During the 1971 war, he was a refugee in Calcutta. In his adult life, he has lived in several US cities. His fiction and non-fiction have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, Britain, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. He also translates Bangla fiction. In this interview, he speaks about his new collection of short stories, Killing The Water (Penguin). Excerpts from an interview:
When did you begin writing?
I wrote all along, ever since my schooldays. But I took up narrative prose only in the mid 90s.
How did major upheavals in your life affect you as a writer?
In the earlier years, there was great upheaval around and inside me. In my 20s, after the war and subsequent disappointment with the way things turned out in independent Bangladesh, I was an angry young man. I revisited some of those times while writing my stories through both the filter of time and what I’d like to believe is a greater thoughtfulness. I strive to reflect complexity. Fiction can’t provide answers, but it can convey a sense of people living in worlds of uneasy choices.
Where do you find inspiration?
First, in fragments from memory. The title story ‘Killing the Water’ plays with myth-making from events in my childhood. Second, I enjoy drawing out people to share stories. ‘City Shoes in the Village’ came from an anecdote my father told me. While living in Calcutta in the 30s, he had built a motorboat and navigated it to his home in Chandpur. I tried to imagine what might have happened when someone like him without close links with either his village home or his relatives returned home — in order to get a sense of his alienation. This story also drew in emotions and reactions I myself felt when I first returned home to Dhaka after 10 years in the US. Third, I tend to take mental snapshots and retain striking images. The story ‘Yuralda’ emerged from an image of a woman I saw once on a dance floor, swaying by herself, dismissing all who approached her.
What have been your best and worst experiences as a writer?
It’s wonderful when a reader “gets” the story you meant to tell; when reading the story surprises and awes. I also feel delighted when a story comes together. Worst experiences? A work that refused to come together, one that defeated me.
Water is a vital presence linking the stories in your collection as a symbol of life, death and rebirth. Tell us more about your themes.
In the stories set in Bangladesh, water is a strong presence. I grew up in a delta of many rivers, and water was everywhere: in the pond behind our house, in the monsoon floods, in the riverboat rides I recall enjoying. Even in the American stories, the characters often reach a turning point near water. This wasn’t engineered; it just came as part of the flow of writing. In ‘Yuralda’, ‘Blue Mondays’ and ‘Man in the Middle’, lakes and a river frame the background where reflection and conversation ensue. Migration or movement is a predominant theme. Nearly all my characters are restless and agitated for various reasons. At the core, most of them are searching for some type of connection. Another major theme is war and violence. During the war in 71, we had no choice except armed resistance. But we paid a cost, both as individuals and as a society. Meanwhile, I’ve lived in the US, a society marked by a history of a widespread belief in strength based on militarism.
The immigrant protagonists in the stories set in the US are attracted to the Yuraldas and Carlottas. But there is a relative dearth of fascinating women in the stories set in the homeland.
There are differences in tone in the two sets of stories. The women in the first set are all mothers and in their own way each fascinates me. But there is almost no hint of romance or sexual tension. These stories were based on memories from growing up in Bangladesh. The women I grew to be intrigued by, all entered later in my life in America. When I was writing these stories, I tried to create a Bangali woman character in a romantic setting in Bangladesh, but she sounded like a black American woman. Now after having been in Dhaka for three years, I am more confident of portraying a Bangali woman with realism in the novel I am currently working on.