Tahmima Anam ‘As a woman, I’m aware of the limitations of tech’

Readers may know Tahmima Anam as the author of a trilogy of sombre, lyrical novels centred on the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence and its fallout: A Golden Age (2007), which won the Commonwealth writers’ prize for best first book and was shortlisted for the Guardian first book award; The Good Muslim (2011); en The Bones of Grace (2016). She constructed that fictional world largely around the memories of her relatives in Bangladesh, who endured those times – it doesn’t mirror her own experience. Born in Dhaka in 1975, four years after the war, Anam grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok, went to college in New England and now lives in London. When she travelled to Bangladesh she used to feel “like I didn’t belong”, sy sê. “Those books were my way of putting myself back into that identity. I would wake up, sit down at my desk, cry all day and write, and then I would turn my computer off and go to sleep. If you feel, as I did, a very complex relationship to a place, writing a book about it is a great way to stake your claim: that is my country, that is my history.”

But in her new book, she stakes her claim in the present. The Startup Wife is no elegiac history novel: it’s a jauntily apocalyptic, stealthily philosophical and darkly funny romcom about a young Bangladeshi-American scientist, Asha Ray, who founds a tech startup with her “encyclopedically brilliant” Wasp husband, Cyrus Jones. “There was something extremely liberating about writing this book,” Anam says now. “It came from me as an immigrant, as a woman, becoming aware of some of the limitations of this new world of tech that promises everything; and how hard it is for a woman to make her way in the world.” And this time it’s a world that she knows first hand, because Anam, like her heroine, is a startup wife herself.

Vir meer as 'n dekade, Anam and her husband Roland Lamb, the CEO of the music tech company ROLI (she is on the board), lived in Hackney, east London, a five-minute walk from his office. They married in 2010, shortly after ROLI launched. “Our marriage and the startup are exactly the same age,” she observes. “The life we have, that startup world, our physical home, it’s been framed by the business. It’s like one of our children.” As we talk she extols her husband’s inventions, including the LUMI, a “way for people to learn the piano with a light-up keyboard”. Maar, unlike Asha in The Startup Wife, Anam did not co-found her husband’s startup, or have anything to do with the tech. And they’ve recently moved, with their two real children, to north London. “We decided during the pandemic that we needed to start having a life that was not right next to the office,” she explains. “We needed as a family to have an identity that was not totally subsumed by ROLI.”

In The Startup Wife Asha is obsessed with science, and besotted with her husband. While she toils in an AI lab at MIT, seeking to endow machines with human empathy, Cyrus devises meaningful secular ceremonies for people who want to mark life’s milestones without “the baggage of religion”. When Asha, in a eureka moment, discovers she can harness his thought processes for an algorithm that generates customised ceremonies – yoga funerals, atheist prayers, cat baptismsthey attach her algorithm to a social networking platform they name WAI (“We Are Infinite”).

WAI catches the attention of a secretive, well-funded tech startup incubator in Manhattan called Utopia. Its state-of-the-art headquarters houses a stable of companies that share Utopia’s brightly doomy “post-world world” ethos. Among them are the app Consentify, which aims to “make every sexual encounter safe, traceable, and consensual” by having its enrollees “sign a contract every time you want to touch someone”; another, Obit.ly, invites members to curate their posthumous social media presence. One startup, LoneStar, intends to protect the animal population by injecting humans with a vaccine derived from the saliva of the lonestar tick, which causes lifelong intolerance of meat and dairy. (That tick, by the way, exists.) At the more permissive end of the Utopia spectrum, another company sells a tiny clip-on vibrator, Flitter, furnishing women with discreet sexual release at any time – “a handbag essential”. When Utopia admits WAI to the collective, the startup goes viral. Will Asha’s marriage survive, if tech worshippers hail Cyrus as a new messiah – “the Jesus, Abraham and Mohammed of the age”?

Unlike those earlier books, “writing Asha’s story was a really joyful experience,” Anam says. First of all, it’s full of expletives. “I feel like: ‘Hey, that’s Asha, saying the F-word whenever she wants!’ It was great to inhabit the voice of a person who is a lot more free to be herself.” Adding to the fun, last year she created a fake website for the Utopia collective just to see what would happen. Duped venture capitalists emailed the site asking how they could invest. Their mistake was natural: the startups she invented for this book are plausible enough to have real-life counterparts.

Nevertheless, despite the freedom she felt while writing the book, once it was finished, she had misgivings. She asked her publisher to let her use a pseudonym; they dissuaded her. “It was very hard for me to square those books I had written before with this one, because it was such a departure,” she explains. Roland reassured her: “In life, you’re all about the comedy, so this is much more you," hy het gesê. “And it’s true,” Anam says. “Asha’s voice sounds more like the way I speak.”

Despite the difference in voice, strong threads connect all four books, carrying through the author’s abiding preoccupations. One of these is ritual; the social and religious acts that strengthen a community. In The Golden Age, they arise organically, tied to religion and family, as when the young widow Rehana Haque (her story inspired by Anam’s maternal grandmother) holds an annual garden party for her children, to mark the date when she regained custody of them. She buys them new suits of clothes, makes lemonade and special biryani, and hires a jilapi-wallah to fry up sugary loops of hot dough. In The Startup Wife, the rituals are curated showpieces, highlighting the effort that goes into conferring meaning on landmark events unattached to established tradition. One of these is the wedding Cyrus dreams up for two classicists. The bride wears a gown and veil made entirely of strips cut from pages of the Iliad. During the ceremony, bride and groom tear off the paper strips until the bride is revealed wearing only shorts and an “I heart Homer” T-shirt.

It was the idea of ritual that prompted Anam to write The Startup Wife, sy sê. She was not raised with religion; both her parents were revolutionaries in the 1971 war, which was “the defining moment of their lives”. Vandag, her parents live in Dhaka, where her father is a “very outspoken” newspaper editor, and her mother is a human rights activist. They visit their daughter in London every year in April for Bengali New Year.

“There should be a way to get secular, non-religious rituals for people who still want those things," sy sê. “I mean, I would quite like to have a baptism for my kid – something to acknowledge the start of life – but I’m not Christian. And I can’t, as an atheist Muslim, have a bar mitzvah for my son. If you don’t belong to those faith traditions, you just don’t have a way to access those.” She pauses. “I have always envied people who have a strong attachment to a religion. It gives you a schedule, it gives you a structure.”

Yet the other thread that connects the Bangladesh trilogy with The Startup Wife is Anam’s sharp exposure of the menacing draw of ideological fervour of any kind. In the wake of the 2016 Brexit vote and US election, Anam says, she has recognised the increasingly harmful role that social media can play in society, sowing division in families and fomenting unrest. “The all-encompassing power that was represented by religion in The Good Muslim is represented by tech in this book," sy sê. “I think the message in both cases is the danger of blind belief.”

The only ideology she will stand up for at the moment is belief in science. Toe die pandemie aanbreek, she observes, “Wwe were putting all our hopes and dreams into these scientists who were going to give us a vaccine. And then they did. And it was amazing. I’ve had the vaccine, and the day I got it, I just felt so moved.”





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