Tahmima Anam: “Much of my feminist rage was born when I read The Bell Jar” | Books

My first memory of reading
My first language is Bengali, and I remember my father reading Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala – about a refugee yearning for his daughter – and trying to understand the letters.

My favorite book growing up
The monster at the end of this book by Jon Stone, with Grover from Sesame Street. It has it all – an unreliable narrator, a great buildup of suspense, and a twist at the end.

The book that changed me as a teenager
I read The Bell by Sylvia Plath when I was only 12 years old. The scene after she had an abortion had a lasting impact on me. I think a lot of my feminist rage may have been born there.

The writer who changed my mind
Nora Ephron. As a teenager, I was obsessed with When Harry Met Sally, and a friend gave me a copy of the script. The dialogues and pacing are obviously brilliant, but it taught me that writing that we think of as lighthearted – about love, for example – can also move us deeply and change us forever. I don’t think I really internalized that lesson until I wrote my fourth novel, The Startup Wife.

The book that made me want to be a writer
It’s a cliché that an older South Asian writer would call Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I can’t pretend to be original here – this book opened the door to the possible for me. I realized that I could write a novel with my own story at its center.

The book I came back to
I read Ibsen’s Dollhouse when I was too young to understand Nora. I found her passive and petulant. It wasn’t until years later, after becoming a mother myself, that I fully understood what it took for her to leave the security of her marriage and choose a life of freedom.

The book that I read
Every few years, I reread Beloved by Toni Morrison, because it reminds me of the pure revolutionary magic of this novel. She shaped the story herself, giving each novel that came after it something to aspire to, like a beacon of light. She built the church, we’re all just worshippers.

The Book I Could Never Read Again
There is a sort of canon hegemony that is deeply damaging. I was brought up on the diet of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, when I really should have read Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. We are taught that there is a certain standard of greatness, as novelists are constantly reinventing what the novel can do. I loved Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and I still admire it, but it no longer has the hold it once had on me.

The book I discovered later in life
The dream of the Sultana of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Most Bangladeshi schoolchildren read this book at an early age, but I only discovered it in college. Written in 1905, it is one of the earliest representations of a feminist utopia – a world in which women rule benevolently over men using beauty and science as guiding principles. It’s witty, angry and just on point.

The book I am currently reading
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. This novel – only 129 pages – blows my mind. This is the story of Japanese photo brides: young women who immigrated to America between the wars to meet husbands they had only seen in photos. It’s written in the first person plural – almost impossible to pull off, but done here with such grace. I am impressed.

My comfort read
Anything from Sarah Waters, but mostly Fingersmith. Even though I know the twists and turns of the plot, I enjoy escaping into this dark and sweet Victorian love story.

The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam is published by Canongate. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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