youthful presence. We met in livetime a few years ago in Washington, DC, as her debut novel, A Golden Age, was winning major international awards, including the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. Recognizing the literary stardom to come, Anam was the earliest invitee to the Smithsonian Institution’s 2008 South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival [SALTAF], an annual public program of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program (my then-day job that came with serendipitous literary perks for sure). By the time Anam landed in DC from London almost 11 months after that initial invite, she had earned some well-deserved, hefty accolades.

Tahmima Anam’s impressive debut, A Golden Age, is the first of a trilogy set in Bangladesh, before, during, and after the War of Independence that ended in 1971 with the birth of Bangladesh as a new nation separate from Pakistan. Anam’s first protagonist is Rehana Haque, who while still mourning the sudden loss of her too-young husband, loses custody of her young son and daughter to a scheming brother-in-law. Separated for a year with her children faraway in Lahore while she remains in Dhaka, Rehana – in spite of what seems to be the impossible trap of young widowhood without a clear means of support – manages to reunite with her children out of sheer will, determined she will never lose them again. In 1971 when the people of Bangladesh declare independence from Pakistan, Rehana is no longer certain how she can protect her children during a horrific time marked by betrayal and terror. But neither will she remain a silent bystander while civil war threatens to destroy her family, friends, and adopted country.

From Rehana, Anam shifts her focus to the Haque children in The Good Muslim, the second book of her Bengal Trilogy which debuts this month. For the first time since the war, Rehana, her son Sohail, and daughter Maya are under the same roof … and yet their physical reunion is overshadowed by emotional disconnection. Sohail’s wife has just passed away when Maya returns home, leaving behind shocking violence in the small village where she was a doctor for several years. She is tired and spent, having witnessed the too-often subjugation of women just for being women. She can’t comprehend Sohail’s new religious fervor since his return from the war, his reinvention as a revered Muslim leader, nor his unbending rules and expectations in the name of a god that Maya can’t accept as absolute. Sohail’s devotion to his faith leaves him blind to his utterly neglected son – a frail young boy, unwashed, clothed in tatters, thieving, lying, and yet the only request he voices regularly is to be able to go to school. Bypassing her brother’s objections, Maya tries to at least provide her nephew with a basic literacy, but her attempts at enlightenment have tragic consequences.

Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1975, currently domiciled in London, Anam’s writerly strength is driven by a sharply observant imagination that allows her to recreate a time before she was born, before she had access to her memory. Surely her international upbringing in Paris, New York City, and Bangkok – thanks to her father’s peripatetic UN career –  instilled in her a broad understanding of humanity in diverse situations. Her privileged education – undergrad at Mount Holyoke, PhD in social anthropology at Harvard (yes, that’s Dr. Anam!) – made sure that xenophobia was never even a glimmering possibility in her questioning mind.

Catching up this time via phone lines strung under the Pond from DC to London, Anam was as soft-spoken as ever. That she spoke about war, corruption, imprisonment, and even rape, rarely changed her firm but even tone. She was also sure to balance the tragedy with joyful moments of family, love, and even someday-children. As expected, her ability to explicate and engage made an hour-plus pass all too quickly …

This year, Bangladesh is celebrating its 40th birthday. You were born four years later, and have now lived through much of your country’s tumultuous history, the vast changes, improvements, and challenges. What are some of your immediate thoughts about your birth country during this celebratory time?
I feel it’s a mixed bag. The good news is the incredible progress that has been made in major areas: we’ve been a functioning democracy for the last 20 years after a tumultuous period of martial law and army rule. The world of micro-credit founded by Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank has changed so many people’s lives, especially among the very poor. The fact that 95% of the borrowers are women means many improvements for women especially. Through microcredit and state investment in girls’ education, women are becoming economically powerful. They’re sending their daughters to school, they’re managing their homes, and taking jobs. Bangladesh has a strong feminist movement; women are advocating for legal changes to the constitution for more equitable rights.

In addition to the progress, I’m aware of a lot of problems, especially the threat of climate change. In spite of being a democracy, our government has a top-down political power structure. The people suffer because of corruption.

We need more democracy, less corruption. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Tahmima Anam,” Bookslut.com, August 2011

Readers: Adult

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Bangladeshi, Bangladeshi American, British Asian, South Asian, South Asian American

The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

Tahmima Anam continues her outstanding Bengal Trilogy, which began with A Golden Age, her glowing 2008 debut that propelled Anam into a privileged literary circle filled with international accolades. From Rehana Haque, the protagonist mother in Age, Anam shifts her focus to the grown Haque children in her second book which hits U.S. shelves in just a couple of weeks.

For the first time since the Bangladesh war of independence finally ended, Rehana, her son Sohail, and daughter Maya are all under the same roof … and yet their physical reunion is overshadowed by emotional disconnection. Sohail’s wife has just passed away when Maya returns home, leaving behind shocking violence in the small village where she was a doctor for several years. Maya is tired and spent, having witnessed the too-often subjugation of women just for being women.

Maya can’t comprehend Sohail’s new religious fervor since his return from the war, his reinvention as a revered Muslim leader, nor his unbending rules and expectations in the name of a god that Maya can’t accept as absolute. Sohail’s devotion to his faith leaves him blind to his utterly neglected son – a thin young boy, unwashed, clothed in tatters, thieving, lying, and yet the only request he voices regularly is to be able to go to school. Bypassing her brother’s objections, Maya tries to at least provide her nephew with basic literacy, but her attempts at enlightenment have tragic consequences.

As Bangladesh celebrates 40 years of independent country-hood, Anam’s intimate, vivid new title appears just in time as both testimony of endured brutality, and a reminder of the difficult choices survivors faced once the violence finally subsided. That survival always comes with a price: Sohail’s search for redemption takes him in one extreme direction, while Maya chooses a very different path. And Rehana – her silences more telling perhaps than her words can be – watches as her children’s lives diverge further and further from one another, and eventually from hers as well.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Bangladeshi, Bangladeshi American, British Asian, South Asian, South Asian American

Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry edited by Neelajana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam

The title – Indivisible – the editors explain, is “a word taken from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.” Through the 49 diverse American voices represented here with roots in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, Indivisible explores “[t]he issue of whether unity and pluralism may be reconciled …” The editors starkly remind that in a post-9/11 world, the “voices [of many South Asian American poets]  had been diminished by the tide of anti-Muslim and xenophobic sentiment arising after the attacks.” Given the recent Quran burning threats and the ongoing debates over who is welcomed as Ground Zero’s potential neighbors, that oppressive tide unfortunately remains challenging at best.

Regardless, creative expression will not be stemmed. Through many years of devoted labor, three tenacious editors – Neela Banerjee is a journalist, fiction writer, and editor; Summa Kaipa is a literary curator, psychologist, and magazine editor; and Pireeni Sundaralingam is a playwright, literary judge, and scientist – have created a remarkable collection that pays homage to a “multiplicity of languages, cultures, and faiths” while acknowledging the “inherent contradictions in grouping together writers of such differing backgrounds.”

Established, award-winning writers such as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Vijay Seshadri, Amitava Kumar, and Meena Alexander, mix experiences with younger, break-out voices including Srikanth Reddy and Shailja Patel. From Reetika Vazirani’s search for elusive glamour in her prose poem “From the Postcard at Vertigo Bookstore in D.C.,” to Tanuja Mehrotra’s borderless memories laid bare in “A Song for New Orleans,” to Sejal Shah’s lost road trip through “Independence, Iowa,” to Sundaralingam’s own unique snowflake discovery in “Vermont, 1885,” these category-defying, form-pushing works criss-cross the country, searching, watching, discovering, being …

Lucky for us as we enjoy the journeys …

Tidbit: Co-editor Pireeni Sundaralingam makes her Smithsonian debut at SALTAF 2010 this Saturday, November 13. She’ll be sharing the stage with award-winning Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni … and me as their moderator. Uh-oh …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Poetry, Bangladeshi American, Indian American, Nepali American, Pakistani American, South Asian American, Sri Lankan American

Revenge by Taslima Nasrin, translated by Honor Moore, with Taslima Nasrin

Author/physician/women’s rights activist Taslima Nasrin‘s literary career is perhaps more famous for her detractors’ reactions – bannings, book burnings, effigy burnings, fatwas, protests, personal assaults, exile from her home country of Bangladesh – than for the actual words on the page. One always wonders in all that furious, violent – seemingly contagious and addictive – protest how many of those naysayers and attackers have actually, truly read the work … but that’s probably a complicated topic to be discussed elsewhere.

Nasrin’s latest novel available in English (with an original copyright date of 1992) uses the relationship between a newly-pregnant young woman and her hypocritical husband to reveal the limitations and injustices women must suffer in the traditional Muslim home.

Brought up by loving, supportive parents with relative freedom and access to higher education, Jhumur chooses to marry charming, indulgent Haroon. But once she moves into his family home – constantly surrounded by his parents, siblings, and their families – Haroon expects Jhumur to instantly be the obedient, subservient Muslim wife. Jhumur must cover her head, she can’t stand too close to the windows lest the neighbors see her, she cannot go out without Haroon’s permission even as he discourages any contact with her friends and even her family; Jhumur becomes a virtual prisoner of her new home.

When she becomes pregnant, she is shocked by Haroon’s indifference which quickly turns to inexplicable anger. In disbelieving shock, she succumbs to his irrational demands, then turns inward and withdraws. Without a choice, she becomes that expected dutiful wife, even as she mourns her university education, her carefree pre-married life, and what she expected would have been jubilation over her first chid.

When a new couple moves in downstairs, Jhumur quickly becomes close friends with the wife, whom her family comes to revere as she is also an accomplished doctor. Living with the couple temporarily is the doctor-wife’s brother-in-law, an artist as yet undecided about his future …

As Jhumur’s new friendship begins to reawaken her sense of self, she begins to plot her revenge … using the only means she has in her power.

Nasrin’s slim novel is a revealing treatise of the endless hypocrisy and senseless injustice against women in the name of religious traditions; she’s got all the right fodder – from the subtle to the blatant– that enflame fundamentalist principles. But that’s exactly why readers should read this book. If nothing else, her detractors should at least know what they’re protesting … they might even learn a necessary thing or two.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1992; 2010 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Bangladeshi, Bangladeshi American

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

golden-ageHere’s the best news up front: Tahmima Anam’s impressive debut is the first of a planned trilogy. While still mourning the sudden loss of her too-young husband, Rehana loses custody of her young son and daughter to a scheming brother-in-law. Separated for a year with her children faraway in Lahore while she remains in Dhaka, Rehana manages to get them back out of sheer will – determined that she will never lose them again. In 1971 when the people of Bangladesh declare independence from Pakistan, Rehana is no longer certain how she can protect her children during a horrific time marked by betrayal and terror. But neither will she remain a silent bystander while civil war threatens to destroy her family, friends, and adopted country.

Review: “In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Month: A Survey of New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, May/June 2008

Tidbit: Anam was a guest at SALTAF 2008 (South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival), a much-anticipated, highly-attended annual fall event sponsored by the Smithsonian APA Program and NetSAP-DC.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Bangladeshi, Bangladeshi American, British Asian, South Asian, South Asian American

Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos

ask-me-no-questionsA Bangladeshi immigrant family heads to Canada in search of asylum. When the father is inexplicably arrested at the border, the two daughters return alone to New York, where friends and family are disappearing without explanation. Budhos hauntingly depicts a post-9/11 world where looking like the enemy can seem a crime.

Reviews: “In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, some new and notable books,” Christian Science Monitor, May 23, 2006

TBR‘s Contributing Editors’ Favorite Reads of 2006: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things … in Print, That Is …,” The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2006

Readers: Middle School, Young Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Bangladeshi American, South Asian American

Negotiating Ethnicity: Second-Generation South Asian Americans Traverse a Transnational World by Bandana Purkayastha

Negotiating EthnicityA careful examination of 48 second-generation South Asian Americans whose parents arrived from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal during 1965 and the mid-1980s. Through personal stories and sociological context, Purkayastha explores how this second generation projects self-identification in a world where they are clearly not white, yet often not Asian enough.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, August 4, 2005

Readers: Adult

Published: 2005

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Bangladeshi American, Indian American, Nepali American, Pakistani American, South Asian American