What people ask me about Bangladesh

Is my country about to be overrun by radical Islamists? Will everyone drown in the rising sea? I'm suddenly taking on the role of ambassador.


On 13 March, I was lucky enough to win the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, Best First Book for the Europe and South Asia region, for my novel A Golden Age.

It was a real honour, although the most immediate benefit was that I got to read the acceptance speech I'd written on an index card, rather than looking at it and cringing at its pathetic thank yous for days afterwards. It also meant that the sari I wore and tramped through the rain in to get to New Cross did not end up being another sad example of dress-code miscalculation, but rather a dignified outfit with which to accept an award. Finally, and most importantly, I wasn't consumed with self-pity when introduced to the wonderful Indra Sinha, who won in the Best Book category.

If you want to know what authorial presence looks like, you need look no further than the creator of the Booker-shortlisted Animal's People. He has an oceanic wave of grey hair, and when he walked into the auditorium in a shimmering red kurta, a hush filled the room. He also gave a rousing speech about the Bhopal disaster, urging the audience to imagine the plight of its victims, and issued a damning critique of the Indian government's unwillingness to help them.

Sinha's speech made me think about the difference between coming from a place like Bangladesh and a place like India. When Sinha critiques India, he critiques a state that is riding high on its new status as a super-nation, a nation to be feared and respected, a nation that might take over the world and have us learning Hindi and taking gap years in Hyderabad instead of Paris. When I speak in public about Bangladesh, I find myself reflexively taking on the role of ambassador. Perhaps this is because people are always asking me whether my country is about to be run over by radical Islamists, or if women are forced to wear the veil, or if everyone will drown in the rising sea. I feel rather protective of Bangladesh, and try to refocus the conversation on all that is going right - the resilience of our people, our thriving women's movement, our heroes such as the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, or Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International.

Gains and losses

Of course, the picture is much more complicated. This week, Bangladesh celebrates its 37th anniversary. We have much to be proud of, but also much to mourn. It has been over a year since the military-backed caretaker government has taken power - enough time to take stock of what we have gained and lost.

On the one hand, emergency rule stopped the juggernaut of corruption and abuse of power that was the former regime. For this, we cannot but be thankful. However, we also cannot get away from the fact that the people who are in power today were not put there by the citizens of Bangladesh. They have promised to hold elections by the end of the year, but there is very little holding them to this promise.

Even if elections are held, we have given the army a kind of knowledge that can never be revoked - the certainty that it can step forward and take control when it deems us incapable of doing our jobs as citizens. From now on, I fear, our grip on democracy will always be tenuous.

One of the gravest mistakes of this government was the arrest of citizens without due process under the Emergency Powers Act. Many Bangladeshis (myself included) cheered when the corrupt officials of the last regime were hauled into prison under this act. However, along with those few high-profile cases were thousands of other citizens who now languish in prison without any hope of release.

Last week, one of those prisoners - a journalist named Arif who was jailed for publishing a cartoon making oblique reference to the Prophet Muhammad - was finally released. His arrest points dangerously to the caretaker government's unwillingness to offend the Islamic right. But Arif's release - through the campaigns waged by his lawyers, human rights activists and organisations, journalists and bloggers within and outside of Bangladesh - proves that our beleaguered and labyrinthine justice system can, occasionally, fulfil its mandate. On the anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh, I cling to these small signs of hope.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide