Tahmima Anam Q&A: ‘My words and art represent a diverse experience of Islam’

Photograph courtesy of Tahmina Anam/Abeer Y Hoque

The Bangladesh-born writer’s latest novel examines Muslim identity and the high-testosterone world of tech companies

Fiona Keating

Tahmima Anam is a celebrated Bangladesh-born British writer with four novels to her credit. Her latest, The Startup Wife, exposes the dark side of the tech world in the #MeToo era and draws on her own experiences of working in the industry. 

Anam’s debut novel, A Golden Age, was set during the Bangladesh liberation war and won Best First Book at the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Its follow-up, The Good Muslim, was nominated for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. She also has a PhD in anthropology from Harvard University and is on the board of the London-based music tech company ROLI.

Hyphen: The Startup Wife reads like a cautionary tale. How would you describe it?

Tahmima Anam: I think it has elements of a romantic comedy, but also explores different forms of power. It explores how Asha, the main character, has trouble stepping into her own power because of the way corporate hierarchies work. And then it’s also about power within her marriage and how she ends up giving away so much.

Is the book also a deep dive into the bro culture of technology companies?

Tech purports to reinvent or disrupt everything, but it doesn’t really address the fundamental structures of power we still have. It still feels like the 19th century, with white men running big companies that rule every aspect of our existence.

Is it true that you originally planned to write it under a pseudonym?

I did, because I’m the author of very serious political novels set in Bangladesh. I worried that people wouldn’t take me seriously if I wrote something that had humour, sex and modern relationships in it. But my editor talked me out of it.

The book has some surreal ideas such as software that channels the voice of a deceased loved one.

I had a lot of fun writing it, because I got to invent companies and all sorts of crazy notions. Death is the ultimate mystery, so it would make sense that Asha’s husband Cyrus, with his kind of unstoppable ambition, would want to go as far as he could.

How much of the book is about your life?

The stories are not autobiographical at all. I am on the board of a startup that was founded by my husband. It was his idea and his invention. He’s the creative mind behind it. But, when I was going through the process of fundraising for the company, I started speculating about what it would have been like if I had been in charge. I found it delightful to imagine that a young immigrant woman runs a company that could end up being one of the most successful startups in the world.

Anam’s latest novel contains elements of a romantic comedy, but also explores how power is used in the tech industry.

You were born in Bangladesh, but when you travelled back many years later, you said you didn’t feel a sense of belonging there

My parents were freedom fighters in the Bangladesh Liberation War, but I didn’t grow up there. My dad got a job with the UN, so we lived in many different countries, as diplomats’ children do. My first novel, The Golden Age, was really a journey for me into claiming a piece of my history that I felt was unattainable to me because I had been raised outside of that culture. I was trying to reclaim my identity.

In your book The Good Muslim, you explore what that means

That novel is trying to ask the question, not answer it. I’m not a practising Muslim. I was raised in a mostly non-religious household and the characters in the book wrestle with the idea of what it means to lead a moral life. The two main characters are a brother and sister who are deeply traumatised and cope in very different ways. Maya, the sister, becomes a feminist and a doctor, while Sohail, the brother, becomes a religious fundamentalist. I don’t believe in a religious dogma that refuses to send children to school, which is what Sohail does. I don’t know what it means to be a good Muslim, but this is a question the characters ask themselves and each other.

Do you feel fiction is a more creative way to talk about how the world views Muslims?

I think it’s important to use my words and art to represent a diverse experience of Islam and to complicate people’s notions of what it means to be a Muslim, although I don’t claim that identity for myself. People see Muslims as having an uncomplicated attachment to their faith. You wouldn’t say this is a Christian writer in the same way that you would say this is a Muslim writer. It’s important to encourage people to complicate their notions about what it means to be Muslim.

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