23 November 2012

Commonwealth Writers at Hay Festival Dhaka, 15-17 November 2012

Hay Festival Dhaka was an exhilarating two day literary feast hosted by the Bangla Academy, the home of Bangla literature and culture since 1955.  Enthralled audiences enjoyed the mix of Bangla and English poetry and prose, music, dance and drama. From the enthusiastic volunteers in their specially designed saris and pink t-shirts, to the bookshops and publishers in bamboo stalls and the adda on the lawn, Commonwealth Writers was privileged to be there as a global partner of Hay Festival.


Writers Block

Writers Block is a collective of 15 Dhaka-based authors writing in English. The group includes poets, short story writers and novelists, who, finding limited opportunities for writers in English to be published in Bangladesh, have produced an anthology of their writing, ‘What the Ink?’ The group meet every two weeks to share and critique each other’s work. At Hay Festival Dhaka members of Writers Block read extracts from their writing; a number attended the Commonwealth Writers Short Story surgery and others were on stage in different events during the festival.

Shazia Omar from Writers Block on the grounds of the Bangla Academy


Shehan Karunatilaka

2012 Commonwealth Book Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka took part in a cricket discussion with novelist Kamila Shamsie, writer, translator and editor Khademul Islam and moderator, Sandip Roy. It was a lively session which provoked many cricketing questions and comments from the audience. Earlier Shehan was in conversation with writer and translator Fakrul Alam and read extracts from his prizewinning book, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew.


Lifelines Launch

Zubaan books launched its anthology of contemporary fiction by Bangladeshi women, Lifelines, 15 stories from writers in Bangladesh and the diaspora. It’s a collection of fresh new voices from a new generation of writers under 40, bringing authenticity not exoticism, writing about the things which matter to them. The session told the story of how the anthology came into being and why it’s written in English.

The event included readings by Sharbari Ahmed and Shazia Omar, two of the writers featured in the anthology.  There followed a discussion with writer and Lifelines editor Farah Ghuznavi, Bangla author Selina Hossain, academic Firdous Azim, which was moderated by writer and translator Mahmud Rahman. The panel touched on the rich variety of stories, the cosmopolitan nature of the anthology, the situation of writing in English in Bangladesh, and how to reach an audience, culminating in an animated debate, in English and Bangla, around the issue of writing about sex and sexuality in Bangladesh.

Selina Hossain, Firdous Azim and Farah Ghuznavi at the Lifelines Launch


Becoming a Writer

Commonwealth Writers Lucy Hannah was on a panel with British author Philip Hensher and Bangladesh’s leading poet, Kaiser Haq, moderated by Shazia Omar, to coincide with the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, now open for entry. The writers gave personal advice on writing and answered general and specific questions from an engaged audience. Authenticity of voice, fresh perspectives in familiar subjects, start with something small, and include something unexpected and surprising, were just a few of the useful tips from the experienced panel.

Shazia Omar, Kaiser Haq, Lucy Hannah and Philip Hensher



Throughout all the Commonwealth Writers sessions in Dhaka, the issue of translation came up in various forms. There is a need to translate Bangla writers into English to ensure their works are available internationally, but there is a dearth of good quality translators. In order to be a good translator, you need to be a good writer of English fiction, Bangladeshi writer and translator Mahmud Rahman told Commonwealth Writers. Mahmud spent five years translating Mahmudul Haque’s iconic novel Kolo Borof (Black Ice) in between his other commitments. Many translators are writing their own fiction for example.

There is a need to train writers in translation skills in Bangladesh. Many young translators and potential translators approached Commonwealth Writers during Hay Festival to request help. Mahmud suggested a grant scheme, in partnership with one of the major publishers, to encourage translated fiction. Experiences from other countries could perhaps be replicated in the Bangladeshi context. India, for example, has a long tradition of publishing in translation.

Bangla author Selina Hossain

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