Tell us about your stay in Bangladesh. What's your plan?
I am here in Dhaka on my sabbatical leave. And I will be here for about nine months. Of course, I have plans to visit Bangladesh every summer to continue to do the kind of politically engaged theoretical and critical work that actually calls for my physical presence here. I'm glad I've recently joined the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) as a scholar-in-residence. I'll be primarily teaching English and Humanities at ULAB, with a focus on interdisciplinary readings of literary and cultural productions from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Also, I'll be working on my book-in-progress tentatively titled Insurrectionary Interdisciplinarity. Broadly speaking, my book advances a sustained political critique of Western, mainstream interdisciplinary studies, while proposing an alternative model of interdisciplinarity in the interest of emancipatory politics and radical social transformation. I'm glad the Columbia University Press Book Series called "Insurrections"?the editors of which include Slavoj Zizek, Clayton Crockett, Creston Davis, and Jeffrey Robbins?has shown an active interest in and supported my project.
Further, I'll be giving public lectures on such topics as the philosophy and politics of language; the politics and political economy of interdisciplinarity; Joyce, Borges, and Arabic literature; Gramsci and Fanon; and Mao, Mallarmé, and Mathematics in the French philosopher Alain Badiou's work, among other topics, during my nine-month stay in Bangladesh. Indeed, these topics have long interested me. Well, as you can see, my three passions are politics, poetry, and philosophy. Another three: Marx, music, and mathematics. Damn, they 'alliterate!'
What do you think of the English literary scenario in Bangladesh?
I've been away, I mean physically away, from Bangladesh for nearly half a decade now. So, frankly, I am not familiar with any reasonable range of creative writings in English produced in Bangladesh?ones that are particularly published here but not available outside Bangladesh, for instance. Yet I have a distinct impression that creative writing in English is gathering new momentum in Bangladesh today. I think some young writers have meanwhile shown considerable signs of promise.
Of course, there are a few?not many?established names. As you know, some have already written about them. Quite usefully, I must say. I recall some pieces on the history of creative writing in English in Bangladesh, particularly by Syed Manzoorul Islam. Given my special interest in poetry in particular, I must mention Kaiser Haq here. He's internationally known. In my reckoning, he's an outstanding poet by international standards?one whose own internationalism is significantly marked by his rootedness in Bangladesh, one whose wit and humour and even philosophical inflections and aphorisms?among other things?continue to remain legible in his stylistic signature, to say the least.
How are Bangladeshi writers treated and perceived in the West?
Yes, there's certain curiosity about Bangladeshi writers in what is called the "West." It is true that Bangladeshi writings in English are not sufficiently available outside our country. But, then, some competent translations of Bengali literary works from Bangladesh are available in the West now. Yet there is a kind of tokenism. This tokenism can by no means be dissociated from the logic of feel-good, assimilationist, liberal multiculturalism in the West. Whatever is available from Bangladesh is just tokenized: for instance, three or four names from Bangladesh are now and then casually mentioned in the name of "inclusivity."
Inclusivity? Who is including whom? Including where? And why? I think these questions are significant, while I submit that "multiculturalist inclusivity" itself continues to obscure actually-existing unequal power relations obtaining between, say, the West and Bangladesh under global capitalism. It is not for nothing that the Egyptian political economist Samir Amin has already, and I think justly, characterized Bangladesh as the "periphery of the periphery." I also think Amin's characterization is true at the level of not only political-economic exchange but also cultural one. In other words, there is always this question of unequal exchange that characterizes the mode of cultural production and knowledge production on a global level today.
Indeed, which writers you admire or use and which ones you don't, and what you emphasize and what you don't emphasize?and even what you know and what you don't know?are by no means politically and ideologically innocent or neutral. Say, I know something about Whitman and Dickinson, but you know nothing about Kazi Nazrul Islam and Syed Walilullah! This cannot simply be reduced to and gruffly dismissed as identity politics as such, but it's decisively a matter of historically sanctioned unequal exchange that characterizes?among other things?the entire system of knowledge production, a point that I already made.
It's in this context that I can't help mentioning Pascale Casanova's significant book The World Republic of Letters. Mobilizing certain conceptual apparatuses and analytic categories of Fernand Braudel and Pierre Bourdieu, Casanova theorizes the unequal power relations between the cultural metropoles and their peripheral formations or subaltern outskirts, while accounting for how such relations affect the production, exchange, distribution and consumption of literary works in the era of globalization, a euphemism for the latest stage of imperialism?one that of course includes literary-cultural imperialism, for instance.
So Bangladesh is ignored by and large, right?
Yes. Bangladesh is by and large ignored in the fields of what have come to be known as "postcolonial studies" and "South Asian Studies" even today. Instead, there is this outrageous India-centrism there. So I would put it this way: Bangladesh is still almost a blank in postcolonial literature in ways in which our whole region is generally ignored there, or even when some Bangladeshi works are studied and taught now and then in the West today. As I say this, I don't mean to suggest, however, that our worth simply depends on how we are recognized in the West. Our world is much, much bigger than the West. We've Asia, Africa, and Latin America, for instance, or what Che Guevara once called the "tri-continent."
What do you think of the contemporary Bangladeshi English book publishing houses?
There is a tremendous dearth of good publishing houses in Bangladesh even today. However, I commend Professor Niaz Zaman's publishing efforts. I feel we need more publishing houses that will promote writings in English with a particularly anti-colonial vision, even critically examining the ideas that that our value and worth simply depend on how we are read and received in the West, and that the West is the measure of everything literary or artistic.
Would you say something about the question of linguistic hegemony in Bangladesh?
As far as linguistic and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh are concerned, their literary and cultural productions are extremely marginalized, or even hardly known, in Dhaka, for instance. This has been the case for a long time, given the nature of our state and the ways in which our mainstream political culture has evolved in Bangladesh over the last 45 years or so. The minority question is of course an unresolved one. In this instance, then, the hegemony of the Bengali language prevails with a vengeance. And it prevails vis-?-vis the languages of indigenous peoples, historically marginalized as they are. On the other hand, as for the relationship between English and Bengali, well, English exercises its global and local power one way or another. Also, as you know well, those who know and use English are generally thought to be educated and are respected and so on. That very colonial mindset is not dead yet.
As the French philosopher of language Jean-Jacques Lecercle, among others, powerfully argues, English continues to be the language of imperialism and the language of money. Of course, one can write back, talk back, strike back, fight back in English. Remember Shakespeare's Caliban from The Tempest? Dispossessed and deprived of his own language, while learning "English" from his master Prospero, Caliban later screams at his master thus: "You taught me language; and my profit on't/ Is, I know how to curse." But this "Calibanesque consciousness" of writing back or fighting back is unfortunately not something I see among many writers in English here. True, English has been made historically available to us. And, true, we cannot afford to abandon English, rolling back the wheel of history. So the politically significant questions for us are: Whose English is it, anyway? And what do we do with "our" English, now that it has been made available to us? What is the relationship between English and the majority of the people in our country? How does English function in a class society like ours? I think we need a serious conversation at the national level to address these questions rigorously in the interest of our democratic struggle itself.
How did our writers deal with the minority question here?
I worked as the General Secretary of Bangladesh Lekhak Shibir. During the 1990s, it was one of the leading organizations of writers, artists, and activists on the left. Akhtaruzzaman Elias, the leading Bengali fiction writer, was Vice President of our organization, while another leading Bengali fiction writer, Hasan Azizul Haque, was our President. We worked together and tried to bring to the fore the indigenous question?the minority question?in Bangladesh with full force. For instance, we discussed the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the constitutive anti-minority character and content of our mainstream politics and related issues from political, political-economic, and cultural perspectives all at once. But, to be frank, all that was not sufficient by any means. Critical discussion is surely important; but it alone cannot change things. To put it bluntly, we have remained generally unconcerned about and indifferent towards ethnic minorities in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, I don't think that even many apparently progressive writers in Bengali, let alone those who write in English, seem to be seriously concerned about the minority question, one which I take as the question of human emancipation by and large. This persistent lack of concern indicates how racism and communalism have historically gone hand in hand in Bangladesh.
What do you think of the debate surrounding foreign publishers' access to Bangla Academy Ekushey Book Fair?
I believe in internationalism. And I have always been critical of chauvinist nationalism?the kind of nationalism that leads to what Edward Said once called "indigenism," which can be very dangerous. But I'm aware of how a certain kind of nationalism can play a progressive role under certain historical-material circumstances. So it depends on what kind of nationalism we are talking about. I even think we need to remain alive to the question of building what the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral called "national culture" in the very interest of national liberation, which is surely an unfinished project in Bangladesh.
But I am also critical of the free-floating, unthinking "cosmopolitanism" that remains blind to the question of unequal power relations?the questions of class, race, gender, for instance, and, of course, the question of capital itself. As I already pointed out, ours is a world of unequal exchange under global capitalism. To put it bluntly once again: The West continues to dictate us in a variety of ways in the name of internationalism. And, as you know, things "Western" are still celebrated uncritically in our parts of the world. This is not to suggest that we've to abandon what's called the West, holding that everything Western is just bad. What, however, we need, I think, is rigorous critical engagement?the culture of critical engagement with an emancipatory vision geared towards even re-inventing democracy in our part of the world. And, of course, the era of colonialism?call it "neo-colonialism" or "re-colonization" (to use Eqbal Ahmed's term)?is by no means over. I think internationalism just for the sake of internationalism can be very dangerous.
But international book fairs can surely be held in our country. I am in favour of reading books from around the world. But, then, our Bangla Academy has its own national tradition, although the recent history of the Bangla Academy is nothing but disappointing on more scores than one. So using the Bangla Academy to promote some kind of "internationalism" might be problematic. There are other venues and other ways in which international book fairs can certainly be organized.
It would be a fascist thing to say that we don't need books from outside our country. But then there are those questions of how you are going to organize this fair, what the real stakes are, what kinds of roles the corporations themselves are going to play in this instance, and, of course, the role of their money, and so on. Money is no neutral thing; money has its own strings, even invisible as they might be. As my favourite Russian writer Anton Chekov once memorably put it: "Money, like a Vodka, can do crazy things."
What do you think of the prospect of literature in Bangladesh at this point?
I am optimistic as far as Bengali literature is concerned. I see that we have right now quite a constellation of young poets who are doing some exciting experimental work today. But Bangladeshi English literature has still a long way to go. I'm aware that our home-grown tradition of writing in English is relatively new in Bangladesh. So I think creative writing in English continues to constitute a veritable challenge. I also think it's very important that those who write in English remain thoroughly engaged with literary works in Bengali, and with literary works not only from the West, but also?and perhaps more significantly?from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Such an engagement may be rewarding in a number of ways. I think "rootedness" is as important as internationalism; I don't de-link one from the other.
Let us return to the question of the reception of Bengali literary works in translation in the West.
Even Tagore in translation is not yet actually deeply engaged in the West. Again, I will bring up the question of tokenization. Tagore is generally more tokenized than appreciated and engaged. Isn't it instructive that despite postcolonial literature?of course, I've always been extremely critical of what's called postcolonial theory in the metropolitan academy?and despite Edward Said's well-known critique of orientalism, Tagore is still read in an orientalist way? They think Tagore is a mystic, a mysterious guru, a spiritual guru, as if Tagore is out there to satisfy their spiritual needs! Nothing less, nothing more! But, as you know, Tagore is much more than "spirituality," although spirituality matters even in a material sense.
But this "West" has fashioned and produced and reproduced its own version of spirituality in the name of respecting Tagore. So, yes, Tagore is read in response to their own needs, in response to their own orientalist image of both Tagore and of the East. One can speak in this instance of even the "orientalist unconscious" as well. In other words, the orientalist tradition of reading Tagore has by no means come to an end. And this is just one example.
But it's good that Bengali literary works are being increasingly translated into English today. For example, Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravorty have done a commendable job offering a comprehensive Tagore in their competent English translation. And translation itself is surely crucial. It's even politically significant. I recall a moment in my conversation with the great African writer-activist Ngugi wa Thiong'o who told me something to this effect several years back: Translation?and, for that matter, English?can certainly be used to build our "tri-continental" solidarity against colonialism and imperialism.
Would you comment on cultural freedom and religious fundamentalism in our country at this point?
Religion is a very serious thing, even in a material sense, for the majority of our people in Bangladesh. But we should also think about other things that have to do with structural power relations that govern and underlie both political economy and culture in relation to religion itself. In other words, religion is not an isolated abstraction. Religion is rather a class question, among other things. Religion itself is a site of class struggle today. Of course, to speak of Islam in the context of Bangladesh is to speak of the religion of the majority?the peasantry and working-class peoples, that is?who are oppressed. Indeed, in that sense, Islam is the religion of the oppressed.
But that's not all. To speak of Islam is also to speak of a dominant religion in Bangladesh, given the notorious history of both communalism and internal racism in this country. I cannot go into the detail of the question of religion here. In fact, it calls for a separate, extended engagement, given the complexity of this question. But it's true that every ruling-class party in our country has one way or another used or abused religion in such a way that today we are facing all kinds of problems.
Indeed, why are we talking about fundamentalists today? Why do bloggers get killed? We need to historicize all this in the first place. The ruling classes have played their roles of course. But then they don't operate alone. There's this question of the relationship between capitalist imperialism and what's called fundamentalism itself. Indeed, the religious extremists haven't suddenly fallen from the sky. They have been rehabilitated in a variety of ways.
In fact, to speak of religious extremism and communal violence and related issues in Bangladesh is to speak of the entire history of how our mainstream political culture has hitherto evolved in this country. Also, I think the problem of religious extremism and communal violence will persist as long as we will have the existing system. But, to be honest, the way out of all this is a new, revolutionary politics. The challenge, however, resides in retheorizing and initiating this politics at this heavily crisis-ridden anti-democratic conjuncture.
Comment on free-thinking and de-mock-racy in Bangladesh today.
How far "freely" we can think is a question of democracy, to begin with. But I would go to the extent of suggesting that we live in the era of neo-fascism, represented as it is by the right-wing ruling classes, ones which actually operate in a well-orchestrated, close class-cahoots with US imperialism on the one hand, and with transnational corporations and the international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF on the other. This configuration of relations has long proven to be a threat to our people's democratic struggles, to say the least. Indeed, a true democracy is yet to be achieved. Mere elections do not mean democracy. Democracy is a way of living; democracy is a totality of practices that empower people in the direction of emancipating them from all forms and forces of oppression and exploitation.
To speak of democracy is to speak of the people themselves. Now the question is: Who are the people in Bangladesh? Only us? Only the tiny segment of the entire population living in cities and towns? Only 1 percent? Only 5 percent? But to speak of the people in Bangladesh is to speak of the rural masses, the peasantry and working-class peoples, the toiling masses. They are the people. So if democracy has to do with the people, then they should be at the centre. Their agendas, their aspirations, their problems, their struggles should be at the centre of politics, whereas it's never the case, really. Look at all our television shows, talk shows, programmes, and so on; look at ourselves, our universities, our educational institutions, our organizations, our parties. Most of them are middle-class-centric, where the "people" are actually absent. In other words, we are far away from what is called democracy. Since 1971, all the governments have been anti-people to varying degrees; anti-people because they have continued to endanger the sovereignty and security and safety of the country as whole. I think we need to re-invent an emancipatory democracy in the interest of the people themselves. And, yes, the struggle continues.
Ahmed Tahsin Shams is with The Daily Observer