When I first hear Tahmima Anam's voice, her American accent startles me. Her author bio says she was born in Dhaka, raised in Paris, Bangkok and New York, and now lives in London. But her writing contains the sensibilities of someone who has grown up in the milieu she so evocatively recreates. Tahmima spent two years in Bangladesh, researching her first novel A Golden Age. Published in 2007, it was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Costa First Novel Prize, and won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. The story revolves around Rehana Haque, a widow who fights for custody of her children Sohail and Maya, only to fear for their lives when East Pakistan is plunged into war. As the war effort pushes everyone in the country to conjure up every last reserve of strength and courage, Rehana finds out just how far she will go to save her children. In 2011, its sequel The Good Muslim was published. With a temporal arc spanning 1972-1992, the book follows Maya and Sohail as they take off down rapidly diverging paths in a country finding its feet. The steely resolve of each of these sibling freedom fighters threatens the safety of the people they love the most, and their decisions make us wonder who is right. The book made the shortlist of the 2011 Man Asian Prize. In this interview, Tahmima speaks about her own upbringing, her connections with the war, her writing process, the idea of religion, and Pakistan's attitude towards Bangladesh.

Did you always know your first books would be about the Bangladesh Liberation War?

I did, actually. My desire to write the novel came from wanting to write about the war. I was doing research, I was interviewing freedom fighters, and I was writing down a lot of their stories for an oral history project I was doing. And I just thought, you know, I should write a novel because these stories have so much drama, and so much of the stuff we look for in novels. So I felt it would be a shame to write a kind of academic book about the war. I didn’t necessarily fictionalise the stories that people were telling me—I made it my own story. But the idea of writing a novel came from my research on the war, so I always knew that would be the subject of my first book.

So, are you telling me you’re an accidental novelist?!

(Laughs) Yeah! Well, I probably had a desire to write from a young age, but I think people need to find their stories, and for me, the story came first, you know. It’s not like I sat down and thought about what to write about.

But really, the thing that interested me the most was looking at how war transforms our most intimate relationships, between families, between loved ones. So really, it’s about the people, and it’s about how they’re affected by war. 

You’ve written two books centred on the war. But the war seems to be a prism to view relationships—what it does to people, and the different kinds of love it brings out, among people, and between people and God. Would you agree?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, the novels are set with war as the context. But really, the thing that interested me the most was looking at how war transforms our most intimate relationships, between families, between loved ones. So really, it’s about the people, and it’s about how they’re affected by war. In the case of the second novel, it’s about how they struggle to come out of the shadow of war.

Your characters are from an era that preceded your birth. What connects you to this time? Was it stories your parents told you, or was it being part of the generation that inherited Bangladesh?

Well, I think it has a lot to do with my family. Both of my parents were really involved in the war, so when I was growing up—you know, we lived outside of Bangladesh—they told me a lot of stories about the war, and I’ve always been most fascinated with that time. And I think it’s true for a lot of people of my generation—we inherited the country, and we’ve a kind of fascination with the generation of people who made that happen. So, yeah, I’ve always been really interested and I always ask people when I talk to them, “Where were you in 1971?” and people have such fascinating stories, so it’s definitely been something that I’ve been thinking about.

How were your parents involved in the war?

Well, my father joined the nascent Bangladesh Officers Corps. So he basically joined the Army. My mother and her brother stayed behind in Dhaka, and my grandmother’s house was a hideout for the rebels. In fact, she sheltered many of the freedom fighters in her home throughout the war. A lot of people who lived in Dhaka actually left the city, and went to the countryside to hide from the Army, but my family stayed behind in Dhaka, and their house became a kind of safe house.

Have there been times, during the writing of A Golden Age especially, when you went through an author’s insecurities, that you felt it wasn’t your story to tell, because you hadn’t lived through it? Or that it was too complicated to handle?

Yeah, definitely. I think it was important to approach the subject with a lot of humility, and I’ve always thought and I’ve always felt that it’s one story about the war, and there will, hopefully, be many, many novels written about the Bangladesh War, by people from different perspectives. We have an infinite number of novels written about World War II, which is a kind of seminal moment in European history. So, you know, that was how I was able to have the audacity to write this story, because I said to myself, “This is one story; this is about one family. It’s a very intimate story, and hopefully there will be many more.” And there are, there are many novels written in Bangla about the Bangladesh War. Not as many written in English, but I think that’s just a matter of time.

There is a sense of history being rewritten and erased, first through the renaming of roads, and then the conversion of Paltan Maidan into an amusement park in The Good Muslim. Do you think Bangladesh is in danger of forgetting its own history?

I think that it has been in danger because successive governments have, in various ways, not made the kind of public acknowledgement of the war that they should have, because they wanted to sort of establish their own legitimacy. However, we’re holding a war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh now to try the collaborators—people who collaborated with the Pakistan Army in 1971—and I think this was a very important step. So, in a public, state-sanctioned way, it’s happening now. But having said that, I think people have really held on to the memories of 1971. So I think among families, and in general society, those memories have always been very, very present. So it’s just a matter of national activity catching up to what is already happening, which is that people have their own ways of memorialising the war. So, no, I don’t worry that the war is going to fade from people’s memories, you know, especially not when we have this trial.

You refer to Bangladesh as a “bruised country” in your author’s notes to A Golden Age. What brings home the injustices of war, of the atrocities of the time, to your generation?

When I said it’s a “bruised country”, I meant on many levels. On the one hand, I meant that some of the scars from the war have never really faded, some of the tragedies have never really been addressed, people who lost their loved ones have never really received any kind of answers about what happened to them, or even in villages, there are people who collaborated with the Army who have never been brought to justice. So, for those people, the wounds are very much still alive.

But in another sense, what I meant was that we had this very triumphant liberation. It was a real triumph of David and Goliath kind of proportions, because here was this ragtag guerrilla army that basically overcame a brutal military force. Even so, after independence, which was such a triumphant moment, there have been so many setbacks in Bangladesh. Like, whether they’re economic or environmental or political —we now have had several decades of stable democracy, but between 1971 and 1991, we had many military coups, we had a dictator, so there’ve been a lot of challenges, and the country is quite battered.

But the people are strong, and the people are resilient, and so they have been able to withstand the many challenges that have faced the country over the last forty years.

Even today, a lot of Pakistanis get emotional over the loss of Bangladesh, and continue to call it ‘East Pakistan’. Does that upset you?

Very much so. I think the fact that Pakistanis have not acknowledged the fact that they committed genocide against those who were, at the time, their own people, is a real scar on Pakistan. And I have a lot of Pakistani friends, I have a lot of affection for Pakistan, but I do think that this failure to acknowledge and to really confront what happened is deeply problematic, and I think that it’s something that is also manifesting itself in current Pakistani politics, which are fractured. You know, the way that the state treated Baluchistan is the way that the state treated Bengal in the Sixties and in 1971, so I do find that very troubling, and I think it’s very problematic.

In your books, the conflict largely seems to be between Bengalis, and Pakistanis and Biharis. Whereas a lot of people who migrated from Bangladesh in the period leading up to and after partition speak of a sort of genocide of Hindus, started by Biharis, but carried out by Bengali Muslims as well. So, whom or what would you blame the mass migration of Hindus out of Bangladesh on?

I think that Bangladesh was founded on a pluralist, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural principle—you know, the idea of diversity was one of the founding tenets, as was secularism. But having said that, I don’t think that successive governments and also the general population have done a good job of really embodying these principles of secularism and multiculturalism, or celebrating our diversity. So I do think that the treatment of minorities in Bangladesh leaves much to be desired.

You posit your characters in a real setting, make references to real leaders and events. But you refer to Hussain Muhammad Ershad only as “the Dictator”. Was that to avoid controversy, since he’s still alive, or was it to convey the stranglehold of censorship at the time, because that becomes a central theme too?

I don’t think it would have been controversial at all to have named him. But, you know, for me he was a kind of nameless, faceless dictator. And I didn’t need to name him, because I think people at the time would have just known who he was and referred to him in various ways, whether it was by his name, or as “Dictator”, and that was just the sense that I wanted to convey.

India was under Emergency for two years, and every book written about that period makes a reference to it. Bangladesh has seen repeated periods of martial law and emergency in a much shorter period. In A Golden Age, the curfew, the presence of the military comes across as ominous. But in The Good Muslim, we don’t really see people’s daily lives being affected much.

Well, Ershad’s dictatorship, although it came with a lot of censorship and they didn’t have elections for ten years, was a kind of silent menace, because people’s lives for the most part went on as normal. Obviously, there was a popular uprising against it and people really rebelled against this dictator, but having said that, I don’t know that it affected daily lives in the same way that a military occupation would have. I mean, I wasn’t there, but that’s my impression from talking to people who were. So, I wanted it to be the kind of menacing distant prospect, something that people were learning to live with.

I’m sure there’s a little bit of you in each of the characters. But which one do you feel closest to?

You know, I think characters allow authors to inhabit slightly different personas. I enjoyed writing Maya because she’s a much bolder version of me. (Laughs) She says things that I probably wouldn’t say in public, she’s not afraid of what people think. So I can’t say that there’s one character that is me, but I would say I enjoy putting characteristics in my characters that are sort of fantasies that I might have about being a slightly different person. (Laughs) You know, it’s a fun way of getting to experience life as different people.

In both books, and especially in The Good Muslim, I felt language becomes a key point where religious identity is concerned. In one case, it’s the use of the Persian khuda hafez as opposed to Allah hafez. Then, it’s the emphasis of Arabic in the jamaat. And it’s in how Maya sees her Bengali roots as central to her secularity. Do you feel language informs religious leanings?

The thing is, in Bangladesh language has always been a central issue around which a lot of other political and historical forces have gathered. The independence movement originally started as a language movement in East Pakistan, when Urdu was imposed as the state language and Bengalis rebelled against that. The people who were considered the first martyrs of the independence movement were actually part of the language movement. So, the fact that for Maya language is a central fulcrum around which these things evolve is very much in keeping with people’s sentiments at the time.

And there’s been a kind of false dichotomy that’s been set up between a Bengali identity and a Muslim identity, and that dichotomy was set up because the Pakistani regime doubted the beliefs of Muslims in Bengal, by saying “Oh, you Bengalis, you’re not Muslims”, as if those two things couldn’t cohabit. But of course they cohabit, very happily in Bangladesh, and indeed among Bengali Muslims in India.

In your case, since you grew up outside Bangladesh, did your parents make a conscious effort to foster the Bengali identity in you, in terms of making sure you learnt the language, and were exposed to Rabindra Sangeet and everything that is ingrained in the Bengali psyche?

Definitely. (Laughs) I had a Bengali tutor, I had a music teacher...even though I wasn’t very adept at music, it was a sort of requirement! You know, we lived in Thailand for many years, and everyone in the Bangladeshi community in Bangkok knew each other. And we had one Bangla teacher, and one music teacher, and there was also a huzoor who used to go to everyone’s house. But the huzoor never came to our house, because my parents didn’t want me to be taught by this huzoor. So, it was something of a scandal in the community, you know, like, “Why doesn’t the huzoor go to their house?!” (Laughs) Anyway, that’s another story.

photo credit - Zahedul I Khan.jpg

There’s a constant inquiry into religion in your writing, and it sort of comes through that there can be no real wrong or right. That it can kill, but it can also give life and hope, and heal. Do you think religion is necessarily an ambivalent thing?

Well, I think it’s a complex thing. You know, I think that a lot of harm has been done in the name of religion over the generations, over the millennia. But it’s undeniable that religion brings meaning and solace to many, many individuals, and that most people in the world practise their religion without harming others. We have to take that into account, so I tried to represent that in my book.

Some people may call Sohail a fundamentalist, but there’s also something humane about him, sometimes more than in Maya, and there are times when he seems the nicer person.

Yeah, I suppose I wanted to ask the question – who is the fundamentalist in the story? And it could be either of them. You know, it could be Sohail and it could be Maya and that’s because she is also quite rigid in her beliefs. Having said that, I didn’t want to shy away from the really terrible things that Sohail ends up doing in the name of his religion. I wanted him to be a real person, someone whom one could feel a kind of empathy with, but I also wanted the reader to be able to say, “You know what, this is wrong. This is one of the real dangers of having a set of beliefs that doesn’t take into account people’s humanity.” So, you know I tried to do both of those things in the book.

In Sohail’s sermons, there are times when he can enlighten the secular reader, and times when he can horrify. Like, you wouldn’t expect someone as intelligent as he to speak with such contempt about idol worshippers in Abraham’s time. Did you use a reference point for the sermons, or did they come to you as you wrote the character?

No, there wasn’t any reference point. I could have made them up, but I did want to show that actually somebody like Sohail, who’s very intelligent and very educated and who’s been exposed to ideas from all over the world can still somehow become this sort of calcified person, this ideological being, and the reason that happens is because of certain events that he experiences, certain things in his life like going to the war, but also because he’s a person of extremes. Like, when he goes to fight in the war, he straightaway becomes one hundred percent engaged in being a nationalist. And when he can no longer be a nationalist, he’s looking for meaning in his life. And when he finds his faith, he just holds on to it, clings to it, as if he needs that to feel like he has some sort of purpose in his life. So, I guess I wanted the reader to be shocked and to say, “How is it that this person can be so sane and so educated and so reasonable, and yet be so unreasonable at the same time?”

Do you think the old Sohail will ever return, or some version of him will return?

I don’t know. I haven’t decided that yet. But I think he’s gone pretty far...it’ll take something, a major upheaval for him to ever consider going back to his old life.

A Golden Age speaks of far more brutality, in terms of war crimes and torture, but The Good Muslim was a tougher book for me to read. Was it harder to write as well?

I think it was a darker book, because it didn’t have the possibility of the kind of redemptive ending that A Golden Age did. And I think that peace is a more complicated sort of happiness than people expect it to be. Although all those people believed that once they won the war, everything would be rosy from then on, they had to deal with this much more difficult prospect of living their lives in the shadow of this event. So, yes, I agree, I think it’s a darker book. I don’t know if it was harder to write. I suppose it was in a way, because it didn’t have the kind of automatic structure that A Golden Age did, because the war had a beginning, middle and end. So, in some ways, it’s a little bit messier.

Do you feel you have control over who dies, and who survives, in the novels you’re writing?

Yeah, I do, actually. I sometimes kill people off because I need to. You know, it’s a kind of thing you have to do, you have to be a little bit dispassionate, and I think sometimes characters have lives of their own, but ultimately, as the writer, you have to be in charge.

Have you ever cried while reading parts of your own books?

I’ve cried while writing parts of the books. I have to be able to enter into a pretty dark place to be able to write about some of the horrible things that happen to my characters. And my mother always complains, “Oh, all your books are so dark! What’s going on in your head?! Terrible things happen to people, I’m always afraid to turn the page!” (Laughs) So, yeah, I do feel very emotionally engaged when I’m writing.

There’s also a sense of children being the victims of what adults dream of for themselves, of parents trying to rewrite their own lives through their children.

Definitely. The idea that children are there to kind of redeem the gaps, or the missed opportunities of their parents is a very universal theory, I think.

It’s very easy to get accused of stereotyping madrasas and mullahs, especially when you’re Muslim yourself. Were you worried that your book would be read in the wrong way, and you would become a target like Salman Rushdie has, or Taslima Nasreen has?

No, actually. Because, well, the thing about people who get targeted in that way is that they’re mostly accused by people who haven’t read their books. So, most of the detractors who are still enraged about Satanic Verses haven’t read Satanic Verses. So there’s always a risk that if you write about people who are likely to be offended, they will be offended no matter what you write in your book. So there is that. But I think the book is a lot kinder to Sohail than it had to be. It could have been a much more one-dimensional portrayal of a fundamentalist, and it wasn’t. So, I felt like I had to really work hard to be generous to Sohail, and because I did that, I wasn’t afraid that I was going to be targeted. Of course, there is always that possibility, but it wasn’t really foremost in my mind.

In one interview, you spoke of how people in Bangladesh and Pakistan may feel part of a larger religious community, and called it “attractive as an alternative to the options they’re provided”. Religion comes through as a crutch in The Good Muslim. Do you see it that way?

You know, I think Maya perhaps sees religion as a crutch, and she sort of looks down on people who are religious. I think that it’s more complicated than that, and I think she comes to understand that at the end of the book. Obviously, for someone like Maya, who fought in a war and who fought for secularism, religion is something that she can’t really think about in sympathetic terms, because of her personal history with it. But, like I was saying before, if you think about all the really difficult things that people have to go through on a daily basis in a poor country like Bangladesh, they sometimes need to believe in a higher power, and it’s an important kind of deeply personal, intimate resource that people count on.

Rehana’s Islam is an integrated one, different from what her children make of it, the extreme views they have. Do you think the world, not just the Islamic world, but in terms of all religions, is becoming more fundamentalist, more intolerant now?

It’s difficult to say, because human history is peppered with great periods of intolerance. And I wasn’t meaning to make a generational assumption about Rehana and the next generation. You know, that is just what happened in that particular family. And Rehana is older, and represents a softer set of ideals, whereas her children are very ideologically driven, and I think that’s because they’re very politicised, and for them, everything means something. They’re part of this generation that’s so politically engaged, so that is something that’s personal and specific to them.

You probably get asked this a lot, but has your training in social anthropology come in handy when you’re fleshing out your characters, building them into three-dimensional people?

Yeah, well, I do think that it’s a discipline that’s about observation, and about describing others, and being able to somehow get under people’s skin, interviewing people and talking to them about their lives. So, it certainly helped with my research, so I’m really glad I did that.

You’re working on a third book, where the central character is Maya’s daughter Zubaida. What is it going to be about?

Well, the trilogy is about three generations of women in this family. So, Zubaida’s story is set in modern-day Bangladesh. I can’t really say very much more about the book, because it’s still in its very early stages. We’ll have to wait and see!

What is your dream for Bangladesh? What do you think the likes of the Major and Joy and Maya and Sohail and Aref were fighting for?

I think that Bangladesh is a country that has so, so much potential, because the people are extremely hard-working and resilient and strong, and have been able to overcome these tremendous odds. So, my hope for Bangladesh is that we can have political leadership that is worthy of the general population. And if we had that, we could really go far.