Tahmima Anam’s ‘The Startup Wife’ uncovers how private life can be political

Tahmima Anam’s ‘The Startup Wife’ uncovers how private life can be political

Award-winning author Tahmima Anam’s newest novel, “The Startup Wife,” out July 13 from Scribner, explores a modern-day relationship set against the backdrop of the startup industry.

When Bangladeshi American Asha Ray is reintroduced to her high school crush Cyrus Jones — a mysterious and intellectual white man who creates customized rituals like wedding ceremonies, funerals and more — she finds herself on a new life path. After she quits her PhD program at Cambridge and marries Cyrus in a whirlwind wedding, the newlyweds and Cyrus’s charming best friend Julian use Cryus’s rituals and Asha’s algorithm to create WAI (We Are Infinite), an app designed to rethink religion and create personalized rituals for its users. WAI lands the group a spot at New York City’s Utopia, an exclusive tech incubator that hosts a myriad of fellow scientists and wunderkinds planning for the end of the world.

It’s not long before the three-person team begins to see success with WAI, attracting venture capitalists, employees and a dedicated fanbase obsessed with CEO Cyrus Jones. But as the app grows and as Cyrus allows himself to step further into the spotlight with Asha’s help, the cracks — created by the “boys’ club” of the tech world and Cyrus’s emotional wall — begin to surface.

“The Startup Wife” tells the story of how a smart and capable woman is cast to the sidelines of her own creation by showcasing how the injustices of the world can pour into personal relationships.

ALL ARTS spoke with Anam about the book ahead of its release.

Photo by Abeer Hoque, courtesy Scribner

What inspired you to write this story?

Although I did not start a tech company, my husband started a tech company about 10 years ago. And he started it literally within the weeks before we got married, like a few weeks before our wedding. I was sort of involved; I joined the board from early on, and I would go to the office, and I would kind of watch him do his thing. And I sort of tried to imagine, like, what would it have been like if that had been me? So, I took all sorts of things, the comic things that happened in our life, the whole blurring between work and home, and I just superimposed it on the story of a young, [second-generation] immigrant woman who starts this company and how she gets treated by the world and all the obstacles she faces.

How did you think of the tech ideas: Utopia, WAI and the Empathy Module?

One of the most fun things about the book was writing all those fake startups, and I even made a fake website for Utopia … And if you click on it, it has logos for all the companies and you can read about them. You could even apply to get into Utopia from that site.

So, the idea of WAI [and the Empathy Module]: I trained to be an anthropologist. I got a PhD. And one of the things that you learn as an anthropologist is the importance of ritual. And it was just something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It occurred to me, wouldn’t it be interesting if someone created a social media company that was based around people’s need for ritual — you know, the things that our lives are focused around? That’s kind of where the idea came from. And the other thing about why that suits Cyrus and Asha is that she sort of literally creates an algorithm that makes other people worship him as a kind of messiah. At some point, it’s like, “How did I spend all of my intellectual energy turning him into a God?” That’s just what women do. Sometimes they just lift their partners up and at their own expense.

So, it was really fun coming up with the different companies, and it was also really fun coming up with all the rituals. And I did a lot of reading of different texts and doing Wikipedia searches on really obscure cults and cultures and things that people do. [It] was a fun research project.

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Why was it important to make Cyrus and Julian white men and Asha a Bangladeshi woman?

If you think just statistically about the number of brown companies, it’s minuscule. You know, it’s really growing, but certainly nowhere near where it needs to be.

[Cyrus and Julian] were given privileges that [Asha] didn’t have; it was almost like she had internalized that herself, and she was pushing Cyrus ahead, saying, “Oh, no, you stand in the limelight. That’s not really my forte.” But that’s because she had internalized something about herself, which was that, when she was going to the investor meetings and people weren’t taking her seriously, she was like, “Oh, it’s because I’m just really bad at this.” So, I think that it was important for the kind of deep structural inequality to exist both outside of the three of them, but also within the three of them and certainly within [Cyrus and Asha’s] marriage.

I mean, she was a brown girl in a white world, and I think any brown woman who is running a company is going to one hundred percent feel that, whether that white world is in her home or whether it’s just in her work life.

Right. I’m thinking of that scene between Asha and Cyrus at her parents’ house, and Cyrus zeroes in on the fact that she pointed out he was white.

Yeah, I just wanted you to get that sense that she is, over the course of their relationship, feeling more and more like her power is being extinguished, and that she participates in that … She gives it to him on a silver platter. That’s the irony of it — that she realizes that she did that and it wasn’t all his fault. He certainly played along, but it was her.

There is an air of mystery around Cyrus from the moment we meet him; you get the sense no one can get too close. What is this emotional wall, and why does Asha ignore the warning signs?

I think the question is like, why is he so into her? And [it’s] because she had a crush on him from when they were kids. I think she’s like that geeky girl who can’t believe that she got the boy of her dreams. And she’s going to completely not question that. She’s a bit like, “Oh, you want to be with me? Of course I want to be with you. And whatever else is going on, I’m just going to work it out.”

To be fair, they have a really strong connection. But he’s a loner. He lost his mother and he kind of does his own thing. And it’s extremely attractive. They’re both kind of caught up in the narrative of Cyrus, you know? It’s not really a relationship of equals, even though he really loves her to the extent that he can kind of make it about someone else — which is limited.

Courtesy Scribner

Cyrus and Asha’s story is a familiar one. What would you say to those who read “The Startup Wife” and see themselves in Asha?

I would say to women who feel that they may not be able to claim their power within a relationship, that there are so many ways to claim [it] within and without. And that’s obviously up to every individual person. But, as Michelle Obama famously said: “Your story is your power.” And I think — whether that’s you kind of claiming the strength of your history, of who you are and where you came from, or reading books about other people who have been on that journey — to experience that sense of solidarity, that’s how you have to find your own way. And for some people, that’s in relationships, and for some people that’s outside of them.

I think as artists … we can give people little moments of joy and laughter and recognition to be like, “Hey, I see that. I’m her.” [And] I wanted to give Asha really close female friends — like Destiny, Li Ann and her sister — people who are like, “Yeah, this is wrong.”

Speaking of Asha’s close female friendships: Was it important for you to include Destiny’s app about sexual consent and its lack of VC-backed funding, in order to sort of take the tech world to task?

Totally. I mean, I think that it doesn’t even require me to take them to task. I think it is an established fact that it is harder for women to get funded. It’s harder for them to be in positions of power. And it’s only when you change the entire ecosystem, where you change the people who are making the decisions about funding, as well as the people who are asking for the funding, as well as the people working in these companies — like all the way through the chain — that we’ll ever see change. So, I think a person like Destiny probably goes into a boardroom and pitches to a room exclusively made of men.

I think the difference between the tech world and the working world — I don’t think it’s any more sexist, but I do think the thing that’s kind of striking about it is that technology is all about disruption. It’s like, “We’re going to disrupt driving. We’re going to disrupt laundry. We’re going to attack and disrupt everything.” But it is not interested in disrupting structures of power. We are still in a world where young white men rule the world.

There’s a pandemic at the end of the book, which is apt for Utopia’s mission, but also very apt in our current world. Was that intentional or a coincidence?

Well, I wrote the part where Li Ann says that [Utopia is] getting ready for the apocalypse [before COVID-19]. Basically, that was always Li Ann’s kind of thing. And then when the pandemic hit, I was like, this woman is preparing for the exact same thing that is happening right now. How can I not put that in the book? I can’t take that away from Li Ann; I want her to have her, like, “I told you so” moment.

So, I submitted the book in October or November of 2019. And then I rewrote it probably just at the beginning of the pandemic, like March or April of last year. I rewrote that ending, and of course, at the time, I had no idea how long the pandemic was going to go on, how serious it was going to be, or how effective we were going to be at getting a vaccine … So, I had to write that in. It was too much of a coincidence that, here was this woman who was like, we’re getting ready for the afterworld. And then that actually happens.

What was your writing ritual like?

It’s funny that a book about ritual should have been written without any ritual at all. And the reason is that I have two small children and I did not have a place in the house … I had a little desk, like [an] IKEA piece of wood that was balanced on top of two other things. And my daughter’s cot was behind me. And I just wrote whenever I had the chance.

“The Startup Wife” is out July 13 and can be ordered here.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.