Tuhin Das is a Bangladeshi poet and the author of many poetry collections in Bengali. Exile Poems: In the Labyrinth of Homesickness, however, published on April 26, 2022, was his debut in the United States. Following threats and persecution, Tuhin was forced to flee his home country and became the ICORN resident in Pittsburgh, United States, where he remains as Writer-in- Residence at City of Asylum, Pittsburgh.
ICORN: As your new book details your journey of exile and finding a new home in Pittsburgh, have you been able to find any new inspirations there?
Tuhin Das: The greenery of Pittsburgh comforts me. I try to find inspiration and joy in literature, jazz, painting, sculptures, and people. I enjoy global cuisine and the sweet wine here. My hometown Barishal has a river called Kirtankhola. When I felt depressed, I used to go to her. Pittsburgh is crisscrossed by three rivers: Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio. I had no idea a city could have three rivers! I wanted just one! In my early exiled months, when I faced heavy moments of alienation, I went to these riverbanks and sat beside them and thought about the complexity and hope of my life. A river has a mission to go to the sea. My mission is to become a free human being. I am a poet. I believe poetry and life are two streams of the same river.
ICORN: Has the response of your audience back in Bangladesh changed since you moved to the US? If so, in what ways?
Tuhin Das: By coming to live in exile, I lost most of my audience. In Bangladesh, I was a writer cum editor. I had my own distribution channel to send my magazines and books to all the main cities. I remember the names of my readers to whom I shipped my work, reaching those literary souls around my country. I miss them. It is one of the biggest losses I have ever had, although I am still connected to the writers, readers, editors, illustrators, painters, and publishers through social media. Because I am not physically there, my work is published less in Bangladesh than before exile. Sometimes social media has more power than written words in a book or magazines. Some of my followers are from Islamist groups. I thought since I don’t live there anymore, their reactions to me could be different now. Maybe they could have forgotten about me. But I have found that many have nursed anger and hatred about me in their minds. Some Islamists are happy I don’t live in Bangladesh anymore, that my leaving has made the country holier. According to them, a non-Muslim is an infidel. I will never be able to change this narrow mentality because my background is not Muslim.
ICORN: Living in exile is not easy- to what extent have audiences in the US engaged with your work and what responses have there been to the news of your upcoming book?
Tuhin Das: Through giving readings in Pittsburgh and getting published in the US, I’ve learned that American readers are interested more in my immigrant experience rather than my abstract writings. People enjoy the references to landmarks of Pittsburgh and my hometown Barishal in Exile Poems: In the Labyrinth of Homesickness, which was published on April 26, 2022. My readers comment on my connection to my home and my values around Bengali secular culture and language. This book did not follow the usual path to publication—Exile Poems has not been published in Bengali. I wrote this book at Comma House during my residency at City of Asylum Pittsburgh, who commissioned the translation by Arunava Sinha. During this time period, I was pretty hard on myself. Arunava’s translations clearly transmit the feelings I put into these poems for English readers. I was introduced to him through Words Without Borders magazine. In 2017, the first poem of the manuscript was published in Words Without Borders. They just published another poem from Exile Poems right before the publication date! A fellow Pittsburgh writer recommended my manuscript to my publisher Bridge & Tunnel Books. I’m getting positive reviews from newspapers and magazines in Pittsburgh and beyond.
ICORN: Your poems characterise exile as both lonely but also a time of hope and new beginnings- what feelings were predominant during the process of publishing your first book in the US?
Tuhin Das: In this book, I worked in the form of literary journalism. I wrote about the sanctuary that I have been offered by the US, my love for family and the land where I spent three decades of my life, as well as disturbing political events that occurred in Bangladesh. In this book, I say that secularism is the only future for Bangladesh; Bengali is our only identity. The Islamist ideology turns into poison for society. State terrorism is another issue in these poems. I didn’t praise or criticize the West in this book. I just wrote what I was feeling. People sometimes say about me: “He is still homesick!” But an exiled individual’s psychological crisis is bigger than that. Living abroad gives me a continuous feeling of cultural homelessness. Often it is painful, confusing, and misleading. Living immigrant life is like standing on two boats on the water. The process of publishing a book in the US was one of the hardest challenges that I tackled in exile. I learned about working with a translator and English editor—I had to add endnotes to the translation because my new English-speaking audience would likely not understand the Bengali references. I also had to adjust to a different publication timeline due to working in the US literary market during the pandemic—from translation to publication date, it took five years. One of the main goals for this book was to document my immigration journey, and I’m glad to share it with a wide audience.
ICORN: Finally, now you have been able to publish your first book in the US- what is next for you, for Bangladesh and for Pittsburgh?
Tuhin Das: Exile Poems is my first book in the US, and I can promise that this is not my last book in this part of the world. Currently, I have some ambitious writing projects. During my ICORN residency, I have written a novel in my home language Bengali, titled Pratyakhyata, which translates as Rejected. I portrayed a family’s experience growing up as a religious minority in Bangladesh and the discrimination they faced. I want to see it translated. In the last scene of the novel, the protagonist was forced to leave the country. So, this novel is a shadow of my life. I plan to write a sequel of this novel to trace this character’s experience becoming an immigrant. I have an idea for a novella whose characters belong to a cultural group in Bangladesh in order to portray what is happening in my home country while suggesting new ways to protest and raise the awareness of the general public from the underground. Currently, I’m writing another poetry book of literary journalism. I want to see Bangladesh continues its development as a secular country by putting more pressure on Islamist groups. For Pittsburgh, the first African American mayor came into office in 2022, and I hope it will bring the social change and a more liveable city of residents demanded by Pittsburghers.
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Exile Poems: In the Labyrinth of Homesickness was published by Bridge & Tunnel Books. Click here to purchase.
This interview was conducted by Elizabeth Mashova, Communication and Outreach Coordinator at ICORN.