Tahmima Anam discusses her first novel, A Golden Age, set during the 1970s Bangladesh War of Independence
Did you always want to be a writer? You have a Ph.D. in social anthropology do
you ever consider returning to the academic world?
I wasn't a very devoted academicI found the idea of writing something that had to stick to a certain notion of truthfulness very difﬁcult. Anthropology is certainly the most literary of the social sciences, and yet one still has to adhere to a loose sense of "what really happened." I wanted a genre that would allow me to tell my readers something about what it was like to have lived through the Bangladesh war, something visceral and palpable. In this case, not having to stick to the facts really enabled that act of the imagination.
Having said all of that, I miss being part of an academic institution. I spent so many years in grad school that I now ﬁ nd myself feeling a bit lost when September rolls around and there aren't any classes to attend. And I love to teach, so perhaps someday I will teach creative writing.
Where do you write? Do you tend to follow a strict work schedule or write in spurts of activity?
What I'm about to tell you is very odd, I know, but it happens to be true: I wrote almost all of A Golden Age sitting in classrooms. I would go to class, and my mind would start to wander, so I would scribble in the margins of my notebooks. It looked like I was concentrating on what the professor was saying, but I was actually completely tuned out. It was the perfect setup: I was forced to sit still for an hour at a time, I had to be completely silent, and I had to look busy.
What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
I would be a food critic. I love to cook, and whenever I'm at a restaurant, I think about what sort of review I would give it. It would be such a thrill to get to do that for a living!
The ﬁrst line of A Golden Age"Dear Husband, I lost our children today"is an exceptional opener. Do you remember how or when it came to you? How did Rehana's story of self-doubt and redemption emerge from its war-ravaged backdrop?
A Golden Age is a much more intimate novel than the one I had planned to write. I had originally thought of writing a war epic, but Rehana's story took over, and I ended up with a novel about one family's experience of war. The opening line works like a coda because throughout the war, and throughout the novel, Rehana returns to her husband's grave to tell him the story of what is happening around her. It is an opportunity for Rehana to share her inner world, and also a chance for the reader to get closer to her.
You were born in Bangladesh; were raised in Paris, New York, and Bangkok; spent many years in Cambridge, Massachusetts (while completing your Ph.D. at Harvard); and currently live in London. Where is home?
When you grow up in so many different places, the idea of home becomes a complicated one. A part of me is always in Bangladesh; my entire family is there, so of course I miss them very much, and I regularly follow the news from Bangladeshthe political news, especially. I feel caught up in its rhythms, even when I'm far away. But I think that being far away has a lot to do with the longing; part of why I can feel nostalgic for Bangladesh is because I always look at it from a distance, and this sense of loss and nostalgia informs my writing. I suppose, having had such an itinerant childhood, I have become habituated to the feeling of always longing for something more, something that is elsewhere.
Do you feel an obligation to educate readers about your "beautiful and bruised country," as you call it, or are you simply a writer telling a story?
Yes, absolutely, I want people to learn about Bangladesh through the novel. I wanted the place to become real, not just a country to read about in the news when some disaster or other strikes. But I also feel very strongly that the characters should do that work for me; in other words, I never wanted the historical or political story to take precedence over the human story. Rehana and her family are at the heart of the novel, and while it is important for the reader to understand and get a sense of the political context in which the novel takes place, it is far more important that the relationships remain center stage.
Which authors' books most commonly appear on your nightstand?
Toni Morrison, Jane Austen, and Salman Rushdie. I have a dog-eared copy of Midnight's Children that I borrowed from my parents' bookshelf ﬁfteen years ago and never returned. It goes with me everywhere.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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