Category Archives: Bangladeshi

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

Here’s my ‘why-I-read-this-book-scenario’: a 21st-century equivalent to the mail-order bride from Bangladesh, her middle-class white American engineer sponsor hubby, the suburban New York life they attempt to share … presented by one of the more lauded, fellowship-granted, award-winning (non-ethnically Asian) writers of the Net Generation. Nell Freudenberger’s high-profile youth and beauty also seem to be enviously newsworthy, engendering one of the most clever pun-ish variations of a name: schadenfreudenberger. [Surely that deserves at least an appreciative smirk!]

Amina is an educated young woman, although not as degreed as she had wanted to be, due to her parents’ financial limitations. At 24, she’s old enough to dream of something more than tutoring wealthy children to help them get the education she couldn’t have. When she’s unable to secure entry into an American university with a full scholarship, she takes the next best option (inspired by a Voice of America radio broadcast!) and registers with AsiaEuro.com to get her MRS. On the other side of the world, in a Rochester suburb, George – so aptly named Stillman, as in ‘still a man,’ and ‘still waters run deep’ – wants to find a “‘straightforward’” woman who “did not play games, unlike some women he knew.”

Their online relationship has a few interruptions, but eventually George travels to Dhaka with a family heirloom ring in hand – although he doesn’t go for the “down on one knee or anything like that” – and Amina is soon making the arrangements for her transcontinental move. Marriage happens, although in a town hall rather than the Muslim temple Amina promised her parents before her immigration. The new couple settles into their culturally-crossed life together … but being virtual strangers, their emotional intertwining is more challenging, especially since both have deeply held secrets, one that’s happened and one that has yet to occur.

In a Q&A with the New Yorker (where Freudenberger once worked as an editorial assistant, where she was named one of the covetously regarded “20 Under 40” in 2010), she reveals that Amina is “loosely based” (with permission) on a friend she met on an airplane, who was also an internet bride from Bangladesh on her way to meet her American bethrothed.

Perhaps because Freudenberger tells someone else’s intimate real-life story is why the novel never feels quite convincing. Her characters are smart, layered, and occasionally, welcomingly unpredictable, especially Amina who is much more than the wide-eyed new bride in a strange new land than she lets on. While Freudenberger’s writing is certainly admirable (George’s mendacious lost-soul cousin has some of the best lines, and is also especially richly-voiced by narrator Mozhan Marnò), too much about the story feels distanced, as if we’re watching practiced actors rather than getting to know real people. Yes, it’s a novel, but you still want to believe …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Bangladeshi, Nonethnic-specific

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

At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka by Madhur Jaffrey

What perfect timing! Madhur Jaffrey‘s newest cookbook makes for a toothsome companion to one of last week’s posts, Indivisible, the first anthology that brings together contemporary American poets who trace their roots to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Put the two titles together and you’ll be salivating over the unlimited possibilities for literary feasts: read a few choice pieces from Indivisible, then prepare and share some delectable delights from Jaffrey’s latest. Without a doubt, Jaffrey is the empress of the South Asian kitchen for the most delicious reasons and her new cookbook is a gorgeous, colorful spread for the eyes as well as the palate.

South Asian cooking often seems “daunting,” Jaffrey admits, because of what seems to be a complex combination of just-right spices and seasonings. But Jaffrey is determined to simplify some of those recipes for you here, and even promises to “hold your hand through the entire process with clear instructions and detailed explanations.” How can you turn away from such an enticing offer as that?

My tummy’s already rumbling again … Salmon in a Bengali Mustard Sauce, Everyday Moong Dal, Green Lentils with Green Bean and Cilantro, Peach Salad, all enhanced by the perfect cup of Masala Chai … read and eat. Read and eat some more … mmmm, mmmmm, mmmmmmm …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Bangladeshi, Indian, Indian American, Pakistani, Sri Lankan

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

Yasmin’s Hammer by Ann Malaspina, illustrated by Doug Chayka

Inspired by two real children in Dhaka whom Ann Malaspina met on her travels through South Asia, Yasmin’s Hammer is yet more proof for the need to educate girls throughout the world.

When a cyclone destroys their home village “by a lazy river,” two sisters – Mita and Yasmin, together with their parents – are forced to move to the big city of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, in search of work. While their father tries to establish a rickshaw business and their mother works in other people’s homes, both sisters must help the family by working as brick chippers.

“‘We need your help now,’” Abba explains as gently as possible to his daughters, especially young Yasmin who wants nothing more than to go to school. Missing their extended family left behind in the home village, Yasmin and Mita work achingly long hours. Yasmin’s thoughts turn always to school: “If I could read … I would not break another brick / or wash a rich lady’s laundry like Amma / or pedal a rickshaw through crowded streets. / If I could read, I would be a shopkeeper / or maybe a teacher. I could be a doctor / or even the governor! / I could be anything at all.

Yasmin’s hard work and ingenuity do indeed pay off … but for every success story like Yasmin’s, far too many young children will never get a similar chance to learn. At book’s end, Malaspina offers a child-friendly overview of the situation in Bangladesh, highlighting both the challenges and ongoing progress toward educating all young Bangladeshis. She also provides a welcome list of ways that readers – both the youngest and their parents – can help the children of Bangladesh … if you can read, you can also help.

Readers: Children

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Bangladeshi

Creating a World without Poverty: How Social Business Can Transform Our Lives by Muhammad Yunus with Karl Weber

Creating a World Without PovertyIf you don’t think you’ve got the time to read this whole book, turn at least to the very end (don’t expect to hear me say that again anytime soon!) and read Yunus’ inspiring lecture he gave when he and his remarkable Grameen Bank together deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Better yet, because it’s that important, let me make it even easier … click HERE for the Nobel lecture.

Now, rightfully inspired, you should finish the rest of this book, and read Yunus’ first book (blog post coming soon as I keep adding backwards), Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, which is actually even better.

Yunus’ own story is truly remarkable. Returning to his native Bangladesh with his American PhD, he soon realized that teaching lofty economic principles and theories to comparatively privileged university students was not going to be how he would spend his life. He could not simply ignore the poverty that surrounded him. He started with a few dollars from his own pocket which he loaned directly to the poorest women in the village just beyond his comfortable university. That tiny effort eventually evolved into Grameen (which means ‘village’) Bank.

Just over three decades later, with Grameen’s phenomenal near-perfect rate of payback, Yunus is defining and improving his own lofty economic principles of micro-financing and micro-credit. Even more importantly, Grameen has helped some 100 million of the world’s poorest and continues to expand its reach in a lauded effort to eradicate world poverty forever. In Yunus’ greatest dreams, he sees poverty belonging only in museums.

“Social business,” Yunus believes, is the best path toward that permanent eradication of world poverty. As an example of his social business model, he follows the creation of Grameen Danone, his joint venture with the French-based yogurt supergiant, which provides healthy yogurt at the lowest prices for the poor, especially children. In a social business, the goal is not profits and dividends, but further outreach and improvement of services and products. Yunus argues that vast numbers of people give their money away,  so why not find ways for those generous people to invest in social businesses instead; they would get back their investment, the world would be improved, and the same investment could be further used to grow other social businesses that continue to eradicate poverty. He challenges the next generations – who are hungry to make a difference, he insists – to find new ways to expand and improve social businesses throughout the world.

Yes, Yunus’ hopes and dreams might make you roll an eyeball or two. I fully confess that the cynic in me had a few dismissive moments. But even if we fulfill even a small percentage of Yunus’ big plans, the world will be that much better. As our own miracle-working Development Consultant Francey Younberg  often says, “how hard can it be?”

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Nonfiction, Bangladeshi

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

Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Jamie Hogan

rickshaw-girlA sweet story about a young Bangladeshi girl who’s determined to help her impoverished family. While her incredible spunk and spirit initially gets her in trouble, her tenacity and talent find a way to help her family. Girl power all the way, even in a rigid society that’s only recently and too-slowly recognizing women as equal citizens.

Review: “In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Month: New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, May/June 2007

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2007

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

Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle against World Poverty by Muhammad Yunus

Banker to the PoorThis is one of those life-changing books. Truly. I read it just before my first-ever trip to India (hoping to also go to Bangladesh at some point, but hasn’t happened yet, alas) together with Planet India as ‘homework’ before our departure. Read together, both make for a fabulous introduction to the South Asian subcontinent.

Part memoir, part social treatise, Banker to the Poor is Muhammad Yunus’ PRE-Nobel Prize debut title about his experiences creating what would become his co-Nobel Prize-winning Grameen Bank. After earning his PhD from Vanderbilt University, Yunus returned to his native Bangladesh to take a post as an economics professor at Chittagong University.

While he taught lofty theories and grand ideas, he couldn’t turn away from the extreme poverty he saw every day outside the hallowed academic halls. Out amidst the people, he quickly learned that the equivalent to less than a dollar could was all that separated a  hard-working woman (and her family) from the slavery-like conditions she endured to feed her family. With small sums from his own pockets, Yunus changed lives.

Together with his students, he left the classroom and headed out to the villages. Because none of the established banks would help – they would not make such tiny loans, and certainly no loans without collateral – Yunus found other means to help. And thus became the phenomenal success that is Grameen – which means ‘village’ – Bank.

While Yunus did not invent the concept of microloans, he certainly has become synonymous with the economic phenomenon. And no one, but no one, does it like Yunus. Our 11-year-old daughter kept hearing bits and pieces of this book from both her parents, and she asked for a Kiva certificate for her next holiday present (and a little something for her pet parrot). What parent is going to say ‘no’ to that? And she’s micro-loaning all over the world (although she has a preference for Latin America for now) … she hasn’t even read the book, and Yunus changed her life … no excuses for you older-than-tween folks. Go get the book NOW. Then go out and save the world, micro bits at a time.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1999, 2003 (paperback reprint)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Bangladeshi