Jaishree Misra is the author of eight novels published by Penguin and Harper Collins in the UK. Her most recent work is a non-fiction account of building a writer's studio by the sea in Kerala, India. Her work spans literary fiction, commercial fiction, a comedy of manners and a work of historical fiction. She flew down to Bangladesh from the UK for the Dhaka Lit Fest 2018, where she attended several sessions as a panellist and offered two workshops in Chattogram as part of an outreach programme organised by the British Council. Jaishree gave us an exclusive interview, where she talked about her experience at the Dhaka Lit Fest, as well as her connection with the British Council.
Tell us about yourself. How do you like to identify yourself?
JM: Like everybody else, I am a composite of different (and seemingly disparate) identities - woman, writer, teacher, mentor, Indian, British, daughter, wife, mother etc. I generally don't identify myself as a writer unless someone specifically asks me what I do. This is possible because I don't consider writing to be the most important thing, I spend time on, increasingly finding more satisfaction in my voluntary work.
You wrote fiction, non-fiction and in many more genres. What makes you so versatile when you think of writing?
JM: As a writer, it's essential for me to keep myself entertained as I write, so that's probably where the versatility comes. I would get rather bored if I kept writing the same sort of thing. Hence the to-ing and froing between literary fiction, commercial fiction, historical fiction and now, as you mention, non-fiction!
How was your impression about Dhaka Lit Fest before coming to Bangladesh?
JM: I must admit a slight apprehension before coming to Dhaka Lit Fest (DLF) as I'd heard about Bangladesh's blogger killings and that terrifying terrorist attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in 2016. It didn't help too when PEN International wrote to me as an invitee to the festival, drawing attention to the jailing of Shahidul Alam and urging us to join in their campaign to free him and repeal the new Digital Act. I felt quite out of my depth at that point but decided that it was quite admirable for the Dhaka Lit Fest organisers to carry on their work in the face of such odds. They deserved to be supported, I felt, and are to be lauded, not criticised, for creating such a well-received platform that encourages debate and freedom of expression. I was especially impressed, once I got there, to see how many young people were thronging the venue. There's apparently a massive appetite for such events in Dhaka.
Your third book, A Scandalous Secret was released in May 2011, at the Hay-on-Wye festival. Tell us something about the festival, as here in Bangladesh, Dhaka List Fest started its journey as Hay-on-Wye.
JM: A Scandalous Secret was released in May 2011, at the Hay-on-Wye festival. Hay-on-Wye is a tiny little town on the edge of Wales, but it is famous for having over twenty bookshops and, of course, it’s now famous book festival. Many years ago, the organisers started hosting the festival in far-flung corners of the world, and my hometown in Trivandrum in Kerala also hosted it twice. I found that Dhaka had also been home to it for a couple of years when Lyndy Cooke (who used to be one of the chief organisers) emailed to say I was lucky to be going to such a lively festival as DLF.
What was the highlight of the festival for you? What did you enjoy most?
JM: To me, the highlight of Dhaka Lit Fest was the vast and highly engaged crowds at all the events. There seems to be a genuine love of books and writing in the air. I loved it when the bookshop man told me he had sold every single copy of all my books!
How was your experience in Chattogram? Was there anything remarkable that you will remember?
JM: And in addition to my experience was my short trip to Chattogram. I was very impressed by Bistaar, Chattogram Arts Complex I was taken to, clearly a labour of love by a Canadian 'returnee' and a lovely space for young people to hang out and connect with other like-minded artists. The story of ‘Returnees' was one I kept hearing during my time in Bangladesh. It sounds like a lot of Bangladeshis who were living abroad made a conscious choice to return to their homeland in the ’70s to help in its repair and development. I was touched by this story and by the fact that so many excellent projects (Dhaka Lit Fest, Dhaka Art Summit, Dhaka Folk Festival) are privately funded by people who feel so invested in the development of their country. It's an attitude, governments and the world over should be studying to emulate!
Is there a special memory that you will cherish about Dhaka?
JM: In Dhaka Lit Fest, I loved the fact that each of us writers got assigned a dedicated student volunteer. Not only were they very likeable and efficient young people, I think we learnt so much from each other. My friend's student-volunteer got very upset when she took off by herself for an evening walk. 'Supposing you had got assassinated!?' he asked when my friend got back. 'Well, that would have been a bit inconvenient,' my friend replied.
You received the Charles Wallace scholarship through the British Council, and later moved to the UK for Higher Education. How was your impression about the British Council back then?
JM: I came to know about the British Council when I was very young. At the beginning of my university life, I went to the British Council offices in Delhi a few times to get information about University admissions and scholarships. They were always helpful and informative, but there was a strong sense growing at the time that getting into a US university was more likely to lead to financial support somewhere along the way. The choice for Indian students even back then was veering towards America except for die-hard Anglophiles like me. Perhaps it was my early fascination for English writers and my subsequent postgraduate qualification in English Literature that made me feel so interested and loyal to the idea of Britain. Later I was awarded a scholarship by the Charles Wallace for India Trust to complete my course in Special Education.
If you were given a chance to come back again to develop a project with the British Council, how will the project look like?
JM: If I were given a chance to plan something for the British Council, it would almost certainly have to be something to do with creative writing and young people. I picked up a strong sense that Bangladesh has a primarily educated population, full of people who love books and paper. At my session at Bistaar, I found the audience of college teachers and literature students so profoundly engaged and keen, we could have carried on talking well into the day if it had not been for my afternoon session. I would love to help ignite interest in writing projects in an open place like Bangladesh.