Writing as an act of survival: The Kitaab interview with Meira Chand


Novelist Anuradha Kumar interviews Singapore-based novelist Meira Chand

Meira ChandMeira Chand the novelist and short story writer has lived in the UK, Japan, India and now in Singapore.   Her novels, every one of them presenting a unique angle into history or an outsider’s life in a different country, are then part of a literature that belongs to the world, making her a writer to be read and cherished.

Beginning with The Gossamer Fly in 1980, Meira has written seven other novels and numerous short stories.  Her most recent novel is A Different Sky (2010), the novel that could arguably define Singapore of the early and mid 20th century.  As she describes in an essay on her website (meirachand.com) in words that echo Faulkner’s,   writing is indeed a dream,   one that takes over one’s complete being.  And the writer is not satisfied till she has written that dream down and achieved for some moments at least, an ‘ecstatic peace’. 

In her work, Meira has been able to step into characters belonging to another age, time and culture, almost in the sense of bringing into being an entire new world.  She describes her fascination for Edith Carew, the early 19th century Englishwoman accused of poisoning her husband with arsenic.  Meira had to become quite the detective in tracking down bits of the long dead Edith Carew, available at The Home Office in London.   As a writer with that unerring instinct most writers have, Meira was convinced of Edith’s innocence though all evidence was against the latter.  Though Edith was no longer alive to tell her story, to write her story and give Edith a voice, Meira had to move away from the real Edith, put away Yokohama of the 19th century and begin anew with Amy Redmore stepping into fiction in place of Edith.  It was only then that Edith began speaking to her.

The above which is of course a poorly summarized version of Meira’s essay on writing The Painted Cage that is also on her website, is a must read for any writer wishing to write historical fiction.  This is fiction that is not academic history but helps bring history alive with stories and people that may be forgotten otherwise.  The novelist on the other hand does the opposite. She gives those forgotten and the marginalized a certain immortality.   If you read A Choice of Evils set in China on the eve of Japan’s invasion of the late 1930s, or A Far Horizon, an account of the infamous ‘Black Hole’ incident that demonized the Nawabs of Bengal, and in A Different Sky, you will see an entire panoply of people and characters,  an entire period coming to life in the way only a novelist can conjure up.

A novelist of course speaks through her books. An interview, then, at best, can offer a preview of his or her work.   In this interview, Meira offers us a glimpse of her writing life and her books.

I am intrigued and love the fact that your novels are set in Japan. The stories you tell are like no other novel written in Japan.  And there is this empathy you have – no one is really evil.  This is hard maybe for you to answer but tell us something about the moment when you immersed yourself in Japan.

meira_painted_cage2I was totally immersed from the very first moment I arrived in Japan!  I was 19 years old and the Japan I went to was not the modern Japan of today.  There was still a feeling of post-war recovery – no bullet trains, no super highways, no high tech of any kind – at home not even proper heating or hot running water in icy winters.  I lived in a provincial town in the middle of rice fields, the only non-Japanese in sight – I lived as the Japanese lived.  It was hard, but now in retrospect, I am so glad I had that glimpse of an older Japan, without the gloss it wears in this modern day, where its culture is packaged and exported.

Japan appears in your novels in different genres. Did isolation, for lack of another word, mean you had plenty of time to observe?

Isolation is a painful thing.  The structure of Japanese society has no place for the outsider, so I was a very peripheral person in a rather bleak environment.  In such a position one seeks a way to survive – writing was my act of survival.  It has nothing to do with ‘time to observe’.

There is the surreal realistic novels that Murakami, Ogawa, and the others write, and  I realise your novels stand in a class of their own. I wish Japan would see it that way too?  I just wanted to ask you this.  

No sure what you are asking me with this question.  The Japanese have great respect for the kind of authority that authenticates a person’s social value, that is, the support of global or academic institutions, degrees, prizes, international accolades, etc.  It is very necessary in Japan’s intensely hierarchal structure that a person presents such a substantiation of themselves and their value to society.  This is so not only for the Japanese, but much more so for the outsider.  At that time I was just a young mother writing to survive – I did not even have the doctorate I have today.  I was without such verification, so it was difficult to place me, and dismissal as a woman, as a writer, and as a foreigner, was much the easier way to give me a place.  It was just the way things were, and still are, in Japan.

I’ve loved your novel, A Far Horizon, and its being based on a much debated event in early colonial history in India.  What made you want to write about it?

a_far_horizon1Around the time I wrote A Far Horizon, Indian historians were debating the truth of the incident of the Black Hole of Calcutta, an incident that, as a child in Britain, I was well acquainted with from school textbooks.  What was known of the incident was mostly based on the word of one disgruntled British official, John Zephaniah Holwell.  I was fascinated by how easily truth can become lie as it comes down to us through the mists of time.  And my research of the incident revealed a hypothesis of how this might have happened.  In just the footnotes of a tome of dry documents of the East India Company, I found I could trace something of Holwell’s story and his devious ways.  It was all very fascinating!

The Painted Cage and A Far Horizon were (novels based on) incidents you had read about.  Do you get your ideas this way?  Does a story come automatically to you and make up characters as you read about a situation/event?  And in other instances, there is much research required as in your historical fiction? Is there a preference?

To answer the first part of your question – I am very bad with plotting and stories.  It is the characters that matter to me and come to me first, and then I must create a story for them to live properly in, a parallel universe in which they can exist and grow and live out their lives.

With regard to the second part of the question – I have never deliberately set out to write a historical novel.  Books come to one, they chose you for whatever reason, and then you have to accommodate yourself to them.  In the case of the historical novel, it is not possible to write convincingly or accurately without much research, and if I have taken on such a book, then this is what has to be done to the best of my ability.  I am not by nature a researcher, so I do not particularly enjoy this part of things, nor am I very good at it.  I am always waiting to jump off into fantasy, into the writing.

Every character is so detailed in A Different Sky.   Does that come easily to you?  Or is it that because of the plot it becomes easy?

meira_a different skyAs I said before, I am not much good at plotting.  It is the characters that grip me.  And yes, creating characters comes fairly easily to me.  I seem to be able to slip into other skins without much trouble.  I need to feel I hold a character’s soul in the palm of my hand.

You haven’t written about your own writing life as some other writers have, for instance Alice Munro, Atwood, Desai and others.  There is a strange reticence on this, isn’t there? 

There is absolutely no reticence about writing about my own life or writing life – I have work of this kind in several academic publications.  In fact, I wrote an MA thesis on just this, using myself as subject.  Also, Hay House India have just published an anthology called Shaping the World– Women Writers on Themselves edited by Manju Kapur. I have a piece in this anthology about my writing and my life.

Do you feel at home in Singapore? Is it necessary for a writer to have roots in a particular geography and society?

First part of your question – I have been seventeen years in Singapore now, and I do feel at home here in its multicultural society.  The search for belonging and identity has always consumed me; my life and psyche are just too fragmented.  Now, I realise I cannot belong anywhere but to myself.  But I do feel a sense of relevance in Singapore that seems greater than anywhere else.

Second part of your question – I think it is an immense support and source of strength to a writer to have roots in a particular society or culture.  There is the relevancy of a whole world behind you to draw upon and relate to, a sort of tree of spiritual life.  A writer of Indian origin for instance, might migrate or travel extensively, but, however much you might expand or change, I feel you can still draw on traditions and a sense of belonging that subconsciously supports and frames your very existence.

What do you feel about the so called ‘global novel’? Is it something to be taken seriously? Or is it a way of labelling post-literary literature?

Oh dear! All these labels!  Maybe it is fashionable now to show off how ‘global’ you are, a pose, a position. I don’t know.  Many people are ‘global’ in a way they were not before, and if they are writers, I suppose they will use this framework for a novel.  I have no patience with labels I’m afraid.  In the end all that is important is that a writer should write about what they know, only then will a novel carry conviction.  If this knowledge places a story on a global stage, then so be it.  What matters is that it is written from an experience that makes it genuine.

How much is travelling important for a writer?

If you are a travel writer it might be important.

Look! Literature in the end is about only one thing, however you may frame it, the poverty of the human condition.  Travelling has nothing to do with it!!!  Everything is to be found in your own backyard, and some of the greatest literature has been written by those who never strayed further than their garden gate.

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