An Interview with Nadia Kabir Barb

31 July 2023

Nadia Kabir Barb is a British Bangladeshi writer and journalist whose work has been published in international literary journals and anthologies. She was longlisted for the 2021 Bridport Prize Peggy Chapman-Andrews First Novel Award for Walk in My Shadow. She has an MSc from the London School of Economics and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and has worked in the health and development sector in both the UK and Bangladesh. Truth or Dare is her debut collection of short stories.

We caught up with Nadia during South Asian History Month 2023 to talk about her latest book, Truth or Dare.

What inspired you to write Truth or Dare?
For a long time I had characters inside my head, clamouring to be heard, and it took a major health scare in 2014 to finally give me the push I needed. I can’t say there was one particular moment where I decided to write a collection. I wrote one story at a time and somewhere down the line realised I had a manuscript.

Are there any main themes or points you want the reader to take away from your book?
The stories in the collection are snapshots of certain points in the lives of my characters. They are faced with situations where their actions or inactions show us who they are. Their truth, so to speak, and they deal with them in their unique ways. Despite not having set out to write Truth or Dare as a collection, the themes that recur are love, loss, longing and resilience. No matter what – we keep breathing, eating, laughing. Life goes on, we keep going.

Which other writers do you most admire and why?
My introduction and love of short stories was through Rabindranath Tagore’s collection Golpo Guchcho. He wrote about ordinary people in rural and urban Bengal, but through his writing he made their stories extraordinary. The sheer beauty of his language captured my imagination.

As a teenager I devoured almost every book written by Agatha Christie. She will always be the ‘Queen of Crime’ for me. I feel I have her to thank for my powers of intuition and deduction and hope to write a mystery novel one day!

Every sentence Rohinton Mistry writes is a masterpiece. He is an artist with words. After finishing A Fine Balance, which has an ending that leaves you reeling, I had to take some time to let it sink in.

The list is endless but I would also have to mention, Elif Shafak, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid and Kazuo Ishiguro.

Are there any books which have changed your life? (And why?)
Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi had an immense impact on how I perceived myself as a British Bangladeshi. To read a book with a brown character in mainstream English literature in the 90s was liberating. Suddenly I was no longer invisible. Representation really does matter.

Another book with South Asian characters that came out in the 90s was A Suitable Boy. As a first-time parent living in Germany, where I spoke little of the language, it was a godsend. The characters in the book were so familiar to me and relatable, it made me feel closer to home.

The Stranger by Albert Camus made me question whether we are really ever a true version of ourselves or constantly presenting a façade which is acceptable to society.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Writing is a marathon, not a sprint.

If you could offer a budding writer one piece of advice, what would it be?
Dare to dream. It is never too late to become a writer.

What drew you to short stories?
I wrote a column for almost sixteen years, and when I decided to try my hand at fiction, short stories felt like the most natural progression. While with a column you’re constrained by certain parameters and have a definitive narrative – i.e. you have to stick to the facts – with short stories you are allowed creative freedom and the ability to choose what you write about. Which is why I don’t think I am loyal to any particular genre. My stories at times take a darker turn and comedic at others. It’s the freedom of thought and expression that I am drawn to.

What’s the strangest job (besides writing) that you’ve ever had?
I did a summer job at a fast-food place in my first year of university, and I was the only one who hated being at the till. Having to talk to customers terrified me, almost like a form of stage fright.

Where do you write?
Much to the displeasure of my family and orthopaedic consultant, I used to do my writing on my bed! But I am reformed, and have my own study and sit at a desk.

What’s the best place to read?
Nowadays a comfy sofa or, dare I say it, my bed. But the best place to read used to be our veranda at my mother’s house in Bangladesh. There is nothing like being curled up in a chair reading with the monsoon rain outside.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which famous writer do you invite?
If it was only one famous writer, it would have to be Shakespeare. I fell in love with his writing as a teenager, and he played a big part in bringing my husband and me together. It would be fascinating to find out how he would perceive the modern world, including the language, where so many of his words and phrases are now part of our day-to-day vocabulary, and how he would feel about his work being so relevant over four hundred years on. He is immortalised through his writing.

What’s the background music at your dinner party?
If my dinner guest is Shakespeare, I’m thinking ABBA, a band which has also stood the test of time, even after forty years. Or I’d ask Spotify to create a playlist for dinner with Shakespeare!

Any outlandish hobbies?
Not exactly outlandish hobbies, but I am a huge sci-fi fan, and tend to watch anything I can get my hands on. I am also a die-hard Trekkie.

What’s next?
I’m currently finishing my novel Walk in My Shadow. It has at times felt like a never-ending process, but I think I’m almost there. I’m still writing short stories, and am also developing an idea for my next novel.

‘Right now, someone else’s life was in his hands. He couldn’t say whether it was a few seconds or minutes that they both stood staring at each other, but he had never been so scared in his life.’

In Truth or Dare we follow, spell-bound, as chance encounters bring violent pasts roaring into the present; we wait on tenterhooks as a woman sits by her husband’s hospital bed as both their lives hang in the balance; we watch anxiously as a homeless man begs a woman with her life and career stretching ahead of her not to jump to her death.

By turns comedic, heart-wrenching and moving, these stories paint powerful pictures of pain, love and empathy, and celebrate the power we have over one another. From the rain-soaked waterways of London to the bustling streets of Dhaka, Truth or Dare is a stunning collection that spans two continents and sees the best and worst in both.

ISBN: 9781804470589