& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, May 09, 2013

By writing about the past, I renew history: Selina Hossain

Selina Hossain
Selina Hossain is an eminent Bangladeshi author. She was in Toronto to participate in the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts 2013.  I spoke to her during her visit. Excerpts from an interview:

Why do you write?

I love observing. I remember observing nature as a child, observing the relationship between a man and a woman, between a mother and her children, the way people live their lives. When I went to the university in the 1960s, I began to put into words all my gathered experiences. Initially, I wrote poems but within two to three years I realized that poems were not my form. I needed a larger canvas so switched to writing short stories and novels.

You have written over 30 novels.

Yes, 32 novels. Most of my novels explore human emotions, poverty, and the relationship between people and the State, different conditions of women, how women are treated by the society.  I write stories that explore our cultural roots. For instance, my novel Purno Chobir Mognota (2008) is about Rabindranath Tagore’s life, between 1899 and 1901 when he lived in what is now Bangladesh.

The characters in the novel are characters from Tagore’s stories. I believe that had Rabindranath not come to this part of Bengal, he wouldn’t have understood the connection to nature and poverty.

Rabindranath came to Patisar on an invitation in 1937. At the end of the novel I express my theme by making a contemporary parallel saying that he dedicated his song ‘Amar Sonar Bangla Ami Tomai Bhalobasi...’ to the people of the land. This song was accepted as the national anthem of Bangladesh in 1971.  

In my novel on Mirza Ghalib, Jomuna Nodir Mushayra (2011), I attempt to relate the past and connect it with the present. Ghalib was the poet of the subcontinent. My idea was to depict how a poet saw his times, to show how Galib passed his days during Sepoy Mutinity. I tried to depict the time for the young generation of the present. I sought their reaction. They told me that when they were going through the description of Sepoy Mutinity in my novel, they thought they were reliving the liberation war of Bangladesh.
Reading in Toronto

But my novels aren’t just about the past. I don’t believe in romanticising the past. I link the past with the present. By writing about the past, I renew history.

Your writing is pronouncedly political.

All writings are political. You show me any writing that is not political. Everyone has political thoughts in his/ her live consciously or unconsciously. I love that my story may turn into a political idea. I was in my early 20s when the 1971 war of liberation broke out. It made a lasting impression on me. 

It is the theme of my novel Hangor, Nodi, Grenade (The Shark, The River, The Grenade – 1976). Satyajit Ray was keen to make a movie based on the novel, but abandoned the idea when fundamentalists force took charge of the country after Sheikh Mujib was assassinated.

So this is an example how politics destroys art. We can think of Tolstoy who was not awarded Noble Prize for petty political reasons.

Would you agree that fundamentalist forces have shaped South Asian geographies?

On the contrary, I would say that it is secular forces that have shaped our societies. Bengali society on either side of the border even today is defined by what Chandidas said five hundred years ago Shobar upore manush shotto tahar upore nai (Humanity above all else). The common people have imbued with secular thoughts. Often it is the state that prevents common sense from prevailing. When I see Bengalis living in enclaves near the borders of India and Bangladesh, I often wonder why the leaders can’t solve this simple problem. It is because of the State. It is because of the Border Security Forces (BSF). It is because of the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB). My novel Vumi-o-kusum (2010) looks at this simple and yet complex situation.

Is the State is an important character in most of your works?

The State is an important character in everyone’s life. Whether you live in Toronto or in Dhaka, you can’t avoid or ignore the State. A peasant, a fisherman, or a professional may harbour notions that their thoughts are their own, but the undeniable reality of our life is that those thoughts are influenced and controlled by the State not always directly but indirectly by its policies, but its various apparatuses. My novels examine this relationship. But my approach is not polemical. I prefer the personal. I am a committed writer and my fiction combines the personal and the political.

What are your impressions about Bangladesh?

I am impatient with the slow pace of change. We achieved liberation 42 years ago but the lives of people haven’t changed. We have a tremendous social capital in Bangladesh. We must tear asunder the status quo that hampers progress. Many say this is left-wing thinking, I say this is thinking for the humanity.

Who are your favourite Bangladeshi authors?
Syed Waliullah, Hasan Azizul Huq, Shamsur Rahman, Shahid Qadree, Syed Shamsul Haque, Rizia Rahman, Akhteruzzaman Elias.

And Bengali?
Mahasweta Devi and Sunil Gangopadhyay.

Photo credit: Fathima Cadre

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