In a recent interview acclaimed author Zia Haider Rahman, who visiting Dhaka for the literary festival last year, mentioned something about being a Bangladeshi writer that would hamper a few dreams. He said that if he had published his novel “In the Light of What we know” in Bangladesh, it wouldn’t have been the same book. Instead it would have been censored and edited till it was almost unrecognizable, nor would it have received the kind of acclaim that it has received so far.
In a way, he brings the point home, about the pitfalls of being a writer in Bangladesh. While I won’t try to flog the same horse twice, I would like to add my own experiences to the discussion and show that, from one perspective, now is a good time to be a writer in Bangladesh, as hard as that may be to believe.
Bad news first – being a writer in Bangladesh is largely a thankless job. There are next to no monetary benefits – it is impossible to make a living from it. If you are lucky, you might be able to sell a few articles to the major newspapers and if you are so inclined you might end up pursuing a career in journalism. However, good luck getting paid for your fiction! There is a lack of outlets, meaning a writer can’t expect to earn a few pennies from his words.
Generally what this means is that, those who do find the time to write are already financially solvent – they come from the upper class or upper middle class and can while away their time ensconced in literature. The facts are that a vast majority of the country cannot write in Bangla, an even larger majority cannot read or write in English. Of those who do use English as a medium, a lot of them don’t read nearly enough. Thus the voices of Bangladesh are an incredibly skewed percentage, and this is reflected in the writing as well.
And of course, there is the elephant in the room which I will only touch upon lightly. The recent murders of free thinkers have blighted the hearts and dreams of thousands of writers, making them afraid of even putting pen to paper lest they write the wrong words and offend someone. The label of blogger hangs over us all like the sword of Damocles and we watch with unease at each pendulous swing.
Onto the good.
That leaves us with the Dhaka Lit Fest – perhaps a herald of things to come.
What do I mean by that? Dhaka Literary Festival acts as a testament first to the unbreakable will of the Bangladeshi people, of their refusal to admit defeat and cow to the whims of fanatics, and it acts as an amazing opportunity for those in the city, to celebrate the love of words that binds them.
For any budding fiction writer, it is something great to aspire to – a panoply of energy and enthusiasm for words and pages which one cannot find elsewhere. Writing is a terribly lonely business – you sit at your computer, typing words, idly wondering if everyone can tell how bad you are or not, and if the latter, whether anyone will read them. Yet, being at Bangla Academy and having the chance to hear world renowned writers live talk about the art and the craft (and yes it is a craft), reader and writer alike can experience an energy that is hard to deny. You feel connected to something much bigger than yourself and also, you feel propelled by an invisible impetus, pushing you to work harder and improve your craft, getting better till maybe, if you are lucky, you might stand there as well, not just as a fan but as part of the festival itself.
As a burgeoning writer, especially in English, nothing could be sweeter.
Finally, contrary to what it may seem, now is quite possibly the best time to be a writer in English in Bangladesh. With the internet, the walls have been shattered and communities can grow out of nothing. I have had the privilege of being part of numerous writing groups and have found myself working with a slew of talented writers, artists and poets. Publications like Glyph, UNAB as well as Fictionbd.com offer young writers a chance to showcase their talents to the world and, if you are someone who wants to write then I would suggest availing these opportunist. Though these websites are little known to the general populace, the fact is that they provide a good way for young writers in the country to get some exposure and some encouragement.
Zubier Abdullah is a Bangladeshi writer who uses his words as a medium to tell untold stories. His writing has appeared in various magazines and journals, including Wasafiri’s special issue on Bangladesh.