William Faulkner claimed he was a failed poet, and theorized that a writer takes up novel writing in the final stage after having failed to write poetry and short story. He considered short story as ‘the most demanding form after poetry’. This hypothesis, however, does not hold good to me. I never tried to write poetry, though there always is a spate of writing poetry in the alluvial soil of Bangladesh by people in their happy adolescence or at the age of puberty. I also beg to differ with Faulkner on his logic of the pecking order in regard to creative writing skills. Why I took to writing stories then was quite obvious. As a matter of fact, a strong passion for listening to stories was implanted in me in my childhood days while I was used to being lulled to sleep by ghost and horror stories told by my mother. She had to tell me a large number of stories throughout the year which exceeded even the number of the stories of the Arabian Nights. My mom, though a treasure trove of stories, was soon short, and had to improvise to slake my thirst. The typical errors and omissions of her promptly-woven stories would be spotted by me, but my interest never flagged.
After I had learnt to read Bengali, my father presented me a brand new copy of the illustrated version of Thakurmar Jhuli. This enormously popular book on Bengali fairy tales gave me a big thrill. I devoured it with a voracious and undiscriminating appetite. I read Thandidir Thale in its wake. Reading stories became the entire world to me.
During my busy school and college days, the story books always went with my textbooks. By then, I finished reading the first-known Greek story collection– Aesop’s Fables, the collection of Indian animal fables with explicit morals– Panchatantra, the Judeo-Christian Bible Stories, the exciting folk and fairy tales of Arabian Nights, and the dark and violent stories of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In my university days, while I was studying English literature, I discovered a new world of stories. Boccaccio’s bawdy tales of love in Decameron and Chaucer’s ironical stories in The Canterbury Tales opened up whole new vistas for me. Great masters of modern short stories like Maupassant, Chekhov, O. Henry, Jack London, Joyce, Kafka, and Hemingway exerted a tremendous influence on me.
My story-loving passion grew more intense and wanted to find expression in short fiction. I wrote a story (Amanush) in Bangla, and sent it to Jignasa at Calcutta. Not only was it published, it was also highly appreciated by the learned editor, Sib Narayan Roy who, by way of introduction, wrote a few sentences appraising my ability as a story teller. I felt tempted to stick at writing stories, and brought out my debut Bengali story book entitled Ekaler Rupkatha (Today’s Folktales) in 1997. That was the beginning of my career as a fictionist.
Why I chose to write in English is twofold. First, I want to reach a much wider readership across the globe and second, I want to involve myself in the growing trend of what I call ‘Bangladeshi writing in English’ which is in a pitiable state compared to its South Asian counterparts. The agonizingly slow movement of BWE greatly shocks me, and I find no reason as to why our writers are not coming up with creative writing in English. The bulk of our English writing is mainly composed of the dry post-editorial columns and opinions written in passable English.
In recent years, however, a handful of fresh talents are treading this path on tiptoe. Some promising writers are trying their hands at writing fiction/ short stories in English. I believe there is a wealth of young talent in Bangladesh who can promote the development of ‘Bangladeshi Writing in English’ by way of writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama. They will draw their themes both from the top of our aspirations and the bottom of our despair, and express them in English so as to let the world share with them, their people and culture, and feel empathy with humanity.
This is exactly what I try to do as a fictionist. I try to pick the plot of my stories both from the bustling metropolis and the far-flung corners of the country, and paint them in an unprejudiced light. I write my stories in a rather conventional way, and deliberately avoid any offbeat approaches to directly reach my readers. I don’t relish the idea of imitation of any recognized European or American or African or Latin American styles for my English stories. Besides, I try to remain a stickler for the correct usage of the Queen’s English, and exploit it with a view to enhancing the aesthetic of my stories. But I don’t discourage unconventional ways and means, nor do I expect others to see eye to eye with me. They should have their own sweet ways to think and to write. To write for Bangladesh in English is important! BWE is looking forward to fresh talent.
Although the present condition of ‘Bangladeshi writing in English’ looks fairly dim, there sure is light at the end of the tunnel. We may be able to play at least a similar role to that of India. At least an Amitav Ghosh or an Arundhati Roy or a Vikram Seth can very well be born of the budding fictionists of Bangladesh.
But how? The ongoing mode of BWE has to be liberated from the literary coterie i.e. the small circle of writers, publishers, and their admirers. It has to be rescued from the narrow confines of academia—the varsity English departments and English medium schools and colleges. The English newspapers, magazines and journals should allow enough room for literature page and fresh writings should be picked solely on merit. There should be an academy called “English Academy” like “Bangla Academy” to promote the growth of “Bangladeshi writing in English”. BWE can better be a global vehicle for our national feelings and emotions, and herald the emergence of a new voice—which our literature is in urgent need of.
Dr. Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University. E-mail: email@example.com