Truth And Reality

Iffat Nawaz discusses the role of fiction in telling the truth of her story in Shurjo’s Clan

By Usraat Fahmidah

Iffat Nawaz’s debut novel, Shurjo’s Clan (Penguin Random House, 2022), is an examination of the ways past trauma shrouds the present. Shurjomukhi, the story’s protagonist, is born after the war. She grows up in an asymmetrical house in Gendaria where she spends her evenings with her family. Her evenings become magical as her two uncles who were martyred during the ’71 war, Shoku and Bhiku, join and so does her grandmother Shantori, who committed suicide when her mother, Bela, was an infant. They seemingly emerge from the “Unknown” world.

So, Shurjo grows up navigating two realities: One in the daytime, where she adheres to the rules of “Known” world and avoids discussing her deceased family, another in the evening, where her uncles and grandmother remain very much alive and join her from the “Unknown” world.

The use of magical realism in this book is striking and captivating. Through the prism of magical realism, the novel vividly traces the contours of history and its long-lasting impact on Shurjo’s family.

I spoke with Iffat Nawaz over email about her thoughts on the last 10 months of Shurjo’s Clan, use of magic realism as a medium to explore the impact of past traumas in the book, and her experiences in the world of publishing.

Nearly a year has passed since the publication of your debut novel Shurjo’s Clan. How would you describe your emotions at this point in time?

Your question had me reflecting on the last 10 months or so since my novel Shurjo’s Clan was launched. I don’t think any artist/writer is ever sure of how their work will be perceived when shared. Yet, out of some compulsion, we put ourselves out there. In the first months after publishing, I think I was just riding the wave of whatever was being created naturally outside of me. Shurjo’s Clan made the best-seller list in India in its second or third week, and I couldn’t believe it. I think there was a certain high that the media reviews and the literature fests brought on. But soon I realized this novel’s journey is separate from me; it has its own destiny and purpose. So, a part of me has also worked on detaching myself from it and sending it love whenever I remember to. But all in all, there is a sense of being understood, and I feel very grateful inside.

The book extensively explores themes of identity and belonging. How have your own sentiments about identity and belonging impacted the way you’ve depicted the protagonist, Shurjo?

Like Shurjo, the protagonist of my book, I too am a product of the post-1971 generation of Bangladesh. Therefore, many of the identity and belonging aspects with which Shurjo grapples – the Known and the Unknown worlds, carrying the weight and wealth inherited from our ancestors who had been through wars and migrations, and imbibing a new nation’s enthusiasm and newly established ways – all such things are what we grew up with as well. So Shurjo’s feelings and her specific existential questions are also partly mine.

In Shurjo’s Clan, the use of magical realism is striking. The concept of familial dinners in the Unknown world where deceased relatives join the living is both intriguing and emotionally charged. Could you elaborate on the significance of these evening reunions and what made you decide to use that as a medium to explore the impact of past traumas on the present?

When I was growing up in the late 70s and 80s in Dhaka, and in Bangladesh in a broader sense, the essence of the war, the ones who were lost during it, along with our Bangladeshi/Bengali values, aspirations, and principles, were frequently spoken of. As a child, we did not understand everything that was being said on television about the martyrs of ’71 or the Biranganas. We did not know that the images we saw of intellectuals being slaughtered were absolutely age-inappropriate for us to look at as children. But we were exposed to it all. To me, it all seemed like magic; I felt that those who had left us were still around in their photos, tales, in the bullet marks on walls, in the piano or stacks of books they left behind in their attic, and in the sadness and grief of their parents. Overall, our longing for the ones who were lost kept the presence of the deceased more potent. The “shohids” felt very much alive in that time, and that is what I wanted to bring into Shurjo, that sense of magic that I felt as a child.

Could you discuss the literary influences that have contributed to molding your writing style for your debut novel?

I used to be a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, especially One Hundred Years of Solitude and Chronicle of a Death Foretold. And then there’s Kurt Vonnegut – I love the simplicity of his writing and his sarcasm. I also love Jennifer Egan and the way she weaves stories and works with different characters.

What was the journey like discovering and developing your narrative voice?

It’s been a very interesting and revealing journey for me. At first, when I started writing in my early 20s, they were short 700-word pieces or so for a weekly column called “Under a Different Sky” for The Daily Star. These columns were personal and rather random. But when I started writing longer forms, I had to enter on a new journey. I wrote a novel in 2014 that never saw the light of day because I never shared it with anyone. I felt like the writing was bringing out stuff that needed to be purged, and I was getting to see what I liked and did not like about my writing, expressions, ideas, etc. Over time, I tried to bring more truth into my life, more honesty. I tried to find calmness, and then a much simpler voice with more clarity came. It’s all very new to me still, and I am just learning about the process of creating and nurturing these voices and being able to write through them.

With Shurjo’s Clan being published by Penguin Random House and your literary agent being Kanishka Gupta, could you provide some insights into your publishing journey and reflections on your publishing journey for this novel?

Having Kanishka Gupta as an agent for debut writers is definitely a plus. As a new author, we really don’t know much about the publishing scene or how to reach the top publishers. Kanishka had sent Shurjo’s Clan to all the major publishers, and after five months, Penguin made the offer. It’s a nerve-wracking process because you really don’t know if your book will be picked up or not. Moreover, it was right after Covid, so the wait could have been much longer (I was told at least a year before a book could even be read by editors). But all in all, the process was smooth with Kanishka, and my wonderful editor at Penguin, Elizabeth Kuruvilla, made the journey of publishing Shurjo’s Clan even more beautiful.

As you reflect on the success of Shurjo’s Clan and the journey it has taken you on, can you share any hints about your upcoming projects? Are you planning to explore similar themes or venture into new territories with your next literary endeavor?

I am currently working on my next novel. It is also a work of magic realism, and the working title is Easy Love. In this book, I am again playing a bit with identity and belonging issues, but it focuses more deeply on our human conditions and patterns. Also, since I was able to write about our collective history in my last novel (which, for me, was something that had to be worked out before I could write about anything else), I feel like this new book picks up where Shurjo’s Clan ends. I am looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

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