Simon & Schuster
What happens when a woman designs and builds an app – and then her husband becomes the face of the startup investing in it? this is the question Tahmima Anam I set out to answer in the satirical novel, startup wife.
The novel centers on Cyrus and Asha, who co-founded a social media platform that customizes ceremonies and rituals for non-religious people. Asha came up with the idea, but Cyrus is the visionary behind the company. The novel was inspired in part by Annam’s own experience as a tech outsider who unexpectedly became immersed in the world of startups.
“My husband and I would be academics,” she says. “I mean, I was going to write novels and he was going to be a professor of Chinese philosophy.”
Then Anam’s husband invented an app and launched a music technology company. “And I feel like the whole trip was about discovering the startup world, sort of from an outside perspective,” she says. “And that’s exactly what Cyrus and Asha do.”
While writing the novel, I enjoyed imagining a group of elusive tech startups—including a company called “EMTI” that sends subscribers an empty box they mail back with unwanted items. She even has a friend who makes it website for the fake company.
“Sometimes, when I talk to people in the startup world, as a joke, I’ll just give them the website address and not tell them it’s fake,” says Annam. “for some reason, [EMTI] He was the most interested person in investing. That’s kind of like a little joke that I sometimes like to play on people.”
On the company Asha and Cyrus you create, helping to design rituals for non-religious people
Abeer Hawk / Simon & Schuster
The platform is called “WAI”… which means “We are Infinite”. And what it is, it is a way for people to communicate via rituals. So you go to the app and tell it the things that mean something to you, your favorite cartoons, the food you like, what’s meaningful to you, the important experiences that happened to you in childhood. Then she asks for a ritual. You say, “I want to get married.” For example, in the book, there are two classics who got married. So they have a Homerean wedding and that’s what the platform gives you. Then you can communicate with other people through these rituals. So it is a kind of anti-social media الإعلام [company] “Social media” means that you don’t talk about superficial things. You communicate through rituals that give meaning to your life. …
I’m not a religious person myself, but I can see how having some kind of organizational setting can be very relaxing in a world where there is so much uncertainty and giving people something to keep, [them] The kind of punctuating moment in your life where you’re looking forward to something, your baby’s baptism, bar mitzvah. …So I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could give atheists the same kind of scaffolding that religious people have?
On her hero Asha making her husband CEO, making him a kind of prophet
There is a real irony there, because obviously people join WAI because they want an alternative to organized religion, and then there they worship a visionary male Christ, [a] Basically the prophet. And I think the other irony is that Asha… who created the app and who does all the coding, and it’s really her idea, when it comes to it, said to Cyrus, “No, you’re the CEO. I’m just a programmer. I’m going to sit in the background,” and she lifts it up and thinks to herself. , at the end of the book, “I literally created a platform to make the whole world worship my husband.” She does. And that’s an exaggeration of what we sometimes do when we like someone, we raise them up. But it does it on a very intense, kind of, huge, huge, exaggerated scale.
On the way, some tech founders see themselves as visionaries
I think the tech world is promoting the idea of the visionary man. If you think of all the people who are now primarily responsible for our lives, it’s often a string of white men, whether it’s Elon Musk who will take us to the moon and invent all the cars we’ll drive in the future, or Mark Zuckerberg. I mean, we may not worship them as people, but we do rely on them a lot. And when it comes to male founders who raise money when they’re in front of venture capitalists, I think there’s a strong bias toward the dreamy male CEO.
On being a board member of her husband’s startup
I’ve been on the company’s board of directors from the start, and obviously had no board experience. And I really enjoyed thinking about writing this book the whole time I was on this board, because one of the greatest pleasures of being a writer is to put all your experiences somewhere. So any time someone cuts me off or ignores me or doesn’t take me seriously, I guess, I’ll write it down. So it was a way of addressing that experience, which was very new to me and sometimes very challenging, because the other half of my life was just sitting quietly in a room writing books, which had nothing to do with the startup world until I wrote this book. …Imagining this novel was a great way to process the actual experience I had, whether I was sitting at the board watching people interact with me, but also watching the changes my husband was going through as he went from being kind of academically calm to being the boss of everyone.
On invoking racist and sexist language when you hear it
There is a lot of sexist language [in the business environment.] …so, for example, guys will generally say, “Well, they’re already pregnant, and maybe even have the baby,” when they talk about someone who invested in you a lot, they’re going to give you more money or something. Or they’ll say, “We should open up the full kimono,” which is a kind of sexist and racist kind. …I think we need to be able to say out loud that language means something, and a joke, even in the most volatile of ways, is a representation of our actual values. So I hope to be more like Asha and less like me who was silently keeping things away from my book.
I grew up in Paris, New York, Bangkok and Bangladesh
If you asked me this, I don’t know, 30 years ago, I would have said it was really terrible because I couldn’t maintain friendships for more than a few years. I think looking back, it was a formative experience for me. I would say the most meaningful experience was when we came back to Bangladesh. …we used to live in all these countries and [my parents] They kept telling me, “We’re just going home. We won’t stay here. We won’t stay in New York. We won’t stay in Paris. We’ll go home, we’re patriots. We have to go back and do something for our country.” And when I was 14, we did just that. We came home and my father founded an independent English-language daily newspaper, unrelated to politics, which was unusual at the time. …so it was very difficult not to be in one place for too long. But I think it definitely had a lot to do with my becoming a writer.
Sam Breeger and Seth Kelly produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Beth Novey have adapted it for the web.