With her new novel, The Good Muslim, available now, Anam talks about the transformative power of war and the power of good writing.
Interview with author Tahmima Anam
It is apt that my interview with Tahmima Anam takes place partly on a plane, flying from a literary festival in Iraq to the UK, for Anam herself is no stranger to being in motion. Although she lives in London now and has studied in the United States, a significant portion of her life and literature is still deeply and rooted in her birthplace: Bangladesh.
Her first novel, A Golden Age (2007), winner of the Commonwealth Prize, traced the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence through the compelling character of Rehana Haque, a widow who loses custody of her two children, Maya and Sohail, to her brother-in-law on account of her poverty and youth. Anam's lyrical new novel, The Good Muslim, continues this story in what will be a trilogy, capturing the human side of war, and tracing the ways in which political events are intrinsically interwoven with personal lives.
Anam's writing is informed by a sense of nostalgia and longing, with characters casting an eye on to the past, and so I start with Anam's own past, and the seeds in her childhood that shaped her subsequent growth into a writer.
Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1975, daughter of Marxist parents. "I was an only child until I was 13. I was very lonely and read a lot," she says. She went on to earn a PhD in anthropology from Harvard University. However, she says: "I decided I didn't want to be an academic but was going to be a writer. I spent several years in Bangladesh and found my story. I was doing research on the war for my thesis. I realised that writing this story as academic writing was not going to work. Anthropology is the most poetic of the social sciences but it didn't go far enough for me.
"I wanted to write a novel but had no idea how to do it, so I took a class. The great thing about the MA is that I got to come out of the closet and be in a room of nine other people and say I want to be a writer; and the difference between a writer and someone who wants to be a writer is that the person sits down and writes."
And sit down and write is exactly what she did.
She explains the source of her mixed cultural identity: "My parents didn't emigrate to another country. They would say we are from Bangladesh; there's no sense of us being from anywhere else. I also like living in the West. Sometimes, that's the source of the writing: that sense of nostalgia, anxiety, pain and sense of belonging and longing.
"I spend a few months of the year in Dhaka. I feel a very strong sense of belonging in London, as it embraces so much diversity; I love going down Kilburn High Road. You wouldn't see that diversity anywhere else in the world."
Both of her novels are about a war and its aftermath. "They are about the great tragedies but also the possibilities that can come in times of conflict," she says. She quotes the philosopher Walter Benjamin: "A time of emergency is also a time of emergence," and her novels indeed trace the emergence of personalities following conflict, the different ways people are shaped, either scarred or surviving; the strong and the fragile. That war has the power to change a personality so irrevocably is something captured compellingly in this novel, as Anam charts a character's ideological transformation and the effects of this on his family.
War is a complete breakdown of the familiar, explains Anam. It forces one to reconsider what is "good" and what is "bad". "You have to rebuild your own sense of right and wrong; rebuild your own life; it's tragic but also an opportunity to start afresh," she says.
Anam describes how people's lives are intensified in times of conflict; how everything feels "compressed". This is perhaps the best adjective to describe the distinctive power of this novel: its compression of emotion and history to the point of poetic intensity while still managing to retain the narrative drive of the story and plot.
Anam examines the complexities of ambivalent emotions surrounding war. "This book is about the fall out of war - how people try and live a life in the wake of a great event. Even though it's a terrible time, people miss being a part of something bigger than themselves."
Religion is a theme at the heart of the book and her characters represent various shades of faith, including what Anam describes as the "realist religious person, like Maya". She continues: "I was trying to think about different kinds of people who lived through the war and some came out so strong." She describes, for example, the feisty leaders of the feminist movement.
"I had some really important things I wanted to say in the book, but I think books should be about characters, not ideas. For example, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie never makes you feel like her characters are mouthpieces of their ideas."
She is a passionate advocate of the importance of the novel as an art form: "I think all forms of art have their own value, but one of the unique things about a novel is that you enter the heart of another person, the inner thoughts and minds, and that can be very powerful.
"Novels help people access their own inner humanity. I feel very privileged that I get to write novels. In a place like Bangladesh there are a lot of issues, from climate change to politics, and it's important to have lots of writers to document that because it keeps the cultural self-narrative alive but also shares it with the rest of the world."
Writing, I suggest, is about movement; not only geographic but also emotional and psychological. "Writing is when the magic happens," she says. "When you read a really good book, something shifts in the heart."
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