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Dissident Bangladeshi writer explores homesickness, and Pittsburgh, in new poetry collection

Leaving his home in Bangladesh was hard for Tuhin Das. And after six years in the U.S., staying away hasn’t gotten any easier.

Das is a dissident writer who remained in Bangladesh even after he was illegally detained and beaten by police. He remained even after receiving death threats, and after hearing of fellow writers killed on the street. He went into hiding — but he left only after terrorists broke into the home of another writer, and killed him.

Das, now 37, lives in Pittsburgh through City of Asylum’s program for persecuted writers. He recently published his first book in the U.S. “Exile Poems: In The Labyrinth of Homesickness,” from Pittsburgh-based Bridge & Tunnel Books, is a collection of 65 poems exploring his life in the city and his longing for home, friends and family.

Each of the poems has only a number for its title. In “10,” he writes: “I go up to the river, pause, / And try to fathom where / The heart of the Monongahela lies. …/ Foreign rivers don’t reveal much to me. If I can’t read their faces, / then who can? / I have seen more illness, / I have seen more blood, / than I have seen people’s faces.”

Das is a native Bengali speaker. His poems were translated into English by Arunava Sinha, a creative writing professor based in India.

Religious discord has shadowed Das's life. Roughly 90% of Bangladesh’s 165 million people are Muslim, and Das belongs to a Hindu minority. Along with poetry and literary fiction, in Bangladesh, Das wrote about politics. In one article, he demanded a ban on loudspeakers at mosques, mostly because he said they were being used to attack religious minorities.

Some of Das’s activism hearkened to his country's brutal 1971 war of independence. In 2013, he organized a protest to urge the government to try war crimes from the conflict. He said it drew death threats against him and other activists. “My name was published by Al Qaida in Bangladesh,” he said.

Das said he reported the death threats to police. But instead of helping him, police took his social media password and scrutinized his writings. The last straw for him was the death of a fellow dissident writer at the hands of terrorists who broke into his home.

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He had lived his entire life in Barishal City, with his parents and older sister. But he could stay no longer, he said.

“I decided, ‘Okay, it’s basically time to go, be alive,’” he said.

In 2016, Das came to the U.S. as a visiting writer at Carnegie Mellon University and through City of Asylum’s program for persecuted writers. It was his first time outside Bangladesh.

Das said he is grateful for the opportunities he’s had in the U.S.; last year, he was granted political asylum. He works for City of Asylum as a part-time bookkeeper. Along with sheltering writers persecuted in their home countries, the North Side-based group also runs Alphabet City, a performance space and bookstore.

Das feels free here to express himself; ironically, he said, it was only in the U.S. he was able to complete a novel about Bangladesh, for which he’s now seeking a translator.

“This novel is about minority persecution in Bangladesh,” he said. “And I could not able to write that book if I am in Bangladesh because I will not mentally, totally feel free to write about it.”

But the plight of an exile from a country 8,000 miles away goes beyond adjusting to new food and very different weather. On some level, the struggle is existential. As Das notes in his another poem, “No one will come to know who I am. / Not even if they see my body split open. / They won’t know who’s beneath my skin. … On the road a hushed voice behind me says: / ‘You know who he is? A refugee.’”

“I want to erase that identity, but I can't,” Das said.

He pines for his family. In Bangladesh, parents typically live with their adult children, and he expected to care for his parents as they age.

“That's the way our society in Bangladesh works,” he said. “I feel like I'm not able to like fulfill that because we are apart or I live in a thousand miles far away, so I feel sometimes guilty or feel selfish. But what can I do?”

He would like to return some day, but he is not sure when it will be safe to do so.

In the meantime, he writes — hopeful that his writing will make a difference.

“Writing is a democratic practice,” he writes in his prologue to “Exile Poems.”

“By writing about human rights, authors can play a leading role in social change. Some writings invoke an unseen world or express the beauty of life through imagination; we have to envision a world that doesn’t exist today.”


from "Exile Poems"

Sometimes when I wake up to the sound of rain at midnight

I feel nostalgic. I keep thinking of my homeland.

To curb my agitation

I get out of bed silently for a glass of water.

I ask myself:

Would the green shades of the little forest

by my home where I played

as a child recognize me now?

If I were able to return would the birds

of my town know who I am?

Another city flows within me here.

Now I am a different person too.

I try to gauge from my friends

whether my absence has any value at all.

Does it bear any significance?

Without you, my love,

there is no meaning to anything

in my immigrant’s life.

Reprinted with permission from the writer.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: