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With the success of novels such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake,” Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane” and, of course, Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” South Asia and its immigrants have clearly caught the interest of a contemporary Western readership. This week, first-time author Tahmima Anam adds her tale to the mix with the Stateside publication of “A Golden Age,” the first in a planned trilogy.
Set in and during the years leading up to the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence, the book follows the Haque family as they grapple with the violence and chaos of their country’s separation from Pakistan. Rehana Haque, the story’s centrifugal force, is a young widow who must work to rebuild her life and reclaim her children after her husband leaves her penniless. When war breaks out, her fragile family existence is thrown into turmoil as her son, Sohail, joins the freedom fighters, while she and her daughter, Maya, shelter resistance members.
“There was a lot of conflict for people because Pakistan was formed as a Muslim country and breaking away was kind of like betraying…a Muslim country,” explains Anam, 32, who was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but grew up in Paris, New York and Thailand.
“People were worried that because Bangladesh wanted to be its own country, it meant that we didn’t want to have a Muslim identity. And I think that has kind of persisted as a question about our identity….Now people turn to religion because they feel that should be the major thing that makes them who they are. And then there are others who think we have a cultural identity that is distinct from our Muslim identity and they want Bangladesh to be a secular country, as I do.”
Though a work of fiction, “A Golden Age” benefits from Anam’s intensive doctoral research. As an anthropology Ph.D. student at Harvard, she traveled around Bangladesh collecting oral accounts of peoples’ experiences during the civil war and soon realized she had material for a novel, as well. Her greatest inspiration came from her maternal grandmother, who, as a young widow in Dhaka, sheltered freedom fighters during the period.
“My dad was a national debate champion, so they sent him to India to go to all the universities and rally support for the Independence movement,” explains Anam. “He joined the army but he didn’t actually fight because the war ended before he was commissioned. My mother was in Dhaka…and has a lot of memories of that house and of the people who hid.”
Her family left Bangladesh when Anam was two years old and her father started working for the United Nations. Once the country became a functioning democracy, they moved back and her father, a Marxist, started a politically neutral English daily newspaper, while her mother became a human rights activist. Anam went to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and now lives in London.
“A Golden Age” was released in England and Bangladesh last year to much praise, though Anam’s toughest critic, her grandmother, offered some revisionist stabs.
“I was in London when the book came out there so I hired someone to read it to her,” says Anam. “I called up this woman and said, ‘Well, how’s it going?’ And she said, ‘Oh, it’s going really slowly because she keeps interrupting me and saying, “Oh that’s not really how it happened!”‘ She thought it was about her.”