A theorist, critic, academic, bilingual writer, poet, translator, and public intellectual all at a time! Yes, you got him right, it’s no...

An Interview with Dr. Azfar Hussain

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A theorist, critic, academic, bilingual writer, poet, translator, and public intellectual all at a time! Yes, you got him right, it’s none other than our very own Dr. Azfar Hussain sir, a Scholar-in-Residence and Summer Distinguished Professor of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh! This is a close conversation between Dr. Hussain and Muse sub-editors, Noor Ahmed Rafi and Radia-Al-Rashid.
Let’s see what he has to say!
  • How important do you think it is to read classical literature in order to understand contemporary literature?
I’ve always accentuated the need for reading what are called “great books.” They are also called “classics.”  But I remain critically aware of the ways in which “greatness” is constructed or even taken for granted. It’s usually held that a classic is a book that never ends saying what it has to say—a work with no closure. The American novelist Mark Twain once said something to this effect: Classics are books which people praise but don’t read.
And while it’s true that we choose books, it’s also true that some books end up choosing us. Classics tend to choose us. For instance, we didn’t always get to choose the Greek playwright Sophocles’s world-famous tragedy Oedipus Rex as a classic; rather it gets to choose us continuously. Do you see what I mean? But, of course, there are numerous benefits of reading such works—even if they are “ancient” in terms of historical time—for they enable us to see how they have influenced literatures and cultures across the world in all sorts of ways, while also they can make us see how we continue to remain even ideologically colonized at this historical moment.
Influence, after all, is no neutral thing. And the issue of exchange between the past and the present, between one literature or culture and another is surely important. However, the problem arises when there’s continuously unequal exchange between certain centers and their peripheries.
That being said, let me now turn to what is called “classical literature” as such. See, it has already been given a specific meaning: it refers to the “masterpieces” of different ancient “civilizations,” particularly Greek and Roman civilizations. Even a quick glance at the definition of classical literature provided by the Encyclopædia Britannica reveals clearly how Europe comes first and then all others remain tagged on. I think there’s at least an implicit Eurocentrism in that mode of defining or describing classical literature. But then I always see a distinction between combating Eurocentrism as a system of domination and critically engaging—not ignoring or abandoning—literary productions from Europe.
Indeed, I myself have remained a longtime reader of great European epic poets such as Homer, Virgil, and Dante, for instance. I think one cannot adequately appreciate one of the most influential novels in the twentieth century—Ulysses by James Joyce, for example—without some knowledge of Homer, Virgil and Dante, just to give a quick, familiar example. Also, I never stop returning to Sophocles’s Antigone to see what political antagonisms and unequal gender relations or unequal power relations and resistance might mean even today. It’s not for nothing that not so long ago—in 2014—some Syrian women performed Antigone in a refugee camp, amply attesting to the relevance and significance of that play in the contemporary world.
And then there is the hilarious Greek comedy called Lysistrata by Aristophanes—a work that even influenced Spike Lee’s relatively recent film Chi-Rac (2015). My God! Aristophanes deftly mobilizes some kick-ass political jokes to show how male politicians can be vulgar, crude, corrupt, chauvinist, patriarchal. It’s telling that contemporary Arabic novels and plays have deliberately drawn upon Lysistrata; while, of course, Aristophanes in Bengali translation had already reached our stage in Bangladesh, lending credence to his contemporaneity.
Of course, Asia, Africa, and Latin America have their own traditions of classical literature. Think of the world’s most ancient epic—the Epic of Gilgamesh—a Mesopotamian epic poem dating from around 2,100 BCE. This ancient “Eastern” work has proven enormously influential. It’s not only one of the foremost sources for the Old Testament and even for Homer’s Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh has also influenced contemporary literary productions in the Middle-East, Africa, and in the world outside them. The great Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish and the great Syrian poet Adunis both have creatively appropriated fragments from that ancient epic, for instance. And, of course, we can think of other eastern epics that have variously influenced contemporary literary works in our part of the world—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, for instance. One of the greatest modern Bengali poets—Madhusudhan Dutta—most exemplarily, most radically, even most notoriously but creatively used those epics in his entire oeuvre. Rabindranath Tagore also drew upon them in a great variety of ways. Kazi Nazrul Islam’s most well-known and groundbreaking poem “Bidrohee” is replete with allusions to those epics, to say the least.
I’ve quickly provided some crucial cases here. But one can surely cite numerous examples of the connections between classical literature and contemporary literature. Indeed, the very history of global literatures is—among other things—a history of interliterary exchanges, influences, translations, appropriations, adaptations, connections, border-crossings, and so on. Given all this, then, I think it’s very important to study classical literature so that we understand both classical and contemporary literary works both historically and contemporaneously in the light of the contested but necessary question of what it means to be “universal” and “particular” in the domain of literature as such.   
  • Can you state your own opinion on the significance of studying world literature in the current context of Bangladesh?
To put it bluntly, I think the significance of studying world literature in the current context of Bangladesh decisively resides in broadening the horizon of our engagement with the word and the world at a time characterized by both crude nationalisms and cultural imperialism. I’m aware that the term “world literature”— Weltliteratur in German, coined as it was by the German poet-playwright Goethe—is Eurocentric in both origin and orientation, and that the term continues to remain somewhat nebulous even today. But I also think, roughly speaking, one simple way of reading “world literature” is to read literary works produced in different languages outside one particular national-geographical territory or two. It’s of course always ideal to know several languages in that case. But I understand that being multi-lingual is not easy. However, I believe it’s fairly possible to read literary works in translation. Indeed, translation is the lifeblood of world literature. It’s translation that makes world literature possible. And by now great translations of all kinds of great literary works across the world have been made available. Do we in Bangladesh read Homer or Dante or Goethe or Tolstoy or Flaubert in the original language? No.
I think we need to make the most of what we have in translation. True, English has been made historically available to us, and there’s no bypassing it by any means. Then it surely depends on how one uses English and reads English literature. In the current context of Bangladesh, we still tend to overemphasize Greek classics and other European literary works in English translation (or in Bengali translation) at the expense of many literary works from, say, Asia, Africa, and Latin America that have already been made available in English translation. No, I don’t mean to abandon Europe here. But I also think we would do well to range beyond Europe and enter the bigger world constituted by what Che Guevara once called the “tri-continent”—Asia, Africa, Latin America. I think one way of decolonizing “world literature” itself, in the current context of Bangladesh, is to keep enacting a tri-continental orientation in opposition to Eurocentrism, self-congratulatory and self-delimiting middle-class nationalism, and even what Edward Said once called “indigenism” all at once. I submit that yet another—if not the only—significance of studying world literature in the current context of Bangladesh lies in making connections between our own literary productions and other anticolonial, oppositional works from around the “third world” in the interest of building broad-based solidarity for our struggle against contemporary forms of cultural imperialism. Indeed, when it comes to studying world literature—or literature for that matter—both aesthetics and politics are equally important for me.
  • How significant do you think it is to foreground the literature written by ethnic minorities? Do you think we are being able to do that in the Bangladeshi literary scenario?
For quite some time now, I’ve been talking about how our sustained neglect of—and even historical amnesia surrounding—the literary works produced by ethnic and linguistic minorities in Bangladesh tellingly characterize the country’s contemporary literary scenario. That neglect—although it’s more than neglect as such—tells us who we are and what we are. Actually, when it comes to dealing with the minority question, we remain dominantly nationalist to the core, while we also remain even racist at more levels than one. I think the literary scenario in Bangladesh cannot be considered in an isolated abstraction from the kind of mainstream political culture that has evolved in the country over the years. It’s a culture that is fiercely ethnocentric on the one hand and decisively pro-imperialist on the other. This culture doesn’t encourage the foregrounding of literary works by minorities, who in reality remain internally colonized precisely in the sense indicated by the great Caribbean revolutionary theorist of colonialism and racism Frantz Fanon.
In other words, internal colonialism serves as a veritable obstacle to the production and dissemination of minority literature in Bangladesh. Think of the writers from such linguistic and ethnic minorities as Bihari, Chakma, Marma, Khasi, Santhal, Garo, Oraon, Munda, and even Rohingya, just to name but a few. We hardly know them, let alone discuss their works at the national level. And, indeed, what we know and what we do not know are by no means ideologically or politically innocent. Of course, some minority works—particularly some Urdu literary works produced in Bangladesh—continue to be tokenized by some Bengali middle-class readers and critics, ones who always condescendingly speak of those works. But tokenization, condescension, and appropriation cannot be our ways out. What, however, we need is a rigorous critical engagement with minority literary productions in Bangladesh. And I don’t think that engagement is possible without a continuous anticolonial and antiracist struggle against our own political, cultural, and literary Establishments.
  • You write as well as teach both Prose and Poetry. Which one do you personally prioritize? Or do you think both are equally important?
For me prose and poetry are equally important. I, for one, remain opposed to the kinds of hierarchies some creative writers tend to endorse and rehearse in our country and also outside it, holding that creativity is the private or paternal property of the privileged few. In the US, I regularly teach a course called “Creativity” (not Creative Writing). One major assumption underlying this decidedly interdisciplinary course is that creativity resides in the entire range of lived human practices. In fact, it has been historically proven that one can be creative as a poet, as a mathematician, as a musician, as a mechanic, as a manager, as a farmer, as a teacher, even as a proof-reader, as an accountant, as an administrator, as an activist, as a cook, as a shopkeeper, even as an electrician, and so on. The great Latin American writer-historian-essayist Eduardo Galeano—one who writes prose with audacious flair and stylistic energy—has a groundbreaking book of vignettes called Mirrors that superbly demonstrates the ubiquity of creativity in the history of human achievements and accomplishments, making the point that nothing human is alien to creativity. Indeed, I value creativity in general. And I find it in both poetry and prose, which I value equally.
  • How do you look at the connections between Marx’s materialist perception and literature?
Well, the German philosopher, political economist, and revolutionary Karl Marx is not a mechanical or vulgar materialist but a dialectical materialist, meaning that he attends to—among other things—the complex, mutually determining interactions between matter and idea, between what he himself calls “base” (economy) and “superstructure” (culture). It is not for nothing that in works such as The German Ideology and even The Communist Manifesto—among other works of course—Marx speaks of not only “material production” but also “spiritual production.” For him, literature belongs to the domain of spiritual production, which, however, remains “burdened with matter,” to use Marx’s own words. That is to say, literature for Marx cannot but be a materially conditioned spiritual production as well as a spiritually conditioned material production in which aesthetic and ideological and other forces are at work on more levels than one, although there are some dominant tendencies to reduce Marx’s perceptions of literature and culture to his ostensible concern with the question of mere ideology as “false consciousness.”
While the question of ideology—not just simply as “false-consciousness” but as something dialectically conditioned by pervasive contradictions in a class-divided society—is crucial for Marx, his materialist preoccupation with the literary is much more than what has come to be known as ideology critique as such. In fact, for me, a Marxist approach to literature cannot but be interdisciplinary in the final instance—an approach that enables us to engage literary works in their broad, worldly, material contexts and configurations; that is, in their economic, social, cultural, political, and ideological contexts, dynamically and variously interconnected as they are. And I think that this approach makes much more sense than a plain aestheticist or a formalist approach, given that both life and literature are never single-issue phenomena. I will in fact emphasize the fact that Marx’s approach to literature (and aesthetics or culture) is not determinist or reductionist or even progressivist by any means. Rather it is dialectical and historical. It is an approach that enables us to identify in literary works historically produced contradictions, antagonisms, paradoxes, multiple determinations, and, of course, creative possibilities in more ways than one. As for creativity in particular, I should emphasize that Marx characteristically values creativity in both his early and late works, while underlining the need for what he himself calls the total emancipation of the human senses that remain otherwise shackled or even benumbed by commodity fetishism, or by capitalism itself, for instance.      
Now I think I would do well to talk about Marx’s love and knowledge of literature at some length. S.S. Prawer’s great book called Marx and World Literature demonstrates the range and rigor and richness of Marx’s own preoccupations with the literary at the global level as well as Marx’s concern with and sensitivity to literary style. Prawer also shows that much of Marx’s oeuvre—certainly including Capital, his magnum opus—remains shot through with rich, extraordinarily illuminating literary allusions. Marx’s own life was deeply involved in the literary in more ways than one. His peers at school feared him because he could almost effortlessly compose lampoons and satirical verses; while, early on in his life, he amply familiarized himself with “classical” works—the works of Homer, Sophocles, Ovid, and others. In fact, he could recite “whole cantos of Homer from beginning to end,” while he knew by heart many of Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, Marx was a Shakespearefreak.
And when Marx was only 19, he began work on a comic novel of his own called Scorpion and Felix. Interestingly, the structure, design, and techniques of that novel were based not on the Bildungsroman of Goethe but on Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, an anti-novel that anticipated my all-time favorite novelist James Joyce’s Ulysses. The “Sternean” in Marx, then, has to do with, among other things, Marx’s unmistakable delight in dramatic letdowns and in what might be called “verbal cartoons.”
True, like Sterne, Marx already developed a range of parodies: of the Bible, of Ovid, of Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, but above all of none other than Shakespeare himself. Marx was also particularly attentive to the elements of parody in Shakespeare himself, while Marx in his work repeatedly deployed the figure of the fool Thersites from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Although Marx developed his love for Shakespeare relatively early on in his life, it was during his exile in England that Marx passionately devoted himself to Shakespeare. Yes, Marx read Shakespeare every day. In fact, his whole family used to read Shakespeare religiously, developing a kind of Shakespeare cult.
So Marx’s perceptions of literature were also shaped by his own range of readings—some of which I quickly and inadequately pointed out here—that made him aware, among other things, of how ideas themselves can be material forces and how language and even style can play their roles in the actual material struggle for universal human emancipation which constitutes the broad political project of Marxism.
  • Amongst the two genres of fiction and nonfiction, which do you believe has more influence and impact on readers and why?
I think both fiction and non-fiction can influence readers in their respective ways. But, for me, it’s rather impossible to say which one influences more. Human history has hitherto produced all sorts of works of fiction and nonfiction that have variously shaped all kinds of cultures across the world. Consider, for instance, the impact of the Communist Manifesto itself—a relatively brief and politically charged text of nonfiction which had already 544 editions in 35 languages even prior to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, not to mention its almost ‘infinite’ number of editions across the globe following that revolution. I am with the Indian Marxist writer-activist Aijaz Ahmed when he maintains that the Bible and the Quran are the only two books that have been printed in more editions and disseminated more widely than the Manifesto. Pointing to the relevance and contemporaneity of the Manifesto, the Egyptian political economist Samir Amin said—not so long ago—that the Manifesto was written only yesterday. So, you see, we have examples of inordinately, incredibly influential works of nonfiction in history.
As for works of fiction, do I need to belabor the point about the massive global impact—of course the very history of colonialism has also a role to play in enhancing that impact—of Shakespeare? I love Shakespeare and I tend to read him both politically and aesthetically; but, then, I know that there are also those—apart from my favorite novelist Leo Tolstoy (by the way, I’m currently re-reading his fascinating short novel called Hadji Murad written towards the end of his life)—who hate Shakespeare, as there are those who of course hate the Manifesto with a vengeance (even without reading it). I guess the point I am trying to make here—by implicitly invoking the great Italian Marxist revolutionary Antonio Gramsci—is that no influence is either absolute or numerically exhaustive, and that what you call “readers” themselves are human beings who are not finished products but are in the “process of becoming” in the world, remaining susceptible to influences for a variety of reasons that cannot be easily homogenized. But I should also say, invoking Gramsci again, that what we like and what we dislike—or for that matter, what we are influenced by—are not politically and ideologically innocent or neutral.
  • How much of an influence do you think our National Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam has upon the literature and culture of Bangladesh? What made his works of rebellion against oppression so successful?
True, Kazi Nazrul Islam is our national poet. But I think he is more liked than read. And he’s hardly taken seriously at the national level. Yes, Nazrul is nominally influential; yes, his birth and death anniversaries are celebrated with full force at the national level; yes, some commonplaces surrounding his work are routinely rehearsed and relayed; yes, some of his songs—amazingly varied and powerful and aesthetically superb as they are—are also relatively routinely sung. Yet Nazrul is not influential when it comes to engaging the actual content of much of his work that is decisively anticapitalist, anticolonial, anticommunal, and antipatriarchal. Although Nazrul is our national poet, it is really an irony of our history that his work by and large remains opposed to almost everything our national ruling classes have come to stand in for, historically speaking.
Indeed, one of the predominant areas of my research is Nazrul’s work. I’ve already written a great deal about his work. I’ve repeatedly called attention to, among other issues, the glaring antagonisms between today’s dominant ruling-class ideology and Nazrul’s own emancipatory, even revolutionary work. But I’ve also demonstrated how his poems and songs played a very powerful role in inspiring and energizing our freedom-fighters in 1971. One would do well to recall the three distinctly pronounced principles of our National Liberation Movement of 1971—equalityjustice, and dignity. I think it’s accurate to say that those principles already constituted three predominant themes in much of Nazrul’s own work. One only need consider at least two major volumes of his poems—Sammyabadi [The Communist] and Sarbohara [The Proletariat]. These volumes directly deal with the questions of equality, justice, and dignity. Thus, they underline Nazrul’s brand of revolutionary humanism and even anticipate certain political insights and inclinations of a whole host of revolutionary humanists from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, particularly including the Cuban-Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, the great Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire, the great Caribbean theorist-activist Frantz Fanon, and the African Marxist revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, just to mention but a few.
I should also point out emphatically here that although it’s customary to call Nazrul our “rebel poet”—and of course his own explosive, overtly rebellious poem “Bidrohee” is responsible for that—Nazrul is actually more than a rebel poet. By his own admissions, then, Nazrul is a revolutionary poet. That is to say, his words and works passionately underscored the need for a total rupture with the existing order of things in the interest of a radical reconstitution of society at large—a society or a world free from all forms and forces of oppression. And, of course, in a very broad and deep sense, Nazrul certainly remains alive in every protest, or in every riot, every resistance, every rebellion, and even in the possibilities of Revolution even when those possibilities sound distant and utopian to many.
  • What is your opinion about the English Zone at ULAB as well as the MUSE magazine in helping improve student education and communication?
I’m not familiar with the entire range of the English Zone’s activities. But to the extent that I can understand its role, I think it provides students with certain immediate resources geared towards improving their communication skills, thus serving as a functional organ of the English Department. I think the English Zone can increasingly organize different workshops on various aspects of language and communication in response to students’ actual needs. Further, I think it will do well to focus on things like storytelling, recitation, song-composition, even acting—among others—that can probably play effective roles in helping students improve their communication skills. In any event, what I particularly commend about the English Zone is the premium it seems to have consistently placed on the question of practice. And without practice neither knowledge nor skill is possible in my reckoning.
Now, as for the student magazine Muse, again I must admit that I haven’t read every issue, but I enjoyed reading some prose pieces and poems that appeared in Muse in the recent past. Of course, students must have their own magazine(s) that can foreground their own voices, making room for their creative and critical interventions. I think Muse has been playing a praiseworthy role in that instance with its pronounced emphasis on the question of education. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, for more daring adventures, even for exciting experiments, of which, as I have always thought, our students are capable.
  • Do you have your own custom philosophy or quote or rule that you live by?
I don’t have one specific quote or rule or philosophy in this instance. My interests range widely and even wildly, but my abiding passions in life are poetry and philosophy and politics. My passions are also Marx and music. So, when I need strength or something like that, I turn and return to poets and philosophers and political thinkers and musicians. I return to some of my very favorite poets—Rabindranath, Nazrul, Jibanananda, Audre Lorde, Roque Dalton, Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Julia de Burgos, for instance. Their words and ideas variously energize, animate, and inspire me. I listen to music every morning right after I wake up. Listening to music every morning has been my habit for many, many years. I not only love but also live music daily. I also tell myself daily that the joy of living is the joy of loving and learning and laughing. Now you might find this weird or contradictory or something else, but when I feel depressed, I keep rereading Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus (Sisyphus for me is not a symbol of failure by any means) and the Communist Manifesto with utmost zeal. And I love this great Gramsci quote that I use at the end of my email signature: “I’ve become convinced that even when everything is or seems lost, one must quietly go back to work, start again from the beginning […] I believe that I’m simply an average person who has his own deep convictions and will not trade them for anything in the world.” 
  • Any suggestions for us, the students, on how to be better at writing across genres and beyond linguistic barriers?
I think my suggestions will obviously not work for everyone, although I can’t help stating something that we all probably know but not necessarily practice. So, the things I’m going to say here are meant to be suggestions for me in the first place.
Write every day. You learn how to write by writing. You get better at writing by writing and also by revising which is also writing. So, there’s no other way than writing. If you want to be a writer, you should turn writing into a way of living itself. But in order to be able to write well and get better at writing, you should read. Read as much as you can. Read good stuff—read whatever you think is good for you—and as you read, observe the writer’s use of language or the writer’s stylistic disposition as carefully as you can. I think sometimes it’s a good thing to be influenced by great writers; while in the process, of course, you will find and even develop your own voice. As for genres and languages, well, the questions of choice and enjoyment and commitment are all important. See which genre you enjoy or for that matter which one suits you most. Also, it’s about love, really. If you love something, you will not easily quit while you will even attempt the impossible. Let me end with Che Guevara’s words then: “We are realists because we dream the impossible.” 


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