Tuesday, 29 March 2011

An Interview with Anne Hamilton author of A Blonde Bengali Wife

“Well, they all said that Bangladesh would be an experience. I don’t know about you, but this is the first time I’ve slept with someone three minutes after meeting them.”

For Anne Hamilton, a three-month winter programme of travel and “cultural exchange” in a country where the English language, fair hair, and a rice allergy are all extremely rare was always going to be interesting, challenging, and frustrating.  What they didn’t tell Anne was that it would also be sunny, funny, and the start of a love affair with this unexplored area of Southeast Asia.

A Blonde Bengali Wife shows the lives beyond the poverty, monsoons, and diarrhoea of Bangladesh and charts a vibrant and fascinating place where one minute Anne is levelling a school playing field “fit for the national cricket team,” and then cobbling together a sparkly outfit for a formal wedding the next.  Along with Anne are the essential ingredients for survival: a travel-savvy Australian sidekick, a heaven-sent adopted family, and a short, dark, and handsome boy-next-door.

During her adventures zipping among the dusty clamour of the capital Dhaka, the longest sea beach in the world at Cox’s Bazaar, the verdant Sylhet tea gardens, and the voluntary health projects of distant villages, Anne amasses a lot of friends, stories...and even a husband.

Having loved the book, I thought it would be nice to have a wee chat with the writer, Anne Hamilton and post the results here for my discerning readers ...

Me - You have 3 words. Pitch me A Blonde Bengali Wife.  

Anne - Jolly Good Story, or Bangladesh for Beginners, or Ways With Rice...

Me – Now (how generous am I?) you have 21 words to play with.

Anne – Ok. A Blonde Bengali Wife lives a hundred lives beyond the poverty, monsoons and diarrhoea of Bangladesh and charts a sunny, funny and unexpected travel memoir.

Me – That’s 25, sheeeesh. How did you get from a working holiday in a new (and unusual) destination to a book?

Anne - It was never meant to be a book, just a personal diary, scribbled by torchlight, to while away long evenings and to help process this mental whirlwind of a trip.  Everything about Bangladesh was new, foreign, exciting, overwhelming; so how terrific would it be, I thought, to have a record to look back on in 5 or 50 years time.  Once back home, I was at risk of becoming a total Bangla-bore and soon my all friends knew all the anecdotes. 

Sitting on a train one rainy Monday, I realised what better way to accost perfect strangers with it, than to write a book... Like a woman in love, I wanted everyone to know everything about this little-known, little-understood, often underestimated, fabulous country.

Me – Which begs the next question from a travel illiterate like myself, why the feck did you choose Bangladesh? 

Anne - You might equally ask ‘why not’? 

Me – Ok, why not?

Anne - It was a purely random choice.  The organisation with which I was working – VSI Ireland (known internationally as SCI or Service Civil Internationale) – was seeking volunteers for India, Nepal and Bangladesh.  There were others interested in India so I discounted that; Nepal was suddenly the subject of a Foreign Office advisory as the Crown Prince had attacked the royal family causing international borders to close, so that left Bangladesh.  Since I had no idea as to its capital city, national language, currency, religion... I decided I should learn, and learn by going there.  I was way out of my comfort zone and couldn’t decide if I was adventurous or ridiculous.  Even now, I’m not really sure whether the book answers that question!

Me – Having become familiar with Bangladesh – and it has to be noted that all of the proceeds from the book will be going to the charity “Bhola’s Children” – more of which later - what do you see as the future for this country? 

Anne – The future? Bangladesh is a country of many sides.  It’s topology means the annual extremes of weather and subsequent social and health problems, can’t be ‘cured’, just planned for and dealt with accordingly.  But it’s a country of 140 million people, it’s one of the most poverty-stricken places in S.E. Asia, and whilst it is a democracy in name, nepotism is rife and the government and the opposition – whichever of them is in power – are in a constant state of bickering.  On that level it looks bleak.  But there are local initiatives, charitable organisations, inspiring individuals, which are slowly effecting change in small but significant ways.  In recent years, the arsenic contamination in water is being addressed, girls are more likely to attend primary school than ever before, the infrastructure – building of bridges rather than relying on waterways – has begun to progress. 

There are many organisations like our own Bhola’s Children, tiny in the great scale of things but making a huge difference to local communities.

Me – Most writers have half a mind – or at least half a dozen brain cells continuously thinking about their next project. What’s next for you?

Anne - Writing has taken something of a back-seat to motherhood over the last seven months.  The  BLOG  has wobbled along and I've continued with a PhD in Creative Writing, the outcome of which will be a novel.  This is located on the island of Cyprus (another place I know reasonably well) with two interlinked story lines, one contemporary, one set during the 1974 war there.  In the meantime, I'm paying the bills with some tutoring and embarking on a project as a ghost writer.

Me – You can’t leave it like that ... Ghost writer? And if you were a real ghost (c’mon guys I have to stick in a silly question somewhere) which ghost would you be?

Anne - As the age-old saying goes, if I told you the identity of the ‘ghostee’, I would have to kill you... Actually, I don’t know the protocol of naming names just yet, so all I’ll say is that the lady is an ex pro-golfer and glamour model who has a very lively story to tell.  Kiss n tell blockbuster?  Misery memoir?  Learned biography?  You might ask but I couldn’t possibly comment... 

But if I were to be a proper ghost, I’d want to be a freelance one.  You know, flitting between hauntings,  a white sheet here, a headless horseman there.  Better still, have you seen that TV programme ‘Quantum Leap’ where a guy called Sam jumps in and out of people’s lives and changes history?  I’d like that job.  Or I’d like to be an angel, but definitely not the plain-clothes sort, a proper one with wings and a halo.

Me – Wings and a halo. Right. Anywho ... tell me about your time in Cyprus – and did you manage to elicit any marriage proposals there? (He cunningly brings the interview round to an anecdote told in The Blonde Bengali Wife)

Anne - Cyprus is fascinating – how many of the clubbers in Agia Napa know they are in a country that has the last divided capital city in Europe? Cyprus is Aphrodite’s love nest, is year-round sunshine, is archaeological heaven, is Cypriot-Delight in a sticky box picked up in the duty-free after a fortnight’s clubbing.  

But dig deeper than the Dionysian mosaics and find that Aphrodite was enmeshed in an incestuous, dysfunctional family, there is snow in the Troodos mountains at Easter, and is your box of sweets really Turkish Delight or Greek?   Or I could just say no; no marriage proposals, in fact no proposals at all, indecent or otherwise.  But then again, I had so many in Bangladesh, it would have been sheer greed to seek out more...

Now for the advert folks – A Blonde Bengali Wife is a wonderful book. It details with affection the challenges faced by a fascinating country and an equally fascinating people. The prose is a delight and chimes with poetic sensibility.

Given the troubling nature of the lives of many of the people you read about in the book this is never a difficult read due to Anne’s light touch and hugely readable style – but don’t think that for a moment she swerves from telling it like it is. She talks about the characters she encountered on her journey with honesty, affection, warmth and humour. Believe me you will not leave the pages of this book unchanged.

You can buy the book BY CLICKING HERE

And if that is not enough to get you to release some of your hard-earned – all profits go to the charity that was set up as a direct result of Anne writing this book. And you can learn more about BHOLA'S CHILDREN by accessing the link.


  1. Wonderful interview and thanks for reminding me I still haven't read the book!

  2. A fabulous interview - as usual - and as always I take your recommendations to heart.

  3. You'll enjoy it RG.

    Marley, if you like it be sure to come back and tell us.

  4. nice interview, Michael
    Love that all the profits go to charity! Bravo for the author.

  5. Excellent interview and a reminder to me as well as to Rosemary that it's a book I should have bought already.

  6. Yes - go and do it now, Bill. Aside from the fact its a good cause, it is an excellent read.