Award-winning novelist Tahmima Anam always knew she wanted to be a writer. She earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Royal Holloway at the University of London. But she says she had to study anthropology at Mount Holyoke and complete a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard before she could commit herself to writing the Bengal trilogy that catapulted her to success.
“Anthropology is about the study of otherness,” she said during a Launching Leadership conversation earlier this year. “And novels are about being other and writing about otherness. And in order to get inside the minds of other people, to really understand them in a way that makes it so that somebody who is reading your book will also understand them … I think that requires a deep understanding of otherness.”
The Bengal Trilogy — the novels “A Golden Age,” “The Good Muslim” and “The Bones of Grace” — chronicles the lives of women from three different generations of the same family, from the Bangladesh war of independence to the present day. Anam herself was born to Bangladeshi parents who were revolutionaries. But she grew up all over the world thanks to her father’s job at the UN. While she felt like she had inherited the values her parents espoused, going to Bangladesh wasn’t always a “coming home” experience.
“I just wasn’t comfortable in my skin,” she said. “The experience of otherness is fundamental to my being, but it wasn’t until I took those anthropology classes that I really began to think about it as an intellectual problem or question.”
Indeed, while studying anthropology at Mount Holyoke, Anam also started to experience several intellectual awakenings — not only about her studies but herself.
“When I was here and when I was dreaming of my life as a writer, it was a dream,” she said. “And I got to take myself seriously, and I had people in my life who were pushing me and reminding me of who I could be.”
Anam’s most recent book, “The Startup Wife,” is based on what she calls her “day job”: serving on the board of her husband’s tech company. Initially, she considered publishing the novel under a pseudonym because it is so different from her earlier work. But everyone in her life convinced her otherwise. The book — and Anam — could strive for more, they insisted.
It parallels her experience at Mount Holyoke.
“I definitely felt when I was here that my exuberance and my ambition and my drive were not something to be feared,” she said. “And I think that is an enormous privilege that we get to be here and say, ‘OK, I’m going to be extraordinary.’ And the person next to you, whether it’s your friend or your advisor, is like, ‘Yes, that is what I expect.’”
Class Year: 1997
Major: Anthropology, South Asian Studies