We knew each other only through our articles. I liked Tulip Chowdhury's dreamy, messy, stream of consciousness essays. She didn't trouble herself much with writing convention. Whatever captivated, be it an autumn leaf or a belief in the beyond, thoughts tumbled as a waterfall, unrefined, to ripple across the page. To my mind there is little 'western' in her approach.
A few months before we embarked on writing April she sent a Facebook friend request, randomly, to a fellow author. We chatted online for the first time and I discovered that she grew up in Sylhet and lived in the United States.
We were opposites: a Bangladeshi who admired the orderliness of the west and an Australian who, having grown up with that, favoured the unpredictability of a life juggled by chaotic Dhaka's hands. People know how to live, she might say of westerners. People are still people here, I would say.
It occurred to me that a short article with two perspectives from ends of the earth might be interesting. Tulip agreed. On further consideration we realized it might be difficult to do justice to two voices in a short piece. I was in Teknaf then, staying with Dada and Didi who I'd met at the Buddhist temple, as April 2015 approached. “How about we write a kind of shared diary for a month,” I proposed, “writing on alternate days, just to see what might happen?”
It meant our project commenced on April Fools' Day, which could seem inauspicious. But so it was. For the next thirty days e-mail drafts travelled to and fro. It was busy.
I hoped that through April it might be possible to document something of the complexity of modern living, the layers of thoughts that we can be grappling with in a single moment: searching for socks while considering the day's plans while wondering if one's life is on track while questioning what life is really about, anyway. Add a few memories, too. The modern mind is preoccupied.
Particularly with technology and enhanced communication capacity, the very speed at which life is lived has increased. If we embarked on a similar project a century earlier through letters, I might've thought vaguely about what Tulip was up to in Massachusetts but I wouldn't have known to think about how many crocus flowers had blossomed in her garden. Our distant collaboration coincidentally demonstrated a layered modern existence too.
But the process of writing a co-authored book via e-mail and Facebook was unique in other respects. Foremost was the availability of that prized cuisine authors feast upon: feedback. Writing is often solitary. April had daily response to the latest draft. Writing April was refreshingly social.
Then there were our general daily Facebook chats which ranged from book-thoughts to any topic at all. There were interesting passages appearing in the chat box that it seemed a shame for readers to miss out on. Thus the idea arrived to include Facebook chat sections between chapters. It fit nicely because it added yet another layer of modernity to the “April” experience. It was almost a way of bringing the reader into the book-writing experience.
There were other surprises. From the outset I wished to write a book that amid cross-cultural themes remained especially 'Bangladeshi,' but I hadn't thought what it might mean. The answer was staring at us, through the draft appearing on the laptop screen. Being co-authored, April was a kind of conversation. It was 'adda' of a sort, and what could be more Bangladeshi than that? This realization encouraged a more relaxed and informal tone, to hopefully allude to that adda spirit.
During the month there was little time to consider who might read April. Would our lives and thoughts through a single month hold any interest to anybody? A much larger fear was that the goal of charting the complexities of daily life wouldn't be understood.
I guess I'm a strange author since I prefer narratives that aren't actually about anything unusual. I don't like reading of murders or daring rescues. I've even been accused of being able to write an article of some interest about a grain of rice. Not that I've tried. Perhaps it's an idea for later. But nonfiction April tied in nicely with my interest in finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I just wasn't sure anybody else would like it.
Needless to say April is not truly a stream of consciousness work. Several more months were devoted to fine-tuning, rearranging and some redrafting. During this phase Tulip was very patient with my perfectionist tendencies. At the same time I thought to approach a publisher since we'd already put a lot of time into our project, a work that for us had taken on a life of its own. It was Tulip who started to refer to April as the third member of our group.
So, about midway through the self-editing I pitched the idea to Bengal Lights. I knew they sought avant-garde works from Bangladesh, in English, and that they liked the rarer nonfiction category. It was later I heard another feature had appealed: much of April is about outside-Dhaka, while perhaps the majority of contemporary writing in English in Bangladesh centers on the capital. That leaves the rest of the country particularly ripe for literature expedition.
Bengal Lights asked for a proposal. Despite their progressive tastes, I was worried our “April” might scare them. April isn't easy to classify. It's a memoir but memoirs aren't usually about a single month. It's a diary written by two people. It has Facebook in it. And being a work of nonfiction, it doesn't rise to a climax before tailing off into conclusion.
Indeed I specifically wanted it to end a little abruptly since April is an arbitrary timeframe that collides surely enough with the first of May. Our layers of thoughts and experiences competing for attention don't neatly end.
Fortunately, Bengal Lights appreciated April's' unique qualities. By November we were published. In the interim Narottama Dobey had designed a fantastic cover featuring a combination of four tea and coffee cups. The image mirrors so well the strands of daily life and narrative flavours within; as well as, of course, Bangladeshi adda.
By November there was just one thing that hadn't happened. Tulip and I still hadn't met. She was due in Dhaka the following March and I used to imagine greeting her with, “Ah yes, you must be Tulip. I believe we might have published a book together?”
Andrew Eagle, who writes for The Daily Star, and Tulip Chowdhury co-authored the nonfiction book April which was published by Bengal Lights Books in 2015. Here Andrew reflects on the book writing experience.