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Exclusive interview of Shagufta Sharmeen Tania

Published : Saturday, 14 May, 2022 at 12:00 AM  Count : 280

Exclusive interview of Shagufta Sharmeen Tania

Exclusive interview of Shagufta Sharmeen Tania

Born in Bangladesh and initially trained as an architect, Shagufta Sharmeen Tania has authored nine books. She translated Susan Fletcher's Eve Green and Antonio Skarmeta's Burning Patience, from English to Bengali. Her work has appeared in Wasafiri, Asia Literary Review, City Press, and Speaking Volumes Anthology. Shagufta received the Bangla Academy Syed Waliullah Award (2018) for outstanding contributions to Bangla literature. Her short story 'Sincerely Yours' was long-listed for the BBC Short Story Award 2021. Shagufta Sharmeen Tania made it to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlist 2022. The shortlist was selected from a record 6700+ entries this year.

This interview with novelist Shagufta Sharmeen Tania was conducted by poet Shahed Kayes on behalf of the Daily Observer.

Shahed Kayes: Out of nearly 7,000 entries, you were shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. This is undoubtedly a huge achievement. How did you feel after hearing the news?

Shagufta Sharmeen Tania: In terms of my initial reaction, I could not stop trembling for hours after receiving the email from Commonwealth. It was a re-cord number of entries this year, literary works from more than 50 countries entered into this competition. I call it the open ocean of writing. That my story has been able to attract attention on so wide a scale is difficult to fully com-prehend!

SK: Do you think this achievement will affect your writing? If so, then how?

SST: The attention to detail and perseverance that writing demands - those elements will remain unchanged. It is not possible to write without these two. What has changed possibly is my level of confidence. It is not possible to be-come an artist without a wealth of self-confidence. Then again, introspection (what you may call self-doubt) is generally a part of most artists' mindset - something that drives them, to a large extent.

You know better than me about the tangled divisions and politics within the world of Bengali literature. It is normal to have self-doubt while navigating one's way through such a minefield. Making a berth on the short list has cer-tainly brought some relief from this all-crumbling self-doubt.

If you want to call it an achievement, that will be my secret achievement.

SK: Tell me a little bit about the story you were shortlisted for.

SST: The backdrop to the story is Dhaka city. When a metropolis changes rap-idly, it obliterates all the tender dreams of its citizens, takes over like a mon-strous organism, dictates to its inhabitants at every step. There is no way other than to comply. But the primitive tune of a counter-urbanization is very clear in our bloodstream, sometimes we manage to hear that melody, sometimes we don't. I may want to achieve a lot of things on my own - a property, wide and clean streets, social security; but there is something beyond these wants, there exists a version of me that feels peace upon seeing a grassy glade or a water body - why is it so? Why does all else fail to touch us that intimately? My story is about this monastic call of de-urbanization.

SK: When it comes to writing, just talk about the beginning. How was your preparation for becoming a writer?
SST: It never begins one fine day with a resolve to become a writer or an artist. There is an inner compulsion, a trait that becomes clear over time. When all the children are making noise in the playground, you will see one child sitting in the shade and gazing at the field or drawing pictures on her own, that is her inner urge manifesting itself. From an early age I had an observant mind, a brooding analyzing head. I drew pictures; I told made-up tales and wrote sto-ries. That's what at some point took a turn into full-fledged writing.

SK: Was the family environment conducive to your growing up as a writer?

SST: My mother had an artistic mind; she was always a beauty lover. Amma used to write the shopping list in her pearly handwriting, she would not do anything in a clumsy way, even if it was cooking in the kitchen. She taught me how to hold a paintbrush, bought books, read to us from Tagore's 'Golpoguc-cho'. For instance, I remember amma once made us listen to the call of a bird in a rural area at a young age, the bird was constantly saying 'kanthal khaitey nayan jaitey'. We siblings laughed when we heard from her that a bird was calling in participle phrases. But it penetrated me like a tiny needle- how do humans analyse a bird's call? My maternal grandfather was a bibliophile. We competed on how many synonyms we knew. During power-cuts at night, we would sit on the rooftop or veranda and sing to our heart's content. I had an inner world of my own due to these two people. The rest of the family envi-ronment was not conducive to creativity.

SK: Why do you write? What happens when you write, I mean, does anything happen through literature?

SST: This is a difficult time. Readership is sharply declining in the world of Ben-gali books. Less people appreciate literature; writers have to bite their tongue even if they don't like the level of professionalism from publishers. This begs the question -why do Bengalis continue to write in such a situation? I do not know exactly, maybe they write from an inner drive.

SK: The story, or its construction - which do you think is more important?

SST: A piece of prose without any story at all, or a story told without language skills - neither is literature. Story and language are both imperative. However, it is the construction or the language that touches the reader's heart. There should be no more stories that are still left to be revealed or unprecedented in our history of two million years as humans. The construction of a story ar-ranges the elements of the tale in such a way that it makes us think or surprises us.

SK: Are you aware of this form or construction in your writing?

SST: Yes. Construction is very important. It is the difference between a literary piece and a piece that aspires, but fails to be, literature.

SK: What is your opinion about contemporary Bengali literature?

SST: My opinion on this is a bit personal. As I've said in another interview be-fore- if literary education is destroyed in schools, there is no point in judging the dynamics of language and literature. How can you make a person enjoy literature who has not learned to savour it from an early age or never partici-pated in any thought-provoking activities? In stories and novels or plays, we now see a trend where people seem to believe that the dialogue or narrative voice should be in our colloquial language, but the rest does not have to be well-written. So we are busy with tools, but have forgotten the totality of the craft...  I find this trend in our contemporary Bangladesh's literature mind-boggling.

SK: You've been out of your country of origin for a long time, has it had any impact on your writing?

SST: Of course. Everything in the country of your residence will enter into you in a process of osmosis. You'll adapt, you'll assimilate. It's the nature of things. There are many days when I could not speak in Bengali to a single person for the whole day; it is difficult to create Bengali literature from such a situation. But I consciously try to remain immersed in both Bengali and English, because language is all-inundating, the beauty of one language nourishes and bleeds into the process of producing literature in another.

SK: What's your opinion on a writer's social responsibility? Do you think a writer should have social responsibility?

SST: A writer has the social responsibility of a normal person, naturally. But any obligation is a handicap as well, it is binding. A man whose mind is bound by social-state-religious precepts is not a man free enough to produce literature. Although the canary in the cage also sings.

You can't imagine a more terrible scene than the famous last scene of 'The Wicker Man'! Will a socially responsible, God-fearing man show such a defeat of the good- that an innocent man is tied to other live animals and burned together as offerings? My answer is, yes. Because when art and literature show or tell the people something, the viewer/listener will instinctively imagine what follows next, in their imagination. That's how literature inspires, haunts, motivates. The whole issue of social responsibility cannot therefore be con-densed into a grammatical form.

SK: We are still going through the corona pandemic all over the world; how much has it affected your personal life, and your writing?

SST: Throughout the pandemic, I studied, translated my own work and edited some other materials, also. In my own way, through my regular writings or journal entries in social media, I have tried to maintain a positive outlook. I stayed away from scaremongering or broadcasting fear. Sometimes it is very important to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. During the pandemic, I suffered physically though.

SK: You once said in an interview that "writing is my existence", can you ex-pand on that in a little more detail?

SST: Tell me what can be more self-explanatory than that? Man is a slave to his creation. Human beings toil for the sake of the children-their procreation; knowing full well that death is certain, they climb to get the credit to conquer the summit. People go to the forest and plants trees like Bibhutivushan's Yugalprasad, take up full-time writing, leaving jobs that paid more regularly.

SK: What are you writing now? What are your future plans for writing?

SST: I've just finished two stories. I have two novels which I couldn't quite fin-ish - I want to return to those works in progress, and hopefully complete them.

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