I found Tahmima Anam's novel A Golden Age (HarperCollins, 2007) at the public library while browsing the shelves. I'd not heard of either Anam nor the novel, but I am happy to say that I highly enjoyed reading this novel.
Anam's novel centers on Rehana Haque, a young widow with two children—a son named Sohail and a daughter named Maya—in the city of Dhaka in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The novel begins in 1959 when, after the death of her husband Iqbal, Rehana loses custody of her children to her husband's brother Faiz and his wife who are childless. Rehana’s brother-in-law takes the children across India to Lahore in West Pakistan. A bereft Rehana struggles hard to change her situation so that she can prove to the courts that she can support her children, and she succeeds in bringing them back within a couple of years. After the brief back story in 1959, told often with little "letters" that Rehana writes to her dead husband to explain what has happened with their children, the novel shifts to the revolutionary year of 1971 when Rehana and her children have been back together for a decade. The crisis of Bengali self-determination against Pakistani rule—the center of national government in West Pakistan has exploited the resources of East Pakistan without offering them much support in return, in effect treating them as an outlying colony rather than as an actual part of the nation—comes to a head that year, and Anam thoughtfully explores the political, economic, and cultural issues through the revolutionary spirit of Sohail and Maya in contrast with the more familial worries of Rehana. Though Rehana and her children are Muslim, they refuse to reject their Hindu neighbors and friends or to accede to a national culture that insists only on Muslim identity (such as speaking only Urdu).
The novel is very beautifully written; Anam's prose is very poetic in its descriptions of the natural landscape, city spaces, and the physical horrors of war violence and refugee life. Anam also describes people and actions in a figurative register. While reading, I twittered a few sentences like, "The horizon of his chest," and "Her hollow womb shouted its presence." Anam's explorations of relationships and motivations is especially nuanced. She gives us a picture of Sohail and his friends—the young men of the revolutionary guerilla army—that yokes the rhetoric of liberation to more mundane things like close friendships and romantic love.
Later in the novel, Rehana visits her daughter across the border in Calcutta where a refugee camp has taken in thousands of displaced peoples. As Rehana crosses the region of Bengal, bisected into Indian and Pakistani/Bangla halves, Anam offers this rich description of the landscape:
The sky over Bengal is empty. No mountains interrupt it; no valleys, no hills, no dimples in the landscape. It is flat, like a swamp, or a river that has nowhere to go. The eye longs for some blister on the horizon, some marker of distance, but finds none. Occasionally there are clouds; often there is rain, but these are only colours: the laundry-white of the cumulus, the black mantle of the monsoon.To get from Dhaka to Calcutta, Rehana undertakes a transnational journey that reminds her of the shared landscape connecting the two cities. Here, the natural world resonates with a kind of wartime senselessness, a landscape that is brutal yet unfeeling.
Beyond the city there are no beautiful buildings that might sink in the heat or wilt under generations of rain. The promise of the land is not in the cities—their sky-touching glamour, the tragedy of their ruin—but in the vast unfolding plains, this empty sky, this stretching horizon. Every year the land will turn to sea as it disappears under the spell of water, and then prevail again, as if by magic, and this refrain, this looping repetition, is the archive of its long, flood-turned history.
Anam is a Bangladeshi writer whose diasporic trajectories have taken her from Bangladesh to the United States, France, and England. Her web page offers this biographical statement:
Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1975. She attended Mount Holyoke College and Harvard University, where she earned a PhD in Social Anthropology in 2005. Although she was raised in Paris, New York City, and Bangkok, she maintains close ties with Bangladesh, and her father, Mahfuz Anam, edits the country’s largest circulating English daily newspaper, The Daily Star. Tahmima’s writing has been published in Granta Magazine and The New Statesman. She lives in London.Like the work of other writers of the South Asian Anglophone diaspora, Anam's novel is concerned with the aftermath of partition in the subcontinent. Her focus on the formation of the independent country of Bangladesh from the ashes of a revolutionary war between East and West Pakistan in 1971 puts her narrative in a slightly different historical moment and political situation than the more common stories of the creation of separate Islamic Pakistan and Hindu India in 1949. I actually did not know (or remember learning) that Pakistan consisted of two parts located on opposite sides of India. This map from Wikipedia shows the location of East and West Pakistan:
East Pakistan was a province of Pakistan but regionally, culturally, and historically had more in common with the state of West Bengal in India (in fact, the common language in East Pakistan was Bengali rather than Urdu, which was the national language of Pakistan.
One of the things that this novel reminds me of is how difficult it is to teach many Asian/American texts in the classroom because there is so much historical background necessary to set the stage for understanding the texts in the first place. And once you spend a lot of time talking about the context, students tend to gravitate towards only talking about that context rather than about the novel’s representation of that context or about the novel in general as a work of imaginative fiction. I often find this balance between context and text hard to strike in classes. Though my paper assignments always ask students to consider the language and narrative of texts, there are always a chunk of students whose papers end up reading more like history research papers. If any teachers on this community have thoughts on how to address this imbalance, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts!
Anam has a forthcoming novel (August 2011) titled The Good Muslim that I am looking forward to reading!