Sharbari Zohra Ahmed talks to NER about her short story “The Length in Six Strokes” (40.3)—and about Dhaka, screenwriting, and her new novel, set in 1940s Calcutta.
Carolyn Kuebler: In your story, Shalini’s editor asks her to review a book, saying, “It’s short and shitty and I’m curious what you think.” It’s a novel by another Dhaka writer who seems to have won the favor of the white publishing establishment—and who also happens to be young and attractive. Reza wants Shalini to be truthful about the book. There’s always a risk in writing a negative review of a book by someone in your own circles, but do you think there’s a particular risk for Shalini and for Reza?
Sharbari Zohra Ahmed: Because the burgeoning English lit scene in Dhaka is so small and dominated by the ruling class, who jealously guard their little piece of the pie, it could mean, as demonstrated somewhat cheekily in the story, social isolation for Shalini and even the loss of Reza’s job. The risk is particularly high for Reza because he is middle class, a self-made person, who taught himself English and is talented and instinctively worldly. He doesn’t have the buffer of inherited millions or connections in whatever government is in power at the moment. This is how it works in sharply class stratified places like Bangladesh. Reza is not, in fact, in Shalini and the author of the shitty novel’s circle. He is less protected. But Shalini could lose her circle and be isolated. It could upend whatever community she may have. But I think she realizes it’s not much of a community in the end.
CK: Shalini likes to say that her book, which didn’t sell particularly well in the US, “killed in Dhaka.” It’s a joke for her. She and her editor Reza talk about Dhaka as if it’s a provincial, insular place, and yet it’s a major city—one of the most populous on the planet. Why do they feel this way about it? Is it a fair assessment on their part?
SZA: Dhaka is an ancient, vibrant place. It used to be center of the muslin industry. The British Raj effectively destroyed the industry by co-opting it and moving it elsewhere for nefarious, colonial purposes. It’s one of the main hubs of the region of Bengal, a region where some of the greatest literary and artistic figures, such as India’s first Nobel laureate, Rabrindranath Tagore and the filmmaker Satyajit Ray come from. The poet Nazrul Islam is from Dhaka, which falls in East Bengal and Kolkata; where Tagore and Ray are from falls in West Bengal. Dhaka is teeming with artists, painters, writers, dancers, singers. The world within Dhaka I am describing in the story is not that Dhaka. It’s the minuscule elitist ecosystem that is so small it sometimes consumes itself. And that microcosm is provincial in a way because it is so insular. It is not greater Dhaka or Bengal. That is why I needed to include the bit about the terrorist attack, to draw the distinction between the bubble land of the American Club and Gulshan and the rest of the city, and thus the nation itself. I think Reza and Shalini are aware it’s a bubble and are weary of it. They are both intelligent and restless and have a certain integrity. They find the social structure suffocating. That is what informs their attitudes.
CK: According to what I read on Wikipedia, you were born in Dhaka and left there when you were three weeks old during the Bangladesh Liberation War. First of all, is Wikipedia correct? And next, what is your relationship to the city now?
SZA: Yes, Wiki is correct! I left when I was around three weeks old and landed up in Chester, Connecticut. I have a complex relationship with Dhaka. It’s not an easy city. It’s stultifying at times. The traffic is the fourth level of Dante’s Inferno. If I had supernatural powers, I would send my enemies (chiefly certain book critics) to sit in Dhaka traffic for a day. But I also love it, because I hear Bengali everywhere and I have close childhood friends and my parents live there and the food is fantastic. I also know artists and writers there who are deeply talented and committed to their craft. And Bangladeshis are happy go lucky by nature. Curious and friendly. I could only live there if I was working full time and had a specific goal or purpose. I am going there in December for the launch of my new novel, and people seem excited and welcoming. Incidentally, I think I am killing there because my novel sold out within hours. It makes me happy.
CK: I’m glad to hear it—life imitates fiction! That novel, Dust Under Her Feet, is your second book of fiction, after the story collection The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai, and it’s set in 1940s Calcutta. Was there a particular event in history that led you to write about this time and place?
SZA: Yes, my mother describing watching the horrendous communal violence in Calcutta right before Partition in 1947. She was very small, about seven, and she lived in the Muslim section of town and watched a Muslim mob fall on a Hindu boy, killing him. Elsewhere Hindus were attacking Muslims. People who had been neighbors and even friends murderously turned on one another. I also grew up watching the old black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s golden age, like Casablanca and The Lady Eve and Bringing up Baby and I loved them deeply. Those were the first stories that made me want to write. That time was so specific. Especially politically. There was no ambiguity or confusion about who the bad guys were, unlike now, when geopolitical agendas are terribly opaque. But no-one looked like me in those films. I was American but Bengali too and wanted to find an intersection. Dust Under Her Feet is that center bit of my personal Venn diagram. It’s my love letter to Hollywood and Bengal, both epicenters of great storytelling.
CK: How did you go about doing the research?
SZA: I had the privilege of traveling to Kolkata and drinking in the atmosphere. I walked down the where street I set some of the story and tried to imagine what my protagonist, Yasmine, saw in 1942 when she did the same. It was magical. And I read so many books about the China Burma India theater of World War II. As a result, I firmly agree with the assertion that that was the greatest generation to come out of the United States.
CK: In addition to writing short stories and novels, you also write for television and theater, which are much more collaborative genres. Which came first for you, and how do these different projects complement or compete with each other?
SZA: Short fiction came first and then a play, Raisins Not Virgins, which will be produced again—a revised version as part of New York Theater Workshop’s Next Door Season 2020. Raisins was produced while I was still writing and sporadically publishing short stories. Eventually I started writing feature scripts and then landed a TV job in a room, which is a very collaborative experience and different from being a solitary writer. Ultimately, story is story and the rules for a good story are the same. Because of my TV gig, I learned to write a first draft faster—of anything I was working on, and I have become a champion outliner! I have also learned to look at bigger pictures of plot and narration. I work simultaneously on things. Right now, I am working on my second novel, revising my play, and writing a feature script.
CK: Are you tempted at all to make a film script from any of your own fiction?
SZA: Yes, I plan to adapt Dust Under Her Feet into a screenplay. That is always a possibility for me, if the story lends itself to scripting.
CK: What feeds you as a writer? Any specific books, music, or film—people, places, or things?
SZA: Politics, human nature. I listen to Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, and those of their ilk a lot when I am writing. Women, with strong, distinct voices where one can hear the longing in them. Also, the vulnerability. I need to be near trees and water. I have started taking long walks in the woods with my goofy dog Percy to help ground me. I have also learned to avoid people and energies that are not expansive or generous. I need rocks and flowers and shells around me. I have stones I collected from Alaska to Malaga. I am of Muslim descent but have statues of Buddha from Sri Lanka to Bali and Japan and China, where I lived for a couple of years, all over my house. I try to show up for my friends and family as much as possible while guarding my time and space. I love to socialize and spend time with people I love. Maintaining boundaries feeds my creativity.
CK: Thanks for taking the time to give us some background on your work, Sharbari. And best of luck with whatever comes next!
SHARBARI ZOHRA AHMED is the author of two books: the novel Dust Under Her Feet (Amazon India/Westland Publishing, 2019) and a short story collection, The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai: Stories (Daily Star Books, 2013). She was on the writing team for season one of the ABC TV Series Quantico, and her play Raisins Not Virgins will be produced as part of New York Theater Workshop’s Next Door 2020 season. She is on the faculty of the MFA program at Manhattanville College and Artist in Residence in the Film and Television MA Program at Sacred Heart University.