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What To Do With That History…

April 9, 2010 Fiction, Inspiration, Memoir, Opinion, Political 7 Comments

photo credit: Abdul Hamid Raihan/Autograph ABP

By Javed Jahangir

Um, I am afraid this might get a little controversial.

I was recently asked to be part of a small group of writers trying to pull together a panel for next year’s AWP conference – the panel: Bangladeshi writers, a young nation’s literary coming of age, or coming out, or something like that. The name isn’t really important, but what was interesting was the underlying conversation regarding the nature of a writer’s purpose, that emerged from this panel thing. I guess I hadn’t realized how startling it can be, to have to confront, in visceral terms, what it means to a writer. Particularly, what it means to be a writer defined by a common element- a Bangladeshi writer. Were we just deracinated writers like other before us, staking territory over specific places and people we might have known –fictionalized places like Yoknapatawpha county, Lake Wobegon or even New Jersey? Or were we simply writers unable to snap off our stories from the sticky resin of history? And boy, can Bangladeshi history be sticky. Here’s a taste- my father was born a British subject, my mother an Indian, I, a Pakistani and my siblings, finally Bangladeshi citizens, and none of us had to travel anywhere to make it happen either. Add to that the matter of 3 million civilians (neighbors and family-members) killed, and some 300,000 women raped in the process of creating an Independent Bangladesh, and we are talking about a real situation.

The question that’s been tugging at my innards is this issue of weight- how does one tackle the pointy bits of history in our work? Especially a history that no one wants to talk about, isn’t fashionable, but remains personally impossible to ignore – the stuff that just secretly seeps in and accretes in dark globs under the floorboards. Genocide, after all, is so gauche to bring up in polite company isn’t it? So very outré. And definitely not the sort of buzz-kill you want to be talking about at a conference you’ve gone to network with writers, editors and agents and maybe get a little drunk on Cosmopolitans – this is not the venue to harsh one’s sweet mellow.

Yet if we believe that literature is, amongst other things, respite- a way to exorcise the bad spirits of not just the writer, but all who read, we are caught in a dreadful bind. How does one move on, so their characters can move on too, and pull along with them the imaginations and self-identification of a juvenile nation as nations go? How does one begin to boil down and curate the experiences of a people, just beginning to find their voices through their own stories? Maybe it’s an unnecessary load to place on our shoulders- like, maybe we don’t have to be representin’, all the time, man. But Milan Kundera says: Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress. Makes me wonder. Sounds to me like Kundera’s talking about that sublime stuff that writers desire more than anything else. And where else can one go, but to history, that great big soap opera of life, brimming with the greatest conflict, spilling with the greatest art?

I will continue to think about the AWP Panel, and I will have to think about the personal story that has to encapsulate and transcend the historical one. The story of people should always trump ideology and those cold and abstract -isms. But not far from my mind will be the inevitable score that still needs settling, even though I am painfully aware that the AWP is no place to air tribal laundry. So I will be thinking too, about acknowledgment, that spice of healing, without which I am stuck (with a generation of writers) in that metaphorical Ground-Hog’s day, stuck amongst the same pain and unchanging art of everyday- slowly watching the death of our voices, our art – that very thing we write to keep alive.

My question to you then is this- how does your own history figure into your stories and what do you do with it when it begins to become controversial?

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Currently there are "7 comments" on this Article:

  1. Incredible post, Javed. Yes–does one have to be identified as a ‘fill in the blank’ writer? Does one want to be? Does one have a duty, a desire? Is our work authentic without pulling from our roots?

    Can we just write a story? Does it have to be THE story? Oh, the questions you raise. Great job!

  2. [...] writers riff or am I just a wanna-be musician? Today’s post in Beyond The Margins by my friend and member of my long-term writer’s group and multi-writer blog (and fantastic [...]

  3. Chris Abouzeid says:

    Wow. One of the most thought-provoking blog posts I’ve ever read. The “laundry” is always the issue, isn’t it? Whether it’s an embattled country, a dysfunctional family, addiction, madness, divorce–figuring out what needs to go in, what needs to stay out, which part of our history is essential to our writing, and which part is incidental, can be a lifelong process. Does the essential coincide with the controversial? I don’t think so. But it may be that allowing ourselves to voice the controversies leads us to what is essential.

  4. Leslie Greffenius lesliegreffenius says:

    Excellent, thought-provoking post, Javed, though I, too, had to read it over twice to understand what you were talking about exactly. I used to force myself to ask “stupid” (but, to me, genuinely baffling) questions in school because I figured that if I felt a burning need to know, some still-silent others might, too….I tend to think that the writer’s own history is especially important when it becomes controversial, the point at which we have to dare ourselves to write and not just flatter ourselves with our own eloquence. It’s at that point — assuming we can make our characters, plot and etc. compelling — that we are really useful to our readers.

  5. E. B. Moore says:

    Hard considerations, and another nasty internal editor to join the group already on every writer’s shoulder.

  6. Becky Tuch 99review says:

    Nice post, J!
    Last year at AWP I saw a panel on writing about war, and it was really good, and something I remembered b/c it was far spicier than some of the other panels, such as “The Rise of the Middle-Class Novella in YA pedagogy,” or some such thing. I think you should definitely do this panel, and raise high the roof beams with your spice and controversy! The conference needs you.

  7. Dell Smith says:

    History can’t be ignored. Talk about the real situation. Dare to be gauche. Detail your country’s history, struggles. If it becomes representative, universal, so much the better. Let the panal tackle it all.

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Javed Jahangir

Javed Jahangir
Born in Bangladesh, Javed Jahangir grew up in Abu Dhabi, Malta, Riyadh, London, New York, Pittsburgh, and Somerville MA, where he now lives. His work has appeared in various publications including LOST Magazine, LUMINA and Hacks- 10 Years On Grub Street. He has been a frequent contributor to The Daily Star, a leading English daily in Bangladesh. Jahangir has a undergraduate degree from Bard College and a graduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University. Though he derives his primary literary motivations from the wealth of Boston’s writing scene, he considers Grub Street Writers amongst its richest. When not writing, Jahangir enjoys illustrating children’s books, is a Taekwando enthusiast and plays competitive squash. He is working on his first novel Ghost Alley, which is set in the post-postcolonial world of Bangladesh. Read Full

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