A BANGLADESHI STORYTELLER IN THE US – an interview


Born in Sylhet, Rumki Chowdhury‘s family moved to the United States in 1989 when she just turned three. She was in the Bronx, New York City, and later moved to Paterson, New Jersey. Her Feet Chime, Chowdhury’s first novel is the Bangladeshi version of the Cinderella story. Chowdhury had her BA in English with writing concentration from William Paterson University. In an exclusive interview for The Star she speaks to Ekram Kabir about her first novel.

Why did you want to write Her Feet Chime?
The Cinderella story is a fairytale that will continue to entice the youth. In fact, at age twelve, my literature teacher gave the class an assignment to break up into groups, each group with a different cultural version of the Cinderella story, and create a performance based around that story. That was the first time I encountered the story of the Korean Cinderella, the Egyptian Cinderella, the Caribbean Cinderella, and the African Cinderella among others. Years later, when I began my university career, I did not let go of the concept of the Cinderella story and decided to venture through my university library to search for the Bangali version. Instead, I found an Indian version. I then searched the internet, but could not find any publications of a Bangali Cinderella. However, I remember seeing a Bangla natok with actress, Ishitha, playing the role of a Cinderella-like character. Finding no sign of a publication of a Bangali Cinderella story, I created Her Feet Chime.

Was it really difficult for you to publish the novel, especially in a big market like the US?
I wrote Her Feet Chime three years ago. I decided to develop the story more with the feedback from my peers and professors until I felt it was complete and ready to present to the world. Interning at a publishing company, Simon and Schuster, in New York City, I hoped to learn more about the publishing world. I even had some editors look over my work to determine whether it was publishable or not, but they told me that I had skipped a step. Before my writing could be traditionally published, I needed a literary agent. My professors and editors recommended that I purchase Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents, both texts with the most up-to-date list of literary agents and the step-by-step directions on how to approach an agent. These books were beneficial in educating me about how the publishing industry works. As a result, I spent months contacting agents, but they all gave me the same answer, which was that my particular work was not exactly what they were looking for at the moment. I concluded that perhaps my work might not have been considered commercial enough. I also read that literary agents sometimes take priority upon works based on the recommendation of their clients; I contacted one of my professors who recommended me to her agent. However, I was still the last in the pool and have yet to gain a response. Agents give top priority to already-published authors before the novice ones. Then, I spoke to another one of my professors who had self-published her work with one of the world’s largest self-publishing companies, Author House. She had recommended that I try Author House and here I am, self-published. I do not wish to discourage anyone from going through the process of finding a literary agent and having his/her work published traditionally. In fact, I pray that an aspiring author takes advantage of the experience that the literary world provides of searching for an agent. In the near future, for my successive projects, I may try this process again.

Writers belonging to the Indian Diaspora in the West are making their presence felt. Why do you think writers of Bangladeshi origin in the US or UK are not making their mark as significantly? Do you think Bangladeshi-origin writers have potential of having a place in world literature? Apart from you, are any more Bangladeshi-Americans writing?
I believe there are many Bangladeshis breaking into the world of writing in media and books. Dr. Najma Chowdhury of Dhaka University, wrote in and edited Women and Politics Worldwide, published under Yale University Press New Haven and London. She gave me with the book when I was ten-years-old. At the time, I had yet to fully understand the value of such an accomplishment. It was an achievement after much diligence. Diligence is the key to any endeavour, especially when it comes to writing. When one has a literary idea, it is important that he/she wakes up every morning, excited to continue the project by writing the next paragraph, stanza, or chapter. It is also important to have one’s peers, teachers, and other professionals look over the work in order to help further it to its best potential. These are your readers, critics, and mentors. There is plenty of room in literature or media for Bangladeshi writers in any part of the world; it just takes dedication, diligence and sometimes, a bit of struggle.

Is the new generation of Bangladeshi Diaspora in the US becoming totally Americanised?
I always say that there are three aspects that may shape the person one becomes: the parents, friends, and/or personal will. In most cases, from what I have seen and personally experienced, there is a struggle when growing up as a Bangladeshi-American and trying to maintain the Bangali culture, while adapting to the American environment. William Faulkner, who wrote The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, said, “Write what you know.” Such struggles in life are the experiences which shape what the Bangladeshi Diaspora in the United States has to offer to the literary world.

From this distance, how would you portray Bangladesh if you ever write a novel in a Bangladeshi backdrop?
Her Feet Chimetakes place in Bangladesh. In order to create this setting, I journeyed through my personal memories of the times I had visited Bangladesh as a child, I asked my parents questions, and I did research on the web.

Have you ever considered writing a novel in the backdrop of 9/11? What would you write, then?
I have not considered writing a novel in the backdrop of 9/11. However, I have written essays and articles throughout my high school and university careers regarding my experiences of the aftermath. Because there was a lot of prejudice against Muslims and misconceptions developed about Islam, I took the advantage of writing and speaking about the religion in order to clarify any misconceptions. One would be surprised to know how embracing of the knowledge many people have become.

What are your next projects?
My next projects will most probably be determined after my post-graduate career. But I will continue writing fiction.

http://www.thedailystar.net/magazine/2008/07/04/interview.htm

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