Idolise powerful female authors? You’re going to love Tahmima Anam
The author wraps up her politically-charged Bengal triology with a tender love story
Tahmima Anam didn’t set out to write a love story. The sweeping historical saga that is her Bengal trilogy has grappled with gnarly issues of politics, religion and identity. Over ten years, the author has mined her own family history to chronicle the birth of a nation. When it came to the third and last book, however, Anam found that she was compelled to end not on an epic note, but an intimate one.
The Bones Of Grace is about Zubaida Haque, who meets Elijah Strong as a grad student in America. The year is 2014, but Zubaida still feels trapped by her family’s expectations and the course that’s already been set in motion for her in Bangladesh. So she returns to her childhood sweetheart and adoring parents back home. But this love story just won’t go away.
Anam says she had a harder time telling this story than the last two, partly because this one isn’t hemmed in by historical fact and partly because she too resisted the romance. “I think the major insight that I had much later was that the novel was going to be a letter from Zubaida to Elijah. I had to basically rewrite the whole thing and it set me back by about six months, but it was definitely the right thing to do. Once I did that, everything went much more quickly.”
Anam’s trilogy itself could be seen as a long love letter to her homeland. It is the somewhat autobiographical story of a family, told over three generations. Widowed young, Rehana Haque (The Golden Age) tries to hold on to her two children, who are first taken away from her and then swallowed up by the civil war. The Good Muslim is about the ways in which the conflict shapes Rehana’s children: Maya, the revolutionary and Sohail, the religious. Zubaida is Maya’s daughter. Anam’s family is similarly revolutionary: her grandfather was a Bengali nationalist jailed by the Pakistani military in the ’50s and her father was a freedom fighter. The Bones Of Grace is as much Zubaida’s story as it is Anam’s quiet closing of the door on a kind of ancestral home. She says, “I think I was already feeling like it was time to spread my wings a bit.”
The third book may be very different from the first two, but it’s just as impressive in the smallness of its details. This is a quality Anam has been criticised for in the past: too much of the personal, not enough of the political. A critic said about her novel on Bangladesh’s war of independence in which its oppressor Pakistan received support from the much-reviled American president, that it had “too much cooking and not enough Nixon”.
“That’s exactly what I was going for, because I was writing a book about a very domestic kind of scene within a larger political movement. There’s definitely less food in this book than in my previous ones,” says Anam. But there’s enough to gladden the heart of anyone who ever loved Enid Blyton. Rarely does a meal go undocumented in The Bones Of Grace. As she and Elijah get to know each other in Cambridge, Zubaida also discovers the joy of the breakfast sandwich; on a paleontological dig in Baluchistan, she marvels at the sweetness of a prune curry; in Chittagong to investigate the conditions in a shipbreaking company, she settles into her room by tucking into her lunch box of noodles. Besides making you slightly hungry, all this talk of food is terribly evocative. You may never have experienced the misery of a shipbreaking yard, but you’ll instantly recognise the bleakness of cold noodles.
Another thread that loops in and out of the narrative is the perspective of the outsider. It’s in Zubaida’s permanent, prickly awareness of being adopted and in the story of the fossil she is chasing, the Ambulocetus, a land-dwelling ancestor of the whale that inexplicably takes to swimming. Anam, whose own training as an anthropologist makes her a professional outsider of sorts, says, “Zubaida is fundamentally uncomfortable with who she is. She calls people like herself amphibians, people who tread the line between the sea and the land.”
Anam, who was one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013, is also ever sensitive to the ways in which people signal that they belong, especially through religious markings. “I think for my parents’ generation, outward manifestations of faith were not that common. Now there’s more of a performance of religiosity.”
As an immigrant, Anam is drawn to others like herself, other ‘inbetween species’. There’s an open friendliness to her, characteristic of someone who has moved around a lot: childhood in Dhaka, Paris, New York and Hong Kong, college in America and current home in London, which she shares with husband Roland Lamb, inventor of a high-tech version of the piano keyboard. Zubaida’s love, Elijah, is also a pianist and, echoing the author’s own love story, they too meet at Harvard. This easy porosity between her real life and fiction is what makes Anam’s retelling of history seem so close to the bone. It’s an intimacy gained with distance.
“I’m very privileged because I live in London, so I’m not subject to the same kinds of pressures I would have in Bangladesh… where my life would be threatened if I write certain things.” Since 2013, in Bangladesh, religious fundamentalists have hacked to death nine bloggers and other secular writers. For Anam, the attack on free speech has implications much closer home. In March, her father, freedom fighter and newspaper editor Mahfuz Anam was charged with several cases of sedition and libel by the Sheikh Hasina government. On the International New York Times website, where Anam is a contributor, she penned a war cry of sorts, “Dissent is in the blood, and now the story must be seen through.”
As she follows with worry and pride the progress of #StandWithMahfuz, a campaign supporting her father and freedom of press in Bangladesh, Anam is allowing herself a short break from novel-writing. She might work on a short story later, but first, she has the unenviable task of picking, along with fellow judges, the winner of this year’s Man Booker International prize, to be announced this month. This has involved devouring 155 books in four months, which for a devoted reader is nice work if you can get it. Navigating the gamut from the 600-page A Strangeness In My Mind by Orhan Pamuk to the Brazilian Cup Of Rage, told in seven sentences by Raduan Nassar, Anam had to step out of her comfort zone. It’s the best way to read, she says. “I think there’s a false divide between ‘easy’ books and ‘difficult’ books, [the notion] that a thriller or a beach read is somehow easier on your brain. In fact, a lot of the best-written novels are very, very easy to read because they tell you something about your life that you always kind of knew. The pleasure of that complexity and diversity is unparalleled.”
The Bones Of Grace is certainly no beach read, steeped as it is in a kind of restless melancholy. There are hard realities here, like the plight of construction workers in Dubai or the hellish lives of labourers who dismantle ships with their bare hands. But light still filters through, and that’s entirely due to the love stories; not just the romantic kind, but also the ones that binds one generation to the next. Anam says she struggled with the title till the last minute. “It was my husband who gave me the idea after he’d read the draft. The ship as it’s being taken apart looks very much like it’s being stripped to its bones. In a more abstract sense, [the book is] about the fundamentals of grace — there are these essential components to our humanity, and they are the bones of grace.”
The Bones Of Grace (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India) is out this month
Photograph: Keiran Perry