Shazia Omar’s first novel, Like a Diamond in the Sky, was published by Zubaan in August 2008. She spoke to TRISHA GUPTA about drugs, being Bangladeshi and the English literary scene in Dhaka.
Your first book is about heroin junkies in Dhaka. Why did you choose the subject?
A group of my friends in Bangladesh are recovering addicts. They’re beautiful people, but they have such dark pasts, and they’ve had such a struggle to get where they are. There’s a growing problem of drugs in Bangladesh, cutting across all classes – depending on what you can afford. But nobody talks about it: even in elite society, good schools, it’s completely taboo. Parents don’t recognize signs or know how to deal with addicts. I grew up in Canada where we had drug awareness classes from Grade 4! So I wanted two things: to share the story of the struggle that my friends had been through, and for people to start talking, to know more about what an addiction is: how you prevent it, how you get out of it.
How do you see your relationship to Bangladesh? Since there are so few novels in English coming out of Bangladesh, do you feel that you’re pushed to represent the country to the outside world?
After Canada, I spent the last two years of high school in Bangladesh, before going to the US for college. Then I worked in New York and London before going back to Bangladesh four years ago. I hope people aren’t going to think that this is the entirety of Bangladesh after reading one novel. I’ve been told that I haven’t been given a fair representation to Bangladesh – and no, not everyone in Bangladesh is a drug addict! But that’s the world I tapped into in this novel.
I personally do feel a certain sense of responsibility, although I don’t think writers have to. I think being both an outsider and an insider is a good thing: the window I gave my readers in this novel is an insider’s perspective that even most people in Bangladesh don’t have access to. On the other hand, having lived abroad, I question a lot of things that maybe people who live there have become desensitized to: like poverty on the streets and the question of whether things have to be this way.
What kind of research did the book involve?
I did my masters’ in Social Psychology in London, and I worked on representations of happiness amongst ultra-poor women. I spent a month in Bangladesh, understanding what they believe happiness to be and what their different sources of happiness were.. That led to the character of Falani, the dealer in the basti. She’s the only happy character in the novel – and that’s because of faith. I also spent two months in a rehabiliation centre in Bombay – that was earlier, when I was exploring whether I wanted to pursue that as a career.
What’s the English writing scene like in Bangladesh?
It’s starting out. It’s very fresh. Nothing like India, or even Pakistan which has done very well. There’s been one novel by Tahmima Annam, and there’s a book of short stories coming out this year by Mahmud Rahman, which is being published by Penguin India. I’m part of a Dhaka writers’ group called WritersBlock, about ten people who will all be publishing books over the next five years. There’s a vibrant Bangla literary scene – though there are few young voices – but the readership for English is very small. If you had a festival – like the Jaipur Litfest – in Dhaka, there would be some five people attending. Thankfully Indian publishers have opened up their doors to Bangladeshi writers.