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‘No literature has ever thrived without a strong critical tradition’

  • Published at 01:49 pm June 23rd, 2021
Dr Khan Touseef Osman

In conversation with Khan Touseef Osman

Dr Khan Touseef Osman is a Bangladeshi academic and researcher, currently doing a second PhD in the area of Comparative Literary and Historical Studies at the University of Salerno, Italy. His project investigates the inscription of the nation of Bangladesh from the margin in Bangladeshi English novels of the second decade of the 21st century. As part of his PhD studies, he shared with his department at Salerno the idea of a conference focusing exclusively on Bangladeshi fiction in English. In this interview, he talks about different aspects of the two-day conference, which begins tomorrow. 

To know more about the schedule of events and registration click here


As a first of its kind, what made you want to hold an international conference on Bangladeshi novels written in English? Why now?

Bangladeshi English novels experienced some major growth in the decade we just left behind us. Works such as Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We know, Numair Atif Choudhury’s Babu Bangladesh, Arif Anwar’s The Storm, Nadeem Zaman’s In the Time of the Others have received acclaim from national and international critics, reviewers and general readers. I thought that’s something we need to celebrate. There is a lot of international attention right now on Bangladesh, so the time is ripe for us to engage in academic discourses around Bangladeshi English literature using global platforms. The new configuration of time and space during the pandemic also created the technological conditions for this. 

What are your views, regarding Bangladesh, on the symbiotic relationship between writers and academics required for a country's literature to prosper? 

Not a single category within postcolonial/transnational/world literatures thrived without a strong academic engagement. I was listening to Professor Harish Trivedi speak to Professor Fakrul Alam some days back during a LitFest organised by Jahangirnagar University, where he explained how academic communities in India organised events on their English literature year after year until they constructed a critical language for themselves and popularised it in both academic and non-academic circles. The fact that there are academic positions specifically designated for people with expertise in the area of Indian English literature/South Asian literature in all major universities in the world is a direct consequence of their academic and literary critical activism for so many years. If we hope to reach there as Bangladeshi academics, we need to get to work too. No literature has ever thrived without a strong critical tradition. Authors generally engage closely with academic communities because that’s where they can discuss the broader philosophical and political significances of their works. A “symbiotic relationship between writers and academics” is essential for these reasons and so many more.

Is there a new generation of academics breaking free of the traditional restrictions to produce ground-breaking work that can take Bangladeshi literature forward? Will we see any of their work at this conference?

Considering the research works we have seen so far around Bangladeshi English literature, it is going to be too optimistic to expect anything ground-breaking. The papers we will see being presented are actually looking for a critical idiom—a language that may capture the complexities of the Bangladeshi existence in the world, taking our lived experiences into account. These papers are mostly around the following themes: nation as a local as well as global phenomenon, trauma and representation. As you can see, our presenters are exploring our place in the world, the historical scars on our cultural body and how they are represented in the medium of novel. Novel as a form is closely bound up with the idea of the nation, and this is a major area of our reflections. I think the major critical contribution the Salerno Conference is to make is that it will initiate the development of an idiom that we can later use to analyse our texts.   

Unusually for an academic conference, you are featuring those who are simply writers, who will not be presenting papers. Why so? 

Writers are very important cultural commentators. Many of the Bangladeshi English novelists have excelled academically as well. For example, K. Anis Ahmed, Arif Anwar and Nadeem Zaman have done PhDs in the areas of postcolonial literature and/or creative writing. Some of them also teach at various universities, so they are not really outsiders to the academic conversation. More importantly, we should not consider authors as others at least as far as literary scholarship is concerned. Most major writers are hosted by universities all the time, and we need to do that as well. How could I have imagined a conference on Bangladeshi English novels without the novelists being there!

What do you hope to achieve through this conference? Will we see more of its kind in the future?

I have got two major objectives: to bring it to the attention of the world audience that Bangladeshi English literature is thriving; and to get Bangladeshi academics and researchers interested in this category. I am not saying these ambitious aims could be achieved overnight through just one conference, but this could be a good beginning. I am actually now in conversation with some universities in Bangladesh and abroad about a series of events on Bangladeshi English literature for the next one year. Let us see how these talks go. The first event in this projected series is a workshop with the papers we have received in the conference. We will perhaps have some new papers too. Ultimately, I am going to bring out a special issue of an open access academic journal with the papers improved through the conference and the workshop. 

Ikhtisad Ahmed is a writer. His debut short story collection Yours, Etcetera was published by Bengal Lights Books in 2015.

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