An Unwitting Pariah: Kathryn Hummel in Conversation with Kaiser Haq

1 August 2018

KHummel: You have lived in a particularly interesting era in Bangladesh.

KHaq: Yeah! Well, Bangladesh came into being. It came into being as I came of age [laughs].

KHummel: Not every writer can claim such a rite of passage, I think. Would you consider the Bangladesh we’re in now as postcolonial or do you think that the colonisation is ongoing?

KHaq: Postcolonial does not mean that global power politics has ended. In what sense; how is the system working? Those are questions that can be explored, but it’s also changing with the times. Power playing is in the heirarchisation, globally. Even racism is there. Very strange that when the twenty-first century suddenly came, you still have to deal with those things. Postcolonial does not mean liberated. It’s just another situation that is perhaps more complicated. Postcolonial is actually more confusing and more complicated than our original situation.

KHummel: I noticed in my research that you were the editor of a volume of contemporary Indian poetry. Did that include Bangladeshi poetry?

KHaq: No. It happened in a very strange way: I was on a Senior Fulbright in Milwaukee and got in touch with this publisher. My proposal was for an anthology of contemporary South Asian poetry. They said, ‘South Asia doesn’t mean anything to the readers. If you make it restricted to India, that would make sense.’ And I just did that. Then a publisher friend in Britain told me, ‘Well, you should have put in a section at the end with some poetry from the other countries of what used to be India.’

KHummel: I thought it was odd that you were the editor of a book of only Indian poetry.

KHaq: When it came out in 1990, South Asian literature and Indian literature in English hadn’t yet come into focus in American academia. Now I think that India more has a bigger presence in the curriculum.

KHummel: You’ve lived outside Bangladesh for significant periods. Were you ever tempted to become part of the diaspora?

KHaq: I did think. But, I never tried in a serious way. I mean, I’m a very lackadaisical sort of person [laughs]. Honestly. I got into teaching because I was offered the job. I was loitering in the corridors of the university after my MA. The results were about to come out. The Head of Department called me and asked me if I wanted to go into teaching. I said OK. So he gave me what they called an ad hoc appointment and I started teaching straight away. If that hadn’t happened I think I would have drifted into journalism and that would have been a totally different trajectory.

Then after I started teaching, everyone started to talk: go to the west for a higher degree. At first I was about to go to Canada, actually, I got a TA-ship in Alberta and then at the same time, I’d applied for a Commonwealth Scholarship. I put in the application and forgot about it and suddenly I realised the interview was that afternoon, so I rushed to the interview and then I got the scholarship. So when I got the Commonwealth Scholarship to Britain I took that because it was a better deal than the Alberta thing. The war was going on and I thought maybe this is the end of formal education; if this war will go on it will be a life changing experience. That didn’t happen; then I came back to my studies. In a way, all my life, I’ve been sort of drifting really. With minimal efforts to steer in any direction. I’ve never sort of really tried heart and soul for something. In a way I interpret this as a kind of aesthetic attitude [laughs]. You observe life, you observe and contemplate. You surmise.

KHummel: Do you ever imagine that other trajectory, if you had gone into journalism?

KHaq: Well, the road not taken. At one time my first wife (she was an artist) did feel more comfortable in a western set-up. We were on the point of immigrating to New Zealand when she was diagnosed with cancer. I don’t know what that would have been like. At first it was Australia and then New Zealand was in the pipeline. Then she died. I remained here. I didn’t take that up. But throughout all this, whatever I have written has been rooted here and at the same time it has been the work of someone who is open to experience, open to the world, ideas and influences from everywhere.

KHummel: In that way do you feel an affinity with Shamsur Rahman who never left Bangladesh but was so much influenced by the world outside? I was re-reading your most recent translation of his work and in the introduction you make the point of the erudition of someone who’d never left his own country.

KHaq: Well, Nissim Ezekial for example. Born in Bombay, went to Britain and came back. I have a lot of admiration for, a sense of fellow feeling with, Ezekial. I mean there’s that ironic stance.

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