In 2001, at the age of six, Fahmida Azim left Bangladesh and went to live in the United States with her family.
It took her some time to get used to her new life. She felt everything in the US was made for temporary use, whereas in Bangladesh, everything was about making things last longer, even a small thing such as a pillow.
"In the US, you are supposed to regularly replace your pillows and there is no place to keep the old ones. It just did not make sense to me," laughed Fahmida while reminiscing about her days in Bangladesh during a recent interview with The Business Standard over Zoom.
An illustrator, author and storyteller, Fahmida Azim won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize under the category Illustrated Reporting and Commentary. She, along with her team members Anthony Del Col, Josh Adams and Walt Hickey, received the prestigious award for an illustrated report titled 'How I escaped a Chinese internment camp.'
The report, narrating the torments faced by an Uyghur woman, was published by Insider last year in December.
Her works have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American Magazine, The Intercept, Glamour Magazine, Vice and more.
Fahmida is the second person of Bangladeshi origin to win a Pulitzer after Mohammad Ponir Hossain's win in 2018 for his Rohingya refugee photos for Reuters. Fahmida was born in Mohipal, Feni and after moving to the United States, she lived in Washington DC for a while and then finished high school in Virginia.
Fahmida feels she has been an illustrator most of her life. When she was young, she would draw characters for her own stories.
On her website fahmida-azim.com, she has mentioned she "enjoys drawing real people living extraordinary lives, fictional people living beautifully ordinary lives, and food."
While that was evident after we went through the different illustrations displayed on the website, we wanted to know if her inspirations were confined to these areas or if perhaps they sometimes changed.
She said, for her, it was all about human connections. "The slice of life books I ended up reading got straight to human connections. The characters acted in a way that made me fall in love with them."
"When I was younger, I was inspired by sci-fi and vampires. I liked dark, spooky stories. Then I got into slice of life comics and I realised the things that held me on was the humanness of these genres and their relatability," she said.
"When I am drawing real people, when there is a story about human rights violation and activists getting punished by the state, and you know, dramatic and scary circumstances, they really help me become more grounded," she added.
She received a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts from VCUarts (Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts). And, currently, she is living in Seattle.
Starting out as an illustrator
When she started working in the field of illustrations, she was "doing a lot of gigs but at the same time, I was chasing my dream job of working on editorial illustrations."
"When you are first working out, you take everything. It [illustration] is a brutal field to take into, it is also mysterious. You do not know which portfolio to make and it is a tough job to keep because it is mostly freelance," she said.
"But once you have all these people you have worked with and a portfolio that stands out, you can take on work you like and stuff you want. I used editorial illustration to get into book publishing, and book publishing pays me enough to keep my focus on editorial illustration," said Fahmida, elaborating on finding a footing in her line of work.
The first illustration she did was paid for and published by Lenny Letter, an online feminist newsletter co-created by Lena Dunham. It was a story about a Nigerian American woman who had her own TV show in Nigeria.
"It was not my best because it was my first attempt," she recalled. Then she did a project for The New Humanitarian, an independent, non-profit news agency working on humanitarian stories.
In 2021, she worked with PositiveNegatives, a communications group in the UK that works on visual communications for educational purposes.
Speaking enthusiastically about her work with PositiveNegatives, Fahmida said, "They hired me to help them make a multimedia comic on Rohingya refugees. There were data scientists involved in the project and we made infographics, we also had video footage and used web designs to make my illustrations move. It was a unique experience with the melting of all of our skills."
In Seattle, an editor she had worked for, suggested she get a literary agent and eventually Lilly Ghahremani became Fahmida's agent.
'Muslim women are everything' and winning the Pulitzer
In 2020, Fahmida worked on her debut book: Dr Seema Yasmin's 'Muslim women are everything.'
The book contains more than 40 profiles of Muslim women who are tired of listening to the world telling them what they can and cannot do and want to break the stereotypes surrounding them.
Published by Harper Collins, 'Muslim women are everything' was the winner of the 2021 International Book Awards.
"We worked in journalism but we kept seeing dehumanising ways of portraying Muslim women, sometimes in subtle ways. So, Seema and I made a book where Muslim women do everything. We wanted to show we [Muslim women] are not a monolith," she said.
When her little sister wanted to take a dance class and her parents did not agree, Fahmida "pulled out the book 'Muslim women are everything' and showed my father that no, she can learn dancing if she wishes."
On the importance of visual representation of brown, Muslim women in media, books and basically everywhere, Fahmida said, "When you are reading a book or watching a show, you are seeing yourself from someone else's perspective. Visual representation is important so that we are able to control our own narratives and see our own possibilities."
When Fahmida was approached by the author of 'How I escaped a Chinese internment camp,' she thought she was not going to be able to do it because of workload.
However, when he said she was the third artist he reached out to because the first two said they could not do it as it might ruin their jobs or worse, their lives, she became adamant about doing it.
"I got mad. This is not fair, you cannot threaten people's lives and jobs. I felt very strongly about Uyghurs being treated like that, and other illustrators being affected and silenced that way. I was so mad that I did not care. I decided I was going to put my all in this," she said.
She added with a chuckle, "It killed my hand but I did it, and I am really glad it worked out."
After learning of her nomination for the Pulitzer, Fahmida felt shy about sharing it with others and as she told us, she did not want to "jinx it."
"I told myself I was going to watch the show and that is all. But my friends showed me the live stream and I saw we won! I was speechless. My phone blew up and everyone was trying to reach out to me," said Fahmida, sounding happy.
So, how has it been since the win? "It has been weird and insane but good," replied Fahmida.
"It has been interesting to see all these people saying they are super proud of me. I was not used to people cheering for me. But overnight my parents became more proud of me than, say, my doctor cousin!" she said.
We asked Fahmida what she thought of the state of the press and visual journalism in Bangladesh.
"In terms of Bangladesh, freedom of the press is incredibly important to get [to] that true mirror to help you see that possibility by yourself. I am so glad there are many young artists in Bangladesh who work so hard."