Springboard: Tahmima Anam, The StartUp Wife

Springboard: Tahmima Anam, The StartUp Wife

After writing a historical fiction trilogy set in her birthplace of Bangladesh, Tahmima Anam wanted to take a different direction with her fourth novel, The StartUp Wife (Canongate, 3rd June). She explains: “I wrote three novels about Bangladesh and it was really important to me that I communicated something about it that people hadn’t learned about before. This time, I thought, ‘I just want to make people laugh, I want to bring them some joy’.”

The book tells the story of computer scientist Asha, whose life and career are changed after a chance meeting with her high-school crush, Cyrus. The two begin a whirlwind romance and soon after launch a social networking app with their friend Jules. While Asha is the brains behind the operation, Cyrus’ charismatic appeal throws him into the spotlight, and she begins to feel invisible in the boardroom of her own company.

The book is partly inspired by Anam’s own life. For the past 10 years she has been on the board of Roli, a music start-up company founded by her husband, which she says is something they both “fell into”. Though she is clear that the story is not about their relationship, she says: “The inspiration does very much come from real life; some of the little anecdotes are pulled from things that happened, although the characters are of course entirely made-up.” One of the things that she injected into the book was the feeling of “being in a love triangle, because it’s you and this person and then this thing that they are deeply passionate about and spend hours doing every day”.

The titular start-up is We Are Infinite (WAI), a social networking app centred around faith and ritual. This is a subject that Anam has always been interested in: “I have a PhD in anthropology, and humans put a lot of stock in the importance of ritual as an organising principle in the world... I wondered, ‘What if there was a social media company that was not about the things that you display, [but] about what’s inside and the communities that you build around that?’ I thought it would be an interesting counter- point to some of the main ways in which we interact on social media today.”

Utopian dreams
The narrative begins with WAI applying to join a tech incubator called Utopia, which is already home to other start-ups that are preparing for the end of the world. Anam had “a lot of fun” creating these fake busi- nesses. Before writing the book, she did some research into AI, and particularly enjoyed discovering the language of the tech world, which she then incorporated into the book. “The tech world has its own shorthand... Asha slowly learning what those terms were was a fun thing to do a little bit of research about. But mostly the research came from living through that experience and feeling that ‘this is the heart of capitalism, it’s what makes the world go round, and yet it’s like a foreign country to me’,” Anam says.

As the start-up takes off, the boundaries between work and life start to blur for Asha and Cyrus, which Anam says is “very much something I lived through”. She says of her characters’ lack of a work/life balance: “Maybe the message is that there was some- thing so intoxicating about both the love story and the start-up, and they fed into each other. For a while, they had everything: they got to work together, they got to see each other all the time, they had this very intense sensual and romantic relationship, and everything was operating at a very high volume.”

Another thing that Asha finds intoxicating, particularly as a woman of colour in the elitist tech world, is “that feeling of creating something and being a pioneer”. That said, she is quick to let Cyrus become the face of the business “without even really realising that she’s doing it”. Anam explains: “She thinks that her taking a step back is just a natural consequence of who she is; she’s the geeky numbers person behind the scenes and Cyrus is the charismatic leader. She takes that for granted, and what she doesn’t realise is that he couldn’t have been this version of Cyrus if she hadn’t built the algorithm.” Anam adds: “Her understanding that she has been dimin- ishing herself is the main arc of the story, and I think that’s a universal story when it comes to women of colour... When she finds her teenage crush, it’s her fulfilling a dream, but in fact, the real dream is her having the confidence to own the fact that really WAI is about her. Her coming into herself is the real love story.”

While Asha’s outlook develops throughout the book, Cyrus’ attitude also changes. As Anam puts it, the initial team behind WAI “starts out being quite countercultural and, in a way, the story is about how they (espe- cially Cyrus) end up being embodiments of the things that they were critiquing”. Despite his initial reluctance to join WAI, Cyrus soon starts to approach his role as its figurehead with “a missionary zeal”. The character is presented as unconventional and enigmatic, while also being someone who “breezes through life” and benefits from the “bro code” culture of the tech world. Anam says of him: “He marries this amazing woman who pushes him into the limelight, and he steps into it as if that was what he was always meant to do, not realising that there is this person paddling furiously to create the world that makes it possible for him to be so great.”

The covid factor
There is some irony in the fact that a book in which the characters are trying to create technological innovations to survive in a future apocalypse is being published at a time when the world is dealing with a global pandemic, and in fact Covid-19 makes an appearance towards the end of the book. Anam had completed the manuscript before the pandemic hit (her last transatlantic flight was to meet her American editor at Scribner), but she was going through edits when lock- down began and decided to incorporate the real world into the book. “I felt like if I was going to write about people who are feeling somehow responsible for how we were going to get through the apocalypse, it would be a shame not to bring some of that in.”

Anam is already considering a follow-up to the book. She says: “I love to write books in threes and I’ve already started to think about a sequel, which I’m not going to start writing until the pandemic is more or less over, because it’s got to be in the aftermath of this.” She feels that if WAI had really existed during the last year it “might really have taken off, because finding meaningful ways of connecting virtually would be even more attractive to people than it was before”. She believes that what makes the start-up compelling to the characters in the book is how it “brings together the promise of technology and the humanity”, and if there is an overarching message about technology in the novel it is “that I hope that it can represent the best of us”.

The StartUp Wife (9781838852481) is published by Canongate on 3rd June. The hardback costs £14.95.