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Agents of Change

Commonwealth Writers Conversation – The Untold Story: Agents of Change


The CW Conversation in Dhaka, from left to right: Shahidul Alam, Chair, Godfrey Smith, Farah Ghuznavi, Shireen Huq, and Kamal Quadir.


At last year’s literary gathering at the Bangla Academy as part of Hay Festival, Dhaka (2012), Commonwealth Writers wanted to widen the brief to ask how artists and social activists can effect change in the governance processes which affect their lives. On the panel were: entrepreneur and founder of kBash, Kamal Quadir; photographer and founder of DRIK, Shahidul Alam; social activist and founder of Naripokkho, Shireen Huq, and writer, Farah Ghuznavi. The discussion was mediated by 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize Chair, Godfrey Smith.

It was a lively conversation about the link between cultural activity and change processes. We also  received questions from members of the Commonwealth Writers’ community ahead of the debate.  Farah Ghuznavi, has responded to three of these.

Professor David Throsby at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, asked: How would you interpret “sustainability” in the context of cultural development? Is there such a thing as “culturally sustainable development”?

Farah: I think there is such a thing as “sustainability” in the context of cultural development, but I would describe it as the commitment to preserving some aspects of one’s cultural heritage, and encouraging the development of new forms of art and individual artists – namely, a commitment to promoting and prioritising the cultural sector within the country. Furthermore, unless efforts are made to actively preserve the valuable traditions of different cultures, there is a danger that they will get lost.

Urvashi Butalia, Kali for Women, India, asked: What are some of the political choices writers make in their writing lives – e.g. language, subject, gender, and how do these choices impact on their work?

Farah: I suspect many writers make political choices in terms of issues such as language, subject, and even the attitudes that they choose to express through their writing. Sometimes the political choice can be in terms of something that the reader may not even realise, such as self-censorship. For many women writers in particular, I think that self-censorship is a real issue. And in countries with a socially conservative readership or a volatile political culture, many writers – both women and men – might find themselves making choices in terms of which battles they choose to take on, and which they step back from. For myself, the choices I have made are really to take up some of the issues that I am passionate about – sometimes that doesn’t necessarily fit with what might be considered the best ‘political choices’, but I write about what’s important to me and what speaks to me, in the hope that it will also speak to my reader.

Amlandeep Bhattacharya, Calcutta, asked: Marginalized groups like children and women are exploited everywhere especially in developing countries like India and Bangladesh. Is it possible for the concerned section of the society like writers, especially feminist writers, to empower them through their writings and what kind of impact do their writing have on the policy making system in these countries?

Farah: Though I’m wary of making a link with the policy making system – I would hope that we can contribute to creating a critical mass of people who demand change in society, also in terms of holding policymakers accountable. And of course those of us who write on social issues including feminist issues write in the hope that it will help to change attitudes. At least, I do. And some of the subjects of my stories have included the challenges faced by child domestic workers, women with mental health issues, child sexual abuse and so on)