A writer's building blocks

Bangladeshi writer Abeer Y. Hoque talks about her obsession with memory, continental and cultural shifts, and walking the straight path.

May 31, 2016 07:04 pm | Updated September 16, 2016 10:01 am IST

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Abeer Y. Hoque is a photographer, poet and writer with rare spreadsheet skills. Born in Nigeria, of Bangladeshi descent, and currently living in Queens, NY, she carries at least three countries inside her.

Her most recent book, The Olive Witch (HarperCollins), is a memoir.

You talk of how swimming was your first way of honouring the body — you also practise yoga and are known to bust out the dance moves anywhere, anytime. Is the body a sacred space for you? How does this relate to writing?

I'm not sure I think anything is sacred, except for sleep and kindness. My own body, on the other hand, I've often had trouble respecting let alone giving it space. I think it's hard for women and girls, given how much pressure there is to look a certain way, or how dangerous/creepy/vulnerable it is to be female in the world. I grew up in an academic environment, where sports and outdoorsiness weren't much encouraged. I only chose to join the swimming team in my high school junior year, because I thought it'd help me have a stronger college application (that's how nerdy I was because I did it despite my parents’ protests). But then, I'm supremely glad I did even though I was terrible at swimming at first, and pretty much all through the next two years, because it led to a lifetime of being active — sporty even — and there’s probably no better stress-reliever for me than doing something physical.

I don't know how that all relates to my writing other than the obvious (helping keep me happy and relaxed). I do know that when I was 25 and playing on a really great women's ultimate frisbee team in Philadelphia, I tore up my knee (ACL, cartilage, meniscus, the works). I had been playing competitively for five years at that point, and I had never before experienced my body letting me down. It was a singular lesson in failure and empathy (which are useful things for writers to know about :). I couldn't walk around a corner or get out of a car, without my knee collapsing (and hurting like hell), so I got the surgery to reconstruct everything. I was determined to get back to playing, but despite a super-fast recovery and intense physical therapy, I was never as fast, or more tellingly, as brave again. I technically am able — but cannot bring myself to — walk near high ledges, to climb trees, or descend steep stairs or slopes easily. And forget the sliding-sports on ice or water, or the ones on land that require changing directions quickly. In fact, despite all evidence to the contrary, I'm committed to walking the straight path. Physically anyway. No sudden jukes for this unbeliever.

You’ve had a pretty circuitous journey in terms of place — you are ethnically Bangladeshi, but grew up in Nigeria and moved to Pittsburgh as a teenager. Could you talk about that first displacement? Do you still feel like a foreigner wherever you are?

Ah, that first displacement. I think it colours everything I know about displacement. I had never before experienced such a foreignness of place and climate and people and self — despite being very much a foreigner as a child in Nigeria. But when you’re a child, you take everything as it’s presented. Like, of course, the vultures are big enough to carry a child away, of course your skin isn’t dark enough, of course the teacher will whip you for making noise.

But in America as a teenager, literally everything — from my skin to the sky — felt weird, new, exhilarating, terrifying. Of course, some (maybe most) of that is to do with being 13 when you’re not comfortable in your own body. But a lot of it was the continental and cultural shifts I was experiencing coming from a small town in Nigeria to the city of Pittsburgh.

I'm grateful now for that experience, even the painful parts. It was so overwhelming that that feeling became a part of me, taught me to look again, look anew. Even now, in my apartment in New York, a city I’ve lived in for over 3 years, a country I’ve been a citizen of for 23, I can look out my window and see the latched gate, something I know exactly how to operate, have pushed past a million times, and I think, what a curious thing, how it’s painted a shiny black, how metal, how swinging-into-place. My sense of wonder is fabulously active, and that’s nothing but good.

“Memory is a treacherous thing,” you write. Could you say more about this? If there were building-blocks such as memory, imagination, persistence etc. — in the writer’s universe — then where does memory stand in yours?

I love this idea of building-blocks in a writer’s universe, but I can’t say that I am the kind of self-aware writer who knows what she’s drawing on or why. Often, I begin a story or a poem with a memory or an emotion, what I might think is the heart of the matter, or a central scene, but this doesn’t always end up being the point of the story. Frankly, I don’t always know the point of my own stories, even long after they’re done. I often learn more about my own motivations and themes from others than I could fathom myself. It’s also a lesson in how your work is no longer yours once it goes out into the world, and others’ interpretations are their right, no matter how far from your own intentions they might be.

There’s this wonderful line by the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali — “Your history gets in the way of my memory” — which I think explains 99% of all conflict. Memory is an obsession of mine, writing and otherwise. In a way, you can’t write a book that isn’t about memory. My father has been slowly losing his memory for a few years now, so I’ve been researching it and it’s been a fascinating depressing venture. Who are you if you can’t remember what just happened? Can you be a person or personality in the moment? What if your very preferences change — if you can't remember what you like, or who you used to be? Could you die before you die? I’m curious if someone with late-stage Alzheimer’s or dementia would take delight in the same things as before — a hand on a hip, the insides of marbles, uneven stacks of books — if any of those would be a marker of her identity. I’m writing a novel right now where I’m trying to work out (one set of) answers to these questions. It’s different from my other books because I’m not working from memory (as in my memoir) or from composites of real people and places (like my linked stories), but it’s no less true to me and my writing brain.

Bangladesh has an important place in both your history and your memory. Could you say something about the rise of violent extremism there — so many writers, activists, bloggers and professors have been killed and continue to be targeted.

It goes without saying that the murders in Bangladesh are terrifying. It seems a hit-list was originally targeting Bangla-language activists and writers in Bangladesh, though that list eventually widened to include Bangladeshis in other countries. Last September, I helped organise a “Solidarity with Bangladesh Bloggers” event to raise awareness and some funds — co-sponsored by PEN America, the Centre for Inquiry, and the Asian American Writers Workshop, and part of the 2015 Brooklyn Book Festival. I didn’t imagine that Bangladesh would be in the same position the next year or, as we have seen, with a more diverse pool of targets. In 2016, the year less than half over, there have been horrifying killings of an English professor, two gay-rights activists, a Hindu tailor, and a Sufi leader (and these are just the ones that I’ve read about that seem to have similar profiles or the same chilling claims of responsibility).

Like many others, I’m furious at the government’s response, which has been lacking, ineffective — and worst of all — victim-blaming. This latter is so very dangerous because it gives leave to those who take up violence as an appropriate response to hurt sentiments. And it’s not just the government. It’s the larger society which is also to blame. I’ve heard many who say they believe in freedom of speech but only to a point — “They shouldn’t have been murdered, but they shouldn’t have said what they said either.” This again is tacit complicity with the murderers. I’m not overstating this at all. You cannot have it both ways. And you have to stand up for free speech. We must all support someone’s right to say what they like, no matter whether we agree with it or not. That’s Freedom of Expression 101 and Bangladeshis are getting a brutal education in it.

I was born two years after Bangladesh’s independence war, almost 10,000 kilometres away in Nigeria. I grew up there and in the States, but Bangladesh’s history is a part of my cultural memory. My father was a part of the 1952 student marches in Dhaka to protest Bangla language suppression and other ills of the Pakistani government. He was arrested and took his exams from jail. These and other protests eventually led to war in 1971. The haunting closure of the war when the Pakistanis rounded up hundreds of Bangladeshi intellectuals, professors, and civil servants and gunned them down is a story that every Bangladeshi knows. I cannot help but think of that now — in fury and fear.

I’m not sure that even a massive state crackdown on Islamist fundamentalist violence would stop this tide, but it would certainly help. And it would be the right thing to do, finally upholding some of the secular ideals the country began with 45 years ago. Would that our leaders step up to this crisis with grace and wisdom and honour and strength.

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