Gemini Wahhaj’s debut novel, The Children of This Madness (7.13 Books, 2023), is both a modern tale about a Bengali family living in Houston and a historical novel set during tumultuous and important decades for Bangladesh. The present-day narrative follows Beena, a PhD student in literature. While Beena is considered something of an odd duck by other engineers in the Houston Bengali community, she sees many of them serving the same corporate masters she sees destroying Iraq. Her story dovetails with that of her father, Ketu, who grows up in East Pakistan in the aftermath of 1947 Partition and eventually becomes an engineering professor. Ketu travels first to Canada, then to Iraq, and then back to East Pakistan, which has recently become Bangladesh. The past, as always, sheds light on the current moment, but readers will begin to understand how contemporary inhabitants fail to understand their history—even when it is so closely related to them.
Author Gemini Wahhaj came to the United States for college and has been here ever since. Although she started her career as an engineer, she received a PhD in creative writing from the University of Houston and is currently associate professor of English at Lone Star College.
During our Zoom conversation, Wahhaj shed light on the Bengali community in Houston, where she has lived for many years. Just one week from launching her book, Wahhaj and I talked about Texas, what it means to write an “American novel,” and those kick-ass Bengali women of the 1960s and seventies, whose fierce ambitions took them all over the world.
The Rumpus: Your novel begins with an epigraph from a poem by Saadi Youssef, from which you also take the novel’s title. I wondered if we might start with you talking a bit about this poem and the poet?
Gemini Wahhaj: Saadi Youssef is an Iraqi poet who lived in exile after fleeing the country because of Saddam Hussein, during a time when Hussein was hunting down people on the left. The poem, “A Friendship,” is about centuries of violence and how the ordinary people of Iraq have suffered here, there, and everywhere. Ultimately, the poem is also an extension of friendship—no matter what happens in history, let us stay connected, stay friends. There’s a universal feeling to it. The poem is also talking about how we’re a new generation, we can chart our way in the world, so that we can be whatever we wish and not be bound by history. Yes, the poem is about Iraq, but I also thought it was interesting because in the novel, there are all these young people—not Iraqi but Bengali—who are charting their way.
Rumpus: The young Bengali American characters, who are Beena’s friends or perhaps the closest thing she has to friends, are first seen with the men in the living room and the women in the kitchen, very made up and wearing elaborate saris. Beena seems a bit dismissive of them, but later they rally around her in the best way they know how. There is a sense of connection among them. Is that formed purely from being Bengali in Houston?
Wahhaj: I think that’s an important aspect of the immigrant experience: you’re really grateful for affection. I guess that’s a universal experience, but within those communities, there’s solidarity. Also, it can be hard to be your own person. All my friends say that it’s like, ultimately, you might find yourself dependent on people whose views you might not agree with for affection and for shelter and sanctuary. If there’s a flood or a hurricane in Houston, I’ll probably end up staying at someone’s house with whom I’ve fought politically, or who might be a bigot. I think that’s part of my immigrant experience, and that was what came out on the paper: your world is compressed. It can be hard to be philosophical or political or an individual. As an immigrant, you’re asking people how to get immigration papers or how to find a lawyer, how to find a house. Those people become friends because you’re depending on them.
Rumpus: Beena’s father also has an expat experience, not in America but in Iraq with his family. The expat experiences are quite different, obviously, but they do intersect. I know this novel percolated for a long time, so were those dual narratives always part of your plan?
Wahhaj: Actually, in the beginning, there was no Beena. Her story was just a bookend. The big events of the novel still happened, but they were compressed. As I worked on the book, different readers were insisting they wanted to know more about Roberto [Beena’s non-Bengali friend], more about Beena. Everything else felt really distant to them. I was working on this book in graduate school and was surrounded by so many writers who always insisted on a dual narrative, an evenly dual narrative. For a while [this narrative] was all in third person, then in first person. The twenty years of writing this book was me trying to figure out what the book wanted to be. Eventually, I think it became an American novel. With an American component, with an eye in America, told from the perspective of America. And that’s the only way it became meaningful as a novel to Americans.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you’d say it’s an American novel. Some people in the U.S. may see Iraq as war-torn and repressed, struggling with poverty. That is not the family’s experience, at least not entirely. How did you give readers the necessary historical context without creating a big “info dump?”
Wahhaj: It was really hard! Early in writing the novel, I had pages and pages about Iraq, ten times more than there are now. I had to take that out to create a novel: the more I cut, the more I was able to shape it, but then I thought, “What am I saying about Iraq?” If I say, “Oh, the 1980s were great, or the seventies were great,” does that mean Saddam Hussein was great? I had to read history and figure out politically, but I wanted to keep it a bit light.
Rumpus: What do you think the novel ends up saying about Iraq?
Wahhaj: Oh, I thought you were never supposed to say what you’re trying to say! At first, it was a bit childish. I wanted to humanize the place, which is full of life, children and laughter and food. These were the card games, these were the movies, these were the foods. But there’s also this complicated history. [There is] the question: “Why am I writing about Iraq if I’m writing about Bengalis?” But all Bengalis went to Iraq—that’s how my parents’ generation made their money. There were Polish people there, and French—everyone was in the Middle East. Geopolitically, Iraq has always been really important, and its history is completely connected to Bangladesh. Partition is 1947, plus Iraq is really important in the First World War and the Second World War, and then in 1958, Iraq overthrows the king, and then Saddam Hussein comes and that moment is over.
I wanted to draw these connections because that history with Bangladesh is a kind of twin narrative. You have to add in the British—the history of my country and the history of Iraq are never separate from British history—and then American history. Plus, for Bangladesh, America is a big part of 1971. There’s a book called The Blood Telegram, which talks about how America was on Pakistan’s side, which is the side of genocide. When I came to America, nobody knew Iraq, and then suddenly it’s on the map.
Rumpus: I was fascinated by the picture of Iraq that emerges and how for Beena’s family, going there for work was such a matter-of-fact choice. Beena’s father always plans to return to Bangladesh, while the community in Houston seems much more lukewarm about returning. They seem happy in Houston with their big TVs and big jobs. When Beena’s dad comes to visit her in Houston and asks her friends when they’re returning “home,” they’re all a bit noncommittal. Could you talk about that a bit, that Bangladesh is home but then again, not really.
Wahhaj: I’ve never set out to write a diasporic novel. I’ve lived here now for so many years as a mother. It is really painful and complicated, and there’s so much to write about which this novel does not address. Most of these characters are engineers, and my impression of engineers is that they come to the U.S. thinking, “I’m going to get this job, buy this house, this car, these curtains.” That’s their plan and they really don’t look back.
I don’t mean that the process isn’t painful, not at all. It’s just who I wrote about. I used to be an engineer, and I worked with people who were like, “Look at this new computer, look at this machine that our company bought and so on.” Am I flattening these characters who are not really thinking about “why am I here” or about their experience in America? I’m not sure. I mean, the diaspora is not just a longing for home but is also really complicated and beautiful and painful, this mysterious experience abroad.
Rumpus: Do you think the engineers emerged as characters because you yourself were an engineer? Or did you want to provide contrast for Beena, who is finishing a PhD in literature?
Wahhaj: I wanted her to have something to react against and to. There’s a shift from generation to generation in terms of class. Most of our parents came from the village, from uneducated families, and they themselves get highly educated—doctors, lawyers, engineers—they’re very idealistic, very romantic. Suddenly their kids get very wealthy, in just one generation. It’s a rapid change and such a stark change in philosophy. People must be disturbed by it, right? Everything changes, and there’s a psychological aspect of that change. I wanted that in the novel, your parents didn’t have a car and then you have five cars. That’s really a mystery to me. How do I connect that with what it means to be Bengali? What does it mean to be Bengali?
Rumpus: The shifting class structures in the novel are fascinating, particularly because they fluctuate, at least for Beena’s father. But I’d like to pick up on what you just said, about being Bengali. You’ve lived in the United States since you were in college, so I’m wondering, do you refer to yourself as a Bangladeshi American writer? What would that mean?
Wahhaj: I am a Bangladeshi writer, even though there’s a lot of competition, right? There are so many narratives, so many topics that I’m not handling, plus I don’t write in Bengali. My writing is one slice of the picture. I feel confident that I want to contribute to the literature on being Bengali and Bangladeshi. Nobody has ever experienced what I’ve experienced or written about it, and that’s something to explore.
Being Bangladeshi addresses a citizenship question. Whenever anyone asks me, I say, “Bangladeshi American.” I really want to insist that I’m American. You know, once you are a parent in a country, once you raise children, then you’re inseparable. You’ve grown roots in that country because your children have known nothing but that place.
Rumpus: I have to confess that I was surprised that, in addition to being set in Bangladesh, the novel was also set in Houston—that is, “the place” of attachment. Houston, Bangladesh, and Iraq are almost like characters. As you worked on the book, was it always your intention that place was going to become such a force?
Wahhaj: Some of it was organic. I was living in Houston, so I wrote about Houston. So many decisions were organic, even at the plot level. I heard about someone marrying an Italian, so I wondered about that, about a woman who would get married to become a citizen.
The people in the novel are early immigrants. They’re not really aware of anyone else who’s not white living in America. That’s why, in the chapter where Beena is in Philadelphia visiting her brother Lenin, she suddenly notices people who aren’t white, aren’t wealthy. Otherwise, these people wouldn’t really see different neighborhoods or cultures.
Rumpus: I’m so glad to hear you bring up Roberto, who is also an expat, although because he’s Italian, his is a very different experience.
Wahhaj: Roberto becomes kind of a respite. When Beena is with other Bengalis, she feels threatened, in a way. She doesn’t necessarily approve of their choices, and she feels like they expect her to conform—that they don’t approve of her choices. She certainly disapproves of Khalid, the almost-boyfriend, because the company he works for is involved in the Iraq war. Roberto gives her some freedom, lets her find her way.
Rumpus: There is a character we haven’t really addressed yet: Beena’s mother, Rahela. She goes to Canada for Ketu’s career and then to Iraq, but these journeys come at the expense of her own ambitions. The marriage doesn’t put Beena’s dad in the most flattering light, since he ignores Rahela’s desire to pursue her psychology degree.
Wahhaj: The Bengali women in the 1960s were just incredible. They had to be incredibly independent because the path was so uncharted. Rahela isn’t even five percent as complicated as young women were in those times. Bengali women were traveling to Europe, to America. They had fierce ambitions and imagination, even while they were having families. These women would decide, “I’m going to France, I’m going to Turkey.” I wanted this character to seem more progressive or more imaginative than Beena, to be someone whose world was much larger.
I’m thinking about my mom’s generation, women who wore saris no matter where they went. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, women wore saris and lived in Canada in the snow. How incredible of them to wear saris, come to North America, and live these lives in this strange land. So very adventurous.
Rumpus: Given all the changes and shifts as you composed the novel, is this the book you wanted to write?
Wahhaj: I had the most incredible editor who helped shape things. I carry with me
the ghosts of all the previous drafts. What you write at first is so raw and so organic, and those pages are gone.
Rumpus: Actually gone?
Wahhaj: Yes, really. I’ve never been able to find it. In the first formulation of this novel, the voice came from somewhere else. I had come from somewhere else, but I’m no longer that person. I’m an American and I don’t know that voice anymore. I could never recreate it.
I think you have to move, to change, in order to make something. With my editor’s help, I was able to learn how to write a novel, which means learn how to edit a novel and give it a shape.
Rumpus: Do you have anything you can tell us about future projects?
Wahhaj: I’m a Gemini, so I’m sort of split. I want to write a diaspora novel that I started many, many times [about] how painful and complicated it is to be an immigrant and raise kids here. I’m thinking it will be with three different women coming at it from three different angles. And there’s an idea about a historical novel about a rebel poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, who has actually become popular in America. There’s something else that’s been sitting for a long time, a more historical novel about novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay, who wrote a novel about Rabindranath Tagore, Protho Alo [translated as First Light]—that’s the greatest pinnacle to me now, to write historical fiction, like Wolf Hall. I want to be a novelist like that.
Author photograph courtesy of Gemini Wahhaj