An Unwitting Pariah: Kathryn Hummel in Conversation with Kaiser Haq

1 August 2018

KHummel: I was going to ask if your satirical tone has become sharper as you’ve continued to write – it seems less good-humoured, more biting these days.

KHaq: Is it?

KHummel: Well, I’d like to know your opinion.

KHaq: I think I’m in a sense moulting, as it were. Nearing seventy and having lived for six decades, I think it’s time to sort of position oneself in a slightly different way in relation to the world.

KHummel: How are you doing that?

KHaq: By turning philosophical [laughs]. That’s what usually happens in old age.

KHummel: Do you think that’s a concern of mature poets?

KHaq: [laughs] I think it does come naturally.

KHummel: I recall those lines from ‘Published in the Streets of Dhaka’ where the narrator says to Mr Vidal: ‘Here I’ll stay.’ When did you feel that emphasis, or was it just in response to those comments of Gore Vidal?

KHaq: I do feel things can drive you out of your country but I do want a certain kind of life to be possible here. A literary life, a lively literary scene – that is missing now as the city has become accommodation and people just sigh in relief when they get home at the end of the day. It wasn’t like that: it was a small town, a small city and that was a part of everybody’s life. Friends would just get together and spend some time, chinwagging. Writers would do that and I think it’s important for them to do that, especially poets. Interestingly, people think of the poet as a lonely figure. Poets are very gregarious. Poets need to get together at places, in pubs: they love to talk. Novelists, on the other hand, have to isolate themselves. Because otherwise you can’t manage those narratives. You have to work, you have to be at your desk a certain number of hours of every day.

KHummel: Regarding Orientalism – do you feel the influence of it or are you subject to it when you move outside South Asia? Do you think you are considered an exotic figure?

KHaq: It is there, the attitude. It won’t change very easily. Orientalism, in these kinds of classic cases, is tied to power. The global power structure is still dominated by the former colonisers and the production of knowledge, too, is in their hands. So it’s there very much. And the research they sponsor – you have third world intellectuals keen to do research, with sponsorships. Again the framework is laid down by the donor. Often, with a lot of this stuff, you do the work and it doesn’t go your way but to the agency. You’re just among one of the contributors. Subjects that are chosen have a connection with global power structure. For example, in Nepal, the study of the water resources is very important. There’s a lot of foreign funding because our water comes from there. In these things, again, there’s another form of Orientalism.

KHummel: I’m thinking of one person in particular, a political activist in Bangladesh. In fact I told him I was going to be talking to you and he thinks you’re a good bloke but your writing in English doesn’t do much for Bangladesh or its culture. He’s far left politically and I remember when I was doing my PhD research here, he said the same thing: ‘What does it mean for us? You’re just doing it for yourself.’ That’s the kind of issue he has – going back to your writing in English.

KHaq: I would like English to be taught properly in every school. And then the country would benefit from that. If we send labourers out with better schooling, they’d be earning more. And the far left is no longer a factor. No, it’s not. What far left?

KHummel: I mean incredibly nationalistic, wanting to expunge all this foreign presence and go back to Bangladesh as a self-sufficient entity.

KHaq: That is something that is not possible. Our lives are subject to so many forces. Everybody’s life in any country. The left is the Communist party. The party leader is my school mate, he was two years my senior. His son has just joined ULAB as a lecturer [laughs]. His daughter-in-law did a Masters at Warwick. The 60s was when extreme left sort of still made sense in that it had a political presence. A lot of my friends were Maoist party members, but now they’re about to enter the right.

It’s impossible for any country to isolate itself now. Look at Myanmar, Burma: it was isolated for so long but has now been forced to open up. China has penetrated, they hope to build a deep sea port and have a special interest. Everyone has an interest in getting in: India, America. When Myanmar opens up economically it’s going to change the entire picture of the region – it’s six times the size of Bangladesh but with only one third of the population.

KHummel: And less now with the Rohingya expulsion.

KHaq: If they do open up economically they will have to import workers from Bangladesh [laughs]. We’re right next door. And if they do open up, this fascist definition of nationality, it’s thrown overboard. I mean, only certain ethnic groups can qualify for citizenship. And this is in the twenty-first century.

KHummel: Sheikh Mehedi Hasan wrote that South Asian poets have a tendency to veer away from traditional forms into free verse. Do you find the form might be experimental but the language is still formal?

KHaq: In general it is Standard English because English is not one of the languages of the country. I don’t speak Queen’s English but I do speak Maharajah’s English [laughs]. I try to float this term ‘Maharajah’s English’ for the English that is spoken by educated South Asians.

KHummel: Did you coin that phrase?

KHaq: Yes, I have coined it and I think you should seize the opportunity to be the first to put it in print. Within the forms of Standard English it’s possible to find one’s own voice. That is more important than style. Style is something that can be studied objectively – the kind of diction used and idiom used – but the voice of the poet is more important. There’s an individual voice that articulates the poet’s experience in all its peculiarities, its specificities.

KHummel: When do you think that emerges?

KHaq: I think it’s for the reader to figure out.

KHummel: Did you recognise it when it happened to you?

KHaq: No, but I hope I have a recognisable voice. Somebody else can relieve it.

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