Each month, The Center for Public Humanities interviews a humanities scholar or community member and asks them everything from why they believe the humanities are important to what they're currently binge-watching. We hope that our blog series, Coffee & Questions, will inspire you, introduce you to a variety of people and fields, as well as create new conversations.
Our guest this month is Tuhin Das, a poet, activist, political columnist, short story writer and essayist. He was born and raised in Barisal, Bangladesh. He is the author of seven poetry books in his native language (Bengali). He's also had contemporary poetry criticism articles, short stories, and political columns published in Bangladesh.
Since 2013, he has been the target of fundamentalist militant groups who have murdered secular writers and activists in Bangladesh. Instead of protecting him, the police collected and examined his writings for anti-Islamist statements to use against him. To save his own life, he had no choice but to go into hiding and find a way out of Bangladesh. He left his country in 2016. Tuhin Das is now the current ICORN writer-in-residence of City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. His interviews have been featured in Sampsonia Way Magazine, North Side Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, BBC Hindi, Voice of America, and NPR.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
I have started writing a memoir about my experiences since my arrival in the USA. This memoir is named 365 Days in Pittsburgh. I have been introduced to many novelties that carry a lot of significance, and I did not want to lose them. I have always tried to reflect and present my memories through my writings. I have started writing my first novel after arriving here - a novel based on Bangladesh. I am trying to sketch the way of life of a family that belongs to a minority religion in Bangladesh as a testament of a backward society in the twenty-first century. For three decades since my birth I have witnessed nationalism based on religious fundamentalism views. I may not have been able to write about it freely in the past; however, after reaching here, I have been able to write freely.
I have been thinking, how do I publish my novel after I have completed writing it? Books and literature expressing opposing or different views and opinions are being banned in Bangladesh-writers and publishers are being either imprisoned or murdered. So, I do not think any publisher will be interested in publishing a novel that is based on such sensitive issues. Anyone reading this novel will understand how fundamentalist views and practices of a religion has determined the stand or position of minority communities and women in the social structure of a developing country like Bangladesh. Today, I see on one side, a fear factor is being spread in the name of religion among the common citizens, and on the other hand, the government is controlling the citizens by making laws that curb the freedom of speech. Existing social, political, and religious systems can encage a man. A writer’s job is to express his or her thoughts freely. This struggle has been on since the dawn of human civilization.
What is your first thought in the morning and last thought at night?
When I wake up early morning I hear a couple of birds chirping. It reminds me of my motherland, Bangladesh, where birds woke me up every day. Although I cannot recognize the birds from their calls here, their songs take me back to my homeland. First, I remember the birds and then the countrymen. The helpless sunburnt faces pain me. They do not have a lot of wants or desires. They want to work, and have two square meals with their families. However, the overpopulation of my country has reduced the per capita income forcing many of the people below the poverty line. They become prey to dependence in many forms. When I think of these things, I feel an urge, a pressure to write. I go towards the writing desk as if in a trance. I retire to bed only after I get tired of writing at night. A man is there to help another man. Again, it is man who dominates another and brings about despair. I find this despair “the drudgery of civilization”. This drudgery of civilization makes me weary, too. The last thought of the night is also my country and her helpless, uncared for people. The colors of laughter, tears, pain, and despair of all people of all places of the world are the same. I use colors from that palate to paint in writings.
What inspires you in your current position/role?
Freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right of man - a life without freedom to speak and express is like a life of a slave in chains. I am with the City of Asylum’s full time writing program for a year as a writer. City of Asylum has provided a place for me to write. For example, as a resident in Bangladesh, if I write an article in any blog on the rights of the LGBQT community, and it's seen by the police, an ACT 57 will be applied and a case filed against me. Per Bangladeshi constitution, it can be considered a punishable offense. A militant group in Bangladesh had published my name on their kill list, and named me “enemy of Islam”. They said that I am waging an intellectual war against them through my writings and editorials. They had tried to kill me, but they could not. They have failed.
I am an atheist. Personally, I do not harbor hate against any religion. I do not consider a religious, or God fearing person my enemy. But, I have encouraged people to stay away from any concept or ideology or religion that separates people, spreads hatred, vice, and intolerance. I have spoken against political parties that rely on religion motives. I demand separation of state from any particular religion because if a country where multiple religions are practiced, or gives importance to any one religion, it leads to oppression or discrimination of the minority religious groups by the majority ones. This leads to the breakdown of a social discipline and separatist opinions or feelings among men. Knowing that, militants will not be able to fight with the pen, so they have resorted to secret murders and assassinations of writers, bloggers, and online activists like me. They have multiple motives, such as: silence the voice of free thinkers, spread fear, get more attention, and apply the cruel Shariya law by getting into power in Bangladesh.
At least 5000 murders occur in Bangladesh every year. The world only gets to know those that are sensational. However, the murder of a writer leads to coverage in world media and more exposure for the assailants. Now they are losing before our pens. Although, 16 writers and activists have been murdered so far.
The failure to provide us with security by Bangladesh government is also a reason. I get to participate in various events here and I try to portray the good sides of our culture among the people here. I am enjoying the freedom of speech and expression fully in USA. There is individual freedom here as well. Here, people are interested in sharing each other’s experience, and are interested in learning each other’s culture. In the last year, I have been able to meet artists from various countries of the world, and have been able to share my thoughts with them while learning about their thoughts and ideas. This exchange inspires me. I get new ideas. I try to understand all the good views and ideas and try to enrich myself. Human life is never stagnant; it goes through a continuous process of acceptance and rejections.
What is something that people might be surprised to learn about you (hobby, skill, interesting story)?
I have been an avid reader and buyer of books from sixth grade. My sole attention was on the books outside those in my school curriculum. In my school days, I created my own library at home with the books I bought. I named it “Terrific library”! Some would be startled at my naming. I thought of creating a library that would have a frightfully big collection of books and I would open it to all that would open the portal to knowledge. Many hurdles could not fulfill that dream. At one time there used to be a library in every neighborhood made by the local people. In the early nineties, I saw the ruins of many such libraries in my city Barisal in Bangladesh. Later on, club houses were erected in those spots to spread the message of political parties, and in the guise of playing carom (a board game) or watching television, young people were often lured to drugs and addiction. Many young people became goons fostered by political parties.
The online availability of books has again increased the interest in reading among young generations. One can get books free as well. A writer had once said in Bangladesh, “No one becomes a pauper by buying books”. Those days are history. Books and paper costs have escalated. The government funds that come to the cultural committees under the Ministry of culture are often misappropriated.
I have studied commerce. I have completed management studies from public university in Bangladesh. Towards the end of the nineties, there was a boom of many non-government organizations and small businesses in Bangladesh. So, in an overpopulated country with millions of educated unemployed, a person with a commerce background could get a job easily than others. Many are surprised to learn that whatever I have learned about writing is from my own interest and endeavor. I do not have any diploma or certificate in any conventional creative writing course. I am similar to the farmers of my country: self-taught. They grow crops on the fields. I grow crops on the pages of my note book.
I started writing at a young age, in elementary school. I started editing at age 16. I started writing against the Rajakars (traitors) who were against the war of liberation of Bangladesh, and who were in power when I was growing up. Not many high school students would do as much. I had to pay heavily one after another for this. I have edited nearly 50 magazines in the last decade and a half. I have received an award from an organization of Rajshahi University in 2011 for my editorial work. Editing is in my blood. I feel it in my veins every day, and the separation from my country pains me sometimes. I have been thinking of starting an online magazine here. Maybe then I will be able to work like before, and reach out to my desired audience in Bangladesh.
Why do you believe that the humanities are important to everyone, and not just people in academia?
Humans live for other humans, lives are meant to uplift other lives. If humans do not stand beside each other with love, there will be cruelty everywhere, and the world will be filled with savage cruel inhuman hearts leading to bloodbaths and wars. Humanity has to be practiced by everyone. There is no substitute to humanity in order to build up a beautiful and non-discriminating world.
Check back next month for more Coffee & Questions. In case you missed Denise Meringolo's interview last month, click here.
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