What happens when a woman conceives of and creates an app — and then her husband becomes the face of the startup that monetizes it? That's the question Tahmima Anam set out to answer in the satirical novel, The Startup Wife.
The novel centers on Cyrus and Asha, who co-found a social media platform that customizes ceremonies and rituals for people who aren't religious. Asha came up with the idea, but it's Cyrus who's credited as the visionary behind the company. The novel was inspired in part by Anam's own experience as a tech outsider who unexpectedly became immersed in the world of startups.
"My husband and I were going to be academics. I mean, I was going to write novels and he was going to be a professor of Chinese philosophy," she says.
Then Anam's husband invented an app and launched a music tech company. "And I feel like the whole journey has been one of discovering the world of startups, sort of from an outsider's perspective," she says. "And that's exactly what Cyrus and Asha do."
While writing the novel, Anam had fun imagining a range of far-fetched tech startups — including a company called "EMTI" which sends subscribers an empty box which they then mail back with unwanted items. She even had a friend create a website for the fake company.
"Occasionally, when I've been talking to people in the startup world, as a joke, I will just give them the website address and not tell them that it's fake," Anam says. "For some reason, [EMTI] has been the one that people are most interested in investing. That's kind of like a little joke that I sometimes like to play on people."
On the company Asha and Cyrus create, which helps design rituals for nonreligious people
The platform is called "WAI," ... which stands for "We Are Infinite." And what it is, is a way for people to connect via rituals. So you go on the app and you tell it the things that mean something to you, your favorite cartoons, the food that you love, what's meaningful to you, important experiences that happen to you in childhood. And then you ask for a ritual. You say, "I want to get married." For instance, in the book, there are these two classicists that get married. So they have a Homerean wedding ceremony and that's what the platform gives you. And then you get to connect to other people via those rituals. So it's kind of an anti-social media [company] — "social media" in the sense that you're not talking about superficial things. You're connecting via the rituals that give your life meaning. ...
I'm not a religious person myself, but I can see how having a kind of organizing construct can be so relaxing in the world where there are so many uncertainties and giving people something to hold on to, giving [them] these kind of moments of punctuation in your life where you're looking forward to something, the baptism of your child, a bar mitzvah. ... So I thought, wouldn't it be great if we could give atheists the same kind of scaffolding that religious people have?
On her protagonist Asha making her husband the CEO, which makes him kind of a prophet
There is a real irony there, because people are obviously joining WAI because they want an alternative to organized religion, and then there they are worshipping a male visionary messiah, [a] prophet, basically. And I think the other irony is that Asha ... who creates the app and who does all the coding, and it's really her idea, when it comes down to it, she says to Cyrus, "No, you be the CEO. I'm just a coder. I'm going to sit in the background," and she lifts him up and she thinks to herself, towards the end of the book, "I literally created a platform that makes the entire world worship my husband." She does that. And this is an exaggeration of what we all sometimes do when we love someone, we lift them up. But she just does it to an absolutely intense, kind of huge, massive, exaggerated scale.
On the way some tech founders see themselves as visionaries
I think the tech world promotes the idea of the male visionary. If you think about all the people who are now basically in charge of our lives, it's mostly a series of white men, whether it's Elon Musk who's going to take us to the moon and create all the cars that we're going to be driving in the future, or Mark Zuckerberg. I mean, we may not worship them as people, but we're so dependent on them. And when it comes to male founders raising money when they're in front of the venture capitalists, I do think that there is a strong bias towards the male visionary CEO.
On being on the board of her husband's startup
I've been on the board of the company from the very beginning, and I obviously had no experience of the boardroom. And I really enjoyed thinking about writing this book the entire time that I was on that board, because one of the great pleasures of being a writer is that you get to put all of your experiences somewhere. So anytime someone cut me off or ignored me or didn't take me seriously, I thought, I'm going to write that down. So it was a way of processing that experience, which was very new for me and sometimes quite challenging, because the other half of my life was sitting quietly in a room and writing books, which had nothing to do with the startup world until I wrote this book. ... Imagining this novel was a great way of processing the actual experience I was having, both sitting on the board watching people interact with me, but also watching the changes that my husband was going through as he went from being a sort of quiet academic to being everyone's boss.
On calling out sexist and racist language when she hears it
There is so much sexist language embedded [in the business environment.] ... So, for instance, men will commonly say, "Well, they're already pregnant, they might as well have the baby," when they're talking about someone who's so invested in you, they're just going to give you more money or something like that. Or they'll say, "We should open the full kimono," which is both sexist and kind of racist. ... I think we need to be able to say out loud that language means something and a joke, even in the most kind of flippant way, is a representation of our actual values. So I hope that I can be more like Asha and less like the me that was just silently filing things away from my book.
On growing up in Paris, New York, Bangkok and Bangladesh
If you had asked me this, I don't know, 30 years ago, I would have said it was really awful because I could never maintain friendships for more than a few years. I think looking back, it was such a formative experience for me. And I would say the experience that was the most meaningful was when we moved back to Bangladesh. ... We were living in all these countries and [my parents] kept saying to me, "We're just going to go home. We're not going to stay here. We're not going to stay in New York. We're not going to stay in Paris. We're going to go home. We're nationalists. We have to go back and do something for our country." And when I was 14, we did exactly that. We went home and my father started an independent English daily newspaper, not politically affiliated, which was very unusual at the time. ... So it was very tricky to not ever be in one place for very long. But I think it certainly had a lot to do with why I became a writer.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
I'm Terry Gross. A new social media platform that customizes rituals and ceremonies for people who aren't religious is at the center of the new novel "The Startup Wife" by my guest Tahmima Anam. Also at the center of the story is the marriage between the two main characters, Asha and Cyrus, who co-found the app at the same time they fall in love. Asha came up with the idea for the app and designed it, but because her husband Cyrus is considered more charismatic and because he's a man, he becomes the head of the new company. He gives daily talks to the app's followers, offering his thoughts about ritual and the meaning of life, and the followers start to think of him as a messiah. As the title of Chapter 14 says, nobody wants to be married to the Messiah.
Some of the novel is based on what Tahmima Anam observed in the tech world when she served on the board of her husband's music tech startup. Anam is also the author of a trilogy of novels set during and after the Bangladesh Liberation War, in which Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1971. Her parents fought for independence in that war. Her father went on to work for the U.N. and then started a widely read newspaper in Bangladesh, which he still runs. Anam's mother runs a human rights organization. Tahmima Anam now lives in London with her husband and their two children. She's the recipient of a Commonwealth Writers' Prize and an O. Henry Award and was named one of Granta's best young British novelists. Her new novel has been recommended on a lot of summer reading lists, including in The Washington Post.
Tahmima Anam, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really enjoyed your book. And I'd like to start with asking you to read a short passage that I think will set the scene that the social media world is set in. So this takes place when the main characters are making their opening pitch to be part of Utopia, the startup incubator.
TAHMIMA ANAM: Thank you so much, Terry. I'm thrilled to be here so. I'm just going to read from the beginning of the book.
(Reading) Why don't we introduce ourselves? Leann (ph) says. I'm the head of innovation here at Utopia. Hey, I'm Marco (ph), says a man with deep-set eyes and a sharply trimmed beard. I created obit.ly (ph), a platform that manages all the social and public aspects of death. A woman with bright pink hair waves hello. I'm destiny. I'm the founder of Consentify (ph), a way to make every sexual encounter safe, traceable and consensual. A thin, stern man in a lab coat leans against the table. My name is Rory (ph). I run Lone Star (ph). He speaks with a clipped Scandinavian accent. I want every single person in the world to stop eating animals. We would never fit in. First of all, it would be impossible to find a cute, vitamin-gummy way to describe the platform. And then the rest of it - the confidence, the hair, the way they all look as if they slid into place like a synchronized swim team - I cannot imagine ever being that comfortable in my skin.
GROSS: So thanks for reading that passage from your novel "The Startup Wife." So now you should introduce us to the platform that your main characters create.
ANAM: So the platform is called WAI. It's pronounced why, obviously, as in why are we here? But it's spelled W-A-I, which stands for We Are Infinite. And what it is is a way for people to connect via rituals. So you go on the app, and you tell it the things that mean something to you - your favorite cartoons, your - the food that you love, important experiences that happened to you in childhood. And then you ask for a ritual. You say, I want to get married, and I'm a - you know, for instance, in the book, there are these two classicists that get married, so they have a Homerian (ph) wedding ceremony. And that's what the platform gives you, and then you get to connect to other people via those rituals. So it's kind of an antisocial media social media in the sense that you're not talking about superficial things; you're connecting via the rituals that give your life meaning.
GROSS: And this is a platform that creates rituals without the baggage of religion. So it's a kind of - secular rituals for people who don't have religion in their life but still want ceremonies. Do you relate to that?
ANAM: I do, actually, because I'm not a religious person myself, but I can see how having a kind of organizing construct can be so relaxing in the world, where there are so many uncertainties. And giving people something to hold on to, giving these kind of moments of punctuation in your life, where you're looking forward to something - the baptism of your child, a bar mitzvah - you know, we don't have that as people who don't necessarily adhere to a particular form of religion. So I thought, wouldn't it be great if we could give atheists the same kind of scaffolding that religious people have?
GROSS: Of course, things go terribly wrong in your book with this app.
GROSS: I'll leave that to readers to find out exactly what happens. But how did you come up with the idea for this app? I mean, we'll get into this later, but you're on the board of directors of an app that your husband created, so you know something about the social media world.
ANAM: That's right. So, I mean, in a way, it was a literary device because I wanted to give the two main characters, Asha and Cyrus, a startup that was very unconventional because neither of them are your typical startup founders. They don't come from Silicon Valley. They're not natural entrepreneurs. And so I wanted to give them something that, to them, felt very countercultural. And the fact that it becomes a startup is almost accidental. And that does mirror my own life. So my husband and I were going to be academics. I mean, I was going to write novels, and he was going to be a professor of Chinese philosophy. And then he invented this thing which is, in fact, an app that works with a keyboard, and he started this company. And I feel like the whole journey has been one of kind of discovering the world of startups sort of from an outsider's perspective. And that's exactly what Cyrus and Asha do.
GROSS: So the startup incubator they become part of, Utopia, is - among other things - a way to attract funding from venture capitalists. But Utopia is especially interested in apps for the post-world world. In other words, they're preparing for some kind of apocalypse. It could be climate change. It could be war. It could be anything that would end the world as we know it. I understand that you started a fake website for Utopia while you were writing the novel, and you actually got interest from people. Tell us more.
ANAM: So one of the really fun things about writing this book is that I got to make up all these sort of crazy startups that would probably - I mean, I don't know. Some of them might exist in the world, and some of them might not. And then once I had done that, I got a designer friend of mine to create this website. And occasionally, when I'd been talking to people in the startup world, as a joke I will just give them the website address and not tell them that it's fake, and there has been some interest.
And the company that gets the most interest is the one that's called Empty (ph), where rather farcically you subscribe to nothing. You get an empty box every month, and you get to put your baggage into the box and send it back to this company, and they get rid of it in a responsible way. So let's say you're getting divorced. You put your wedding ring in it, and they kind of, you know, incinerate it for you. So for some reason, that has been the one that people are most interested in investing. But yeah, that's kind of, like, a little joke that I sometimes like to play on people.
GROSS: That's crazy you could just give it away to the Salvation Army or your local thrift store or throw it away, and...
ANAM: Well, I think that you're touching on something, which is that one of the things that startup culture does is that it takes something that is very familiar to you, that you feel that you already know what to do - you know, you know you can send your junk to the Salvation Army or put it in recycling. But it somehow is there to create an idea that you can make things in your life easier or more seamless or more meaningful by in somehow engaging in the startup. So, you know, there's all kinds of apps that have - there's one where they send you laundry capsules in your letter box. Putting things in letter boxes is, like, a big thing right now - so flowers in your letter box, your laundry detergent, your tampons, you know. So we know that we can just go out and buy them, but there are startups that are devoted to packaging your everyday activities in slightly different ways and creating businesses out of them.
GROSS: So are you interested in the postapocalypse world?
ANAM: Well, I think right now we're all interested in the postapocalyptic world because we're kind of living in it. You know, I wanted to give Utopia a slightly different sort of flavor than most tech incubators. And I've been to some of these co-working spaces and to some of these incubators, and there was a lot of hype and a lot of promise and a lot of talk about community. And I just wanted to give it that edge, which was, you know, they were thinking about this other world, and that was kind of bringing them all together.
And Utopia is also a place where Asha gets to meet other female founders, and she builds these friendships with these other women who are coming up with all kinds of businesses. There's the silent vibrator. There's Consentify, which is about, you know, pre-agreeing to all your sexual activity before you engage in it. So I wanted to give her that, and I - so I put her in this place which is called Utopia and has a lot of the elements of what you might imagine is, like, a perfect world - is imagining a world that is better than the one that sort of gets obliterated by an apocalypse.
GROSS: But I am wondering if you grew up with a fear of the end of the world or of war. I mean, your parents fought in the Bangladesh war of liberation, so war was the memory background of your life. I don't know how much they told you about it. And your father worked for the U.N. for years, and the U.N. is all about creating peace because there's so much war. So I'm just wondering if that was a part of your - you know, your nightmares or your fears or if you read a lot of postapocalyptic fiction.
ANAM: Yeah. That's a really good question, Terry, and I hadn't really thought of it that way. So I grew up hearing stories about the Bangladesh War. It was very much the thing that we talked about around the dinner table all the time. My parents had been in the war. It was the sort of organizing principle of their lives.
And the other thing is I come from a country where this kind of sense of apocalyptic possibility is always in the air because the climate is so extreme. And so it feels - it has always felt very much like a fragile place that was born out of this brutal war, you know, that it sort of barely survived, and then trying to beat the odds. And now, obviously, that big sense of apocalyptic change is climate change, which is going to affect Bangladesh more than many other countries in the world in a really extreme way. So for sure, I mean, I hadn't thought of it that way, but the sense of the end of the world being very close has certainly been something that I've grown up with.
GROSS: Yeah. That was probably a part of your life even in your early childhood.
ANAM: Yes. I mean, my parents - you know, so I was born four years after the war ended, and my parents both came into political consciousness in the '60s. They were revolutionaries. They were nationalists. My father fought in the war. And it was definitely something that played a huge part in the way that I was raised. And then we left Bangladesh when I was 2 years old because my father got a job with the U.N., and I think that because we were far from home, I heard those stories even more. And I think that people who stayed in Bangladesh possibly were more on the sort of, well, this war happened; we need to move on and try to sort of get over the past.
But for them, it was something that they really held onto and they talked about a lot. And they didn't just talk about it in sort of tragic terms and saying, you know, how awful it was - which it was. It was an extremely brutal war. And millions of people were killed, and millions of women were raped. But they also talked about it as this moment where they, as young people, got to imagine a country into being, and that was incredibly inspiring and important for them. And it was - like I said, it was the sort of foundational moment of their lives. And so I think a lot of the way they brought me up and a lot of the things they talked about and their relationship to each other was kind of built around that experience.
GROSS: Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tahmima Anam. Her new novel is called "The Startup Wife." She's the author of an earlier trilogy of novels that have to do with the war for independence in Bangladesh. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THIRD WORLD LOVE'S "SEFARAD")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Tahmima Anam, author of the new novel "The Startup Wife." It's about a startup co-founded by a couple. The app's surprising success leads to trouble, including in their marriage. She's also the author of a trilogy of novels set during and after the Bangladesh Liberation War, which her parents fought in.
Can you tell us, as briefly as you can - and this is an impossible question, and I apologize for asking it this way - what the war was about?
ANAM: So when the British left India in 1947, they left behind two countries - Pakistan and India. And Pakistan was divided into two. Pakistan was in two halves on either side of India, divided by 3,000 miles of India. There was West Pakistan, which is the country that we now know as modern-day Pakistan, and there was East Pakistan. And it was very clear from the beginning that this was not going to work because the only reason these two regions were put together as one country was because they had a majority-Muslim population. But they were culturally and politically and socially and linguistically, very importantly, completely different.
So this came to a head, and in 1971, you know, we had a war of independence, which was brutally suppressed by Pakistan. You know, there was a genocide, and, like I said, millions of people were killed. You know, they obviously didn't want the two countries to split. But after nine months, India intervened, and Bangladesh became independent. That's the sort of potted history, and I would say that that history and that split comes from a sense that after the British left, they - you know, the Bengalis of East Pakistan were subjected to a second rule of colonialism by West Pakistan rather than feeling that they were now part of an independent country. And so that sort of spirit of independence that started with the independence of India and Pakistan then sort of continued. And now in the subcontinent, we have three countries. And I was born into the independent country of Bangladesh. But my parents were born in Pakistan and in East Pakistan.
GROSS: And we'll talk more about this later. But in terms of the apocalypse, in terms of, like, anything can happen, Bangladesh gets its independence. But eventually, there's, like, a military coup and, you know, a repressive government. So even after fighting for independence, things go bad.
ANAM: Absolutely. So this is also kind of a big shadow that was sort of hanging over my head as I was growing up. And one of the great tragedies of the war was that after it was won, within four years, the person who sort of led the independence movement was assassinated along with 14 members of his family in this terrible tragedy that was happening to a country that was barely getting on its feet. And it took - I mean, I really don't think those early wounds, the war, the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, I don't think those things have ever really been reckoned with. But I think it's only now that we're starting to come out of those sort of long shadows.
GROSS: So getting back to the app in your book, you know, it's an app for creating rituals and ceremonies for people who are not religious. But it draws on religion. It draws on myth. It draws on various cultures to create these rituals. So since you grew up in the background of a war for independence that was in part a religious war in the sense that Pakistan was formed because it was majority Muslim, and a lot of Muslims who were living in India moved voluntarily or felt forced to flee to Pakistan - did that color your family's sense of religion?
ANAM: Absolutely. So my father, when I was growing up, was an atheist. I was not raised with any form of religion. And partly, I think that was because of the politics of the time, and specifically because, you know, Pakistan was a repressive regime that was forcing us to stay, you know, part of this union on the basis of religion. And the Bengali people were saying, no. We have cultural and linguistic rights, you know? They imposed Urdu as the official language of both Pakistans even though nobody in Bengal spoke Urdu. We all spoke Bengali. Bengali people have a fierce attachment to their language, to their culture, to the music of Rabindranath Tagore. I mean, that is - you know, if ever there was a poet who basically defined a country, he defined so much of who we are in Bangladesh. So it was that sense of rejecting religion in favor of a secular cultural identity, and that is why I was raised without religion, because my parents sort of grew up in that movement.
GROSS: So you know, getting back again to the app that's created in your book that - you know, that the main characters created, it's an app for rituals and ceremonies for people who don't have religion to provide that because they don't believe in any religion. But (laughter) the startup is created by Asha, who's married to Cyrus. She creates the app. She does all the coding for it. He becomes the head of the startup because he's the man and he's good at promoting things. He's good - he's really good at selling himself or selling his ideas or - so he becomes the head of it. And he's also the one who talks to people every day about life and, you know, the importance of ceremony and the meaning of life because he has, basically, his own channel to talk to the followers of this app. And he becomes this, like, messiah figure, which is really interesting because I think you've hit on something really interesting - because people who don't have religion in their life in this book create a messiah figure of their own in the head of this app that's not about religion.
ANAM: Yes. There is a real irony there because people are obviously, you know, joining - why? - because they want an alternative to organized religion. And then, there they are worshipping a male visionary messiah, you know, prophet, basically. And I think the other irony is that Asha, who falls madly in love with Cyrus, you know, he's her high school sweetheart, she meets him again after many years. And she kind of feels this triumphant sense when she meets him again and he loves her back. And the other irony is that Asha, who creates the app and who does all the coding and it's really her idea, when it comes down to it, she says to Cyrus, oh, no you be the CEO. I'm just a coder. I'm going to sit in the background. And she lifts him up. And she thinks to herself, you know, towards the end of the book, I literally created a platform that makes the entire world worship my husband.
ANAM: She does that. I mean - you know, and this is an - it's an exaggeration of what we all sometimes do. When we love someone, we lift them up. But she just does it to an absolutely intense, kind of huge, massive, exaggerated scale.
GROSS: Well, I think we need to take another break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tahmima Anam. Her new novel is called "The Startup Wife." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL SHAW QUINTET'S "PEEKABOO")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Tahmima Anam, author of the new novel "The Startup Wife." It's about a startup co-founded by a newly married couple. The app customizes rituals and ceremonies for people who aren't religious but want the sense of community and ritual that others find in religion.
So your husband founded a startup. It's a music startup that from what I can tell creates, like, software that's music related. Like, there's a colored keyboard to help people learn how to play songs. There is an app that creates notes in the space between the keys of the piano - things along those lines. So it's really, like, for people who want to learn more about music or want to do music production. So the startup was founded at about the same time you got married, so your marriage and the startup were kind of on a parallel track. Did you draw from your own experiences to write this book? And is there an experience that you found confusing that you needed to, like, work out in the book?
ANAM: (Laughter) That's a great question. Well, I'll tell you first the ways in which it's not the same, which is that I had nothing to do...
GROSS: You're married. You're married.
ANAM: I mean, I didn't come up with the idea for Roli, which is my husband's startup. It was all his idea. I can't take any credit for that. The ways in which I think I did draw from my experience were in two ways. The first was that, as I said to you before, neither of us expected to be involved in the startup world, and so it was a very interesting journey to meet someone who, for all intents and purposes, we were going to lead these lives of both being academics and artists, and to watch him then have to raise money, to be the boss of a hundred people - I mean, that really has a big impact on a person. So having that much sort of power and being the boss, I think that definitely was something that I didn't - that we both - neither of us expected. And I think that there were some changes that were quite surprising that we both had to kind of work out. So there was definitely that.
And the other thing was that I was on the board of - I've been on the board of the company from the very beginning, and I had obviously no experience of the boardroom. And I really enjoyed thinking about writing this book the entire time that I was on that board because one of the great pleasures of being a writer is that you get to put all of your experiences somewhere. So anytime someone cut me off or ignored me or didn't take me seriously, I thought, I'm going to write that down.
ANAM: So it was a way of processing that experience which was very new for me and sometimes quite challenging because my - the other half of my life was, you know, sitting quietly in a room and writing books, which had nothing to do with the startup world until I wrote this book. So yes, it was definitely thinking about - imagining this novel was a great way of processing the actual experience I was having both sitting on the board, watching people interact with me, but also watching the changes that my husband was going through as he went from being a sort of quiet academic to being everyone's boss.
GROSS: In your Twitter bio, one of the things you say to describe yourself is feminist killjoy.
GROSS: Did you feel like a feminist killjoy on the board?
ANAM: You know, Terry, I wish I was more of a feminist killjoy. And one of my goals for the next, you know, however many years of my life is to call people out a little bit more because there is so much sexist language embedded in probably any kind of business environment. But because I don't come from a business environment, I'd never heard it before. So for instance, people will commonly - men will commonly say, well, they're already pregnant, they might as well have the baby, when they're talking about someone who's so invested in you they're just going to give you more money or something like that. Or they'll say, we should open the full kimono (laughter), which is both sexist and kind of racist. But I think in a lot of those situations, I just kind of sat there and was like, ha-ha (ph), you know? I kind of...
GROSS: I can use this (laughter).
ANAM: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I'm just going to put it in my book. But...
GROSS: But not say anything.
ANAM: But not say anything. And I think we need to be able to say out loud that language means something, and a joke, you know, even in the most kind of flippant way, is a representation of our actual values. So I hope that I can be more like Asha and less like the me that was just silently filing things away for my book.
GROSS: There's a joke in the book about post-IPO wives. In other words, after the husband starts a successful startup, he sometimes trades in his wife for a newer wife. Is that something that you've actually witnessed in the tech world?
ANAM: So I haven't witnessed it myself, but it was relayed to me by a close friend of mine who does a lot of executive recruiting. So she meets a lot of founders, and she sees companies from the sort of very beginnings of when they are just a few people, and she helps them hire executives to when they IPO. And I sort of floated the idea of this book to her, and I said, well, you know, I'm going to write this book, and what do you think of startup marriages?
And she says, well, if they succeed, they almost always get divorced because either the woman says - and she's talking about a heterosexual relationship where the man is the CEO. Either the woman says, I'm really tired of you now; I just want half of everything you've got, and I'm out of here. Or the man says, more likely, well, thanks for helping me get through all the challenges of the last 10 years; I'm going to trade you in for someone who hasn't been through that with me, and we can just start afresh and enjoy all this wealth, I guess. So she was pretty pessimistic about it.
GROSS: So I want to get back to your childhood and growing up in the shadow of the Bangladesh war for liberation, which your parents fought in. What did your parents do in the war?
ANAM: So it was very interesting. My mother stayed in Dhaka throughout the war, and her home and my grandmother's home was used as a refuge for the guerrilla fighters who were coming back and forth from across the border. So they were being trained in India, and then they were, you know, doing their kind of guerrilla warfare against - so the war was essentially an army against an unarmed civilian population. And a lot of young men ran away from home and joined this guerrilla army so they could fight this - the Pakistani army. And so my grandmother's home became a hideout for those guerrilla fighters. So they would come back to the city, and they would hide in her house. And my mother kind of witnessed all of that, and my grandmother sort of sheltered these - basically, these guerrilla fighters.
My father spent part of the war going to India and trying to drum up support for the independence war. He was a debate champion before the war started. He was three times the all-Pakistan debate champion, which made it very difficult for me to argue with him when I was growing up, just as an aside. But so he went around and basically did a lot of propaganda for the war. And then, he joined the army and was in training. And then by the time he finished his training, the war was over.
GROSS: Was anyone in your family injured?
ANAM: No one in my family was killed or injured, but many of their friends who had joined the guerrilla army were captured by the army, killed by the army, tortured and survived but were never the same. So that sort of generational trauma was definitely present.
GROSS: Your grandfather was in Congress. Was this when India was a colony of Britain?
ANAM: No. My grandfather was a minister in the Pakistan government. So after the independence of India in 1947, when there was - Pakistan and India were two independent countries, my grandfather was a member of Parliament. And he had a really interesting story because he was born in a village in what is now Bangladesh, which was then colonial India. None of his family were educated. They were tenant farmers, basically. But he was very, very bright, and he somehow, you know, educated himself and became a politician and quite a prominent journalist and political satirist. So he had a very exceptional trajectory in his life. And I think when I was growing up, that was also kind of one of the things that my parents talked about a lot was how this person who was a very unlikely politician - he didn't come from a sort of political background or from a family where you would expect someone to become a politician - he became a member of Parliament.
GROSS: And your father became a diplomat after the war. He worked for the U.N., for UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Social and Cultural Organization. So he was, like, a media spokesperson. So you were raised in Paris, New York and Bangkok. It's hard for kids to change schools. You had to keep changing countries. What was that like for you?
ANAM: If you had asked me this, I don't know, 30 years ago, I would have said it was really awful because I could never maintain friendships for more than a few years. I think, looking back, it was such a formative experience for me. And I would say the experience that was the most meaningful was when we moved back to Bangladesh. So my parents - you know, it was so interesting. We were living in all these countries, and they kept saying to me, we're just going to go home. We're not going to stay here. We're not going to stay in New York. We're not going to stay in Paris. We're going to go home. We're nationalists. We have to go back and do something for our country.
And when I was 14, we did exactly that. We went home, and my father started an independent English daily newspaper, sort of not politically affiliated, which was very unusual at the time. It was almost - it was 30 years ago. So it was very tricky to not ever be in one place for very long. But I think it certainly had a lot to do with why I became a writer. So I can't really knock it in retrospect.
GROSS: How old were you when your family moved from Bangladesh?
ANAM: I was only 2 years old, so I really have no memories of growing up there.
GROSS: So Bangladesh - going home so to speak - was like going to another foreign country.
ANAM: Yeah, it was almost worse than going to a foreign country because at least when I was going to a foreign country, I was expected not to know anything. And there was this - there was a lot of hype about going home, and I felt just as unfamiliar there as I had felt when we moved to New York or to Thailand. I was just expected not to. So that was a tricky moment.
GROSS: How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
ANAM: I cannot ever remember wanting to be anything else, but I also remember feeling completely paralyzed by the fear of failure. And so I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea if I could do it. And that's the thing about writing is you just don't know until you do it many, many times whether - even now, if you ask me, you know, do you feel like you know how to be a writer? I would say, definitely not. Every time I do it, it's like starting from the beginning. So I really wanted to do it. I knew I had some stories to tell, but I was also - as many writers are - you know, plagued with insecurity and a desire to succeed.
GROSS: My guest is Tahmima Anam. Her new novel is called "The Startup Wife." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Tahmima Anam. Her new novel, "The Startup Wife," is about a startup co-founded by a married couple. The app's surprising success leads to trouble, including in their marriage.
You've been a judge for the Man Booker Prize, which is Britain's most prestigious literary award. Is it hard to sit in judgment of fellow writers? And I'm wondering if you ever meet any writers who you voted against (laughter) for the prize. And they wouldn't know - necessarily know that, but I could see how awkward it would be for you.
ANAM: Well, luckily, I judge the Man Booker International, which is for novels in translation. And so I...
GROSS: Oh, God. Yeah, you're lucky (laughter).
ANAM: I didn't know a lot of those writers. But I can tell you, Terry, when I - being on the other side of that and having, you know, other friends who are on judging panels and - it certainly is part of that world, which can be very awkward. And I remember sitting in that room judging that prize and feeling extremely passionate about the kind of book that I wanted to win. And it gave me a little bit of perspective on, you know, why I hadn't ever been on one of those lists or sort of what happens behind the scenes. So in a way, it was - made me feel a little bit better about possibly the times when I hadn't appeared on any of those lists.
GROSS: So why do you think you were not on those lists?
ANAM: (Laughter) Well, because it's a very subjective thing, judging. You know, what is brilliant to one person is, you know, not brilliant to another person. One of the - you know, I'm talking a lot about anxieties and insecurities, but I think one of the concerns that I had when I sat down to write this book was that it wasn't serious enough, that I had written a trilogy of novels that were, in a way, the kinds of books that you would expect from a person that comes from where I come from - you know, dealing with the big historical ideas of religion, talking about social change, talking about revolutions. You know, this is the kind of story - those are the kinds of stories that I feel I was expected to write. And I'm really proud of them. And I didn't feel that there was anything more urgent that I had to say.
But when I sat down to write this book - and I knew it was going to be a satire, I knew it was going to be a comedy - I thought, gosh, will anyone ever take me seriously again. And, you know, will I be one of those people that wins prizes? Or will I be one of those people where it's like, well, she wrote something. And it was light-hearted and joyful. But it's not serious. And that was something I really had to overcome. In fact, I asked my agent to send the book out under a pseudonym.
GROSS: Why did you end up not using the pseudonym?
ANAM: Well, she persuaded me not to. And my editor persuaded me not to. And I just kind of had to own what I had done, you know? I had to decide that it was serious and that I was tackling all these issues of, you know, sexism in the workplace and the future of technology and what happens to a marriage when the man gets celebrated and the woman gets left behind. And these are all things that have preoccupied me. I am a feminist killjoy.
ANAM: And these are things that preoccupied me in my whole writing life. They're just told in a slightly different tone. And I just had to become comfortable with that, I guess.
GROSS: What was the name you were going to use if you used a pseudonym?
ANAM: Oh, I'm glad you asked. So everyone in Bangladesh has a nickname. People have these very serious, you know, Arabic, proper names that are on their passports. And then there's something that people call them at home. And my father named me after the Rosetta Stone. And in Bangladesh, everyone calls me Rose. So I was going to call myself Rose Lanam. And Lanam is the name that Roland and I gave to our children because it's a combination between our last name - our two last names. So Lamb - he's Lamb. I'm Anam. So our kids are Lanam. So I was going to call myself Rose Lanam. And she was my alter ego. I didn't just think of her as a pseudonym. I thought of her as the person I had to become in order to write that book.
GROSS: Why did you have to become somebody else? Because, let me just say, I think, in some ways, this might be your most autobiographical book because your other books are more about people who lived in Bangladesh. One of the books was more about your father's generation. But this is about - it's about your generation. It's about a woman of Bangladeshi descent, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants who grows up in America, who was married to somebody that have a startup like your family does. I mean, there's so many similarities.
ANAM: Yes. I agree with that. But I had to summon Rose Lanam so that I could write all the dirty jokes, Terry.
ANAM: They don't come easily to me. I mean, I - you know, I had Asian parents. And I think that sort of loose, confident, sassy, lots of F words - that kind of language does not come easily to me in a sort of public way. You know, if you and I were just hanging out and having dinner, I would certainly speak in Rose Lanam's voice. And so in a way, you're right. She is much more me. But to summon her in a public way, to bring out all of that, it just took - for me to have the confidence to put into writing what I was putting into, like, my text messages to my girlfriends, you know, that sort of tone, that sort of satirical, funny, irreverent tone, it took a little bit of unlearning some of the - maybe some of the limitations I felt that I had in presenting a public self.
GROSS: Does this mean you're concerned about anybody in your family reading it?
ANAM: I'm not concerned. Although, my mother said to me, because I had put - I had written to some friends - or I put in a Facebook post, you know, this book has a lot of curse words in it. And she said - she literally said, what is Boro Mama (ph) going to say? Boro Mama is my eldest uncle. And I said to her, if I sat down and thought about what Boro Mama was going to say, I would never write another word ever again.
ANAM: I mean, it is a little bit of that, Terry. But it's also that I - you know, when I was growing up, my father - the term third world country was very much an OK thing to say in the '70s when I was growing up. And my father would say to me, you come from a third world country. You have to get people to take you seriously. Everyone's going to not want to take you seriously. And your job is to get people to take you seriously. And I think I - you know, part of wanting to do a Ph.D. even though I knew I wasn't going to be an academic, it was about that wanting to bring a kind of gravity to my self-presentation. And I had to slightly unlearn that when I was writing this book. And then I had to have the confidence to say, OK, this is still serious even though it's full of jokes.
GROSS: Well, I'm glad you unlearned what you had to unlearn (laughter).
ANAM: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: So let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tahmima Anam. Her new novel is called "The Startup Wife." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER BAND SONG, "I WANNA GET OLD WITH YOU")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Tahmima Anam. Her new novel is called "The Startup Wife."
You've referred to finding your voice and power as a woman. Were you encouraged to do that by your parents?
ANAM: I definitely was. And they were way ahead of their time. I was the first girl born into my dad's family for three generations. So there had only been boys. And my father tells the story of how, you know, when people would come and see me as a baby, they would say, oh, we have to find her a prince or something to marry. And he basically banned that. He said, when you look at my nephews, why do you say, oh, he's going to grow up and be a barrister? Because, you know, at the time, in Bangladesh, being a barrister was, like, the highest thing you could aspire to. He's going to be a barrister or a doctor - why don't you say that to my daughter? And he really angered a lot of the relatives who would come and see me because he was so - you know, he basically put a ban on talking about things like marriage as something that I should aspire to. And my mother has been a lifelong feminist activist.
So I think that I had the privilege of growing up in a family where these things were absolutely taken for granted and where conversations about equality and about feminism were right at the forefront of - you know, so present in our lives. And I'm deeply grateful for that.
GROSS: I want to get back to something in your novel. In the book, the parents of the main character are from Bangladesh. They're now immigrants in America. They both are not religious. But as they got older, the mother starts saying, inshallah - God willing - in her sentences. The daughter sees her, like, kneeling on a rug, and it appears the mother is praying. And the daughter thinks, like, this is what happens when people get older (laughter). So I'm wondering if you've observed that in your parents, in spite of their atheism.
ANAM: Yes, I definitely have. And certainly among the people of their generation, who grew up in the shadow of this war, there has been as they've gotten older - and also, I think as the society has taken decidedly more of a turn towards religion, I've sort of seen that in my family. I've seen it among their friends. My mother certainly has - practices more. And - but the interesting thing is that it hasn't at all affected her politics, and she is just as opposed to the hijab now as she was 20 years ago, before she started becoming a more practicing Muslim. So I think it hasn't had an effect on their politics, but certainly, in the privacy of their home, I wouldn't say so much with my father, but certainly with my mother, I have seen those changes.
GROSS: I think I read that your mother told you that it's important to learn some verses from the Quran. In case...
GROSS: ...You're attacked by Muslim extremists, you can quote the Quran, and it will help save you.
ANAM: There was a time in Bangladesh where there were a lot of attacks against writers. It was a really dark moment. It was very recent, you know, in the last 10 years. And I was having this conversation - I can't remember if it was with my mother - where people were saying to me, you need to be able to prove that you're a Muslim. And I have no way of doing that because I'm a completely nonpracticing Muslim. And I have to say, of all the sort of threads of my identity, it's the one that I have rejected the most.
And the reason is that I don't have role models for deeply religious Muslims who share my interest in gender equality. I just don't have those role models. And I think that when the feminist imams and when the feminist Muslims come out and become the leaders of the Muslim community and I can look up to them and say to my daughter, hey, you know what, this religion is going to embrace all sides of you and embrace your kind of independence and power as a woman, I think that is the moment where I'm going to be able to embrace that identity. But perhaps because I haven't done enough learning or reading on my own, it's something that I haven't quite come to yet.
GROSS: Have you memorized verses in spite of that, in case you need to recite them?
ANAM: (Laughter) No. Don't tell anyone.
GROSS: (Laughter) I won't. No one will hear this.
GROSS: It's been such a pleasure to talk with you. I really want to thank you so much for doing this interview.
ANAM: Thank you, Terry. It's been an absolute thrill. I'm so grateful to you.
GROSS: Tahmima Anam spoke to us from London. Her new satirical novel is called "The Startup Wife."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about Facebook - the problems it's created and the problems it's facing. My guests will be new York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, authors of the new book "An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle For Domination." They write, Facebook's problems have been features, not bugs. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF TODD GARFINKLE'S "VULGARITY IN TROPICAL LIVING")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TODD GARFINKLE'S "VULGARITY IN TROPICAL LIVING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.