Writing Matters: In conversation with Jayanthi Sankar
By Mitali Chakravarty
A small, vibrant woman full of energy comes to my mind when I think of Jayanthi Sankar. Born and brought up in India, she has been writing for the past twenty three years. She has been published in several magazines and ezines including the Indian Ruminations, Museindia, The Wagon and InOpinion. Loss and Laws and Horizon Afar are two collections of her Tamil short stories that have been translated into English. Her works of short fiction have been included in various anthologies including The Other. She has been invited to participate in the panels of literary festivals such as Singapore Writers Festival, Seemanchal International Literary festival, Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival.
Jayanthi was effusive and generous with her responses to the questions we put before her.
Mitali: Tell us a little about when, why and how you started to write.
Jayanthi: Looking back, I feel it is all like a dream – nothing was planned. It just happened. I was not a serious reader till my mid-twenties. In the1990s, when we migrated to Singapore, what attracted me the most were the libraries with their generous shelves of books – I’d found my world, and undoubtedly, I owe it to the National Library Board that paved the way for me to evolve as a reader and subsequently a writer.
I read passionately for four to five years, only for the joy of it, both in English and Tamil. A natural critic was born in me. I was not even aware of it for long. At one point of time that voice started getting too fuzzy about style and narration of some of the fiction that I often chose randomly and soon I asked myself, ‘Isn’t it always easier said than done?’
That’s how in 1995 I tried to craft a short story in Tamil – ‘Turning point’ – which I never thought would lead me to discover the creative ability in me. A very simple, amateurish narration based on an early morning dream of an incident that I’d had, ended up being published that weekend in the only local Tamil daily and the editor called to appreciate and encourage me to continue.
I recollect now, I had to try a few more stories in the next several months before I could actually believe that I really could pursue writing. I have always loved fiction, both to read and to write. For the next couple of years I experimented aimlessly in both the languages.
Suddenly, one fine day I thought, should I focus in one language first, English or Tamil?
I had known of a few senior writers like Ashokamitran, Indra Parthasarathy who wrote first in English and took up Tamil soon to last longer. But nonetheless, I decided to focus first on Tamil.
Mitali: Your writing ranges from stories of school children and their anxieties to those of maids who are being forced to sell their bodies. What is it you seek to project through the wide range of your writing?
Jayanthi: Interestingly, I was not aware of this wide range of themes until a few years ago when one Ph. D and two M. Phil students from South India, during the course of their research on my works, pointed it out. I revisited my short stories and realized they were right.
As a reader of my own short stories, I’d say that they project a diverse society – as anywhere in the contemporary world, much more so in Singapore. My readers have often told me that my fiction has genuine universality and has captured Singapore more effectively than ever before.
Mitali: Your stories create a bridge between different communities and cultures. Is it a conscious effort on your part to homogenize mankind and rise above racial barriers, especially in a story like Yuka Wong’s Diary?
Jayanthi: Isn’t mankind homogenizing a lot faster than when we were children? I think I am only reflecting that in my fiction, spontaneously, without deliberation. I have introspected on this many times. Rising above racial or any kind of barriers is always the wishful thinking of not only writers but any socially aware human being, I suppose.
‘A Few Pages of Yuka Wong’s Diary’, is a typical example of fiction that depicts the contemporary world. It formed in me when my sons were in primary and secondary schools. I saw the boys getting fascinated by the Japanese language, culture and anime. They studied about Singapore during Japanese occupation in their social studies. It is one of the many short stories in which I tried to bring about the meaningless grudges and conflicts that overtake the compassion and humanity that naturally prevail in human minds and hence also in our society. I also thought of taking a peep at the repercussions of the Japanese occupation of Singapore.
These wove well and the content naturally chose the form of a diary. Yuka Wong, the name of the protagonist itself gives the reader the needed preamble. She, who is half Chinese and half Japanese, grows watching the people around and how differently she is being looked at depending on the circumstances.
Not only is Yuka Wong puzzled, but we also, as readers, ponder on how drastically the perceptions can possibly vary. The Japanese culture itself is perceived differently by different groups at different times and in different situations. Looking back, I feel this could apply to anything in our lives.
Mitali: In ‘Mother’s Words’, you write about a former convict. Is this based on a real incident?
Jayanthi: During the 90s, I used to witness the tears and sorrow of a close friend, whose husband was jailed for a white collared crime, I presume. I saw her suffer financially and emotionally with a teen and a toddler. I was following another similar case in the newspaper those days. And, of course, the yellow ribbon initiative to give a second chance to ex-offenders by the Singapore government in 2004 was something new and interesting, and the story unfolded.
Mitali: Do you draw your characters primarily from the real world around you or do they arise first in your imagination? Could you tell us about the process behind your creations?
Jayanthi: Just like most fiction writers, my characters also sprout mostly from the real world around me. And needless to say, my imagination alters them a little to suit my knot of the story and most of the time, my short stories are formed from an issue or an incident that disturbs me in one way or the other. They haunt me off and on. Seldom though, my imaginary character chooses to embrace some qualities of a real life person or more than one person.
An incident might be created for an issue or an incident with an issue might undergo certain changes and a real life character might be customized to suit and it might have an imaginary character or two to complement or balance.
Mitali: Have you explored other genres of writing besides short stories?
Jayanthi: Apart from about 130 short stories, I have written 5 novels, all in Tamil. The two genres have also been published as compiled volumes of 1000 pages each.
Many essays of nonfiction, especially those on Chinese culture and many translations of Chinese literature through English have also been published into two complete volumes of 1000, 1100 pages respectively, in Tamil.
In children’s literature, I had the opportunity to co-author a children’s novel, Who Took Meena’s Teddy? for 7 -8 years old, which was published with attractive illustrations in Tamil and English, and also did several translations.
Mitali: Earlier you wrote in Tamil. Now you have started exploring the world of short stories in English. What led to this sudden shift?
Jayanthi: It was definitely not sudden, but it happened a little later than I had anticipated, may be because Tamil engaged me for two full decades, again least expected. After writing in one language, I have reached the other just as I had clearly foreseen.
On a lighter note, these days, I don’t have to worry much when and if the Tamil fonts in my laptop might give problem although I continue to need them for some of my freelance assignments.
Well, the creativity and craft are no different but yes the medium has changed for me. However it’s just as subtle as when an artist explores oils after years of watercolours. I can definitely say one thing – had I chosen English back then, I doubt very much if I would have come to Tamil now. I am very glad it happened the way it has happened for me.
As of now, there are my English books lined up, Dangling Gandhi and Other Short Stories, an anthology of contemporary modern Tamil writers, and importantly, the yet to be named novel that is forming in me. The first two are already with the publisher/s and the novel would hopefully be ready by next year. The anthology is from 40 authors of 10 countries.
Mitali: Some of your stories have been translated into other languages. Can you tell us a little about them?
Jayanthi: ‘Read Singapore’ was published in the local quarterly magazine Ceriph in 2011. A copy of that issue landed in the hands of a Russian writer who was impressed by the simple fiction and contacted me through the editor of the magazine to translate. The short story was included in a Russian anthology.
I have many Tamil, Indian, Chinese and western friends, most of them outside Singapore, who don’t read Tamil and all heartfelt thanks to Kitaab, the translations reach them now. They get at least a taste of what I have been writing. The editor who edited those two collections said now she knows Singapore like she lived here. And I thought that was an encouraging feedback for the fiction as well as the translation. Though not yet clear of when and how, selected short stories of mine might be translated to French and Hindi.
Mitali: Recently you have taken to painting. What made you turn to this form? Does it help your writing? Is there a link between the two?
Jayanthi: Again, the critic in me! This time like an immature childish viewer, when I was in India during 2017 January, I criticized, though not aloud, an amateurish painting that was to be framed. I immediately asked myself – have you ever done any, even as simple as that one?
That’s when I started off with pencils after returning to Singapore in the next two days and moved on to charcoal in two weeks. In another month or so, I took up crayons, pastels and poster colours.
The learning – not just the sketching, colour values and depths and such – about the different medium, pigments, and materials and styles began then and has continued. In one and a half years I have been experimenting a lot on subjects like nature, still life, architecture and so on.
I love this long road ahead that promises me so many vibrant and colourful experiences of erring, learning, falling, rising, growing, and therefore evolving. It’s very nice to be just like I was – a reader – almost three decades back, happily inquisitive and childishly trying. Makes me feel a lot younger, I guess.
Having said that, it’s certainly going to take long before I see any signs of ‘my style’ evolve. Only now I have started slowly finding my strengths and challenges. In fact, I wish to reach the point, may be several years later, where I can use painting to express myself, but I am certainly not in any hurry.
I have not found painting help me in anything in particular. At least not yet, but it does help me a lot as a form of meditation. That effect certainly helps me in unwinding and refreshing myself to move on. When a decent result is achieved, painting can be fulfilling and gratifying and when that does not happen the learning undoubtedly happens and that’s rewarding as well. I enjoy working with white charcoal on black paper. Although I did try a few acrylics, I only like water colours. And I have not thought of oils yet.
Mitali: Are you influenced by any particular writer, artist or music? Do you have a favourite writer, artist or musician, someone who motivates you to write?
Jayanthi: Fortunately, I have never been influenced by any writer though I very often happily admire and get inspired by many works of fiction. For example, one of my favourite authors, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns impressed me but his next book, And the Mountains Echoed disappointed me with its narrative style and treatment. The former inspired and the latter exercised my creative brain to figure out how it could have been enhanced. Then again, he probably wanted it that way. If so, why? I think that’s how it can be for a writer and as a reader. I happily accept both for I have something to take home from both.
The first two thirds of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner brought in me the happiness that was snatched away by the last one third, which was most probably edited to modify, cinematic elements added so that it could be filmed later on. I guessed that when I read just a week after the title was published and it really did happen after a few years. I am certainly not against filming a novel but I would love it to be a novel first. Altering it for the movie later is anyway not impossible.
Another of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood let down the reader in me as much as his Kafka on the Shore stole my soul. Of course, I really plan to try Norwegian Wood again, very soon. Novels such as Devi Yasodharan’s Empire, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and many such works have impressed and inspired me in the recent past.
I have just started reading Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young wife. Happily, I observe myself becoming an ardent fan of her bold narrative style and captivating strong language, with an extra dose of cynicism and sarcasm but in a hilarious way in many places, mostly to send across the message of the feminist in her. I also enjoyed her The Gypsy Goddess a couple of years back.
Like most of us, I enjoy good music, in any genre, right from the revered stalwarts like Bhimsen Joshi, Hariprasad Chaurasia to the contemporary Hariharan, Sankar Mahadevan, the maverick T.M.Krishna, the ever melodious Bombay Jayshree, seasoned Sanjay Subramaniam, the latest incredible talent Kunnakkudi Balamuralikrishna… the list goes on. I’d learnt to play classical music on the Veena but did not pursue it and now, I have lost touch such that it might take me months to get back the fluid speed.
I love to watch the online videos of Yanni on stage becoming the very music he composes and directs. Oblivious to the crowd, creating his own world, his body language is a visual treat outweighing all the effects, instruments, musicians and camera. I adore jazz in saxophone, which sounds so masculine and beautiful. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s ghazals, voice and its wildness in rendition of some Bollywood numbers have been my favourites lately. A.R. Rahman introduced Sid Sriram, who impresses me with the explorations of his voice. The latest pops of Rihana and Ed Sheeran interest me both for their lyrics and rendition.
I have always wanted to learn dance but it never materialized. I find indescribable joy watching the engrossing performances of many artistes including the versatile Rukmini Vijayakumar for the natural dancer in her, Devesh Mirchandani for the grace, ease and energy in both Kathak and Bollywood styles, and the contemporary dancer Abhinaya Penneswaran (she also happens to be the daughter of one of my good friends in Delhi) who looks promising to me.
Probably because I am still in the beginning of my learning curve in art, I seem to like and appreciate any style and any artist’s works from the legendary Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet to Raja Ravi Varma, S Elayaraja, Ganesh Hire and many more. I enjoy watching videos of Bob Ross painting and teaching. If and when I take up oils in future, he will be teaching me virtually.
Mitali: Where do you see yourself in ASEAN literature? How do you perceive the future of literature from this region?
I have been watching the ASEAN writings, especially the rise of the publishing industry of Indian writing in English. I think the ripples are bound to touch this region with the symptoms already being felt. I was happy to read about Krishna Udayasankar clinching her second Bollywood film deal for her works in less than a year. In the recent years, as we all know, there have been a few local works by Rachel Heng, Clarissa Goenawan, Kirstin Chen, Sharlene Teo gaining attention by way of awards and prizes outside Singapore.
I see myself in ASEAN and, therefore, also in South Asia. For example, Dangling Gandhi, my forthcoming collection, has themes ranging from the effects of the British colonization in the region to the challenges a lesbian faces in a metropolitan city, placed in Shillong, Munnar and many other towns and villages of India, Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar. Dangling Gandhi, a metaphor as anyone can guess, has all the scopes for wide discussion as well as readers’ appreciation both in content and form.