Tahmima Anam: ‘A lot of my feminist rage was born when I read The Bell Jar’ | Books

My earliest reading memory
My first language is Bangla, and I can remember my father reading Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala – about a refugee who longs for his daughter – and trying to figure out the letters.

My favorite book growing up
The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone, starring Sesame Street’s Grover. It has it all – an unreliable narrator, a great buildup of suspense, and a twist at the end.

The book that changed me as a teenager
I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath when I was only 12 years old. The scene after she had an abortion made a lasting impact on me. I think a lot of my feminist rage may have been born in that moment.

The writer who changed my mind
Nora Ephron. As a teenager, I was obsessed with When Harry Met Sally, and a friend gave me a copy of the screenplay. The dialogue and pacing are obviously brilliant, but it taught me that writing we consider light – about love, for instance – can also move us deeply and change us forever. I don’t think I really internalized that lesson until I wrote my fourth novel, The Startup Wife.

The book that made me want to be a writer
It is a cliche that a South Asian writer of a certain age will name Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I cannot claim to be original here – that book blew open the doors of possibility for me. I realized I could write a novel with my own history at its center.

The book I came back to
I read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House when I was too young to understand Nora. I found her passive and petulant. It wasn’t until years later, after I became a mother myself, that I fully understood what it took for her to leave the security of her marriage and choose a life of freedom.

The book I reread
Every few years, I reread Beloved by Toni Morrison, because it reminds me of the pure revolutionary magic of that novel. She shaped history itself, giving every novel that comes after it something to aspire to, like a beacon of light. She built the church, we are all just worshippers.

The book I could never read again
There is a kind of hegemony to the canon that is deeply damaging. I was raised on a diet of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, whereas I really should have been reading Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. We are taught that there is a certain standard of greatness, whereas novelists are constantly reinventing what the novel can do. I used to love Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and I still admire it, but it doesn’t have the hold on me that it used to.

The book I discovered later in life
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream. Most Bangladeshi school children read this book early, but I didn’t discover it until I was at university. Written in 1905, it’s one of the earliest depictions of a feminist utopia – a world in which women benevolently rule over men using beauty and science as their guiding principles. It’s witty, angry and right on point.

The book I am currently reading
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. This novel – only 129 pages – is blowing my mind. It’s a story about Japanese picture brides: young women who immigrated to America between the wars to meet husbands they had only seen in photos. It’s written in the first person plural – almost impossible to pull off, but done here with such grace. I’m in awe.

My comfort read
Anything by Sarah Waters, but especially Fingersmith. Even though I know the plot twists, I love escaping into that dark, sweet Victorian love story.

The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam is published by Canongate. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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