The PEN Ten: An Interview with Tuhin Das
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s U.S. Free Expression Programs Coordinator Hannah Waltz speaks with Tuhin Das, author of Exile Poems: In the Labyrinth of Homesickness (Bridge and Tunnel Books).
1. So much of your life’s work revolves around the power of writers and artists. When did you first understand this power and how did it mobilize you?
I first understood the power of writers and artists in my teenage years, when I was about 16 years old. I was a regular customer at local bookstores in my hometown, Barishal, Bangladesh, and checked their shelves several times a week. One day I saw a book entitled Nishiddho Nazrul (Banned Nazrul), written in Bengali by writer Shishir Kar. This book was about the writings of the rebellious Bengali poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, whose books were banned by the British rulers. He was arrested a few times but his books continued to be secretly sold and got into the hands of anti-British revolutionaries. Many writers and singers played a significant role to force the British to leave the Indian subcontinent. Later I bought another book in Bengali called Nishiddho Boi (Forbidden Books), written by Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay. In this book, Mukhopadhyay gives a brief overview of books banned internationally and the context and reasons for why they are banned. Through reading that book I learned about the banned works of Gallio, Goethe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Leo Tolstoy, Voltaire, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence. This caused me to understand the power that artists have, and consequently, how their theories and ideas can cause established institutions and systems to feel challenged or threatened.
Also, growing up my father brought home local and national newspapers every day. I remember reading a series of articles by brave, young journalists reporting about corrupt, powerful people in society. I was inspired by their courage and commitment to suggest social change and decided I wanted to be politically active through my writing. In the newspaper, there was a section where literary magazine reviews were published, and this motivated me to publish my own magazine, called Aronyok (The Wild) in 2000. I met with another young editor, who later went missing in 2014, and learned how to edit and print. In 2001, there was large-scale persecution of Hindus, who are a minority religious group in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, when the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami Party came into power and formed a coalition government. I was so shocked because I never thought they would be able to come into power because of war crimes they previously committed, such as when Jamaat-e-Islami opposed Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971. I published a few editorials and sub-editorials about their role during the liberation war in The Wild. Other Bangladeshi writers who inspired me at that time included poet Shamsur Rahman, poet Helal Hafiz, poet Daud Haider, poet Rafiq Azad, and novelist Humayun Azad.
2. Exile Poems is in some ways about having many homes—in your hometown of Barisal, Bangladesh, in your new home Pittsburgh, in writing and poetry, in Bengali and English. What did you learn in writing this book about what a “home” or a “country” means to you?
In 2013 I helped my parents build their lifelong dream project, a house. In Bangladeshi culture, we live as a multigenerational family, which means we live with our elderly parents. I was only able to live in our newly built house for two years because I left and went into hiding when I received death threats from Islamists. I have lived in Pittsburgh for more than six years now, so which one should I love more—where I built a home with my family, or where I have spent more time? I think a person can have several places that they can call home, it does not have to be one place. Over time it may change. A home is a place where I feel comfort, safety, blend myself into the community, and where I feel welcome. I was born and spent 30 years of my life in Barishal, but over time, I have found inspiration from this city, Pittsburgh, and its people. Otherwise, I could not survive exile. It has been challenging, living in a place where I might meet with a fellow Bengali once a year. After a long day at work, I want to go home to my place and have wine, read a book, write a poem, watch a movie peacefully, and talk overseas. Home is the place where I always return. It pulls me. Some kind of power or music waits there. I like to stay at home a lot and spend time writing at my table. Writing saved my life from being hounded by loneliness. I came to Pittsburgh and had to learn to love this part of the world that gives me sanctuary. During the time of writing Exile Poems, I had to learn to love Pittsburgh as home.
I think “country” has a bigger meaning than just a piece of land and having a government, army, etc. I wrote in Exile Poems, “There’s a country within each of us.” It is just not about expressing patriotism. It is about the culture. Like when a bad event happens, people say, “This country is finished!” When I talk about Bangladesh as a “secular country” that means I am talking about protecting my original or unique Bengali cultural heritage. In that part of the world, still, people celebrate violence in the name of religion. In the 21st century, when our spaceships are digging on Mars for water, religious fanatics should not determine whether our country should be based on religion. In a similar way, if you see today’s India, there are so many writers and activists currently in jail, including 13 journalists, as Modi’s government is fighting for a Hindu state and the activists are fighting for a “just state.” Ideally, a country is more than just geographical boundaries and borders, and it offers full human rights and liberties to its citizens.
“People assume that things get lost in translation, but translations give me literary freedom. Translations prove that words are not bound by any border or ideology or tyrant.”
3. The collection centers on both the dissonance between your life in Barishal versus Pittsburgh as well as the parallels, which is beautifully reflected in your meditation on rivers and birds as two natural connectors between these physical places in your mind. “Another city flows within me here,” you write. “Now I am a different person too.” Has writing about the confluence of these mental rivers helped you make peace with your belonging?
The river is my favorite metaphor. My hometown, Barishal, is on the banks of the Kirtankhola River. The river’s name comes from Hindu families who lived on both sides of the river. When someone stood at the riverbank, the sound of prayers and music to God could be heard. Any time I felt low, I would go to that river. Being from the southern part of Bangladesh, which is crisscrossed by multiple rivers and canals, I grew up swimming often. In the books I published in Bengali, I wrote about a river flowing under my window, and I saw a river in my dreams. A river has a mission to go to the sea. That tells me about the similarity and continuation of human life.
For a poet, a river is a powerful medium for telling history. After coming to Pittsburgh, I did not have personal friends that I could talk to openly, as I could not fully express myself in English and realized there were many cultural differences between us. I came for freedom but I lost some personal liberties at the time of applying for asylum, such as the freedom to leave this country and visit my home country. I knew it could mean it would be a long time until I could possibly see my family members again. I knew I had to choose between my personal safety and being secure in the USA, and staying with my family, which would also put them at risk. The mental toll that comes with those thoughts is highly stressful, and causes feelings of guilt. In my first years in Pittsburgh, I went to the three rivers here, as it brought me comfort and reminded me of my home back in Bangladesh. It really helped me make peace with my belonging here, as I felt the elements from which I was uprooted I could revisit, at least in my head.
4. Your poems are translated from Bengali to English by Aruvana Sinha. What was that process like for you? What do you think is gained or lost in the translation?
People assume that things get lost in translation, but translations give me literary freedom. Translations prove that words are not bound by any border or ideology or tyrant. The translator of this book is my important ally, like the editors and publisher. I do not think anything gets lost in translation, as the translation provides my English readers with access to reading Bengali poetry. I think Bengali poems are not well-read in the American mainstream, but through translation, I am able to reach out to my American readers. It is a win-win situation. Arunava Sinha is a noted translator of Bengali literature and an associate professor of creative writing at Ashoka University in New Delhi, India He has vast experience with over 60 books in translation. We conducted the translation through email and this book project was funded by City of Asylum, my host organization in the United States. I worked with the editors and Arunava reviewed my writing a few times. It was an interactive way we did this project, as this book was not originally published in Bengali.
5. This collection takes advantage of the tools and opportunities poetry offers that other genres do not. For example, your generous use of footnotes and metaphor seem to marry the clinical and geographic details of Pittsburgh with the poetics of your experience as an immigrant. As a multidisciplinary artist, why did you choose poetry as the medium to express these experiences of exile and homesickness?
The first draft of the book was definitely different from the book’s final version. I started writing this book in 2016, on my first day after arriving in Pittsburgh, and in the last six years, this book has been on a journey. This journey had ups and downs: the book was held up with a publisher for two years and then they rejected it. After that, I had to start over again. I’m a marginalized writer. I don’t even have an agent. So, it was not easy.
Before I started writing this book, I already had 15 years of a writing career. I had enough understanding about my forms. Along with this poetry book I was writing a novel, a diary of my first two years in exile, a bunch of political articles, abstract poems, poetry criticism articles, flash fiction, and short stories. I juggled a lot of materials and ensured I was putting things in suitable places. I have published eight poetry books in my native language, Bengali, which included abstract poems. In this book, I mixed both literature and journalism, and I tried to create some kind of text that I had never written before. I did not know if it would work out or not. I published some excerpts from the manuscript and those were well-received by the magazine editors in the U.S. Then I understood I was able to build interest. I wanted to write a chronological document that could give a sense of what goes on inside an exiled person’s head. As an exiled writer I was like an injured tiger who came to drink the water at the river and exclaimed by seeing his own face in the water. I thought poetry would be the perfect medium to convey this experience.
“I think writers, journalists, and artists play a great role both in their local communities but also worldwide, as they share positivity, truth, statistics, criticisms, and sometimes give advice as a part of an intellectual civil group.”
6. In the preface to Exile Poems, you declare “writing is a democratic practice.” This was undoubtedly true for you in Bangladesh where you were persecuted for defending secularism in your work, but it’s also true here in the United States, especially since your arrival in 2016. What role do you see the democracy of writing playing in 2022 and onwards—in Bangladesh, the U.S., and worldwide?
I think writers, journalists, and artists play a great role both in their local communities but also worldwide, as they share positivity, truth, statistics, criticisms, and sometimes give advice as a part of an intellectual civil group. This role is crucial. In 2022, in a time of great misinformation and rumors, writers continue to play a significant role in social media. I see the writer’s role as a fact-checker, as an honest respected writer has integrity and the power to influence public opinion.
The role writers had in sustaining concepts of democracy in Bangladesh was important prior to it gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971 through the Liberation War. Assisted by local collaborators, the Pakistani army committed war atrocities against civilians. After this, secular cultural activists continued to protest through their writing. Histories about their atrocities were rewritten and parts removed from school textbooks and the education curriculum, but the writers continued to publish books and newspaper articles about what really occurred. In the early 2000s, war criminals from that fundamentalist Islamic political party came into power. The cultural activists kept arranging street plays, music shows, documentary shows, and photography shows. In 2013, after almost fifty years, those war criminals faced justice during the Shahbagh Protest when they were arrested and convicted. In the past, the Islamic leaders in Bangladesh discouraged students in Islamic schools from using mobile phones and computers. In recent years, Islamic leaders have come to recognize the power of social media and now they encourage the students of Islamic schools or madrasas to have a profile on Facebook so that when something happens related to Islam, the students become active on social media.
For the current situations in America, writers have an obligation to keep the public informed about the various controversial issues in society. Whether it is the recent Supreme Court verdict about abortion, the wage gap between men and women, the majority and racial minorities, immigrants and natives, or inflation rates pushing impoverished people out of their urban homes, writers need to keep writing to keep their audience educated and hopefully spur them to be engaged.
7. Militants in Bangladesh expressly target writers like yourself who address the failure of the country’s justice system, the violence of religious fundamentalism, minority persecution, state surveillance, and more. Ultimately you had to leave your homeland because you were made such a target. What words of hope do you share for others in similar situations?
I would encourage them to keep trying to make changes from within Bangladesh, where they have more influence. Textbooks and the education system need to explain to students the importance of freedom of expression and social justice, instead of moral rhymes and messages that are focused on themselves rather than equality for each member of society.
There are regular, small gatherings about increasing social justice at Shahbag Square in Dhaka. Writers and artists should get more involved in these public protests and in other cities across the country if they want to see change. I personally know some writers back home who live in risky situations as I did. In June 2022, poet Rahman Henry was fired by the government because he wrote a poem about the prime minister on Facebook, and in the same month, citing the controversial Digital Security Act, Police arrested Fazle Elahi, the editor of the local online publication for an article he wrote about the corruption by local lawmakers. The next month, in July 2022, Ratan Siddiqui, a national award-winning playwright, was brawled because he honked his car in front of a mosque in Dhaka. Another example occurred a few days later when Faysal Ahmad, one of the four militants who killed blogger Ananta Bijoy Das in 2015, was arrested in neighboring India. Also in July, the body of Hasibur Rahman Rubel, who was an editor of a news website, was found on the side of the Gorai River in Kustia. Though these writers put themselves at risk, it is important for other writers to continue reporting on what is happening so the general public can be informed and bring about bigger change.
8. In just a few lines, you describe a visceral scene of a conversation with another asylum seeker in the U.S., in which you uncover some darkness about his past at a grocery store meat counter. There’s a sense of connection but also a “personal form of alienation” and psychological exile. Has writing helped you clarify or ease the pain of this alienation?
Living a long time abroad as an asylee often gives me a sense of identity crisis. Some days I feel high, and some days I feel low. Then so many uncertainties arise in my head. How long will I be able to keep myself as a Bengali poet? I have no family here, no previous friends. As a brown person and an immigrant, one of my struggles is making connections here in Pittsburgh, as it is hard for people here to understand what I experience. I have also experienced my fellow countrymen in the U.S. looking down at me, as they view my refugee status as not being honorable. Societies are based on religion, education, and assets, but despite thousands of years of fighting about our differences, we continue to have so much hatred, war, and bloodbath.
Writing for me is a form of psychological therapy, so it certainly helps. I work with disturbing elements, I read and take notes about current events and decide which ones I will write about. Sometimes I talk with my mentor or friends who live overseas so I can learn about their perspectives. Critical thinking helps me understand the time and recent trends. While in exile in the U.S. these past six years, I have kept myself busy doing a vast amount of literary work. In my recent book, Exile Poems, I wrote about how the feeling of alienation comes and goes for me: “I’m on the other side of the world. / Despite this, not for a moment do I / consider myself disconnected in that sense— / but everyone has a personal form of alienation.”
“The courage and bravery to unmask the truth or reality of exiled writers have shown that it is fundamentally influential for those who are still in their home countries.”
9. You played a pivotal role in the Little Magazine Movement in Bangladesh. In your eyes, how can writers affect resistance movements in eras of social unrest, polarization, and doubt in democracy? What is the unique power of displaced writers in speaking to those still in their home countries?
Writers in my home country are inspired by the works of exiled writers, as they are able to more freely express themselves when they are outside of the country. So many best works were written abroad by displaced writers, such as Victor Hugo (Les Miserables), Pablo Neruda (Canto General), and Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits). I try to have conversations with some writers still in Bangladesh and I suggest to them that they write about more than abstract things. After the Shahbag Movement in 2013, there is now more critical political commentary by more writers available through Facebook, YouTube, and other social media. The writers called for changes and showed dreams of a new, just world being emerged. The courage and bravery to unmask the truth or reality of exiled writers have shown that it is fundamentally influential for those who are still in their home countries.
10. The last line of the collection is, “Me? I’m a Bengali poet.” How has your relationship to your identity changed over the years? What has remained the same?
A few weeks ago, I was talking in a group call with friends from my childhood. Unsolicited, they said that I have not changed. I am still a Bengali. I listen to Bengali music while cooking, but I eat less rice now. I have a Bengali TV subscription. I buy Bengali books from Calcutta and Bangladesh for my research in order to write new works. I am still curious and eager to learn new things. I like to go to different restaurants to taste unfamiliar global cuisines, though I like to buy food from Bengal Kebab House in Pittsburgh. I have Bangladeshi postage stamps for a series of forthcoming postcard projects and I like to send letters to my writer friends in my unforgettable Bangladesh. I do occasionally wear a hoodie, but I still buy traditional Panjabi (long clothing) to wear at poetry readings, and wear Bengali fotua (comfortable cotton clothes) on hot summer days. Surrounded by preserved homes in a historic Pittsburgh neighborhood, I designed a two-story mural, rich in the colors of the Bangladeshi flag and letters of my beloved Bengali alphabet, adorned on the outside of the brick house in which I live during my ICORN Artist-in-Residence at City of Asylum.
But maybe I am now more experienced and take control of my emotions better—this I achieved in the last few years in exile. As I am knocking on the door to my forties, I still feel young. My mind is like a green leaf and my heart is thirsty for beauty. Maybe I can achieve new identities, but my main identity as a Bengali and Bangladeshi will never be changed because they are my roots.
Tuhin Das is a Bengali poet currently living in the U.S. He comes from Barishal, a city in south-central Bangladesh. He is considered by critics to be a significant poet of Generation Zero and began publishing contemporary Bangladeshi literature in 2000. In Bangladesh, Tuhin Das authored multiple poetry collections, including Bonsai People (2009), Days in Fallen Society (2011), Melancholic Horse (2012), Untouchable Dreams (2013), Man Garden Series (2013), Near but Far Away (2015), Timber Face (2016), Evening Sarus Crane (2019), and Flowers of My Language (2021, in English translation). He also edited nine literary magazines and published over one hundred articles in newspapers and magazines around the topics of religious extremism, the Shahbag Protests and ethnic cleansing, amongst other topics. In 2011 he was awarded the Chinno Award for magazine editing from the Chinno Foundation of Rajshahi University. Due to his secular writings and activism, Das was labeled an ‘anti-Islamic writer’. Following intensified threats and persecution, Tuhin Das arrived in 2016 as an ICORN resident in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, hosted by City of Asylum and was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2021. Since living in the US, Das’s work has appeared in Words Without Borders, The Bare Life Review, The Offing, Epiphany, and Immigrant Report. His interviews were featured in World Literature Today, Sampsonia Way, and The Stone House. In April 2022, Exile Poems: In the Labyrinth of Homesickness, Tuhin Das’s US poetry debut was published by Bridge & Tunnel Books.