Writing Matters: In conversation with Zafar Anjum and Monideepa Sahu
The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, edited by Monideepa Sahu, series editor Zafar Anjum, set the tone for Kitaab’s Best Asian series that includes literary and speculative fiction, travel writing and crime. Zafar Anjum shares with us his vision for this seminal book and for the series that he has envisioned. Monideepa talks about her experience as editor for TBASS 2017.
Sucharita: Zafar, what was your vision for the series? Why did you feel the need to bring together short stories from across the continent?
Zafar: The whole idea behind Kitaab is to connect Asian writers with readers everywhere in the world. Coming from this context, I felt that we needed to collect the best contemporary Asian writing across themes in edited annual volumes. I had seen this kind of anthologies in the USA, but nobody was doing it in Asia, collecting Asian voices. That’s how the idea behind the Best Asian series took shape. The vision is to create a series of The Best Asian writing in fiction (literary and speculative), crime writing, and travel writing. Each volume is a mix of new and seasoned voices that makes it so exciting. Through the pages of these volumes, you get a glimpse of what the respective societies in Asia are going through. If there is enough support by readers, hopefully we will be able to sustain the series. That’s my hope.
Sucharita: What do you think this first book in the series has achieved as you look back at the year gone past in the context of what you, as the editor, imagined for the second book in the series?
Zafar: The first volume of The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, edited by Monideepa Sahu, has had a great journey so far. It has been widely reviewed in Asia and outside Asia. The experiment seems to have worked. This critical success has given us hope that probably there is a readership for this kind of work. Only time will tell if this series is sustainable but we hope for the best. Asian writers deserve platforms like this and we hope to provide one of those vehicles for their expression.
Monideepa, congratulations on the continuing success of The Best Asian Short Stories 2017.
Monideepa: Thank you. I’m so happy Kitaab and the collection are being appreciated. Eagerly waiting for more volumes from this and other series.
Sucharita: At a time when publishers seem to shy away from short story collections, what made you and Kitaab conceive of this book of short stories from across Asia?
Monideepa: The idea for this and other series of short story anthologies came from Kitaab founder Zafar Anjum. We share a love for short stories and the challenges and rewards they offer in terms of artistic expression. We hoped to reach out to like minded readers who enjoy layered and nuanced tales.We hope these collections will offer readers a varied bouquet of quality stories in a space where there isn’t already a profusion of choices.
Sucharita: When you decided to send out the call for submissions, what were you looking for? How different was this expectation from the final shape that the book took?
Monideepa: I was looking for interesting and thought provoking stories well told; engaging style blended with interesting substance. Apart from posting calls for submissions in serious writers groups, and nudging writer friends whose work I admired, I didn’t set any themes. That turned out well, because the final collection contains stories on a wide range of themes. The collection projects rich and enduring creative interpretations of life in Asia behind the news reports and socio-political research findings.
Sucharita: Did you notice any recurring theme/s or connect among the stories submitted (whether selected or otherwise) in terms of subject, treatment or literary imagination?
Monideepa: The themes of war, upheavals and violently forced migrations recur in several of these stories. The civil war in Syria, Partition of India, the forced exodus of Hindus from Kashmir, famine and other horrors during the Cultural Revolution in China, inspire many of these stories.
Another recurrent theme is social transition, the changing dynamics in man-woman relationships and the urge to break free from poverty and improve one’s station in life.
As regards treatment and literary imagination, we received a variety of stories told in very different styles. I chose the stories which resonated most with my personal tastes.
The stories in this collection have multiple layers of meaning. While the writers have their individual styles, each story builds up strongly and is told in a riveting way. That’s just how I like them.
Sucharita: As someone who read through hundreds of stories for this book, how would you describe writing trends in Asia? Do you notice a national character to the stories or a more pan-Asian thematic undertone that connects one to the other? Is there perhaps a conscious effort to break through such restrictive expectations?
Monideepa: I read over 350 stories to arrive at this selection. I was happy to find so many voices speaking of Asia as insiders. Asian writers are shedding self conscious efforts to woo western readers. They no longer see the need to ‘explain’ Asia to foreigners and resort to apologetic footnotes.
Sucharita: In writing about loss and pain, the past and changing cultural and political landscapes, how do the different writers in this anthology negotiate loss and memory, rootedness and migration, identity and flux?
Monideepa: Each writer of these 32 stories deals with these themes from a unique perspective. Read and enjoy them for the excellent stories they are.
Sucharita: Could you perhaps walk us through the process of selecting the stories for this anthology? What were the fine lines between selecting one story and rejecting another equally deserving one?
Monideepa: As I have written in my introduction to the anthology, this caused me much agonized introspection. After several rounds of readings and re-readings, I was left with too many beautiful stories for a single volume. Finally, I returned a few stories from which I didn’t quite get that elusive ‘aha!’ moment. Highly subjective, I admit. I admit to flaws in my own reasoning, and wish I could have included them all. I wrote personal notes to each author whose story was not included, pointing out the strengths of their stories as well as offering suggestions where I had any to offer. I hope this encouraged them to continue writing and submitting.
Now I understand first hand why I shouldn’t feel hurt when one of my own stories is returned by an editor.
Sucharita: Did you have complete freedom to select the stories? As editor, what did this freedom mean to you and how did it resonate with the stories that you selected?
Monideepa: I was delighted to be given complete freedom after initial discussions with the publisher, to select the 32 stories in this volume. While this helped give this anthology an overall sense of consistency, it was also tough work. I didn’t have the luxury of first readers or other editorial assistance. There was no partner to give second opinions.
Sucharita: What challenges did you face in putting together this anthology? What excited you the most about it?
Monideepa: I was excited the moment Zafar Anjum brought up his idea. I knew I would love to read the works of other Asian writers, which we don’t see in bookstores, etc. because of the predominance of bestsellers on offer.
Apart from the challenges of selecting ‘the best’ stories, I faced the challenge of getting high quality contributions from many Asian countries. The notices on the Kitaab website and various writers groups online brought plenty of contributions from India and Kitaab’s home turf Singapore. We finally managed to cover eleven countries. Requesting well respected writer friends to help spread the word in their circles definitely helped get more submissions from other countries.
Sucharita: It’s been a year since the book was published. In this one year, how do you look back at the TBASS experience? If you had the opportunity, what would you want to change in the book in terms of additions or the vision for it?
Monideepa: The vision for this series is a wonderful concept close to my heart. I don’t think I would change this particular collection. Nothing is perfect. But instead of brooding over what has already been published and reached readers, I would look forward to reading future collections.
Sucharita: There are very few translations in the selection. Was it difficult to find good translations or did you receive too few?
Monideepa: There are some excellent translations in this anthology. Maia Tabet’s translation of Hisham Bustani’s Arabic story and Shabnam Nadia’s translation of Moinul Ahsan Saber’s Bengali story immediately come to mind.
There were enough quality translations as well as submissions in English to choose from. So I didn’t make extra efforts to seek out translations.
Sucharita: How do you think an Asian compilation such as The Best Asian Short Stories differs from its Western counterparts in terms of storytelling, choice of subjects or the editorial perspective?
Monideepa: I really don’t perceive any clear differences. The writers have chosen themes close to their hearts and expressed themselves artistically, paying attention to the intricacies of their craft. I have tried to do my best in selecting and then working with writers. This is what writers’ anthology editors in any region and culture would do.
Sucharita: As editor, how closely did you work with the writers on revisions and rewritings?
Monideepa: I had suggestions and questions for around half the writers. They considered my suggestions and rewrote certain parts of their stories as they saw fit. Most of these rewrites were small changes to clarify certain points.
There were some substantial changes too. One story had two sisters who seemed to me to echo each other. I suggested that only one girl be retained, and a love interest added. I also suggested comprehensive rewriting for another story to enable smoother flow of language. Both writers gracefully accepted my suggestions and rewrites.