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?