Zia Haider Rahman ‘Reckons with the Elites’

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The Montgomery Fellow gives a public talk on Feb. 17 in Filene Auditorium.

Novelist and Montgomery Fellow Zia Haider Rahman talks with English and creative writing students
Novelist and Montgomery Fellow Zia Haider Rahman talks with English and creative writing students about the economics of publishing and the role of the political novel in the current moment. (Photo by Robert Gill)

Montgomery Fellow Zia Haider Rahman is a man of many talents. Before writing his James Tait Black award-winning debut novel, In the Light of What We Know, which explores a friendship across class boundaries, he worked as an investment banker, a human rights lawyer, and an anticorruption activist.

And if you ask, the U.K.-based writer and social commentator will pull out his phone to show off pictures of his carpentry: a recently completed bathroom remodel (he does plumbing, too), as well as custom cabinetry and a design for a wooden Christmas tree, which he hopes to market to department stores. He’s also currently creating a publicly accessible interactive map to track the relationships among members of world’s elite—a tool he thinks will be useful for journalists, activists, and those fighting corruption around the globe. Oh, and he’s writing a second novel.

In recent years, Rahman—who will be delivering a lecture titled “Among the Liberals: A Blue-Collar Kid Reckons with the Elites” at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 17, in Filene Auditorium in Moore Hall—has earned a reputation as a sharp-eyed observer not only of a shifting global political climate that in 2016 led to the Brexit referendum on one side of the Atlantic and to the election of Donald Trump on the other, but of what he sees as the failure of liberal elites, especially those pontificating in the op-ed pages of mainstream media outlets, to see these seismic events coming. 

“My biggest question for the commentariat is, why were you caught off guard by 2016? What was it about the way you were reading the world?” he says. “The question alone is damning, and the fact that they haven’t answered it is even more damning. Because if you can’t answer the question, how can I have any faith in the reams and reams that you’re pushing out? How do I know that it isn’t suffering from all the myopic occlusions and distortions that meant you were caught off guard?”

His perspective comes from his experience as a self-described class migrant who moved with his family to the U.K. as a child from a village in Bangladesh. In London, the family first “lived in a squat in London and then were housed in project housing,” he says. “My father was a waiter, my mother a seamstress. I was lucky in the genetic lottery and had a gift for mathematics, which I didn’t earn or choose.”

His academic gifts won him a scholarship to Oxford, and in some ways he never looked back—he went on to study at Cambridge and Yale, and holds graduate degrees in math, economics, and law. But in another, very real sense, he says, “I have a lot more kinship with working people, whatever their politics.”

Rahman began writing as a child, seeking ways to communicate across a widening educational and linguistic divide with his family.

“My first language was Sylheti. I still have some command of it, but very quickly it was not enough to express my thoughts,” he says. “I became aware that there was a gulf between me and my parents, and that we couldn’t communicate. So writing began with the search for the abracadabra form of words that would open up a conversation with them. I genuinely thought there was a paragraph that I could write that would open things up.”

Though he always loved writing, he became a novelist almost by accident. He says he had no thought of publication when he shared an early chapter of what became In the Light of What We Know with a friend of a friend, another writer. The next thing he knew, he was getting calls from the friend’s agent.

Now, he says, “I write at least 500 words a day. Sometimes it’s fiction, sometimes it’s not. The fiction is to crystalize something that I noticed or a thought I had about human beings. Fiction’s very good at that.”

But fiction is not an end in itself, he says. “Even though I’m passionate about stories—and I am—I actually see stories as a device. My first interest is in what language is capable of and where it fails. I’m interested in ambushing people, myself included, with compressions of thought and feeling that would otherwise not register in the pandemonium. That’s the great thing about fiction, you can get people to have a feeling that they didn’t have. If you can tie that to an idea, amazing things can happen—such as empathy. Or someone can see the world in a different way.”

During his stay in Hanover, Rahman plans to visit classes and meet with students and faculty studying, among other things, creative writing, ethics, economics, public policy, and computer science.

“The value for me of this kind of fellowship is meeting bright students,” Rahman says. “I get a lot out of hearing how they’re thinking and what their preoccupations are.”

A supporter of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, he is also interested in observing the American political process firsthand during New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation Democratic primary. As a writer, being on the ground on primary day is invaluable, he says.

“What you see on the screen is filtered. Not necessarily by bias but just by the demands of mass media. All writers love the grit. They want to taste the stone, and I’m fascinated.”  

For Dartmouth students who, like Rahman, are class migrants, he offers some advice: “Don’t forget your roots—it’s a recipe for personal suffering. You can’t deny your history; it will hurt. And find other class migrants. You’ll need them.”

The Montgomery residency will also give him “time to think and work on ideas,” he says.

“It’s so productive. You’re here for two weeks and the world can carry on—you can’t do anything about it. And it’s a lovely house, a lovely view. I’m sure that has a lot to do with it. We are creatures. We’re not disembodied brains.”

Established in 1977, the Montgomery Fellows Program brings distinguished visitors—scholars, artists, authors, historians, politicians, and more—to campus for residencies ranging from several days to an entire term. More than 230 fellows, including Yo-Yo Ma, Cornel West, Louise Erdrich ’76, Desmond Tutu, Jake Sullivan, Joan Didion, and Gerald Ford, have taught, spent time creating new works and scholarship, delivered public lectures, and connected with students and the greater Dartmouth community.

Hannah Silverstein can be reached at hannah.silverstein@dartmouth.edu.

Hannah Silverstein