Taslima Nasreen is a woman not of her place and time. Bold and fearless she found her voice writing about the injustice women in Bangladesh faced. The way they are silenced by tradition and religious expectations. Falling foul of community standards and culture, she stumbles into a legal nightmare when participating in an interview that quotes her saying the Quran should be revised. Despite her clarification that she was misquoted and was actually referring to Hadiths, sayings and acts by prophet Mohammed used to understand the Quran, the damage is done. Religious Mullahs with their own agendas use her misstep to bring a case of blasphemy against her.
After tense negotiations and facing the possibility of extensive time in jail Taslima becomes a writer in asylum in Sweden and her new life as the poster child against Muslim fundamentalism for the West begins. Hailed as the next Salman Rushdie by the ‘Dragon Slayers,’ the human rights fighters that rescued her, they find that Taslima the woman falls short of Taslima the myth.
Deen writes the book like a detective novel subtly piecing together the pieces of the puzzle about who Taslima actually is-a writer, human rights activist, unconventional woman, professional victim, or opportunist. As she charts Taslima’s rise to prominence and uncovers the power plays behind her leaving Bangladesh, she also pinpoints the gullibility of the media in being too quick to chase the next story to undertake fact checking, and the eagerness of the West to embrace an opportunity that confirms their own prejudices.
I got caught up in this book and couldn’t put it down. As a writer it was also fascinating to think about some of the observations and questions Deen posed as she tried to peel back Taslima. Can a writer actually survive being in exile when their voice and soul is shaped by place? As a writer should we be governed by the ethos of freedom of speech, or censor ourselves? And the one I grappled with the most, if your writing has the opportunity to change the world in some way, do you put everything on the line, including your life?
On the Trail of Taslima is a complex tale and one that says much about our expectations of writers as well as women.
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