Meet the Writer: Shabnam Nadiya #writerslife #interview

I want to thank Shabnam Nadiya for answering my questions. You can find more about her work on her website or her tumblr, LitStop, which Nadiya says, “is more of a parking spot for bits and pieces from the books I’m reading.”

What was the first story you ever wrote about?
I had toyed with the idea of being a writer for most of my teenage and adult life, I just hadn’t been serious about it. I had numerous story ideas jotted down, and many false starts which still sit unfinished.  I still come across them sometimes in notebooks. I think partly because I was lazy, partly because I didn’t really believe I could do it, partly because I had no idea how to. Which is one of the reasons perhaps I veered toward translation: because the ‘how to’ part of the storytelling had already been taken care of.

The first story I actually completed was called “A Journey in the Night.” I wrote it in two days after I ran into someone I knew on a long-haul bus. The person had pretended to not recognize me and walked right past. I had felt a little bit hurt. At the time I would tend to think that I was a particularly unlikable person, and I was actively trying to be positive about myself and stop myself from thinking like that. So later, when thinking about the bus encounter, I tried to imagine scenarios in which someone’s rude behavior really had nothing to do with me; from those thoughts the story emerged.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer as far back as I can remember. I wanted to be a journalist for a while (my icon was Nellie Bly), I wanted to be a science writer (Carl Sagan!), I wanted to follow in and go beyond the footsteps of Indian Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen and hop trucks all across Asia and write about it, I wanted to edit a magazine and a run a literary salon at the same time as writing my novels. The kind of writing I wanted to do changed as I grew, but the fact of writing was constant.

Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?

I think it is most definitely a combination of both. I do think that innate talent is necessary, but I also believe that there are many ways to hone that talent. One of those ways can be to go to writing school. This is not to say that this is the only way to hone your talent—but it is one way.  I think my thoughts went immediately to MFA programs because there’s been so much talk in the past couple of years trashing and defending MFA programs; but when I really think about it, writing is largely an act of learning. Writers who do not go to formal school—and they are absolutely the majority—learn their craft through observation, reading (obsessively!), through the give and take of conversation and debate and community building. Which of these activities is not learning? We learn about the world, we learn about ourselves, we learn about the craft of writing in many ways. I was a writer before I went to writing school, and now that the school part is over, I’m still a writer. I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend an MFA program—but it would not have stopped me from being a writer if I hadn’t. 

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

My least favorite class was a phonetics class I had to take as an undergraduate. The class itself was boring, and the teacher was fairly disrespectful of the students, where she made fun of their English accents (this was in Bangladesh where English is not our first language) or made inappropriate comments on their clothing. She decided to go after me, where she would call on me in class by saying things like, “You, the girl sitting in between two boys.” Or, “You, the girl wearing the short blouse.” It got to the point where she threatened to fail me at the end of year. She couldn’t, of course, because her class only counted for 5% of the total and it while it affected my total score, my passing or failing didn’t depend on it. I still marvel, however, especially now that I have been a teacher myself, at any teacher losing their professional calm to the extent of letting it become personal with a student.

Are you reading anything right now?

I am reading Margaret Atwood’s climate-dystopia The MaddAddam Trilogy, and marveling, as usual, at the imaginative reach, the range of distinctive voices, the tight control of time–moving back and forth and sideways. I’m also rereading a novel by a friend, Shaheen Akhter, called Beloved Rongomala (which is in Bangla but World Literature Today published the first chapter translated by Mahmud Rahman, which can be found here.

Are you writing anything right now?
I just finished the last story of my linked collection called Pye Dogs and Magic Men: Stories. Now I need to polish them all a little more, and send them out to my handful of trusty readers. Then, the big one: agent search time!

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15 comments

  1. I really appreciated Nadiya’s comments about how she benefited from doing an MFA. She puts forward a very balanced view. I’ve read a few scathing pieces about undergrad and postgrad writing courses: how they’re cash cows for universities, how they put students in debt but don’t adequately prepare them for employment (Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this in Big Magic), that they’re pointless because you learn to write from reading and having ‘real world’ experiences. I think there is a grain of truth there, but like Nadiya, having completed a postgraduate writing degree I believe there is a lot about the craft of writing that can be taught and that students do benefit from formal study, particularly if they have a clear idea about what they want to get out of their course. And I think formal study also prepares students to take charge of their learning once they graduate, in terms of how to read critically, how to research, how to analyse, how to edit, how to work with feedback, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for reading the interview! I think you’re absolutely spot on about writing programs being beneficial especially for students who have clear ideas about what they want. I’d also like to add that a writing program, especially one that provides funding, can give a writer much-needed time to finish a project. I cannot overstate what a boon that was! At the end of my two year program, I came with a near-complete manuscript. There was no way I could have pulled that off working full time while being a single parent.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I always wonder if the bad experiences people had were due to their classmates. I’ve read some pieces about how there was a lot of jealousy, backstabbing, or people who in general didn’t get along. I know Junot Diaz says that working for years before doing his creative writing degree was best for him, and that the school likes to praise him as their poster child for how wonderful their school is. Then he wrote a famous piece about how homogeneous the school is.

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