‘Make Space’ in conversation with Ahmedur Rashid Chowdury (known as Tutul)
'When I was at school I loved reading books, and it was because I was a reader that I became a writer. Then because I was a writer, I became an editor, and I started editing my magazine Shuddhashar. As an editor, after 15 years, I started my publishing house, and became a publisher too. So it was reading books that influenced and inspired me to do all of this: writing, editing, and publishing.
Personally, I am influenced by so many writers whose books I’ve read. When I read, if what I’m reading is something I can feel - in my heart or in my mind - it makes me want to write. In the early stages of my writing career, I fell in love with French surrealism and that really influenced me. Then I started to spread my reading with wider wings, and so many things inspired me.
Now, I write poetry just for myself; I don’t want to publish them or share them with readers or other people. But I have a lot of poetry published already. The poems cover political themes, but with absurd and abstract images. For example, in 2015 there was an incident where some people threw black paint over a writer in India, assaulting him. I wrote about that, but not directly; I don’t write in a descriptive way. I like to express my thinking, my opinions, my imagination in abstract form.
Many people have read my writing, but I’m not trying to be popular. People might like my work, but that’s not my target. When I started writing, I also started editing my magazine. It’s a little magazine and was founded with an anti-establishment concept. The people who wrote for it weren’t being published by other, popular magazines, because for these magazines there were lots of limitations in terms of what the work had to be, and - for example - anti-government and anti-religious sentiments would get edited out. So our magazine was for people to sidestep censorship and print things as they wanted to say them.
I started my publishing house in 2004 and published more than 1000 books: poetry, novels, short stories, prose… but I also published some books that broke social taboos. Stories about homosexuality, atheist narratives, science-related themes, things like that. This was a time in Bangladesh when Islamic terrorism became very strong and I started receiving threats. Writers were being killed and so I was worried. But when I spoke to the police, they just advised me that Bangladesh was not suitable for the kind of publishing I was doing. After that, more and more bloggers and writers were killed every week. I changed all of my daily routine and route, my office hours, all these things. Then one day I went to my office having not been there for five days. A group of young boys came to the office saying they’d come to look at books, and they attacked members of my staff, attacked my friends, and attacked me. I was shot.
I spent ten days in hospital but no one would give me shelter after that; my friends and relatives were scared. So I moved to Nepal with my family and after two months there I was invited to Norway as an ICORN guest writer.
I am trying to overcome this trauma; I’m trying to write. I have published two issues of my magazine online since January, which has been a really big achievement. There'll be another one very soon. But it’s hard; I had a different working environment at home. I was used to my office, my chair, my table… home was made up of all my habits. I’ve been depressed. But people can overcome any situation and I hope I will overcome this too.
The role of literature - I think - is to role-play for reality. It’s a very powerful media. It can make human beings more secular, more democratic. Literature has beauty and decoration but I also think literature is a tool to express human rights, free speech, political clarity, everything. Stories are important. I want to use my magazine to help writers in prison and at risk, and to change the situation, not just in Bangladesh, but around the world.’