Author Tahmima Anam spent a decade writing her Bengal Trilogy – books that reflect on the Bangladesh War of Independence through the lives of one family. Her novels are filled with the struggles of war and revolution, as well as the search for cultural identity.
For her next book, which comes out in March 2021, Anam has chosen a different approach. "My new book is a rom-com," she revealed at a talk at Hay Festival Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Titled The Startup Wife, the book centres on a young computer programmer named Asha Ray who starts a tech company with her husband Cyrus Jones. After building an algorithm for a popular social media platform, their careers skyrocket – but it seems Asha's husband begins to overshadow her.
“It’s about marriage and power,” Anam said. The premise of the novel is partly inspired by her own life. Her husband is, in fact, a founder of a startup, which the author helped fund with the income from her books. She soon became part of the business and witnessed the ways of the tech industry first-hand. “People in start-ups talk about disrupting things. They want to disrupt everything, but what they don't disrupt are the fundamental structures of power. They don’t disrupt gender power, and they definitely don’t disrupt class. They maintain and fuel and perpetuate the systems of oppression that we have been living with for centuries, but they just disguise it as the new,” she said, a point that she addresses in the book.
Though The Startup Wife seems like a light-hearted departure from her previous works, the reason behind the shift was more serious. While writing her third novel The Bones of Grace, Anam gave birth to a premature baby that had to be hospitalised for the next two months. She called it a "life-changing experience", adding that her son continues to endure long-term effects because of it.
“It planted a seed of darkness inside me that I will live with forever,” she said. “It felt so dark, and the fear that this little person was not going to live made me completely change the way that I thought about what I was going to write next.”
She noted that the books in her Bengal Trilogy were linked by the tragic fate of children, whether they were killed or went missing. Her son's complicated birth compelled her to move away from that: "It was that experience of having this very vulnerable child… I wanted there to be more lightness. More of a sense of possibility."
Anam also acknowledged that another reason for this change in topic and tone had to do with her desire to “break-up” with the responsibility of telling the story of her country. Though she was born in Bangladesh, the author grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok and eventually studied in Massachusetts. Her interest in the Bangladeshi history came from her parents, who fought in the War of Independence.
Her first book A Golden Age, a historical novel about the war, was meant to be an oral history project for her PhD thesis at Harvard University. As part of her research, she returned to Bangladesh and interviewed men and women involved in the fight for a new, secular country. In these conversations, however, she realised that their stories were better suited for fiction. "When people were telling me their memories of war, they were also telling me about falling in love, their youth, their friendships that were possible because they were living through extraordinary times. And these stories did not fit into an academic text," Anam explained. She completed her PhD, but also went to work on her novel.
“It was my way of trying to claim a piece of my past and my identity … meeting people who had participated in the war, talking to them about what had happened, then going back and writing about it,” she said. That was in 2007. Then for the next nine years, she worked on the rest of the trilogy.
So when the idea of The Startup Wife came around, Anam wanted to liberate herself – if only momentarily – from the weight of such history. When she gave the manuscript to her agent, she asked for it to be pitched under a pseudonym – Rose Lanam. It was also a way to not have to reveal age or background, but to let the work stand on its own. After the book was acquired, Anam has happily claimed it as her own, even changing her Twitter handle to "Tahmima Anam aka The Startup Wife". "Now I say that this book was written by my alter-ego," she quips.