C. P. Heiser in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Launching one of the world’s most exciting literary festivals, in the middle of the world’s densest megacity, is accomplishment enough. But managing it year after year, meeting increased expectations, and handling the particular challenges of a place like Bangladesh, make the Dhaka Lit Fest one of the most remarkable literary events in the world.
I met all three founders on my first visit in 2014, and was struck not only by their commitment to the mission of the festival but by the diversity of their backgrounds. Sadaf Saaz is a poet, writer, entrepreneur and women’s rights activist. She co-founded the festival in 2011 in partnership with the Hay Festival. London-based Ahsan Akbar is a poet who also runs a media and PR agency, Zephyr: Media PR. An author and frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, K. Anis Ahmed is the founder of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh and Denver-based Teatulia, the first certified organic tea brand from Bangladesh to be sold in the US. He is also the publisher of Dhaka Tribune, a national daily newspaper.
C.P. HEISER: The Dhaka Lit Fest started seven years ago, originally sponsored by the Hay Festival. You quickly outgrew that umbrella. What made you want to strike out with your own brand, so to speak?
ANIS AHMED: I’d say what made the three of us want to re-brand the festival as Dhaka Lit Fest was basically the simple desire to give it a name that would more directly convey its mission — to showcase Bangladeshi writing and writers to the world. We always felt that despite a vibrant literary tradition, Bangladeshi literary culture had become too hidebound. Our writers were not reading outsiders enough, let alone being in touch with them. And the world too had not done enough to ask itself, Oh, let’s go see what’s happening in the world’s seventh most spoken language!
SADAF SAAZ: An interesting aside on our origins as the Hay Festival Dhaka: it’s not quite as if Hay decided to simply come here. Rather, in its first year, Hay was trying out three different locations in the Indian subcontinent — Kerala, Kolkata, and Dhaka. Kerala and Kolkata, both in India, have vastly more English speakers, and arguably more literary audiences. Yet, through the quality of our organization on ground and the level of engagement by our audience, Dhaka was chosen by Hay organizers to continue, and it ran as the Hay Festival Dhaka ran until 2014.
AHSAN AKBAR: It should also be mentioned that in our first year as Dhaka Lit Fest, in 2015, we faced a crises after the so-called “blogger killings.” In all fairness to Hay, it’s doubtful they could have gone ahead with a festival in a place that was so far away for them. That year we faced 19 cancellations in the final 30 days leading up to the festival; still, we forged ahead and it was bigger than any year before.