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     Volume 2 Issue 140 | October 18 , 2009|


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"Bangladeshi students are full of great potential"--Dr. Sharmila Sen

Interview taken by Tanzina Rahman and Sumaiya Ahsan Bushra

Dr. Sharmila Sen, General Editor for the Humanities at Harvard University Press, USA, visited Bangladesh on a two-week visit to conduct a workshop and teach a course on 'British Colonialism and English Writing' at BRAC University.

Following is an interview with Dr. Sen regarding her experience in conducting the programme.


About Dr. Sharmila Sen: Sharmila Sen was born in India and grew up in Calcutta until the age of 12 when she moved to the United States. She received her BA from Harvard University and her PhD from Yale University in English literature. From 1999 to 2006, Sharmila was a professor of English at Harvard. In 2006, she was appointed General Editor for the Humanities at Harvard University Press. Sharmila's area of research and teaching is postcolonial anglophone literature from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia. She is married to Rupinder Singh, an architect, and has three children, Ishani, Milan, and Kabir. Sharmila lives with her husband and children in Cambridge, MA. This was her second visit to Dhaka.

Star Campus (SC): Why did you feel it necessary to explore 'British Colonialism' in particular?
Dr. Sharmila Sen (SS): If we look at the literature being taught in the English departments in Bangladeshi universities with some important exceptions of course - we see that majority of it covers either the British or the American literature. Apart from touching these two poles, the immediate focus goes towards the South Asian literature, which mainly consists of the novels written by the Indian writers. By restricting the students to these texts (either texts about the “West” or texts about “us”), I feel we are giving them a limited education. This is such a large world. Exploring other literary traditions which are neither Euro-American nor South Asian such as Caribbean texts allow the students an opportunity to discover different parts of the world. This is an important aspect of their formation as educated Bangladeshis as well as global citizens in the twenty-first century.

SC: Learning Caribbean literature may seem somewhat new to the students who have been concentrating on British and American literature. How did you decide on the syllabus or explain the content for their better understanding?
SS: It is relatively challenging to select a syllabus for a short period of time since Caribbean literature is not about one single nation. One can only present a general perception about the Caribbean content and the relations between these countries.

For a two-week course, we chose the Guyanese's writer- David Dabydeen's first novel The Intended. The book was published in 1991 and it portrays the story of a young Asian student abandoned in London by his father. Students found it very interestng to learn about the immigrant experience of West Indians and Asians in London of the 1970s. The first two or three days I introduced them to the British Colonialism and Caribbean writings. Since I think of “postcolonial” as a way of reading, not a way of writing, it is not the 'what', but the 'how' that I like to focus on in class.

SC: How do you think in a country like Bangladesh, students are expected to respond when they are taught Caribbean literature under a programme?
SS: Bangladeshi students are full of great potential. The small group that I was taught at BRAC University were remarkably curious and willing to step out of their comfort zones. We had good discussions in class and I found them to be as thoughtful as any student I have taught in other parts of the world. We had discussion sessions and focus groups on topics like race and culture and its relation to the Caribbean texts. We also tried to remember our own contexts so that our discussions were not simply tired reiterations of the usual clichés about postcolonial societies, but more subtle and honest conversations which were rooted in the reality of reading this novel in Dhaka at this very moment.

SC: Tell us something about your experiences in teaching at BRAC U?
SS: This is my second time visiting BRAC. I came here seven years ago, when I conducted a workshop on Post-Colonial Theory, Pedagogy and Literature. The teachers of BU, Dhaka University and other private universities located in Dhaka attended the workshop. Like last time, I enjoyed teaching here very much even though it was for a very brief period of time. Since each visit has been so short I feel like these are only the beginning of a longer conversation, the start of a rich intellectual exchange, the first phase of a great adda. I am not always sure how much I am able to offer to my students. But I know for sure that they give me new insights, energy, and inspiration. I also enjoy being able to have academic discussions in Bangla which is after all my first language. Though my formal intellectual formation has been in English, Bangla has been a language that shapes the way I see the world. Since I do not get many chances to talk about scholarly matters in Bangla in the West, I relish that opportunity here. Speaking in Bangla also allows me to reformulate, revise, and reassess ideas I have read, written, or discussed in English. Language really does make a difference in the way we see the world. Coming to Dhaka is like getting a little much-needed linguistic, and by extension intellectual, shot in the arm for me.



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