The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Jayanthi Sankar

By Aminah Sheikh

jayanthi.jpgLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

As is the case with most of us, constant inner exploration with strings and strings of questions ushers me towards the world of fiction, I suppose. And that subsequently widens my imagination more and more.

Fiction always fascinates me, both to read and to write. For me, it is like living one life in reality but tens of thousands in the fictional space.

I write for the creative experience itself more than the politics in, out of and behind the issues although I do appreciate and enjoy them all while reading others’ works. I’ve found myself narrating mostly with an anthropological approach but the characterization and dialogues in my fiction certainly don’t shy away from the political side of the issue. I let them be as political as required. So, naturally I’ve never believed in creating an ideal world through fiction nor have I ever tried to give any solutions to the issue. The characters take my stories forward. This could be one of the reasons for readers and critics’ ‘author is absent in the narration’ experience and comments.

Like I always say it is the creative experience that I always long for that has been helping me evolve spiritually, the person that I am and will be. It’s one of the important byproducts of my reading and writing fiction for twenty two years.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

With only two or three stories left to be written, ‘Dangling Gandhi and other short stories’ in English, is forming decently well. Although few of them talk of the contemporary issues in Singapore, some of the important stories transcend beyond eras and geographies. Thus the weaves, I hope, would subtly raise many intricate questions on several social issues of not just the modern multicultural societies and human migrations in this shrunken world, but also of the colonial India, Malaya and Singapore.

Zafar Anjum, the publisher cum writer with such a beautiful theme of ‘empowering and connecting Asian readers and writers, everywhere’, has been gracious to have launched ‘Horizon Afar and other Tamil short stories’ of mine, the second of its kind, at SILF16 at Kishanganj. How well he knows about the role of translation in filling the gaps and also in cultural sharing. I owe it very much also to the earnest and enthusiastic translator and writer P.Muralidharan of Chennai, and the editor of the book for her help in improving the text.

It may sound too ambitious or a little pre mature to say I wish to write a novel based on my transit experience at Delhi amidst the first week of demonetization woes, the SILF16 (Seemanchal International Literary Festival 2016), the town of Kishanganj, Bagdogra, Darjeeling but I hope some creative magic really happens.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Like any of us, I do maintain my ‘sparks’ list that I visit once in a while. Since I live here, see the people and culture here, mostly those on that list are mostly to do with Singapore. However, I have also been experimenting on crafting stories based on the lives of my parents, grandparents and their forefathers as well as on my early childhood in various parts of India.

Usually I don’t rush into the actual writing. Once a single spark surfaces, the creative experience begins. Mostly the first phase of that is a fight between the theme and me. I would wish to begin writing but the story would try to establish its importance by pulling me back opening further windows. This pulling happens at least a few times.

I do enjoy fight with the theme for days to weeks, but never make it deliberate. At times, I let it wither away if it so happens. Some of them reach the stage of crafting and rewriting in my mind. After actually writing or typing, I leave at least a week before I revisit to rewrite or edit, which is another experience altogether that enjoy.

I have found myself loving to capture the inner worlds of my characters. Interestingly, I   find my narration deriving most of its strength from these rather than the language itself. Not just myself, but several of my readers and critics have noted that while speaking about the social issues, bringing about the multicultural flavour, my fiction is more to do with the psychological aspects of the issue, incident or characters.

While writing ‘Dangling Gandhi and other short stories’ I was amused by my discovery of so many windows including the experiment of taking myself back into history. Not centuries back but decades before my birth.

Who are your favourite authors?

Although, like any of us, I have many favourite authors right from modern classics to the contemporary. I love reading Haruki Murakami for his magical realism and he happens to be my long time favourite author.

My admiration for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her graceful yet forceful feminism, Khaled Hosseini for his Kabul centric writings and Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho for his mysticism remains. I’ve read not all but some of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. Not to forget Ba Jin, Ma Jian, Mo Yan of Chinese, and Gao Xinjian of Chinese Diaspora writing.

Portuguese writer Jose Saramago intrigues me by the challenges he puts forth, both in the narrative style as well as the content in its cultural sense. His works interest me as if a difficult jigsaw puzzle attracts an inquisitive child who has long gotten over his text that hates punctuations.

The writings of novelists like Amitav Ghosh and Indu Sundaresan in handling respectively the colonial and Mughal India in their fiction fascinate me. I observe them wear their historical lens to use so cleverly the facts to imagine the details to fill all the tiniest of gaps.

Recently, I read Meena Kandasamy’s ‘The Gypsy Goddess’, an undisciplined novel as she classifies it herself and I knew it why after reading and she impresses me by her funny, fast paced, angry, multifaceted and aggressive storytelling, a little too cynical it might seem to some readers but I like the book especially for that. I enjoyed thoroughly the wildness and the experiment in the narration.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

Many a times, I have faced challenges while writing. Months back I’d attempted a short story on the world of lesbians. Although I wrote it after almost a year after having had two sessions of elaborate conversation, one over the phone and another over a coffee with a femme, who happens to be the daughter of my ex colleague and Chinese friend, it turned out to be challenging for me to craft that story. Probably because it’s one of those worlds that I have not been into much though I have no problem empathising. Nevertheless, after I’d rewritten and edited I felt I had not failed.

‘Beyond the Great Wall’, the book on the life and history of Chinese women, a nonfiction work written more than a decade back, was challenging to write because of the issues like the ‘foot binding’ etc that were depressing to research and to write.

What’s your idea of bliss?

To be with a person, who doesn’t judge but really loves you for who you are. And to be allowed all the luxuries of creative space along with occasional travels to the serene and quiet landscapes.

What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

I might sound a bit clichéd but normally I don’t get angry that easily or should I say I don’t get that kind of anger you’ve just mentioned. However, I do lose my cool if I suddenly get distracted when my creative peak is happening within. In fact, I would realise it happening only immediately after. The intensity of my anger would be directly proportional to that of my creative peak at that moment.

Then again, I have been learning to handle that, to not let go of the flow despite the distraction, to strengthen my confidence to put off to continue later and to actually be able to start from where I had to halt abruptly. And I happily find myself improving over the years.

What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?

Since its going to be for three months, I will pack books like ‘Kafka of the shore’, Elephant vanishes, Thousand Splendid Suns, Ladies Coupe, The Glass Palace, Alchemist, Things fall apart, The Kite Runner, Americanah, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of china, The Dark Road, ‘The gypsy Goddess’ that I keep rereading along with another set of books like Flood of Fire and The Culcuttaa Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, A Southern Music-Karnatik Story by TMK, The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen, Indian From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond by Shashi Tharoor that have been waiting for my time and attention. Of course, my laptop and my external drive that has some ebooks and my mobile.

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

Books again, from my personal library. And as many as my hands can grab and hold.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.  

To experience and to live ‘now’ thereby learn for only experience by itself can be the best teacher in the world.


Jayanthi Sankar has been creatively active for the past twenty-one years in short stories, novels, translation and essays. Several of her books have been awarded by renowned organisations. Her short story “Read Singapore”, published in the quarterly magazine Ceriph – ISSUE TWO – 2010, has been included in the anthology The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume One. The same short story was translated to be included in the Russian anthology: To Go to S’pore, contemporary writing from Singapore, edited by Kirill Cherbitski. She has started writing more in English in recent years. Having written primarily in Tamil, she has authored more than 35 books.  Three of her short story collections have been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. Her works have been published by several magazines such as The Wagon and in opinion. She has a unique interest in other cultures, especially the Chinese culture. She has been invited to participate in panel discussions in various festivals including Singapore Writers Festival and Seemanchal International Literary Festival. Born and brought up in India, she has lived in Singapore since 1990.


Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab