New fiction star taps Bangladeshi roots
Great writing may be in the blood, but having a window seat on remarkable historical events can help to shape an author. A major new talent, Tahmima Anam, has the advantage of coming from a line of gifted Bangladeshi writers and thinkers, yet it is the damaging experience her family shared with thousands of others living around them that is to see her launched in Britain.
Anam, a 31-year-old Londoner born in Bangladesh, is the author of a book that charts the personal impact of the violent upheaval which split a continent and drove a wedge between close relatives in the 1970s. The Golden Age, her debut novel, to be published early next year, has been hailed as a work to rival Brick Lane by Monica Ali and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. But, unlike both these award-winning novels, the author says that her story is not a saga of immigrant life in Britain. Instead she returns to the horror of the war in her homeland, formerly East Pakistan. 'As a child I was told many stories about the war that were all so interesting,' she said. Anam's father is Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the country's largest independent broadsheet, the Daily Star, while her paternal grandfather, Abul Mansur Ahmed, was a political figure in East Pakistan and a satirist widely read today.
Anam now lives in West Hampstead, London, 5,000 miles from her parents. But this year, with literary guidance from Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, and inspiration from South Asian writers such as Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth, her talent is set to be unveiled.
The story of personal loss she tells in The Golden Age also draws on memories from her mother. 'Both of my parents were involved. Their entire generation was,' she said. Speaking in her Bangladesh home this weekend, Anam's mother, Shaheen, recalled: 'We often had freedom fighters stay the night at our place or bury weapons in our front yard. One night the army came to the house with a young freedom fighter they had tortured into giving away where the weapons were stored. They wanted to take away my younger brother, who was only 12. I think these stories made a strong impression on Tahmima.'
Anam was tutored and encouraged by Motion when she took up a place as a student on his university creative writing course in London. 'I remember the first week on the course he told me I "didn't have to be so dutiful", and the phrase stuck in my mind. I had been feeling I had to tell the truth, and hearing that from him kind of liberated me,' she said. Anam's talent was spotted by the publishers John Murray when they came across her piece in a published anthology of the course work and she won an Arts Council grant. An extract from her novel will appear in the January edition of Granta, the literary magazine.
The opening of The Golden Age
Dear Husband, I lost our children today.
Outside the courthouse Rehana bought two kites, one red and one blue, from Khan Brothers Variety Store and Confectioners. The man behind the counter wrapped them up in brown paper and jute ribbon. Rehana tucked the packets under her arm and hailed a rickshaw. As she was climbing in, she saw the lawyer running towards her.
'Mrs Haque, I am very sorry.' He sounded sincere. Rehana couldn't bring herself to say it was all right.
'You must find some money. That is the only way. Find some money, and then we will try again. These bastards don't move without a little grease.'
Money. Rehana stepped into the rickshaw and lifted the hood over her head. 'Dhanmondi,' she said, her voice in a thin quiver. 'Road Number 5.'
When she got home, the children were sitting together on the sofa with their knees lined up. Maya's feet hovered above the floor.
Sohail was looking down at his palms and counting the very small lines. He saw Rehana and smiled, but did not rise from his chair, or call out, as Maya did, 'Ammoo! Why were you so long?'
Rehana had decided it would not be wise to cry in front of the children, so she had done her crying in the rickshaw, in sobs that caused her to hold on to the narrow frame of the seat and open her mouth in a loud, wailing O.