In Iffat Nawaz’s debut novel, 1971 is not an open wound

Collage: Maisha Syeda, Orchid Chakma

Dhaka-born and based in Pondicherry, India, Iffat Nawaz worked as a humanitarian and development worker alongside writing for The Daily Star's Star Lifestyle, as well as Huffington Post, Zubaan Books, Himal Southasian and The Indian Quarterly. Her debut novel, Shurjo's Clan (Penguin India, November 2022), uses magic realism to conjure Shurjomukhi's freedom fighter uncles, who were martyred in Sylhet's tea gardens during the 1971 Liberation War, and her grandmother, who took her own life shortly after the 1947 Partition. 

Shurjo's Clan will be available in Bangladesh from November 22, 2022. In a conversation with DS Books editor Sarah Anjum Bari, Iffat Nawaz discusses her inspirations, the impact of her late father's photography on her storytelling, and why magic realism pervades stories of the subcontinent's history. 

How did you begin writing? 

My father was a photographer and he had a strong impact on me in terms of reading, writing, and storytelling through different visual media. In fact I wrote about this for The Daily Star—In 1994, I had just graduated to Class 10 in Viqarunnisa and we were in the middle of a vacation. He had a heart attack at age 40 and he died in front of us on an airplane. We had lived in America before, so my mother decided shortly after that she would want to raise us there. It was really tough because not only was it that the closest person to me had passed, but it also felt like exile, because I wanted to come back to Dhaka but I was too young to make those decisions. So one of the outputs for me became writing. 

I used to write for high school magazines and newspapers. I started gaining confidence when I started getting published. It stayed with me even though I didn't study literature or writing. Right after college, when I started working in development, I sent something to Raffat Apa (the editor of Star Lifestyle). She liked it and said, how about we keep this on? So for 10 years I wrote this column called 'Under A Different Sky' for The Daily Star. I want to thank The Daily Star because if it weren't for that, I wouldn't have picked up a habit of writing regularly. 

I have written three other novels without publishing them—I was very unsure of what to put out there. There was a lot of grievance and baggage; it helped me get it out of my system and come to my own. 

Four years ago I was working in Nigeria with the Boko Haram issue, from that I went into the Rohingya crisis. So from development I had gone into humanitarian work and it was way more taxing. I wanted a break. Instead of going back to DC, I came to India where my grandparents were from. Around that time I was doing a lot of vipassana meditation. There was a spiritual calling—reaching 40, the age at which my father had passed; there was my writing. I moved to India very serendipitously. 

So here I started writing. I let the draft be for a year and a half after finishing it. It was super hard and dark. I wanted to slowly figure out how to talk about darkness without being dark, how to present a war story and its impact on the present generation without looking back so much as looking forward. 

I wrote the new draft during the Covid. It's simpler. I realized, to write complex things I must write with simple words. 

Why move ahead with this particular book? 

Whenever I tried to write something else, these stories would somehow come out of me instead. Two of my chachas were freedom fighters. They were among the first waves of muktijoddhas who were martyred. I grew up seeing their photos hanging on the walls of our living room. I was always under their presence. I realized that without it being another Liberation War story—it is partly that but not entirely so—I wouldn't be able to tell any of my own stories until I told their stories first. 

So it's dedicated to my two uncles and my father. 

Those of us who moved from West Bengal to East Pakistan, I felt like we did not tell a lot of our stories because we didn't want to be othered. We love Bangla and Bangladesh so much, we wanted to focus on that and not focus so much on the issues of borders. So I wondered how I could present this side of the story as well—how a little girl growing up would feel about Bangladesh. 

Shurjo's Clan takes place in two different timelines: the regular daytime life in Dhaka, and the nighttime, when Shurjo's martyred uncles and deceased grandmother join them for festive family affairs. Why do you think magic realism plays such a big part in historical novels of the subcontinent? 

Populated countries like ours—even South or Central American countries—are very close and our energies mix in a different manner. We analyse things differently on a community level. We talk about emotions very bluntly. I feel like it makes more sense to talk about emotions with a little bit of magic. In our heads we convince ourselves that there is more. There are also more believers in this part of the continent—more gods and goddesses, as we grow up with Sufism, with Mayan cultures; it's in our soil. 

In developing countries we're also dealing with struggle, and to deal with struggle on such a raw level, you end up making tales to survive better. That heat that we have—whether its injustice, whether it's struggle or emotions—is best explained through magic realism. 

The plot also focuses on a sunflower, and the idea of looking towards light. Can you tell us more about the book? 

I have to mention my devotion to Sri Aurobindo's work. He talks a lot about atavism and the past, what you carry forward and how you heal from it. My book contains the significance of the spirits of all the flowers. Naming her after the sunflower was to remind me that no matter what, Shurjomukhi needs to turn towards light, towards the future. The book was initially called Shurjomukhi's Clan—I wanted to lead with a Bangla name—but it was too long. Shurjomukhi is lovingly called Shurjo in the novel. 

The book is separated into three parts. The first part is in Ganderia, Old Dhaka, with a small bit in India; the second part is in the US. The third part is the US and Dhaka. The parts about Shurjomukhi's grandmother show her as a young girl, a late teenager, who has to leave her motherland during the Partition. We see how she develops as a character. The river here changes from the Ganga into the Padma and then Buriganga, where she ends up in the end. 

With stories such as these which deal with history, there are memories and narratives that are subjective. How did you navigate that? 

I really had to work on it character by character and figure out who's what. I had to work through the collected memories, the fragmented memories, the imagined memories. I wanted to piece it together so I could include all of it. 

And I didn't want any one character to feel like another. They might have gone through similar experiences, but how we go through similar experiences and learn different things from it says a lot. For example, being a muktijoddha does not mean that one is brave all the time. It can mean that someone was brave on one day. So I wanted to create a story not about heroes but about the hidden parts of it. 

It was tough because there are family histories. One character is very much like my father's. I had to separate myself from the emotions of it. Interestingly I felt like I was almost in communication with him and his brothers in my head and my heart. 

Baba, like many freedom fighters, didn't like talking about the experience of the war. I wanted to explore the effect of not talking about the war. 

How has the novel changed over the years as you were writing it? And what was it like writing during a pandemic? 

It became simpler. I think I shed a lot of things through the first drafts that needed to be forgotten. I've taken out all religion from it. I didn't want it to be about Pakistan, Bangladesh, India. History was more present in the first draft, whereas now I'm not telling things but retelling things in terms of what these events do to an individual and collectively to a society. I had to soften it a lot. 

The struggle was—when you become simple, do people think you're too happy to write? Is it too plain? I used to want to be dramatic and strong with the writing. I've become more subtle now. 

Writing in the pandemic—it was good and bad both. The quietness, I loved. It was tough too, because at times I was writing about emotions which demanded more human connection. I missed my mom and my brother. 

Has your father's photography impacted your style of storytelling? 

Absolutely. I love photography myself and I used to travel a lot. I've gone to six continents and half of them were solo journeys. I've taken a lot of photographs through them. Some of them were in crisis zones and in different terrains. If it weren't for my father's journey, I wouldn't be able to sit together with all of these things. It's the same with my writing. It's very visual. 

It's important for me to see it, to write it. 

Who are your literary influences? 

I am a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. I was paralysed with emotions for a few months after reading it. And then Kurt Vonnegut—I love the simplicity of his wording and his sarcasm. I love Jennifer Egan and the way she weaves stories and works with different characters. 

Any advice for aspiring creative writers in Bangladesh? 

Put yourself out there and believe that someone will like your story because you like it. As writers we feel very alone at times. Perhaps the way I express my truth is unique to me, but my truth is also shared. None of our truths are just our own. None of us should feel so alone. There are people who will read your stories—be it a friend or an agent. 

I really want to give a shout out to my agent, Kanishka Gupta, who is coming to Dhaka Lit Fest actually. I sent him the manuscript and he said yes. So with an agent, it's almost like a publisher in that they have to say yes. 

More and more people are coming to the publishing world these days, looking to work with good authors. So finding the right person to present you is important—someone who is working with Bangladeshi authors. And hopefully those of us who have gotten published will be more willing and open to helping other authors.