Bangladeshi Posts

Juergen Boos, President/CEO, Frankfurt Book Fair/ Frankfurter Buchmesse, on “Freedom to Publish”, 23 Jan 2019, Jaipur Bookmark

Juergen Boos, President/CEO, Frankfurt Book Fair/ Frankfurter Buchmesse, delivered the inaugural speech at the Jaipur Bookmark. It is the business conclave that is inaugurated the day before Jaipur Literature Festival and then runs parallel with the litfest. It is an exciting B2B space for publishing professionals to network. Juergen Boos’s speech is published here with his kind permission.

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Juergen Boos, 23 Jan 2019, Diggi Palace, Jaipur

Dear Namita Gokhale,  

Dear William Dalrymple,  

Dear Sanjoy K. Roy,  

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

Thank you very much for the invitation to speak here today. The Jaipur Literature Festival is a festival of cultures, language, ideas and literature, and I feel very privileged to have the chance over the next few days to listen to so many Indian authors and personalities from around the world and to converse with them.

At this confluence of cultures, I’m pleased to address the friends from the trade at Jaipur Bookmark today. 

After all, that is the fundamental principle of any literature festival: creating an environment for interactions that promote the free exchange of ideas and opinions.

The free exchange of ideas and opinions – never has that been easier than today, in the 21st century.

And never has it been so threatened.

Over the past 20 years, communications technology has taken an evolutionary leap, one that surpasses anything the most far-sighted science-fiction writers of the 19th and 20th centuries could have imagined.

In Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” from the year 1968, Dr Heywood Floyd, an astronaut, has a “videophone call” with his daughter while at the space station.

Fifty years later, in the summer of 2018, the German astronaut Alexander Gerst used his mobile phone to take fascinating photos of his time at the International Space Station, images which were transmitted around the world.

Videophones, computer tablets, artificial intelligence, voice control – many of the things that Kubrick envisaged 50 years ago have become reality.

According to the 2018 Global Digital Report,[1] of the four billion people around the world who have access to the Internet, more than three billion use social media every month.  Nine out of ten users log on to their chosen platforms using mobile devices.

The number of people who use the most popular platforms in their respective country has grown over the last 12 months by almost one million new users each day.

What I find remarkable here is that not only has communications technology made a quantum leap, the devices that allow the world’s population to participate in the global conversation have also become so inexpensive that almost everyone can afford one.

That is giving rise to a previously unknown participatory process, one that has the power to change democracy’s traditional ground rules: 

Everyone today is in a position to publish whatever they want – using blogs, podcasts and self-publishing platforms, as well as traditional publishing houses. News is transmitted around the globe in the fraction of a second, and social networks allow us to reach more readers and viewers than ever before.

In just a minute I will talk about the challenges and consequences that are resulting for the publishing industry.

First, however, let’s look at the darker side of these developments:

In the 21st century, a few select businesses have become private superpowers. They can do more than most countries to promote or prevent a free exchange of opinions.

Via social networks, phenomena like the viral spread of fake news, hate speech and slander now have a global impact. 

Professional trolls strategically destabilise political discourse online, fuelling populist, nationalist and anti-democratic tendencies throughout Europe and around the globe.

One observes that, here in India, free speech is facing a threat sprouting from religious motivations, political biases and social judgments. Attempts in the recent past to silence journalists, writers, film-makers and publishers reflect the rise of identity politics and apathy on the part of the state. Two journalists of international repute – Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari – were shot dead within a span of nine months. Publisher friends like DC Books, Kalachuvadu Publications and their authors have witnessed attacks by fanatics who may have never even read the books in question.

When I look at the hysteria, hatred and hostility that characterise the discussion in social media, the permanent state of turmoil that societies around the world find themselves in, then I begin to doubt whether we are actually capable of using the communications technologies whose development we are so proud of.

To paraphrase Goethe: “The spirits I called / I now cannot rule”.

In social media, language is used as a destructive weapon day in and day out, and it’s become clear how disastrous this can be for those individuals targeted by the bullying. It can even lead to murder.   

In his 2016 book Free Speech, which you undoubtedly know, the British historian Timothy Garton Ash examines the question of how free speech should take place.

He asks which social, journalistic, educational, artistic and other possibilities can be realised to ensure that free speech proves beneficial by facilitating creative provocation without destroying lives and dividing societies.[2]

He comes to the conclusion that the less we want to have laid out by law, the more we have to do ourselves.

After all, Ash explains, there is no law that can draw a line between freedom and anarchy – every individual must look within before expressing himself or herself and must take responsible decisions.

I would like to talk with you about this “how” in the coming days and hear your opinions.

Personally, I feel that the participatory process I mentioned before requires us – our industry, but also each of us as individuals – to take a stance. Expressing an opinion of this type was long reserved for politicians or the media. Today, in the 21st century, we all have the possibility of making our voices heard.

And we should not do that in keeping with the motto “overnewsed but uninformed,” but in a carefully considered manner.

I believe that this permanent state of turmoil is troubling, this hysteria which does not stop at speech, but which now increasingly leads to violence.

Personally, I’m alarmed at how the language we use is becoming increasingly coarse and, following from that, the way we interact with each other.  

The problem about this state of turmoil is that it usually results in the exclusion of others and, consequently, causes even deeper trenches to be dug.   

Yet how can we deal with the challenges of our time – and find solutions to them – if not in dialogue with each other?

That leads to the question: what responsibility do publishers bear, does our industry bear, today, in the post-Gutenberg era?

How can publishing houses and their products remain relevant in an age in which fake news can be disseminated faster than well-researched books?

In which rumours, supposition and conjecture are more quickly viewed, liked and shared than texts capable of explaining complex contexts?

As my friends Kristenn Einarsson and José Borghino have pointed out on many occasions, “If we are to create and maintain free, healthy societies, then publishers must have the will and the ability to challenge established thinking, preserve the history of our cultures, and make room for new knowledge, critical opposition and challenging artistic expression”.[3]

Publishers in the 21st century are in a privileged position: the industry looks back on a long tradition, on the one hand, and has built a reputation. Publishers are gatekeepers – they filter and assess content, they curate before they publish.

They consider it part of their job to publish content that is well-researched, documented, checked and carefully assembled as way of contributing to the range of opinions present in society.

On the other hand, they now have the possibility of reaching their readers through various channels, offering their expertise, their content and their opinion exactly where their target group is found.

Publishers and authors in many parts of the world risk their lives by writing or bringing out books that criticise regimes, uncover injustices and shed light on political failures.

On 15 November 2018, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Arundhati Roy wrote the following in a letter to the Bangladeshi writer, photographer and human rights activist Shahidul Alam: “How your work, your photographs and your words, has, over decades, inscribed a vivid map of humankind in our part of the world – its pain, its joy, its violence, its sorrow and desolation, its stupidity, its cruelty, its sheer, crazy complicatedness – onto our consciousness. Your work is lit up, made luminous, as much by love as it is by a probing, questioning anger born of witnessing at first hand the things that you have witnessed. Those who have imprisoned you have not remotely understood what it is that you do. We can only hope, for their sake, that someday they will.”[4]

As you know, Shahidul Alam was taken into custody in July of last year after he criticised the government of Bangladesh in an interview with Al Jazeera and in various Facebook posts.[5] Fortunately he has since been freed, but the charges against him remain.

Without wanting to turn these very personal remarks by Arundhati Roy into a generalisation, I would just like to say that she has put it in a nutshell when she writes that, through their work, writers, authors, journalists and artists draw a vivid map of humankind in our part of the world.

Journalists and other authors write despite intimidation and threats. Like Shahidul Alam, they are driven by a mixture of love and anger. For that, they deserve our highest esteem and respect.

Writers and journalists are being intimidated and forced into silence all around the world because of their political and social engagement, something we condemn in the strongest possible terms.  

As discoverers and disseminators of ideas and free thought, we, as a community, have a greater responsibility to uphold freedom of expression. At the same time, we cannot withhold our criticism of its misuse.

I hope to have the chance to speak with many of you about these issues in the coming days.

Thank you.


[1] https://wearesocial.com/de/blog/2018/01/global-digital-report-2018

[2] (Kapitel Ideale, Seite 123)

[3] Zitiert in Nitasha Devasar: Publishers on Publishing – Inside India’s Book Business

[4] https://pen-international.org/news/arundhati-roy-writes-to-shahidul-alam-day-of-the-imprisoned-writer-2018

[5] https://pen-international.org/news/shahidul-alam-writes-to-arundhati-roy

13 February 2019

Literati – “The library as social experience” ( 16 August 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 15 August 2015) and will be in print ( 16 August 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-relevance-of-libraries-today/article7539673.ece#. I am also c&p the text below. 

Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer.

My five-year-old daughter asked me, “Why can’t libraries be like bookshops? If we like a book, why must we return it to the library? Why can we not buy and keep it?” I was stumped. It was a perceptive observation.

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“You either see it or you don’t” was an eccentric American Dennis Severs’ mantra,who converted his Georgian home in London into a time capsule with pieces collected from the 17th century till Edwardian times. Brian Selznick’s absolutely ‘scrumdiddlyumptious’ forthcoming book, The Marvels, is heavily inspired by Dennis Severs’ imaginative lifestyle. To my mind, this mantra aptly marks the rapid disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores and at the same time provides a possible solution for their survival.

In Delhi, two iconic bookshops — Fact & Fiction and Galgotia — are closing. There are many factors responsible globally for closure of bookstores, such as rising rents, fewer customers and an increasing use of e-readers like Kindle, iPads and smartphones. Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer. Obviously, a regular customer is wistful at the announcement of their favourite bookstore closing. On the other hand, online retailers have to innovate, evolve and work constantly at providing customer satisfaction without ever knowing who is buying from their portal.

For most readers, it is like being in a dream spell. Having read about a book, many readers want instant gratification and engage in impulsive buying, usually possible only with online retail. It is a human behaviour that has evolved with access to the Internet 24×7 for more than a generation.

Recently, I read a bunch of absolutely delightful titles from the TED Books that take off from where TED talks leave off, such as Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, Chip Kidd’s Judge This and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should all be Feminists. I also read a devastatingly moving novel, The Blue between Sky and Water, by Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa; a delightful anthology, The Pleasure of Reading,edited by Antonia Fraser; and an excellent collection of commentaries, Nehru’s India, edited by Nayantara Sahgal. War novel Escape from Baghdad! by Bangladeshi Saad Hossain and The Word at War made it to the list. When I discuss these books animatedly with friends, many automatically order these online. This change in human behaviour has affected the lifeline of bookstores.

In a possible model for a bookstore of the future, non-profit Pioneer Works in Red Hook, U.S., opened a ‘remarkably small’ bookstore. It stocks new and used books, local zines, lit mags, children’s books conveniently located at their height and a modest wall spotlighting a rotating small press. Also, the shop clerk assures customers that if they do not find the book title they are looking for, he will order it for them.

Then there is Trilogy in Mumbai, founded by Meethil Momaya and Ahalya Naidu in December 2014. It houses a library and a bookstore; though they are under the same roof they do not share shelf space. Titles are available in Hindi, English and Marathi. The library functions like any old-school library and the bookstore works like (almost) any other bookstore in the world. The very idea of having a bookstore and a library together in the same place without a wall dividing the two was to allow members the freedom to read books without owning them (library) and when they love a book they would like to own, they always have the option of buying it (bookstore). There is a symbiotic relationship between the two spaces. Borrowers very often want to buy the book they have either issued or find in the library. If it is available in the bookstore they can buy it immediately.

There is also the model that legislator Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac has suggested in Kerala wherein libraries turn into centres for students to gather and study together in the evenings.

These examples illustrate a recommendation made at the Indian Public Libraries Conference 2015 held on March 17-19, 2015 in New Delhi. Recommendation on refurbishment of public libraries, point 8f, states, “Facilities in public libraries should include, ‘multi-purpose social space’ for use by the community extending services beyond the provision of reading facilities.”

Paul X. McCarthy, in Online Gravity: The Unseen Force Driving the Way You Live, Earn, and Learn, illustrates how a new set of economic rules, very different from those in the physical world, are governing businesses. According to him, one of the fundamental consequences of gravity-giant formation is the way in which it is influencing the shape of products, companies and ultimately the whole economy online. But I wonder if the cross-filtering and influencing of experiences across mediums has not already begun? What is the future of libraries and bookstores if they don’t evolve by catering to community demands and expectations? Libraries and bookstores die because they fail to fulfil this. Reading may be a personal experience, but libraries and bookstores are social experiences. Somewhere the customised experiences of individuals increasingly created by blending digital and real services have begun to spill over into the physical world.

15 August 2015

Abeer Y. Hoque “The Lovers and the Leavers”

Abeer HoqueBut it hadn’t been the smell of Indian food that had offended Sailan. It was Appa. Gabriel had never considered their father’s post-work rituals consciously until that day. Upon returning home, Appa would go upstairs and remove his suit, uniformly grey or navy, leave on a thin white singlet that stretched over his ballooning waist, and tie on a well-worn lungi. Downstairs, he would gather the newspapers from the hall table where his mother had discarded them, and get an apple from the kitchen. Then he’d squat in the corner of the living room, eat the apple, and read the papers. What was wrong with wearing pants? Sailan had asked. Or maybe squatting in the study instead of the living room? 

‘The study is crowded,’ Appa said mildly, choosing to reply to the second query, combing through the few remaining hairs on top of his head. 

‘Because you use it for storage,’ Sailan said. 

Appa shrugged. ‘There’s enough space in the living room for all of us.’

‘The space is not the point. We can’t use the living room for entertaining. I’d just like to bring my friends over without feeling as if we’re entering a television programme about displaced immigrants.’

It was true that their living room didn’t look like any Catalan living room Gabriel had been in. The paisley print curtains didn’t match the plastic-covered furniture, and there were piles of papers in all the corners. Appa never cared for how things appeared, but his contempt for Sailan’s tone overcame his disregard. 

‘We are displaced immigrants,’ he said, in an uncharacteristically sharp way. 

( p.125-7)

Abeer Y. Hoque’s first book, The Lovers and the Leavers, is a collection of twelve interlinked short stories with photographs and poetry interspersed. The stories revolve around a bunch of characters, spanning a few years, though it is never let on in numbers. You can only gauge time by the different points of life the characters are at. Some were toddlers but when the book comes to an end, they are married. These are stories told from different gendered and social perspectives. These stories are about different kinds of love and inevitably the pain of being rejected that are at the crux of the stories. But it is the manner in which these are told that is so refreshing.

About a decade ago, fiction written by the subcontinent diaspora, especially of those settled in America was popularly referred to as ABCD or “American Born Confused Desi”.  A story had to be told by the immigrants. There are many writers who have established their name doing it but there is a new generation of writers emerging. Writers who are poised, at ease with their dual identity — of being Americans and of belonging to the land they originated from, it shows in their confident style of writing and the wonderful ability to blend the various cultures they are privy to. Abeer Y. Hoque belongs to this category. Gently, forcefully and with grace she is able to flit between cultures evident in the use of language — “sophomoric sexuality”, “old-fashioned bideshi manners”,  and “coloured monkeyboy”. To be able to talk about different cultural experiences without being patronising and yet, with searing insight she communicates the feeling of alienation apparent at times. For instance the reference to “their ‘gora’ meals as they called them, more for the pale shade of the food than the race of people. Bags of potato chips, popcorn, rolls of cookie dough on special occasions.” (p.206)

The Lovers and the Leavers is a fine example of stylish storytelling. It is by a writer who seems to be at peace with being identified as a Bangladeshi American writer, born in Nigeria, and with no qualms about discussing life as she has experienced it — a mixed bag of cultural influences. I love it.

Abeer Y. Hoque The Lovers and the Leavers Fourth Estate, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015. Hb, pp. 240. Rs. 499

14 August 2015 

Neamat Imam, “The Black Coat”

Neamat Imam, “The Black Coat”

The_Black_Coat_a_novel_by_Neamat_ImamThe language of rebellion is simple whereas the language of governance is very intricate. ( p.148)

Neamat Imam’s debut novel The Black Coat is about newly independent Bangladesh in 1970s. It is set during Sheikh Mujib’s rule. It is a chilling tale about power, money, greed and survival. It is set against the backdrop of a new nation struggling to survive, a terrible famine that cripples the nation, the never ending stream of refugees to contend with and the lawlessness that exists even in the cities. Thieves break into homes to carry away a grain of rice, poor and old women steal clothes hung out to dry, and anything that can be sold is sold, anything to earn a few coins. The novel is about journalist Khaleeque Biswas who has lost his job capitalising on the talent of an uneducated young man, Nur Hussain, for mimicking the famous speech of the prime minister Sheikh Mujib delivered on 7 March 1971. Soon they are speaking at roadside corners, public spots and earning as well before the ruling party hires them to deliver the speech for political rallies organised during campaigning. It is a technique to evoke the patriotic sympathies of the citizens. The reference to the black coat in the title is the coat made famous by Sheikh Mujib.

It is a dark and horrifying tale. If the events mentioned were confined to history books then it may be easier to read. But it is not to be. There is poverty, lawlessness, social structures crumbling and the greed and manipulation of politicians. A cycle that is often repeated.

Neamat Imam is a Bangladeshi-Canadian writer. This is his debut novel. His book has been received with critical acclaim such as in this review http://www.outlookindia.com/article/Father-And-Sons-Or-The-Lie-Of-The-Land/285600 ( Indi Hazra, “Father And Sons, Or The Lie Of The Land”, Outlook Magazine, 3 June 2013). Yet the homepage of his website ( http://neamatimam.com/ ) has a distressing tale to recount. Read his post about seeking reviewers for his book ( “Wanted: Reviewers”).

Publishing is often referred to as an eco-system, a term borrowed from biology, an organic and evolving system, dependent upon the organisms that exist within it and their symbiotic relationship with each other. Similarly with politics and literature.  Literature and politics have always been inextricably linked. It is impossible to dissociate one from the other. Literature is created out of the times/environment it is written in. Black Coat is a book that must be read as an example of fine literature describing a politically turbulent time in Bangladesh’s history. It is taut, has a perspective to offer (whether you agree with it or not) and the words are used with care. Neamat Imam’s post on his homepage is testimony to how closely literature and politics are interlinked.

Read Black Coat

Neamat Imam The Black Coat Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 250. Rs. 499.

23 June 2014