Rushdi, Sanya. Hospital. Giramondo Publishing, 2023. RRP: $26.95, 128pp, ISBN: 9781922725455.
Bangladeshi-Australian writer Sanya Rushdi’s first novel, Hospital, is an autofictive examination of mental illness and the medical system, articulated through language which is both precise and sharp. Over the course of fourteen slim chapters, we follow the character of Sanya—an echo of the author—as she navigates her third episode of psychosis. From within the walls of the psychiatric ward she is involuntarily admitted to, Sanya ponders what it means to be considered beyond the bounds of sanity. She reckons with the serrated edges of what comprises the self—especially when an individual’s power is given up to broader institutional controls—and how writing can help to reconstitute a sense of an embodied self.
Set in Melbourne, Hospital was written in Bengali and first published in Bangladesh in 2019. Now, in 2023, the novel has returned to Australia, having been translated into English by Arunava Sinha. This path is orbital, and parallels Hospital itself; the narrative has a sinuous approach to time, braiding past and present. This circuity creates a mirroring effect, which is reflected in the duality with which Rushdi treats dialogue. As we move between Sanya’s documentation of the present, and her memories of the past, we also register the shifting consideration of interchanges between characters—and, sometimes, different facets of Sanya herself. Some sections of the novel relay dialogue traditionally, within the bounds of quotation marks. At other times, reported speech becomes just that: characters’ utterances are preceded by a simple bulleting of their name, as if they are merely actors reciting lines in a play. This is an adroit stylistic choice from Rushdi. It plays with the uncertainty Sanya herself feels surrounding the shifting state of her mental health. It forces us to ask: is any of this real, or is it only happening inside Sanya’s head? And, if the latter is, then we see a value in narrativizing the movements of the mind.
The line between truth and fiction—as well as sanity and psychosis—is something Rushdi pursues throughout Hospital. This slipperiness, juxtaposed against the author’s meticulous, unsparingly precise approach to rendering the events of the novel, produces an uncanny effect. Within the ward, days merge into weeks; patients leave and arrive and leave again as Sanya treads a path through the hallways of the hospital. The real bleeds into the hyperreal. As Ivan, one of the other patients in the ward, says to Sanya: ‘We’re in an artificial environment. It’s difficult to judge what’s true and what’s false, what’s right and what’s wrong—even our feelings’ (73). The fabric of Sanya’s existence begins to feel pixellated, stretched thin across the confines of her life.
In another instance of juxtaposition within the novel—this time, between liberty and limitation—Sanya is allowed some freedoms within the ward. ‘If I want to go out somewhere,’ she tells us, ‘all I have to do is write the details of where I’m going and when I’ll be back’ (49). In return, she must abide by the restrictions the hospital places upon her. She is required to obey the rules of the ward; her medication is sometimes forcibly administered, and her attempts at romance with male patients are scrutinised. These obligations, Sanya convinces herself, seem ‘relaxed’—but she worries that the freedom she is allowed to enjoy is merely a façade, and she likens her situation to ‘the unprotesting death of a frog in a pot of slowly heating water’ (49).
In order to make sense of this strange environment, Sanya writes, and commits her experiences to the page. Yet even this attempt to hold onto a sense of self is threatened by the fact that ‘no such thing as [the] “self” is allowed to thrive […] in this hospital’ (49). When Sanya endures these moments of realisation, a sense of panic floods her quiet self-containment: she gives way to bouts of ‘crying…sitting still…then crying again’ (50, ellipsis in original). When this anxiety arises, Sanya’s inner emotional state mirrors that of the natural world outside of the ward. ‘There have been storms outside,’ Sanya tells us. ‘The state of my mind matching the state of nature to provide some sort of consolation’ (50). This division between interiors and exteriors threads itself through Hospital; a constant weaving between private and public, constraint and liberation.
Hospital’s English-speaking readers owe a debt to Arunava Sinha, the translator of the novel. Translation is often overlooked: not just in the literary world, but more generally in the arts. This is a tragedy, as the work translators do is critical: their job is not simply that of linguistic conversion, but of retaining the power and delicacy of the original text. Sinha’s approach to his craft, as he told LIMINAL Magazine, is to ‘add nothing—take nothing away’. This can be felt within the pages of Hospital: Rushdi’s voice is potent, and one can sense her work has been treated with sensitivity. Sinha notes that Hospital is possessed of a ‘superbly spare’ quality in its use of language, adding that it is ‘beautifully constructed’ in its original Bengali. Preserving these characteristics of Rushdi’s writing is superb work on Sinha’s part: his translation, combined with the strength of her prose, delivers a novel-in-translation which is both translucent and incisive.
Hospital is exceptionally moving. It is a novel which lingers; it sticks to the skin. Weeks after finishing it, I return, repeatedly, to the fragments which arise in my memory. Rushdi is compelling; she cuts through to the heart of things.
Rushdi, Sanya, and Arunava Sinha. “5 Questions with Sanya Rushdi and Arunava Sinha.” LIMINAL Magazine, 27 June 2023. Sourced at: https://www.liminalmag.com/5-questions/hospital.
Khomami, Nadia. “‘Translation is an art’: why translators are battling for recognition.” The Guardian, 3 July 2023. Sourced at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/jul/03/translation-is-an-art-why-translators-are-battling-for-recognition.
Ellie Fisher is a poet and writer. Her creative work has appeared in Westerly Magazine, Swim Meet Lit Mag, and Gems zine, amongst others. Ellie is studying Honours in English at The University of Western Australia, researching a creative writing dissertation on writing the body through the form of the lyric essay.