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Author Abroad #5
Greetings, friends. And a warm welcome to my new subscribers! This is Author Abroad, a newsletter on books, writing, and life abroad. Today I’ll be talking about why I write, celebrating Bengali New Year, and this month’s Dhaka book club pick.
No definitive news yet about what will happen to The Golden Land when my publisher closes its doors at the end of June. As I wait, I’m exploring various options, including self-publishing, something I’d never considered. The book industry is so oversaturated right now that it may be my best option, and will certainly give me more control over marketing and promotion.
The more I learn about the industry, the more discouraged I become. According to a recent article entitled “The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing” that’s been circulating among authors lately, the number of books being published has exploded. An estimated 3 million books are now published in the US each year, 2 million of which are self-published. Meanwhile the marketplace value for books shrunk by 38% between the years 2000 and 2022 when adjusted for inflation. The result is that an average book sells less than 300 copies over its entire life. While some writers manage to earn a living as an author, most of us earn well below minimum wage when you consider how much time and labor goes into writing a book.
So, why do it? Why do so many people feel compelled to write in the face of so little compensation or recognition? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as I suspect it’s different for each of us. I write for the same reason I read, which is to understand the world around me. Writing helps me process my thoughts, experiences, and feelings. It’s my way of exploring those questions I don’t know how to answer, yet can’t seem to get out of my head. I especially love reading and writing fiction because of the way it connects us to others, allowing us to see the world from a different vantage point. Speaking of which, here’s my quote of the month, which comes from a Writer’s Digest essay by Balli Kaur Jaswal:
“The beauty of fiction is in the agency the author gives to the reader…the discoveries that the reader makes for themselves, and the spaces between their experiences and their imaginations.”
A good novel is a kind of spiritual treasure hunt where each clue builds on the previous one, expanding our hearts and minds with every new discovery. When done well, it leaves us in awe, transformed by a sense of connection and renewal.
Shortly after my last newsletter, my husband and I were invited to lunch at a colleague’s house to celebrate Bengali New Year (Pohela Boishakh) and Indigenous New Year (Boishabi). It was still Ramadan, so most Bangladeshis were fasting during daylight hours, but the woman who invited us was Buddhist. (For reference, Muslims represent 91% of the population of Bangladesh, Hindus 8%, Buddhists 0.6%, and Christians 0.3%.) Joining us were several other Bangladeshi friends and colleagues, including a Christian, a Hindu, a non-practising Muslim (who ate his lunch with relish!), and a practicing Muslim (who graciously served the food while maintaining his fast!) “I like to bring my children here as often as I can to expose them to people of other faiths and cultures,” he told us after lunch. Given the long history of religious tension in the country, it was refreshing to see how merrily they all got along, laughing and teasing each other all afternoon.
In the final days of Ramadan, the daily temperature in Dhaka reached 106°F/41°C, which translated to 113°F/45°C with humidity factored in. I truly don’t know how those who were fasting could make it through the day without even a sip of water. Eid-ul-fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan began on April 22nd and lasted for four days. Eid is a holiday typically spent with family, so many Bangladeshis took the opportunity to return to their home of origin in the rural areas. According to the local newspaper, 8.5 million SIM cards left Dhaka during the four-day weekend. Of course, some people might have two or more SIM cards and others none, but this gives you an idea how empty the streets of Dhaka were that weekend. On the first evening of Eid, we were invited to another delicious dinner at a colleague’s home. Meat is prized in Bangladeshi cuisine, so there were at least six different meat and seafood dishes, and at least as many desserts! The generous hospitality of the Bangladeshi people continues to amaze me.
My Dhaka book club pick last month was The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh (1995). It’s hard to know how to describe this genre-bending novel. Part historical fiction, part science fiction, and part medical thriller, it has a bit of a dystopian slant, a ghost story, and some Indian mysticism all mixed in! Moving back and forth between New York City in the near future and India in the 1990s and 1890s, The Calcutta Chromosome proposes an alternate context for Sir Ronald Ross’s Nobel prizewinning discovery that malaria is transmitted by mosquitos.
I’m a big fan of Amitav Ghosh. I particularly loved The Glass Palace, which was one of the inspirations for my own novel, The Golden Land. However, The Calcutta Chromosome is not Ghosh’s best work. I like a novel where I have to work a little, drawing my own inferences from various clues in the text, but this one was so complex that I missed several key plot revelations. Initially I thought this might be a reflection of my distracted mental state, but the reality is that a well-written novel will carry me away with it regardless of how scattered I may feel. (That’s what I love about novels.) My theory is that The Calcutta Chromosome was an early draft, which had some truly brilliant ideas but needed a little more fine-tuning before being published. Still, I have to admire Ghosh for the beauty of his prose and the sheer complexity of the plot.
That’s all for this month. As always, let me know if you have any questions or suggestions for future editions.
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