An engaging discussion with Arif Anwar
In the bright cold Saturday morning of April 6, Arif Anwar, the Bangladeshi-Canadian novelist of the novel, 'The Storm' joined a reading at the Bengali Literary Resource Centre (BLRC) as a part of their yearlong project - 'Bengali Literature Presented in English' - at the Albert Campbell Library in Toronto. The debut novel of Arif was published last March by HarperCollins, Canada and is expected to be available in the US book markets in April.
Arif Anwar (right) participating at the BLRC April 2018 reading in Toronto
With a brief introduction on Arif Anwar by Ananna Oisharja Rafa, a young literary enthusiast, the discussion was then facilitated by Aditi Zahir followed by questions from the audience. The moderator for this session was Tasmina Hayat Khan, the coordinator of the project. Literary and cultural personalities of the Toronto Bengali community including distinguished poet Asad Chowdhury, poet Iqbal Hassan, freethinker Akbar Hossain, researcher Sujit Kusum Paul, Dr Arun Bhowmic, essayist Subrata Kumar Das, Delwar Elahi, Mehrab Rahman, Surajit Roy Mazumder, Kazi Zahir Uddin, Mou Modhubontee, Manzu Man Ara, Amit Mukherjee, Hafizur Rahman were in the audience. For more than an hour, Arif conversed with the audience and diligently answered all the questions that were placed before him with a distinct eloquence. Arif's response proved that such can only be anticipated from a very well read and intellectual individual.
It could be mentioned here that, born in Bangladesh, Arif has spent a major part of his life in the US and in Canada. He has worked at BRAC and UNICEF and is currently working as a Senior Policy Analyst at the Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS) in the OPS. He also teaches creative writing at the school of continuing studies at the University of Toronto. Following are some of the highlights of that conversation.
What is the story line of the Storm?
The story line is relatively non-traditional. It starts in the coast of Bay of Bengal, we are seeing through the eyes of a fisherman's wife 'Hanufa'. She makes a critical decision that has repercussions 30-40 years later on Shahryar. The story then unfolds to reveal all the other characters: A Muslim couple in Calcutta, a Japanese pilot, a British female doctor in Burma. The idea was to give agency to every subplot and illustrate how our lives are connected with an invisible string and the long term consequences of our lives being connected. Although the strands are separated but they are equal to each other which makes this story line unique.
How real is the character of Shahryar, from the Storm - Is Shahriar a representation of Arif Anwar?
"Shahryar needed a biography, so I lent him some of mine. Does that make him the same as me? I don't think so. Those of us who are writers will agree, every character we write is us and every character we write is not us. Every character is an opportunity for me to explore something I have always wanted to explore."
Will this book get translated in Bengali?
"That's up to the publishing gods. If the subcontinental rights get sold, or if some very kind hearted Bangladeshi takes it as a project, then it is possible. I want to see it published in Bengali. It's very important to me."
What are your suggestions to young individuals interested in writing?
"Read first. Read a lot and read everyday and consume media. Watch great films. Listen to great music. Read great comic books or graphic novels. Look at the great paintings. There is more to creation than just one medium which is reading. You can be also inspired by a great scene in a film. Immerse yourself in culture and art as much as possible. And write. Write as often as you can." "When you write something, it's good to show to the people who can give a neutral perspective and provide constructive criticism."
How do you make Bengali literature appetizing to the young generation?
It is important to start with small steps. Start by wading in the shallow end of the pool and allow them to experience writings that are easier to digest such Muhammad Zafar Iqbal's science fictions and Humayun Ahmed's novels. Then build on to more intricate literature, in small incremental steps.
Your suggestions for people who are writing but are struggling to publish their work?
"There is no easy answer. I went through the challenges myself. The Storm was rejected almost 60 times by the publishers. I rewrote it from scratch at least twice in a span of 5 years. To survive, you need a good support structure of family and friends to encourage you. Also, the need to publish may not be as important, and if you can do justice to your vision about your books, then that can be sometimes considered as success.
Even if I don't sell my book, I have achieved my vision and my family and close friends have read it. Everything that comes after is a bonus. When you read your own book and you are happy with it, sometime that's enough. May be the next one will get published. That's how I got myself through writing my book. Publishing should not be the end goal.
How easy is it to survive just as a writer?
"Very few people can just survive from their writing alone. I received a generous amount from my publishers but it wasn't enough on its own. There are family and work responsibilities and it's important to accept the fact that you may never sustain just from writing alone."
As expected, Arif Anwar is an avid reader. He had started reading when he was fairly young. Fiction, Sci-Fi, fantasy, epics, mythology - his interests are as varied as they can get. To mention a few of his favorite: The Iliad, the Odyssey, Lord of the Rings, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana - he has read those all. Stephen King, Jeffrey Archer, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare - he has read their books as well. His favorite Bengali authors include Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyaya, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Parshuram (Rajshekhar Basu) and Humayun Ahmed.
All in all, talking with Arif Anwar and listening to him was an enlightening experience for the Torontonian Bengalis. It is very exciting for everyone present to be a part of this trailblazing moment as Anwar bears the flag for Bangladeshis in the international territory of literature and becomes a role model for all the inspiring writers that are yet to emerge. Minara Begum and Zaved Iqbal supported BLRC in capturing the program in video.
The writer is based in Canada