Literacy has never been Bangladesh’s strong suit. Reading and writing in their mother tongue is beyond nearly half the population. Therefore, in Bangladeshi terms, anyone who has the ability to converse, let alone write in English, is privileged. That caveat allowed, writing in English is in vogue on the streets of Dhaka. Pretenders and proponents abound like never before. Whisper it quietly, but the Dhaka Literary Festival is simultaneously reviving the old English-language writing scene in Bangladesh and birthing a new and improved one. The directors have been modest about their role in this fledgling phenomenon. While they cannot take all the credit, they are due more than they lay claim to.
The festival, now in its fifth year and, having cut the imperial umbilical cord, finally by and for Bangladesh, has seen dedicated publishers of English books appear. Two journals, Six Seasons Review in its second iteration and Bengal Lights, which shows off local talent alongside contributions from international writers, complement them. The festival is their high-water mark. New issues of the latter and books by the former are celebrated, promoted and sold. Though the English readership is still woefully limited -- books and journals are conspicuous in their absence on bookshelves and reading lists at schools and universities, and have few avenues for sales outside of the festival -- it can come together for three days a year at a place that provides an outlet to the writers too. The circumstances are imperfect, but they are being moulded better than they have been in the past.
The revival or creation of a scene is one part of the jigsaw. English is used for global dialogue. Bangladesh has been preparing to communicate with the world, but whether the world was ready to listen remained to be seen. Successes by writers, particularly from the diaspora, such as Zia Haider Rahman, have been sporadic outliers. This year’s festival marks an important point in the journey, articulated very well in two essays that map the history and chart a hopeful future, the uneasy relationship between the country and the language of the colonisers notwithstanding. The first is by the estimable man of letters Khademul Islam, who uses the “life and times of literary magazines” as touchstones to discuss English writing in Bangladesh, in an issue of Himal Southasian dedicated entirely to Bangladesh. The second is by the respected academic and poet Kaiser Haq, who pens “… notes towards a definition of Bangladeshi writing in English,” in an issue of Wasafiri dedicated, again, entirely to Bangladesh.
The latter publication’s efforts have created history. Wasafiri is Britain’s, if not Europe’s, foremost magazine for international writing, a point highlighted by its name (Kiswahili for “travellers”). A reputable international literary journal has, for the first time ever, taken a close look at Bangladesh, inviting the world at large to do so as well. The untold story of this special issue has various timely reminders of the importance of the Dhaka Literary Festival to both the creative output in English and Bangladesh’s emergence as a global literary force, which many in the country feel is long overdue. The dedication of Ahsan Akbar and K Anis Ahmed, two of the three festival directors, made the issue possible. Writers are encouraged to be selfish, especially with their time, that most valuable of commodities. Unlike lesser individuals, these two chose their commitment to force the world to hear Bangladeshi voices over their writerly needs.
They have curated the old with the new, Kaiser Haq and Khademul Islam with Nausheen Eusuf and Sayeeda Tahera Ahmed. A cursory glance at the page of contents reveals a host of names familiar to veterans of the festival. Abeer Hoque, whose debut work of fiction came out at last year’s edition, appears with a non-fiction piece from her upcoming memoirs. Sharbari Z Ahmed, whose short story collection was launched in the 2013 edition to propel her to ever greater heights, including becoming the first person of Bangladeshi origin to be a writer on a network show, contributes a piece of fiction. Mahmud Rahman, who was there at the beginning, displays his translating skills with a story by Afsan Chowdhury, another who has appeared on panels at the festival over the years. A novel by Saad Z Hossain that began its journey in Bangla Academy two years ago and has travelled the world since, is reviewed.
These writers may not owe their careers to the festival, but they do owe it a debt of gratitude at the very least. The untold story that best illustrates what the festival is capable of doing if the angels of its good intentions win over the demons of human nature is that of Zubier Abdullah. Two years ago, he was an engineering student at a local private university volunteering at the literary extravaganza. He had not considered writing as a serious career option until then. Two years on, his short story is amongst Bangladesh’s offerings to the world within the pages of Wasafiri. Bangladesh is talking to the world, and the world is listening. The Dhaka Literary Festival is an important junction on this journey, one that allows Bangladeshis to do what they are very good at: Dream.