Monday, January 29, 2007

An Interview with Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif is the author of The Map of Love, Sandpiper, In the Eye of the Sun and Aisha.
The Map of Love (London, 1999) has been translated into 16 languages - including Arabic. It was on the six-book short list for the UK's prestigious Booker Prize and has sold more than half a million copies in English alone.
Ms Soueif is also a political and cultural commentator. A collection of her essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, was published in 2004. Her translation (from Arabic into English) of Mourid Barghouti's I Saw Ramallah also came out in 2004.
Born and educated in Egypt she obtained her PhD in English Linguistics from the University of Lancaster in the UK.
She lives with her children in London and Cairo.
I Think of You, a selection of short stories from Aisha and Sandpiper, is published by Bloomsbury in London and Anchor in New York in March 2007.

Ahmede: Coming from a region where the language of the majority is Arabic, where does fiction in English really stand in North Africa and the Middle East?

Ahdaf Soueif: Well, when you talk about where fiction in general stands – or even literature in general stands, you’re really talking about its ‘standing’ with a tiny minority anyway. I don’t know what the figures are but I would be surprised if more than one percent of the population read novels. Films and TV serials are really the medium of popular culture. Now, in the Arab world, maybe a quarter of this one percent will read a novel by an Arab author in a European language. So if you ask in general ‘where does fiction in English really stand in North Africa and the Middle East?’ the answer would be nowhere very much. If your question is ‘where does fiction in English stand among the fiction-reading public in North Africa and the Middle East? One would say that it does have a place. I believe a fair proportion of the sales of my books, for example, are to people whose first language is Arabic. Also the Arabic media take a lot of interest in every new book that comes out. And, I know, that many literature postgraduate students in Egyptian universities are now doing research on topics related to ‘Arab Fiction in English’.

Ahmede: You have translated Mourid Barghouti's "I Saw Ramallah" (with a foreword by Edward Said) from Arabic into English; will you please share your experience of translating such a complex text into English? The way Arabic and English syntax differs, it must have been a difficult venture…

Ahdaf Soueif: Yes, Ra’aytu Ramallah is a fascinating book: a poet’s (so far only) venture into prose narrative. It appears utterly direct and intimate; it allows the reader into each feeling as it hits the writer, as the writer thinks about it, as it develops. At the same time, as you would expect from a poet of Mourid Barghouti’s stature, its language is, in fact, highly structured and knows exactly what it’s doing.

After several false starts I found that over-deliberateness was producing a stale text. I found myself whispering the English as I read the Arabic and I had the idea to translate it straight into a tape-recorder. I was concerned to preserve the immediacy and freshness of the effect of the Arabic. Also, this technique gave me total immersion. I kept my eyes on the words on the page and spoke the English into the tape-recorder as I read the Arabic. Of course I edited the text twice after it was transcribed. But I kept the English in line with the contours of the Arabic in terms of the tense, for example, the focus of the sentence, the word order where possible.

There were some things that I changed, and it was my privilege that Mourid Barghouti is a personal friend so I was able to put the problem to him and he was always extremely helpful. For example, he mostly refers to the people he meets by their title: I met Dr so-and-so, Mrs X showed us round…. In Arabic this habit is unremarkable and fades into the text. In English it sticks out and screams “Foreign! Weird!” We agreed I would remove all titles. Or sometimes the text would crescendo into a series of rhetorical questions. Again, familiar in Arabic, but too odd in English. We worked around all this. Ra’aytu Ramallah is still a far better book than I Saw Ramallah – but I tried.

Ahmede: How do you perceive the threat of religious extremism in the globe?

Ahdaf Soueif: I don’t believe we can discuss all ‘religious extremism’ as one category. Christian Zionism in the USA, for example, is a very different phenomenon from Salafi activities in Egypt. I find the Christan Zionism that is taking hold in the United States very troubling because it is, essentially, manipulated by politicians and has as its aim to facilitate Armageddon and the actual ‘end of the world’. Jewish religious extremism is very interesting. It results, on the one hand, in Israeli settlers behaving in aggressive, brutal and racists ways to the Palestinians whose lands they are stealing. But on the other hand, it results also in Jewish movements, like Natura Kartei, that believe that Zion cannot be created on earth and that the State of Israel is heretical. Islamic extremism, I think, is born of a sense of extreme political injustice and of a fear and dislike of the form that the dominant western culture is taking in relation to the Muslim world. Of course it is very worrying that political and economic actions in so many parts of the world now are being clothed in the robes of religion.

Ahmede: In countries like South Asia, social reality takes a primary role over art, many say. How do you perceive this issue? Are the roles of a novelist different in our part of the world where an artist has to deal with basic issues like women's rights or freedom of speech?

Ahdaf Soueif: I think the artist has to deal with the themes and the problems that he/she feels most passionately about. But then the things that you feel passionately about are, in a sense, determined by where you come from. But in the end, there is a common humanity that unites us all - which is why an Egyptian can read and empathise with and enjoy a novel by a Russian or an Indian or an American.

Ahmede: Coming from a rich and vibrant tradition that you have and the fact that you are still called (wrongly, I would say) an Egyptian novelist, how free do you think you are as an Arab woman?

Ahdaf Soueif: I think I am, yes, an Egyptian novelist writing in English. What else could I be? And I guess I’m as free as anyone can be. I write about the things I care about, the things that I want to explore. I’m not aware of any particular constraints that come with being an Arab woman and a novelist.

Set in 1900, your 'The Map of Love' is, in a way, about an English woman falling in love with an Egyptian nationalist. How do you see the role of an individual in history?

Ahdaf Soueif: Well, I think that most of the people I know, and certainly the people I find interesting, are people who are aware of the way in which politics and public concerns affect their – and everybody else’s - life, and are people who try to act on that public life for the better. I find the notion that the individual can just get on with her/his own life without minding the public life very odd. And I truly cannot conceive of a life that can be lived untouched by the political. I think this is reflected very much in my work: the genre I work in is the ‘realistic’ novel. So my characters live in a specific time and a specific place in our real world. And in that time and place things happen – political things, or public things, if you like. And they affect the characters and the characters in turn strive to affect them.

January 2007

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Facing an Uncertain Future

Life for 1,00,000 hawkers and street-vendors of the city has turned into a hellish nightmare after the government’s drive to evict them from the streets and footpaths where they used to sell things as wide in variety as nail polish to mint-leaves. Though promises have been made to allot them an alternative place to run their businesses, no initiative has so far been taken by the government to implement that pledge. These hawkers, poor as they are, have always remained outside the paradigm of power, and chances are, they along with thousands of others will slip into social and economic chaos.

Twenty-eight year old Fatima came to Dhaka along with her husband after the great flood in the eighties (The year she does not quite remember; but she says at the time of that deluge Ershad was always seen on television). Her husband, who started working as a help in a rickshaw-garage, left her after the birth of their second girl-child. So she really did not have an option when a neighbour offered her one hundred taka and suggested that she could sell boiled-eggs and bread to ricksaw-wallas on Rupnagar main road, near the Shialbari intersection.
Fatima has never heard of Women Empowerment nor does she know how her decision to send both her girl-children to school (“No matter what happens…I do not want them to grow up a feeble woman like their mother.”) is going to help boost her beleaguered country’s Gross Domestic Product. Even before members of the Rapid Action Battalion, like Death itself, in their menacing black garb turned up and told her to close down her small stall, which consisted of only one clay stove and a pot to boil the eggs, even before that, life, for Fatima, has never been smooth sailing. Law enforcers were a problem: Policemen from nearby thana would turn up, asking for the daily toll, sometimes handing down a ten Taka note would not quench their thirst: our men in blue would pick up one or two eggs or a loaf of bread to eat on their way back to the Police station; or worse still they would stare at her work in a gaze that she knew was lecherous.
Still, life had a pattern then, Fatima told us, the attack never came on her very livelihood, or the future of her two children, or thousands of women and men like hers.
This is not Fatima’s story alone; ten-year-old Razzak, an orphan, had to stop selling candy at Maghbazar intersection because some gun-toting army-men have told him to do so, now this child, raising his emaciated hand, begs to get his day’s meal.
The move to clean the roads and footpaths of hawkers (read poor people) may have a cosmetic aspect, it may make urban life pleasant and beautiful for some, but children like Razzak are bearing the brunt of this drive. Razzak confesses to us that the sheer pangs of hunger has made him toy with the idea of stealing: “Two days after the Army told me to stop hawking, I had very little money left on me, and then I thought, ‘What if I pull the vanity bag of some woman passenger in the dark.’ I seriously thought of doing it, then an old man, seeing me standing on the footpath in my bedraggled clothes, had mercy on me, and that person gave me twenty taka with which I had my first lunch in two days,” he says.
Md Waliullah Patwari, founding president of Bangladesh Combined Footpath Hawkers Council, says around 70-80 million people have been hit by the drive. “There are about 8 million hawkers who are rendered jobless by this drive; not only that, several cottage industries in and around the capital are also facing closure as they are dependent on us hawkers to ferry their products,” he says.
Five traders, who used to sell decorative items made of clay in front of Sishu Academy at Doel Chottor, have closed their makeshift shops. Not only are these traders who are bearing the brunt, but potters of Munshijang, from where these clay-products come have been hit hard by this government move. Of the potters, Monoranjan Karmakar has decided to change jobs, but this man in his late forties does not know which profession to take up.
“I am too old to change my profession,” he says, “But if the government remains firm on its decision, then, I have to do something else to run my family. It will be difficult as my forefathers were potters and I have never learnt anything else in my life; but this time round it is really difficult to survive because no-one from Dhaka or any other of the big cities is turning up to buy my things as the hawkers themselves are on the run.”
Karmakar alleges that this move will only help big businesses. “The dinner-bell I sell at TK 20 is sold at a double or treble price in the air-conditioned shops in Dhaka,” Karmakar says, “Now these big shops will be benefited from this government decision to evict the hawkers.”
Interestingly, this move has also affected middle-class households from where the buyers of these evicted hawkers come from. Naznin Sultana, a school-teacher living in Mohammedpur, says she has always dependent on these road-side vendors as, she says, “They sell it cheap, and I do not have the time to go into one of these malls and wait in the queue, to buy, say, one kilogram of aubergine; I used to stop by near one of those pushcarts on my way home and buy the needful”.
It is understandable that the street-vendors can afford to sell their goods at a cheaper price, as they do not have to pay the electricity bills, neither do they have to pay the rent. And, Naznin adds, it is nearly impossible for a woman to shop in the bazaars as they are always dirty and it is always difficult for a woman to go there alone.
Alluding to the existing trends in Bangkok, she says that instead of booting them out of the streets, the government should do something so that these poor hawkers get a chance to sell their goods. “In Bangkok, hawkers and street-vendors are allowed to do business till seven or eight in the morning,” she says, “We can do something similar. This is a part of our culture, a vibrant and noisy street. There is no points in just telling the hawkers that enough is enough, now just leave. We who have some wealth are lucky that these poor people are selling us things; I will not be surprised if these jobless poor people indulge themselves in mugging and extortion. A hungry stomach, after all, is the root of all crime.”
Ain O Shalish Kendro, BLAST and several left parties have criticised the government decision to clamp down on the hawkers. They have termed the eviction of the hawkers as unconstitutional as they argue that the highest law of the land guarantees every citizen the right to livelihood. Interestingly as the State of Emergency is in effect, the fundamental rights of the citizens have been suspended, and it is even not possible for the “aggrieved”, as the new emergency law puts it, to seek justice in the court.
Having hawkers and vendors blocking the footpaths and roads have been an eyesore, there is no denying it. But showing them the door, without rehabilitating them, may cost the country’s social harmony dear. How to rehabilitate them and where, are million dollar questions, and politicians and the technocrat advisers of the recent government tend to shirk the answer. History of such rehabilitation is mired in corruption and mismanagement. Hawkers’ leader Waliullah says though a number of hawkers’ markets are built at Bangabazar and Nilkhet, getting possession of a booth in these markets have remained far beyond their means as each stall costs around Tk 2,00,000 to 3,00,000. It is also alleged that in most cases the shops are allotted to members and supporters of the ruling parties. Instead of benefiting the poor hawkers these rehabilitation projects become another money-making drive for the country’s lumpen middle class businessmen.
So, the fate of the country’s hawkers hangs in balance. The government, which is a constitutionally mandated one, has so far remained silent about making a new arrangement for them so that these people do not slip into the extreme poverty line. If rehabilitation does not take place soon, chances are there that however minimum social balance we have in our economic life will be lost; this is a dangerous prospect, which can rapidly become a reality.

This article was first published in the Star Weekend Magazine on February 2, 2007.

In Conversation With Anosh Irani

Ahmede: In The Cripple and His Talismans we see you explore the role of an individual in an increasingly hostile society. Do you think your background as a Parsi Indian makes you think about this issue?

Anosh Irani: I tried to explore what hostility does to human beings. In The Cripple and His Talismans the narrator experiences a hostile childhood. This hostility comes in the form of the silence and indifference of his parents. There is a part in the novel where he recollects how his parents would stay silent at the dinner table and only the clink of knives and forks could be heard. The main character in the novel absorbs this coldness into his very being. It prevents him from being compassionate. His quest to find an arm is actually a quest to make him feel, to make him human again. To remain compassionate in the midst of hostility and to understand that there is a spiritual component to his earthly journey, that is what the main character realizes. I don’t think my Parsi background has much do with this. It is about being human, and in order to be human, the first thing one needs to do is let go of religion and embrace spirituality.

Ahmede: We know you want to call it Bombay, not Mumbai, (as a matter of personal preference). Why is it so?

Anosh Irani: The Bombay I knew was a tolerant city. People of different religions co-existed peacefully. Of course there were bursts of violence, but they were not frequent. They were unexpected. Now people are no longer surprised when bombs go off, when trains are blown up, when children are thrown into fires. Ever since the Babri Masjid riots in 92-93, things have changed for the worse. I remember one night a curfew had been imposed in Byculla, the area in which I lived, and taxis had been smashed and there was shattered glass everywhere, and military tanks were patrolling the streets, crunching bits of glass under their weight, and all I could think of was that people had been murdered in my own neighborhood. That was the moment, for me, when Bombay changed to Mumbai. The city was renamed a few years later.

Ahmede: You were in Bombay during the riots. How was it like?

Anosh Irani: Being a Zoroastrian, I was unscathed by the violence; however, I understood the violence through other people – close friends – whose lives were in danger. A friend of mind who was Muslim had to lock his mum and younger brother indoors each night while his friends and he would go to the terrace and keep vigil for Hindu gangs. He told me that what surprised him most about the violence, apart from the senseless murders, was that people he knew were trying to kill him. The gangs that were gunning for him and the people in his building were friends he had played cricket with. That is what hurt him most. During the riots it was clear that politics and religion were too powerful; they overshadowed personal relationships, rendered them meaningless. The frustration of the masses was being used as fuel. All political leaders needed to do was a light a single match and then they sat back and watched the flames. Ever since the Babri Masjid riots, Muslims have started to feel very threatened in Bombay and other parts of India, and the retaliation that followed in the form of the serial bomb blasts in March 1993 came as no surprise. The government did nothing to protect Muslim citizens, and so the underworld made a strong statement.

Ahmede: Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival described The Cripple and His Talismans as a magic realist journey through Bombay's gritty underbelly. Do you think magic realism is relevant to South Asian reality?

Anosh Irani: The problem with magic realism is that writers forget the “realism” part. Reality grounds the story, provides it with strong roots, so that eventually the story can take flight. For instance, in The Cripple and His Talismans, the quest itself, a man going in search of his lost arm, is absurd, it’s magical. So for the quest to make sense there has to be a dark reality to balance it. I found this by exploring Bombay’s underbelly, a world of con men, underworld dons, beggars, lepers and prostitutes. When faced with these characters the story wants an escape route. But that magic has to be minimal for the balance to be maintained. Also, oral storytelling is very much a part of Indian literature. The stories of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are very magical, yet they possess moral gravity, which few works of literature can touch. That is another way one can balance the magic – through morality. Not by being didactic but by enabling the reader to have a greater understanding. So yes, magic realism is very relevant.

Ahmede: Do you think the English in which most South Asian writers write is actually a South Asian language (Like 'American' or 'Australian')?

Anosh Irani: I think you’re talking about voice. Rather than think of it as a “language” I would prefer to talk in terms of voice. In The Cripple and His Talismans the narrator is paranoid, he hallucinates quite a bit. So when the reader experiences Bombay, he or she does so through the narrator’s eyes. There is a dark, absurd lens that distorts things – it doesn’t make them unrealistic; it is simply the narrator’s interpretation of events and images. The language has to reflect this. The voice matters. Also, some of the characters think and speak in Hindi, but the writer writes in English. During this translation, the language acquires an Indian quality. I am not conscious of this. I don’t think about it too much. The important thing is to keep the writing as natural as possible. The moment you analyze language too much, you stop using it well, so I’ll end here.

Ahmede: Will you share your reading of South Asian fiction with our readers?

Anosh Irani: I think there is one book that all lovers of literature must read: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Right now I’m reading Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra and I’m enjoying it.

The Heart of Darkness

Pinki Virani's portrayal of child abuse in her first book Bitter Chocolate has been shocking. After the controversy surrounding it has abated Virani has written two more books of non-fiction, "Once was Bombay" and "Aruna's Story". In an interview with Ahmede Hussain, the best-selling author talks about child sexual abuse and her life as a writer.

Ahmede: What was the public reaction to your book? What prompted you to write it? Is it the only book that talks about Child Sexual Abuse in India?
Photo Credit: Shankkar Aiyar
Pinki Virani: The public reaction has been gratifying. Not just in terms of the copies sold ('Bitter Chocolate' went on the best-seller list within a week of its publication; it is currently in its twelfth) but also phone calls, emails, letters, people reaching out in person when they have recognised me in public places. Equally important -- because each aware adult can intervene to protect a child from CSA -- after 'Bitter Chocolate' the subject of Child Sexual Abuse in India came out in the open as traumatising children in upper and middle class homes too (before which seen as a "lower class" phenomena). Consequently, the subject has been included and opened for further discussion in the mass media including films and theatre.

I wrote the book because it fell upon me to do so.

'Bitter Chocolate' is the first -- and so far only -- book of its kind in the Indian subcontinent.

Ahmede: You say ``it fell upon you'' to write the book. Can you please elaborate it a bit for us? Was it create awareness and give the abused child a voice?

Pinki Virani: I am a victim of incest. I have never allowed myself to be defined by it nor wallow in permanent victim-hood though several of my early life-choices and mistakes were obviously dictated by what was done to me till I was at least eight years old by my father's brother. I started my professional life as a typist in a Bombay office. I decided to occupy my evenings by joining a one-year diploma in journalism. I did well in it, much to my own surprise. I got a scholarship, because of it, to do a masters in journalism in America. I came back and worked my up from reporter to chief reporter to editor. One of the special articles I did led me to be offered a commission by Penguin to do a whole book on that article, "Aruna's Story". It was a bestseller, it still is. I was then commissioned to write my second book, again non-fiction, "Once Was Bombay", the first book to not glamorise the city and examine its contemporary content in novella format. That too went on the best-seller list. So here I am, best-selling author and I am asked to do a third book. I have to do the right thing while writing because God has brought me to a point where it falls upon me to do so. I start research and discover and that 25 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls under 16 years have, and are being, sexually abused in India of which 50 percent are being abused by persons who hold their trust (in their own homes and around this space). I realise how simple it is for parents to ensure that this does not happen to their children. I come to the conclusion that if I have to write such a book I have to prove that the problem exists and then provide answers on how to deal with it. And I will have to stand up and say it happened to me. This would make me the first Asian woman to stand up and say so. Which means there will be many repercussions. So do I write it. Or not. If I don't, I save myself from all that is definitely going to happen to me in not-nice ways. But if I do, I save children who can be protected in the future and I give voice in validation to all those -- who are adults now -- who have been sexually abused not just in India but also Bangla Desh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and other Asian countries. So you see, it just fell upon me to write 'Bitter Chocolate'.

Ahmede: Do you think there is enough awareness regarding CSA?

Pinki Virani: A lot more needs to be done.

Ahmede: What, according to you, are the challenges facing parents who obviously want to protect their children from CSA?

Pinki Virani: The biggest challenge is to actually stop it from happening. Prevention. To prevent a child from being sexually abused is the most challenging part, especially in the light of how much more stealthier the abusers are becoming. The more the awareness, the greater the stealth. The greater the stealth, the more the abuser succeeds.

Ahmede: Can non government organisations play a role here?

Pinki Virani: NGOs do not enter middle and upper class homes, so there is no role for them to play in the upper strata of society.

Ahmede: Do you think the Indian legal system is sensitive to children who have suffered abuse? Are there likely to be laws in the near future?

Pinki Virani: No, not at all. Yes the laws are in the process of being drafted. And in some measure credit has to be given to the several parents who wrote to the law ministry and the prime minister's office -- after they read 'Bitter Chocolate' -- demanding that the laws be changed to protect their children. Though I continue to keep my fingers crossed that the new law will understand that the boy child needs as much protection as the girl child does. I must add here, it is not enough to have laws, every nation also needs Child Protection Courts and Child Protection Units where the children are not being dragged through adult courts.

Ahmede: How free do you think you are as a South Asian woman?

Pinki Virani: As much -- or as less -- as any other kind of person in the world. It helps to think of yourself as a human first, and then a woman; society responds accordingly and it generally creates a more empowered environment. This also helps in understanding that as a human being we come with both, the expectation of rights and the resultant responsibilities. I don't see why women should categorise themselves in fixed slots. For instance, I don't think of myself as an author, a journalist, or an activist, or a wife, or a sister, or just a friend. I am a human being, I am evolving, and I play many roles. More power to all of us to play as many positive roles as possible. It's one life; it needs to be lived with grace.

Monday, January 22, 2007

In Conversation with Benjamin Zephaniah

Ahmede: Your full name is Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah. Can you please explain the presence of Obadiah Iqbal in your name for our readers?

Benjamin Zephaniah: Although I was born in England my family tradition on the Jamaican/African side was one that would give a baby a temporary name until the young girl or boy began to show some individual character traits. Once aspects of the young persons character was apparent a name would be given to suit the child. It was said of me that I was very curious and interested in religion, not so much in being religious but more interested in how the religions came about. So it was agreed that the name that would suit me was one that was Muslim, Christian and Jewish. There could have been many more added but the people around me were most familiar with the Abrahamic tradition, still I always say I have the Dreadlock (or Jata) of Lord Shiva and I love the study of Theology. I now believe in God without religion, I think that religion has given god a bad name and that the whole idea of god as a "man" in the "sky", watching how we eat and wash etc is one that man had constructed himself. God is greater than that.

Ahmede: Were you shocked when you were offered Officer of the Order of the British Empire (which you so famously rejected)? One of your poems (which I really liked) "Bought and Sold" even criticises contemporaries who compromise their work by accepting honours?

Benjamin Zephaniah: The poem of mine called "Brought and Sold" makes it absolutely clear that I am critical of anyone (especially creative people and intellectuals) who accept such honors, and therefore it should be obvious to anyone that I would never accept one. The article I wrote (in the Guardian) about my rejection states clearly my reasons, so I normally decline from talking about this episode in interviews because I think it detracts from all the other work that I am doing. For me it was a major inconvenience. I had to postpone the publication of a book and the release of a music CD because I didn't want to be seen as capitalising on the publicity the rejection caused. The fact that Tony Blair had offered me an OBE tells us that he doesn't really read my books. I met him once and he told me that he has some of my books, well if he does I don't believe that he reads them, and if he reads them he must read them very superficially. No this whole thing was about the New labour project trying to be cool, it is them trying to show that they don't hate Muslims and blacks because they give (some) Muslims and black OBEs. Have no doubt about it, if I had an OBE in my hand now and Tony Blair was in front of me, I would feed it down his mouth, and as he swallowed I would say, that's for Iraq.
Ahmede: Will you please share your reading of South Asian writers with us?

Benjamin Zephaniah: I'm not sure what you mean by this question, if your question is about which south Asian writers do I like then I have to be honest and say I don\rquote t know that many. The ones I know tend to be the ones with higher profiles who have been translated into English. I love Kamala Das, her conversion surprised me, and I have never met her, but I did have a phone conversation with her once when I was in Kerala, and I have to say she even spoke poetry. I think Shashi Tharoor's "The Great Indian Novel" is a classic, and I think Vikram Seth keeps writing classics. I know she's a novelist but I love Arundhati Roy as an intellectual, as an activist and political thinker I think that she is one of the greatest minds of our times alongside Sivanandan and Noam Chomsky. Ok, I know he's not Asian. There is a hospital in West London that has named a ward after me, the ward next to the Benjamin Zephaniah Ward is the Tagore Ward, which I think is fitting because I always loved his poetry and one of my reasons for really wanted to visit Bangladesh was to be amongst his people. Another poet I respect from Bangladesh is Bimal Guha, his poetry is so conversational, and he is also very passionate about the poetry of Bangladesh.

Ahmede: Has the world really changed after the attack on 9/11 and London bombing?
Benjamin Zephaniah: The world changes everyday, it's just that different changes mean different things to different people. 9/11 was a day that made (some) people in the USA see the world differently, but the day Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon was bombed changed the lives of many Lebanese and Palestinains, the invasion a Grenada by the USA will never be forgotten by some, nor will the dropping of Atomic bombs in Japan, or the poisoning of thousands of people in Bhopal. We all have our equivalents to 9/11, but we don\rquote t all have a superpower to go seek "revenge", or broadcast to the world that you are either with us or against us.

Ahmede: Rejecting the "honours" again; while rejecting the OBE, you said to the Queen that this reminded you of "thousands of years of brutality - it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised". But you still write in English, the language of the oppressors and the colonisers (at least the rules of syntax of your language is English

Benjamin Zephaniah: I don't see what the rejection of an honor from the queen and Tony Blair has to do with the rejection of the OBE. I was born in England, the only language that I know is English, which is actually a mixture of other languages. If I were born in Jamaica my first language would still be English because they beat all traces of our Africaness out of us. But English does not just belong to the English, it borrows from the tongues of many people and so there is nothing wrong with many people speaking it. It is a highly flexible language, which is why some of the best usage of English is now being done by Asian and African people. We use English in our own rhythms. If I were born into a tribe in Africa that had its own language it would be natural for me to use the language of that tribe to express myself, if I wanted to criticise the elders of that tribe I wouldn't have to learn another language, in fact knowing the language of my oppressor would give me an advantage.

In Conversation with Devyani Saltzman

This interview is going to be printed in the Daily Star, Bangladesh's largest circulating English Daily.

Ahmede: How do you see religious extremism--both Hindu and Muslim--in South

Devyani Saltzman: I see religious extremism, within any community, as an unfortunate waste of time. Although I was raised in Canada, I’ve spent a good deal of time with my maternal grandparents in New Delhi. Over the years I’ve found reports of communal violence – whether Ayodhya or attacks against Christians - to be heartbreaking. Communities should work together to build a stronger social fabric, not rip it apart because of overemphasized differences.
My views are very much informed by my upbringing. I was raised half-Hindu, half-Jewish, and my parents always encouraged a respect for both faiths and cultures. I could never judge another person based on their background, since I was from multiple backgrounds myself. Many people have asked me if I feel ‘lost’ because of this heritage. In fact, I feel lucky to have it. It’s probably what led me to study anthropology in university and become a writer. By not quite fitting into one place, I’ve been able to have a unique space from which to observe life.

Ahmede: In Shooting Water your portrayal of mother-daughter relationship
has been brilliant, and the way you have made this evolve is
fascinating. (sorry for using two adjectives that have become
overworked now-a-days). How do you see individual's role in history?

Devyani Saltzman: When I sat down to write Shooting Water, I scribbled three things in my notebook ‘poltical, cinematic and personal’. I’ve always loved stories which balance an intimate narrative within a larger historical or political context. When Water was shutdown in India, 1999, the media covered the events. But I always felt the sound bytes didn’t do justice to the five year history of the film, hindutva and freedom of expression. I wanted to write that history, but within my own personal experiences on the set of the film, both in India and then in Sri Lanka. The heart of the story is reconstructing my relationship with my mother after my parents divorce, but it is through the individual’s history that the history of politics and place are revealed.

Ahmede: How free do you think as a woman and as a writer?

Devyani Saltzman: I feel quite free as both a woman and a writer. I’ve never encountered censorship of my writing, or discouragement based on my gender. I think my greatest constraints are probably my own doubts while working. I find the most important thing about writing is to suspend self-judgement during the process.

In terms of freedom, I was raised with filmmaker parents who always encouraged an awareness of social justice, and often focused on those issues in their work. Fire, the first film in my mother’s Elements trilogy, is about women searching for freedom and love within an unhappy arranged marriage. Water is about women searching for a sense of freedom within the constraints of their religion. I think both my parents and I feel it’s important to use the opportunities we’ve been given to highlight and discuss those who might be denied their freedoms.

Ahmede: How does it feel to be Deepa Mehta's daughter?

Devyani Saltzman: Well, it’s actually quite normal. She is my mother, and long before she made her first film, she was taking me to school and spending time with my Dad and I. She will always be my mom first. I admire her work very much, but it is no more the focus of our lives together, than cooking, or going to watch a movie at the local multiplex.
I grew up going to film screenings and visiting my parents on set. It was the family business, and often not very glamorous. If anything, as I’ve begun to work as a writer we have a newfound creative relationship. She’s my first reader for my manuscripts and articles, and I’m her first reader on new script ideas.

Ahmede: Will you share your future project with our readers?

Devyani Saltzman: I’m currently working on a novel about a young woman peacekeeper. I’ve always been fascinated by ordinary civilians who go into war zones, that are often not within their own nation or culture, for a larger ideal of peace. In between Shooting Water and the novel, I’ve been writing articles for different publications, including Canada’s national newspaper, Marie Claire and an anthology of new Toronto writing.

Ahmede: Some describe you as a Jewish-Hindu; how do you perceive this?

Devyani Saltzman: I think I answered this in question no. 1.

Ahmede: Is Shooting Water a memoir or is it a work of fiction? Where do you
think the line is drawn?

Devyani Saltzman: Shooting Water is definitely a memoir, not a work of fiction. But I think inherent in the memoir is that the reader knows the story is coming through the filter of the author’s memory and perspective. I didn’t sit down to write a non-fiction journalistic account of the shutdown of Water. I sat down to write the story of my family, which included the shutdown and political violence we encountered. The line between fiction and nonfiction has always been unclear. One draws from life experience in both forms. One also embellishes in both forms, whether through description or what you choose to include and/or leave out of the narrative. Some of my favourite books are memoir or literary non-fiction. I was very inspired by New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s account of her own life growing up, ‘An Angel at My Table’. I’ve also been a long time fan of travel writing, including the work of Bruce Chatwin, William Dalrymple and Jan Morris.

In Conversation with Meena Alexander

Ahmede: You were born to a family of f Syrian Christians in India as Mary Elizabeth Alexander. You have later changed your name to Menna Alexander. Please allow me to quote from your autobiography Fault Lines: "I felt I had changed my name to what I already was, some truer self, stripped free of the colonial burden". Will you please share this liberating experience with us?

Meena Alexander: Meena was the name that I was called at home and all my friends called me that too. It was my pet name in the way that often in India we have such names, but of course it was a real name not a made up one. The year that I was born many girl children were named Meena, after the famous film actress. In my case it was the name of the sister of my father’s best friend. I was only called Mary in school and I found that quite irritating, so I returned to myself, or so I felt, in losing that other name which felt not mine really and of course there was the colonial burden, in the sense that my grandmother after whom I was named was Mariamma, which is the Malayalam of Mary, and I should have been that really , formally. I wrote poems under the name Meena and published them and once that happened I felt it was truly my name. Those first poems were published in Arabic translation in the Khartoum newspapers. I lived in Sudan in those days, my father was seconded there by the Indian government and I went to school and university in Khartoum and so many of my close friends were Sudanese. I grew up with the sounds of muezzin calling from the mosques, and the taste of dates in my mouth. I grew up by the Nile river. I was born by a great river, the Ganga in Allhabad, and I grew up by the Nile.

Ahmede: The unsettled issues of our colonial past still haunt the region. How do you see modern Post-colonial South Asia?

Meena Alexander: There is such enormous energy in promise in South Asia now, but it does coexist with some of our old ills and pains, poverty and oppression. Certainly though the power of democratic freedoms is crucial, part of one’s cultural citizenship. Then too, the diaspora has such a pull, so many of us have forged our lives in the routes that take us to other places, other cultures.

Ahmede: What is your reading of South Asian fiction? Does this really exist as a genre/movement?

Meena Alexander: Certainly there is wonderful, groundbreaking South Asia fiction, new selves, in a changing world. And poetry too, as a poet I most often read poetry.

Ahmede: Another quote from your autobiography: "There is a violence in the very language, American English, that we have to face, even as we work to make it ours, decolonize it so that it will express the truth of bodies beaten and banned. After all, for such as we are the territories are not free.You write in a language that has once been forced on your people; what role do you think English is playing in South Asia today?

Meena Alexander: I do think that now, for all intents and purposes English is an Indian language and is put to powerful use as such. And yet of course it is important to realise that it is the language of an elite. So many of us speak in our mother tongues, Malayalam, Hindi, Bengali and so forth and also write in English. I do not think that one crosses out the other. And certainly I am deeply aware of great river of Indian literature into which so many streams of language flow.

Ahmede:What is your interpretation of rising religious fanaticism across the globe?

Meena Alexander: Religious fanaticism makes me fearful.I see it all around me, in many religious. It comes perhaps from a need for identity, comes from an anxiety of origin. I do feel religious fanaticism is a distortion of true religion, a suborning of it. A use of religion if you will for political ends.

Ahmede: A woman in her life plays the roles of a daughter, a wife and a mother. Many believe this role-playing is an impediment to the establishment of a woman's role as a human being. Do you think personal and social relationships are a barrier to women's freedom?

Meena Alexander:I do not think one can be a full human being without these multiple relation ships, and that of course is not the same as certain requirements of a role. If I have to make dinner for my husband and children each evening, I may not also have the energy to write my poem. I may want to make dinner for them, or I may not. But in any case, to find time for the poem, is a hard thing. When my children were small had to wake up very early in the morning before any one else did, so I could sit in the quiet, in the dark, to write.

Ahmede: Coming from South Asia, how free do you think as a writer and a woman?

Meena Alexander:The question of freedom is a hard one. But of course it lies at the core of our lives. I am putting below a poem I wrote called `Rites of Sense’. It was published in my book Illiterate Heart which came out in 2002.

from Meena Alexander, Illiterate Heart (TriQuarterly Books/ Northwestern University Press, 2002)

Rites of Sense

In twilight as she lies on a mat
I rub my mother's feet with jasmine oil
touch callouses under skin,
joints upholding that fraught original thing--
bone, gristle skin, all that makes her mine.
All day she swabbed urine from the floor,
father's legs so weak he clung to the rosewood bed.
She rinsed soiled cloths, hung them out to dry
on a coir rope by a vine, its passion fruit
clumsy with age, dangling.

She lies on a mat, a poor thing beached,
belly slack, soles crossed, sari damp and white.
I kneel in darkness at her side,
her oldest child returned for a few weeks
at summer's height.
She murmurs my name
asks in Malayalam Why is light so hot?

Beyond her spine I catch a candle glisten.
The door's a frame for something
I'm too scared to name:
a child, against a white wall,
hands jammed to her teeth, lips torn
breath staggering its hoarse silence.

All night my voice laced through dreams
tiny eyelets for the smoke
Amma, I am burning!
I'm a voice slit from sound,
just snitches of blood, loopholes of sweat,
a sack of flesh you shut me in.

What words of passage to that unlit place?
What rites of sense?

Amma, I am dreaming myself into your body.
It is the end of everything.
Your pillow stained with white
tosses as a wave might
on our southern shore.

Will you lay your cheek against mine?
Bless my bent head?

You washed me once, gave me suck,
made me live in your father's house
taught me to wake at dawn,
sweep the threshold clean of blood red leaves.
Showed me a patch of earth dug with your hands
where sweet beans grow coiled and raw.

Taught me to fire a copper pan,
starch and fold a sari, raise a rusty needle,

stitch my woman's breath
into the mute amazement of sentences.

The Worlds within Him

Ahmede: "I feel today about Trinidad the way I feel about, say, China. It's another country in the world. I've never had a single regret about leaving, or the slightest desire to return."--You have told Celia Sankar of The Sunday Guardian once. Why do you feel so distanced about a country where you were born?

Neil Bissoondath: There are several reasons. The primary reason, I suppose, is that even growing up in Trinidad, I felt I didn't belong to the place. My family - parents, aunts, uncles - travelled a great deal to Europe, North America, and even from very young I was a voracious reader. Somehow - and this is probably something innate to my personality - I was aware from a very early age that there was a larger, more vibrant, more interesting world out there, and I was very curious about this world. So, in a way, I grew up in
Trinidad wanting to leave it - to go to that other world far from what I saw even then as the small, isolated, deeply unintellectual place in which I was living. In addition, I was aware of being surrounded by political corruption, racism both social (our political parties were racially divided, one for the blacks, one for the Indians) and closer to home in that Indians hated blacks and blacks hated Indians, Moslems and Hindus distrusted each other - all of this in a place whose motto, promulgated at independence in 1962 when I was seven years old, was "Together We Aspire,
Together We Achieve". When you're young, you have little patience with hypocrisy and I had less than most people. So I grew up wanting to leave and did so with joy at the age of eighteen. I arrived in Toronto with the sense that I was beginning a wonderful adventure. I left Trinidad with no regrets. I've never wanted to go back, doing so only for a couple of visits to see my parents. The last time was well over twenty years ago, when my mother died. My father himself has since died and my brother and sister and their families live in Toronto, so there's not much left in terms of emotional links. I'm not a terribly nostalgic person. I believe that the past is the past. One acknowledges it and moves on. I've been living in Canada for thirty-four years now and at this point Trinidad is what it is - a part of my past. I have no feeling for the place. I think it's a natural process of evolution. One grows roots in another place and the old roots, such as they were, wither.

Ahmede: "Digging up the Mountains" has a loose similarity with Naipaul's some novels of later phase (The Mimic Man; Guerrillas, in the sense that it portrays (especially the title piece) a Post-Colonial country in ruin. Will you share of your reading of Naipaul's work (who, we understand, is also your uncle) with us?

Neil Bissoondath: Yes, VS Naipaul is my uncle, my mother's brother, and it was his example, more than anything else, that led me to write. In a way, he was living that adventure I dreamed of when I left Trinidad - travelling the world, writing about it in both fictional and non-fictional terms. I have enormous affection and respect for the man, for the way he persevered through years of toil and hardship, writing these beautifully-written books that offer the world with such clarity, such lucidity and intelligence. Of course, everyone writes in his own way but among the many things I learned from reading his books is the importance of honesty, of clarity of thought and expression. Novels such as Guerrillas, A Bend in the River, A House for Mister Biswas are like revelations. In the most subtle ways, they map the complexities of man and society. His non-fiction, much of which reads like fiction because of the sensibilities he brings to them, is equally complex. But I do find myself going back to the fiction. As he once said about another writer - Balzac or Flaubert, I'm not sure which - reading him is like eating the finest chocolates. You're fed on so many levels, all of which come together to shape or refine your view of the world.

Ahmede: Do you feel alienated at times as a writer?

Neil Bissoondath: I honestly don't know what this question means. Apart from when I was a child in Trinidad, I've never felt alienated from anything, either as a person or as a writer. Or perhaps it's that every writer is to some extent alienated, which is what gives him his particular vision. But to me this is not a bad thing - far from it. Perhaps a little alienation is good for the perspective! What I can say is that my imagination tends to be engaged by whatever place I happen to be in. I travel a fair amount and, even if these places aren't my home, I tend to feel at ease as I become familiar with it and its people. As a result I feel quite at home in Spain or France or Italy or Turkey, even while I know I'm not part of the place. But this too I think is part of the writer's make-up - this ability to feel both part of the furniture and like a stove in the living room and to be at ease with that.

Ahmede: How do you see rising religious extremism across the globe?

Neil Bissoondath: Religious extremism is a sign of unease and powerlessness among those attracted to it, that is, to religion given political purpose, which is the true nature of religious extremism. One of religion's strengths is to offer a sense of solace, a sense of security, a sense of one's place in the word. But when you live in a place where those are all absent, a place of poverty or oppression, religion can come to play a far greater role. Not just solace and security but a means of affecting change - and change as defined by religious leaders speaking in the name of God. When you come to believe that you're acting according to God's wishes or commands, you get a feeling of empowerment and so religion becomes a very powerful weapon, socially, politically and, perhaps most importantly, personally. So one can understand its appeal. At the same time, like all ideologies, it can turn toxic and become as destructive a force as those it's fighting. I'm afraid that, with religious extremism - be it Christian, Moslem, Hindu or any other - that's almost inevitable because those who lead these forces claim to have the truth, God's Truth, and there is no one more frightening than he who believes that he can read the mind of God. All of this makes it a dangerous thing to the kind of liberal democracy in which I live and whose fundamental values I share, whose freedoms I cherish - including the freedom from religion.

Ahmede: In "The Worlds Within Her" we see you ruthlessly dissect the idea of an individual's presence in history in an increasingly hostile world. Do you in a way like to aligne yourself with the marginalized?

Neil Bissoondath: As a novelist, I align myself with no one and with everyone. As a novelist, I have no constituency. A novelist's responsibility is to explore the complexities of the world as frankly and as honestly as he possibly can. You can't do that if you align yourself with a particular any group, because then you assume the role of the politician or social activist and, frankly, that makes for bad novels. Novels that read like political tracts, novels with messages, novels that want to reform society and save the world are boring novels - boring and dishonest in that they betray what I see as the primary responsibility of the novel. Novels should not try to sell or promote anything. The essay's there for that. If you've read War and Peace, you know that Tolstoy had a rather idiosyncratic notion of history and of man's role in historical events. At the end of the book, he presents us with a long essay on the topic. But who pays attention to that? What we remember are the characters, the human drama. War and Peace is saved from the didacticism of Tolstoy the Intellectual by Tolstoy the novelist. So as a novelist, I align myself with no one and with everyone. On the other hand, as a human being... but that's a whole other story.

Ahmede Hussain is a staff member of the Daily Star, his last work, a novella titled “Blues for Allah”, has been published in Colloquy, Monash University Australia’s journal.