Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Interview with Ahmede Hussain (Bangladesh)

Ahmede Hussain is a Dhaka-based journalist and writer. He was in Singapore late last year to give a talk on compiling and editing anthologies in the Singapore Writers Festival 2009. That was when I met Hussain.

Hussain has recently edited The New Anthem, an anthology of South Asian fiction (Tranquebar, 2009) with contributions from well-known and relatively new writers such as Mohsin Hamid, Amitava Kumar, Kamila Shamshie, Raj Kamal Jha, Tabish Khair, and Monideepa Sahu, among others.

Currently, Hussain is working on his first novel.

Here are excerpts from an interview with Hussain in which he discusses his fascinating journey working on The New Anthem.

When did the idea of ‘The New Anthem’ come to you? What did you want to achieve through this anthology?

I was working on my novel and I came across this huge problem, without solving which I couldn’t move forward: to write novels in a certain language one needs to have a history of writing in that particular language. In India and Pakistan, as both the countries are linguistically divided, English has been the lingua franca, a lot of novels have been written in English, transplanting Indian or Pakistani reality into it is not difficult; you have Sarojini Naidu and RK Narayan. But there is no Narayan or Kamila Shamsie in Bangladesh. I started to read works of Indian and Pakistani writers and, as a reader, I thought it would be wonderful to get them together under one cover. Most of the writers are friends, I talked to them and The New Anthem was born.

I don’t want to achieve anything through the anthology. I wanted to celebrate the diversity of the writing from the sub-continent and the book does exactly that.

Most editors often love to write lengthy editorials or prefaces when they publish an anthology? Why did you keep your editor’s note so brief?

I am glad that you asked this question. I have been criticised by an Indian newsmagazine for writing such a short preface. I wanted to introduce the readers to the book, what binds the writers together and all. I didn’t want to ‘explain’ the pieces, I was scared of doing it.

Was it difficult to approach the more established writers and ask them to contribute to the collection?

Not at all. As I have said, all of them are friends. They were helpful with suggestions.

How did you go about finding the new voices from the sub-continent?

I read and whenever I got anything interesting I took note of it.

How did you choose the stories that you have included in the anthology? Did you look for stories that have a political slant?

I wanted stories that dealt with an individual’s place in history; I think every writer tries to do that. I was for works that handled the theme of ‘writing back’, which is ‘political’. Then again, writing is a by-product of politics.

Was it a struggle to find a publisher for the anthology?

There has been a huge interest in the work. It was smooth sailing for my agent.

Now that you have collected these new voices in the collection, what does it tell you of the future of story-telling in the sub-continent?

I have never thought of this. What an interesting question, Zafar!

What are you working on next?

I am working on my first novel. Set in an imaginary country called the People’s Republic of Bogland, it deals with the relationship between sex and violence.

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