As someone who is remarkably bad at making life easier for herself, I have only recently reached the conclusion that often, it really is best just to go with the flow. And by that, I refer not only to the longed-for surge of words that (all too rarely) pours itself effortlessly onto the page, but also the capacity to spontaneously surf whatever wave life sends your way. In my first post for Commonwealth Writers, I discussed the roundabout route that I took to embracing my identity as a writer. Sadly, I am now beginning to suspect that I must simply be a very slow learner. Because my most recent project, editing the Lifelines anthology for Zubaan Books, also travelled a fairly winding path to reach its natural – some might say inevitable – conclusion.
Three years ago, the idea of doing a collection of new writing from Bangladesh for the Indian market was floated when I met up with a friend in Delhi. She was working for Zubaan Books, which has over the years built a strong reputation as an independent press. I thought the anthology proposal was a great idea. It brought together a number of themes: the book would consist of contemporary short stories written by a newer generation of Bangladeshi women, and all the stories would be written originally in English.
There was just one small problem with this plan. I didn’t, as my friend was suggesting, want to edit the collection.
For one thing, I was already struggling to find time to write the stories dancing around in my head. So the prospect of editing the work of others held little appeal. But I really loved the idea of having a collection by Bangladeshi writers on Indian and international bookshelves.
So I made a counter-proposal: that Zubaan find another editor, whom I would informally assist in putting the anthology together. Over the next two years, we discussed the idea several times, but made no headway. And eventually, I realised that unless I got down to brass tacks and took on the task, this book would not be appearing in print anytime soon!
With some reluctance, I began identifying, shortlisting and editing stories for the collection. In the end, it took nearly two years and an arduous journey to reach the actual publication of Lifelines. If I’m honest, I have to admit that some of those memories still have the power to make me break out in a cold sweat. For each obstacle overcome, another one would emerge without warning. For each challenge I had anticipated, there would be several more that could not have been predicted.
And the deadlines were a category unto themselves. I coined the term ‘zombie deadlines’ during this period. Because no matter how hard I tried to lay one deadline to rest by delivering on time, a new one – or a revised/extended version of the earlier one – would pop up to replace it. It was like running a very, very long marathon without sufficient training or provisions (and no finishing line in sight) – and I am no athlete!
But what a learning experience it was. Working with fourteen other writers, each contributor and I went through several rounds of revision for each of the stories. And I have lost count of how many times I revised my own story, ‘Getting There’, before I settled for the version that appears in Lifelines. My role as editor was fairly hands-on, but I did my best to be as gentle as possible. Because each of us puts a piece of our soul on the page when we write, and it’s hard to have that edited or altered, even if it is done from the best possible motives. For that reason, I am happy to say that while no stories were killed in the process of bringing out this anthology, several were successfully and significantly modified.
In the end, I had to balance my responsibility as an editor, which was to make each story read as well as possible, with my respect for the work of each of the writers. It was their voices that needed to come through in the stories, not mine, however good my intentions. It was a mammoth task, but I was encouraged by the generosity that most of the contributors demonstrated whilst working through the edits. And I found, to my relief, that they were all still talking to me by the time we reached the end of that process!
In terms of content, I chose a mixture of what might be called literary fiction, and more ‘approachable’ writing for the collection (I have more recently undertaken a similar selection process for my own short story collection, tentatively titled Fragments of Riversong, which should be appearing in print later this year), with the aim of ensuring that any reader would find something to enjoy. I also chose to include some ‘uncomfortable’ topics – for example, difficult childhoods, or domestic violence – which continue to be a recognisable part of life, no matter where you are from. And whenever I chose a story featuring a more traditional topic, such as the tensions between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, I tried to make sure that there was a twist of some kind thrown in so that the story brought something new to the table.
I have long felt that the portrayal of Bangladesh, particularly in the Western media, tends to be mired in stereotypes. Poverty and despair, natural disasters and violence characterise most of the news coverage from my country. And yet I know very well that there is much more to Bangladesh than what is reflected in those stories. Ours is a society in transition, one where the challenges of poverty and violence exist alongside development and opportunity. Traditional pressures hold people back, even as education and employment open up new horizons. To see young women travel from their villages to the cities in search of factory work, for example, is to observe something that was unthinkable even a generation ago.
Within Bangladesh, the rural-urban divide is increasingly breaking down as a result of migration and the undreamt-of developments taking place in communications technology. Few would guess that this country has one of the fastest-growing Facebook communities in the world! In cities like the capital Dhaka, the sense of being connected to and affected by a wider world and its trends are almost palpable.
And while globalisation is alive and well in Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi diaspora has also reached every corner of the world. Remittances make up a huge part of the country’s foreign exchange earnings – feeding not just families, but also the aspirations of a new generation within the country. It is this Bangladesh – in all its diversity, contradictions, beauty and chaos – that I wanted to portray in Lifelines.
When it came to selecting the fifteen stories that make up the anthology, I sought textured narratives to provide a nuanced picture of contemporary Bangladesh. Lifelines tells the tales of Bangladeshi migrants to foreign countries, as well as those who dream of migration from the village to the city. It touches on global events such as the 9/11 attacks, even as it engages with the challenges posed by local traditions related to sex and marriage; above all, it draws on the universal experiences that make up the stuff of family, relationships and life in general.
The stories are told from the perspectives of Bangladeshi men, women and children living in different parts of the globe; most are struggling to find a balance in an increasingly complex world. In particular, given the gendered realities of Bangladeshi society and prevailing stereotypes about its people, I wanted Lifelines to make it clear that there is no simple, reductive story to tell about Bangladeshi women or their struggles.
Widely-held views around violence and poverty fail to recognise that there are many stories that don’t fit those narratives; stories which are less often told or heard. Very few people, for example, know that Bangladesh is the home of two female conquerors of Mount Everest. Furthermore, one of them is currently engaged in the Seven Summits campaign to climb the highest peak on each of the seven continents, with the aim of showing just how far Bangladeshi women have come in four decades of independence. Impressively, Wasfia Nazreen is already past the halfway point towards achieving her target.
My own story ‘Getting There’ reflects some of these contradictions in a changing society. It follows the journey of a young woman, Laila, who has the opportunity to leave behind her damaged childhood and create a new life for herself in a different city. While such journeys are commonplace in the western world, in much of South Asia the chance to escape your past is less frequently an option. A family crisis forces Laila to return to her parents’ home – and in the process of dealing with the situation, she begins to realise that things were never quite as she had thought. So ‘Getting There’ is a story about family dynamics and coming to terms with your past, but not necessarily in the way in which you expected to.
In essence, I wanted Lifelines to reflect what I know about the reality of my country as both a writer and a development worker, as well as, of course, a Bangladeshi woman. And while putting this anthology together was hard work, and there were a few bad days, in the end, the experience of editing the book taught me a great deal about writing: what worked and what didn’t, and why. In the process, it made me a better writer, too. That alone would have made the process worthwhile, as far as I am concerned – and it leads me to conclude that I should probably just have surrendered gracefully, and gone with the flow in the first place…
Bangladesh writers – call for participants. Commonwealth Writers is to run a short story workshop hosted by Ellah Allfrey in Hay Festival Dhaka, 17 November. CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION
You can read more about Farah Ghuznavi, including links to interviews and her other work, here.