Dilruba Z Ara, internationally acclaimed Bangladeshi-Swedish author, was born in Dhaka and lives in Sweden. Her debut novel, A List of Offences (2006), was already among the top ten books in parts of Latin America in 2009; in 2013 the second edition was adopted as course literature at the English Department, Georgia State University, USA. This novel has been used for various purposes in universities across the world since its publication. Her short stories have appeared in the USA (Chattahoochee Review and Drunken Boat), Sweden (Shipwrights Review), Pakistan (Vista), India (Democratic World Magazine and Asia Writes), and Bangladesh (The Daily Star). The audio version of 'Window', produced by the Swedish Institute, has been released in Arabic (Iraq, Jordan and Morocco). Some stories are being studied at universities in the USA, Sharjah and Sweden. Her second novel, Blame, was released in Dhaka during Dhaka Lit Fest, 2015. This versatile poet, painter, translator and educator shares her views with Ahmed Tahsin Shams on contemporary Bangladeshi art-lit scenario and its societal impact.
"And you can go on playing the circus-master's role.
---From the poem 'SMS',
by Dilruba Z Ara
You have your schooling from Dhaka University and later Gothenburg University, obtaining degrees in English, Swedish, Classical Arabic and Linguistics and then a teaching degree from Lund University. How would you compare the academic environments between home and abroad? Also, do compare the ways a learner is groomed.
When I entered Dhaka University to study English Literature, I already had a through grounding in Bengali literature. It had always been my goal to become a serious writer whose work would cross geographical boundaries. So yes, my mind was expanded in Dhaka University. I can still remember the vast amount of English literature we had to plough through and analyse. In those days, Dhaka University prepared students only in literature. But in Sweden, literature and language proficiency were of equal importance. So, I first had to master Swedish in order to be able to study English literature. A quarter of the curriculum was devoted to language proficiency. I had to translate complex Swedish text into English, and vice versa ? one of our course books was titled 10,000 Words. While I had a wide-ranging English vocabulary, my Swedish was less so, and I had a tough time competing with native Swedish students. However, I was focused; by the time I started to study Linguistics I had become very fluent in Swedish, and things became much smoother. We are talking about the early eighties, and things have changed in both Sweden and Bangladesh since then.
c You are fortunate to have an intellectual and literary family line. Your maternal great-grandfather, who was Prince Bhaktiar's private tutor in Kolkata (before Partition), penned two books. Your paternal grandfather was an admired raconteur. Your late father, Shahed Ali, was one of the literary giants of his time; your mother, Chemon Ara, a retired professor of literature is also an acknowledged author. Certainly, all these inspired you and never let you derail from your focus. Let me put it in Virginia Woolf's way -- "? must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". What would you suggest those women who want to be a writer but do not fit in with Woolf's quote?
Yes, the atmosphere in our house had nurtured my mind ever since I was an infant. I owe my creativity to my parents, not to any school. But to have a room of my own when I was growing up would have been impossible. We were six siblings, and my parents were always taking in students as lodgers if they didn't have a place in Dhaka. So it was a very crammed existence, even though a very stimulating one. I never really thought of it as a big problem. Our house was stuffed with books, and often filled with prominent writers (and would-be writers). My head was my room --- even in a crowd I could find a place to read or write. But to go back to Woolf, she is referring to adult writers, and to her line I would like to add 'time of your own'. What will you do with a room and money if you don't have time of your own? If you have time, you will either find or create a room for yourself, and if your family doesn't support you, you will need to have an income as well, because without money you will not survive. Do anything to survive, and then go for your dream. I strongly believe that a person who is born to be an artist will find a way to fulfil that mission. There is an inner urge to carry on walking your path, even sacrificing many things, in order to stay focused. You can't help it. It's almost like a disease, but fortunately, a benign one.
c Blame and A List of Offences deal with political, cultural and emotional turmoil. How would you connect that to the current turmoil in Bangladesh? Let me be specific. From the suppressed indigenous angle to gender harassment at an iconic place like TSC on Pahela Baishakh 2015, or the murder of Avijit Roy near famous 'Shahbag Square' during the carnivalesque book fair in 2015, or shutting down of Bawdip Prakashan without any documented constitutional rule of Bangla Academy. As an author, would you comment on it? If you don't mind, I am expecting a little lecture on Milton's Areopagitica relating to our context!
You're right; both novels represent my own reflections and responses to the time I lived in Bangladesh. A List of Offences deals with turmoil within families, whereas Blame is set against the wider backdrop of the political turmoil that brought forth Bangladesh. This was a time of great unrest, and that is naturally depicted in the novel. My next book, however, will be rather different. And as the old adage says, "The pen is mightier than the sword". That's why we who have the pen in our hands should use it with utmost care. We must maintain a certain code of manner in our writing. The phrase "Freedom of Speech" is not meant to be taken literally. A writer's speech is always different from that of one who is not a writer ? so for there to be a constructive dialogue between the writer and reader, both need a shift of perception. Our cognitive awareness is multifaceted, and I would like to believe that a person endowed with words must be also prepared to travel back and forth through the layers of his awareness to communicate with one who doesn't have words as his tool. We are living in a troubled world and, to bring some peace to it, we need to work responsibly. I believe in my religion which is Islam, and I respect its core message which is peace. Having said all that, I am a humanist and a story-teller -- not a campaigner. But since you are referring to Mr Roy's death of course I condemn it as I would condemn all kinds of murders and harassment.
And that particular gender harassment in Dhaka was shocking as well. I remember the wave of shame coursing through my veins at the news. We are living in the 21st century in the era of information technology and globalization; news from afar reaches us instantly and we can't avoid noticing that no matter where we live every human being has this basic need to keep his or her integrity intact; several countries have a constitutional law against all kinds of discrimination. I pray that a time will come when each parent in the world will be nurturing their sons and daughters with equal respect and affection ? by doing so they will be teaching our future generation to think differently. A girl shouldn't be taught to fear man --- rather a boy should be taught to treat a girl as his equal.
c It's a rare gift. Writers' words are their brushes and pages are canvas. But you can play on both hands -- a writer as well as painter! You have exhibited your work at Sweden's International Female Artists' Art Annual. As an artist (also word-artiste), do you agree with Nina Simone: "You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times." Or with Max Eastman, "The defining function of the artist is to cherish consciousness"? Also, please share your present/near-future literary or art plan.
I would agree partly with Eastman, and partly with Simone. For me, it started off with a drive to "cherish my consciousness" rather than a sense of duty, but now that I have been recognised as a writer, it feels more like "a duty" to speak of things that matter. Yes, I am lucky to have the ability to both paint and write. At present, I am working on two novels, one in English and one in Swedish. As for my art works, I am working on three canvases ? all contemporary Swedish motifs.