Tahmima Anam had already published two successful novels, both about her native Bangladesh, when, after becoming a mother, she found herself wanting to cultivate a new writing voice that liked to curse and “talk about sex and bodies and human foible.” And yet the prospect of being funny, at least on the page, terrified her.
In her delightfully entertaining essay “On Humor,” Anam writes that even though she grew up with “women laughing and whispering and saying [expletive] they would roundly deny in public,” each time she wrote a novel, she felt the need to represent Bangladesh and to “complicate people’s ideas of a place they would probably never see in real life.”
Motherhood changed everything for her: “You really get to know yourself when you have to wake up twenty-three times in the night in order to keep another human alive, all with a stitched-up vulva and breasts like twin torpedoes to which someone has set fire.”
Anam’s essay about embracing humor is one of the highlights of “Letters to a Writer of Color,” a new anthology edited by the Indian novelist Deepa Anappara and the Pakistani novelist Taymour Soomro, who, almost 10 years ago, met at a creative writing program in the UK and bonded over their shared frustrations with their predominantly white workshops, which were “measured by a metric that didn’t allow for cultural, regional, and racial variance.” They sought out books that explore questions of craft and race, but almost all tended to privilege a western — and specifically an American — perspective that was alien to them. “Letters to a Writer of Color,” which includes 17 essays by writers from Ingrid Rojas Contreras to the Afghan American writer Jamil Jan Kochai, is in many ways the book they wish they had as graduate students.
I taught it this past semester and was struck by how much it resonated with a wide swath of students. In “On Origin Studies,” Soomro writes about the identities and facades writers construct for themselves and for their characters based on their setting. One of my students from Korea loved this essay so much that she discussed it with her family and even confessed to them, for the first time, the dislocation she feels moving back and forth between the US and Korea. Another student kept marveling at how the British-Chinese author Xiaolu Guo, in “On Translation,” seemed to perfectly understand her predicament as a Bulgarian student in the US.
I found myself circling passages on every page, discussing the themes with anyone who would listen to me. One of the reasons I love this book is that it is not really a book about writing. It is a book about how we see ourselves and how we can, through reading and storytelling, draw ourselves and each other in a new, more complete image.
Zahir Janmohamed is a visiting assistant professor at Bowdoin College.