Sidelong Catastrophe

I’m not sure who the sky is

when it’s not the sky


but I think I know this river

was once a beautiful woman


viewed from above all bodies

of water look like someone


you once loved and the color

of the trees only matters


when there are trees at all

and sometimes I imagine


that we can solve everything

design cities that fit into


the Earth instead of making

the Earth fit into them


but mostly we sit at drawing

boards and paint scenes


of decay because that is what

we know and sometimes I think


I can see the sky but

it might just be a person


and I’ll miss the sun most

when the clouds weep the ghosts


of rivers for days on end

Mohammad Shafiqul Islam Interview: “Rivers Lament”

mohammad-shafiqul-islamRead Mohammad Shafiqul Islam’s poem “Rivers Lament” from Reckoning 1.

Michael: We hear a little here in the US about Bangladesh’s low-lying areas being one of the most heavily populated places in the world under threat from rising sea levels, but not much comes through to us about it in the way of media reporting. What has been your experience of climate change so far? Do you see it affecting the people around you, your co-workers, and your students?

Shafiq: Bangladesh is proud of Bay of Bengal, the Sundarbans and hundreds of rivers flowing around the country. Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world, is situated on the southern part of Bangladesh bordering India and Sri Lanka. The Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world and a world heritage site declared by UNESCO, covers the northern part of the country. Bangladesh government has planned to set up the Rampal Power Station that is going to be a coal-fired power plant in Bagerhat, Khulna. Environmentalists, along with left-wing politicians and activists, are protesting against the power station, but the government reiterates that the station will not affect the Sundarbans.

With an area of 1,47,570 square kilometers, Bangladesh is well-known as a riverine country. There were once about seven hundred rivers in the country, but unfortunately, the number has declined. We are losing rivers because of the unrestrained greed of the land grabbers—small rivers in various districts of the country have disappeared. Besides, industry wastes land in rivers, which is why river water is becoming poisonous. The capital city, Dhaka, stands by the Buriganga, one of the important rivers in the country, but its clean water is now only a memory. It is true that low-lying areas of the country are submerged by flood every year and this affects human life severely. Climate change, a global phenomenon, also impacts the environment and life—comfortable weather conditions no longer resonate with the seasons here.

Michael: Could you tell me something about literature in Bangladesh? Who are your favorite authors, your influences as a poet? You’re a professor of English—what kinds of writing do you assign to your students? What do they like?

Shafiq: Bengali literature in general is rich in comparison with many other literatures of the world, whereas Bangladeshi Bengali literature in particular has also drawn attention of readers throughout the world. Translation of Bengali major works into English is taking them across borders and cultures. I should make it clear that the language of West Bengal, India, is also Bengali, and their literature is called Bengali literature. So Bengali literature by Bangladeshi writers and the same by West Bengal writers need to be addressed separately. Bengali literature made its mark across languages and cultures for Rabindranath Tagore who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913 for his seminal work Gitanjali (Song Offerings). Kazi Nazrul Islam, famously known as a ‘Rebel’ poet, is the national poet of Bangladesh. Famous poets and writers of Bengali literature include Jibanananda Das, Buddhadev Bose, Selina Hossain, Syed Shamsul Haq, Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah, Humayun Azad, Helal Hafiz, Hasan Azizul Haq, Shahid Qadri, Nirmalendu Goon, Mahadeb Saha, Humayun Ahmed, Taslima Nasrin, Imdadul Haq Milon, Mohammad Nurul Huda, Shaheen Akhtar, Syed Manzoorul Islam, Harishankar Jaladas, Nasreen Jahan, Mohit Ul Alam, Moinul Ahsan Saber, Audity Falguni and Pias Majid among others. Some of them are also being translated into English.

Bangladeshi English writing is an emerging field though very few writers including Razia Khan Amin started writing in English in 1970s. Bangladeshi English literature has drawn more global attention recently because of Dhaka Literary Festival (DLF) that takes place during November every year. Writers, poets, artists and performers from around the world gather at Bangla Academy premises to share and exchange culture and literature. Among the fiction writers, Thmima Anam, Zia Haider Rahman, Adib Khan, Monica Ali, Niaz Zaman, Mahmud Rahman, Rashid Askari, Kazi Anis Ahmed, Razia Sultana Khan, Jackie Kabir, Sharbari Z Ahmed, Abeer Hoque, Farah Ghuznavi and Shazia Omar are well-known—some of them are diaspora writers as well.

Kaiser Haq, the most prominent English language poet from Bangladesh, is known and studied across borders—he is the leading poetic voice of the country. Besides, a handful of poets including Azfar Hussain, Rubana Haq, Shamsad Mortuza, Ahsan Akbar, Sadaf Saaz, Mohammad Shafiqul Islam, Sabahat Jahan, Sayeeda T Ahmed, Nahid Kaiser and Shehzar M Doja, among others, write poetry in English.

Many works of Bengali literature, translated into English, are becoming part of world literature. Well-known translators including Fakrul Alam, Kaiser Haq, Niaz Zaman and Shabnam Nadiya, among others, have already translated a good number of books into English, and they have enjoyed warm reception. The notable works of translation include The Triumph of the Snake Goddess (Kaiser Haq, Harvard University Press, 2015), The Essential Tagore (Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, 2011) and Bandhon Hara: Unfettered (Niaz Zaman, Nymphea Publication, 2012). Dhaka Translation Center promotes translation, and it has already published some wonderful books of Bengali literature in English translation—The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction (Comma Press, UK, and Bengal Lights Books, Dhaka, 2016) is one of its remarkable publications.

As an enthusiast of poetry, I try to read all kinds of poemst—classical, romantic, modern as well as contemporary. At present, I am doing a PhD on Nissim Ezekiel who is one of my favorite poets. To name my favorite authors is not easy at all—many poets and writers from various countries and languages have influenced me. Keats among the romantics and Eliot among the modernists are my favorites. I also like reading Baudelaire, Neruda, Derek Walcott, William Carlos Williams and many other contemporary poets. I like Kaiser Haq’s poems very much. Sudeep Sen is also a wonderful poet in the contemporary literary scene. Recently, I have read Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation and liked it very much.

I usually teach poetry—romantic, modern and contemporary. South Asian poetry in translation interests me as well.

Michael: “Rivers Lament” makes reference to some Anglophone literature—I love your use of Grendel as a representative of environmental destruction—but clearly also draws on your own sense of place. Do you write in English? Bengali? I’d love to hear how you think about combining those influences.

Shafiq: I have been inspired by many influential texts and great writers of English literature. When I find a relevant context, I try to bring some characters or subject matters as allusions into my writing. In the poem “Rivers Lament,” I used Grendel as a representative of environmental devastation—you are right. Those who grab riverbanks, grab land, destroy rivers, devastate nature and torture human beings illogically are modern Grendels. I feel disturbed when I see that our rivers are disappearing day by day, river water is turning poisonous and we are losing green to the greed of modern Grendels.

I write poetry in English and translate from Bengali into English. My debut book, Wings of Winds, is a collection of poems. An anthology of short stories in my translation, titled Humayun Ahmed: Selected Short Stories, appeared in 2016. My latest book is also a translation titled Aphorisms of Humayun Azad that is out in February 2017. I am now at work on my second collection of poetry and a translation project.

I have influences among both Bengali and English writers and poets. I use elements from my culture, literature, environment, and everyday incidents as raw material for my writing. I write in English, but the subject matter of my writing mostly comes from my culture. I learn craft by reading different texts from around the world meticulously.

Michael: Are there other writers in your community addressing environmental justice? Anyone you’d recommend I solicit for Reckoning?

Shafiq: Many poets and writers of Bengali literature address environmental justice, but it is difficult to name even a few who exclusively write on environmental justice. But I can refer to a poem by Kaiser Haq titled “Buriganga Blues,” which is from his latest poetry collection called Pariah and Other Poems. This poem reveals how the river Buriganga has lost its glory and how its water has turned poisonous—indiscriminate urbanization and people’s mindless activities are responsible for this kind of damage to environment and nature.

Michael: Thank you! There’s a lot here for me to dig into, I really appreciate it.

Shafiq: Thank you for this amazing publication! In this world of climate change and global warming, Reckoning, no doubt, plays an important part for environmental justice.