It’s hard to imagine a war of independence, complete with genocide, as “a golden age,” but first-novelist Tahmima Anam chose the title of her book, set in such a war, with no irony at all. When you’re in the process of creating your very own independent country, as Bangladesh was in the early seventies, that is the moment in history when you can dream that anything at all is possible. The future can be as “golden” as you envisage it.
Last night was HarperCollins’s official launch of Anam’s novel, “A Golden Age,” at one of the “This is Not a Reading Series” events put on by Pages Books at the Gladstone Hotel ballroom. And “event,” once again, is the best word to describe it. As CBC reporter Aparita Bhandari remarked, when she and Anam settled into the wooden “thrones” on the stage, with elaborately draped silks serving as a backdrop, and floating candles set in several jewel-coloured vases around them, the setting felt more like they were about to experience a Bangladeshi wedding, rather than an interview about a book.
The luxurious stage, designed by Dream Party Décor, wasn’t the only mood-setter for the interview: dhol drummer and electro tabla artist ConTEJus played a set to begin the evening, creating melodic hints of a Bangladeshi atmosphere that resonated through the two women’s discussion.
Tahmima Anam is bright, intelligent, well-educated – and very funny. When an audience member asked how she grappled with her class privilege, she acknowledged that as one of the few educated people from a very poor country, she has great responsibility, “as Spider Man said.” Although she has a PhD in Social Anthropology from Harvard, she quipped that “grad school is a way to pretend you’re doing something while you figure out what you really want to do.”
In her case, of course, graduate school really did work out that way, although that wasn’t her original plan. She had grown up in a very cosmopolitan family, her father being a diplomat with the United Nations, stationed over the years in many different places around the world. Discussions at meal time revolved around articles each family member had found in the papers that day, which they brought to dinner to share with the others. So these discussions, including stories about the war which had created her country, gave Anam a very adult outlook on the world, at a very young age.
But it was while she was doing an oral history project for her PhD, and went to Bangladesh for the field work, that she talked to many people who had participated in and survived the war of independence. She began to think, “What a shame for me to write an academic book that maybe five people would read.” And so her novel was born, as she attempted to bring the war experience to life by digging into her own family history for stories. She reasoned that fiction can transport readers to other times and places in ways that academic writing does not.
When asked why she didn’t become a journalist instead, and follow in the footsteps of her father when he left the U.N. and founded a newspaper in Bangladesh, Anam joked that journalists “have deadlines, have to verify sources, and tell some semblance of the truth.” Yet she is politically active, and does in fact do journalistic work as well. For example, since she now lives in the U.K., she is occasionally asked to write about Bangladesh for the British press, “whenever something terrible happens.” As part of the responsibility she carries as an educated Bangladeshi, she believes she must act as a spokesperson for her country to the rest of the world, extolling its accomplishments and virtues, in balance with the frequently negative facts that are usually emphasized.
But for the moment, her main way of doing that will be via her novels, of which “A Golden Age” is only the first of three. Anam believes that the job of a novelist is to humanize problems, so they become more real through their characters’ experience, and less factually dry. She cited global climate change as one example that pertained especially to Bangladesh. Hearing about climate change through the experience of characters in a novel might have more impact on readers than if facts were presented in a more academic way.
After attending last night’s event, do I want to read Tamima Anam’s book? I am not always comfortable about novels set in times of war, but Anam is so articulate, so knowledgeable and empathetic, and above all, so enthusiastic about this story and the potential hope it offers, that I think I really would like to read her book.