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The Lounge Chair Interview: 15 questions with Janice Pariat

By Neha Mehrotra

Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories, Seahorse, a novel and The Nine Chambered-Heart, a novella, published by HarperCollins India in November 2017 and HarperCollins UK in May 2018. In 2013, Janice won Sahitya Akademi’s Young Writer Award and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction; in 2015, she was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize for her novel Seahorse.

Janice studied English Literature at St. Stephens College, Delhi and went on to study History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She currently lives in Delhi; among other things, writes a monthly literary column ‘Paperwallah’ for The Hindu and teaches creative writing at Ashoka University.

The Nine Chambered Heart is currently being translated for publication into six languages, including Italian, Spanish, French and German.

Janice Pariat.jpg

Janice Pariat

How do you identify as a writer?

By writing? I don’t see what else would suffice. Although I’d hasten to add that identifying as a writer implies something of a stasis–and I think, for me, it’s about “being” a writer or seeing that identity (as with all?) as something that’s perpetually in flux. One is always “becoming” a writer. It isn’t some pleasant destination you arrive at, at the top of a mythical hill. It’s also an identity to which people are keen to prefix with labels – “woman”, “Northeast”, “Indian” – while I would prefer to shrug them all off. Labels say very little about me, and tend to skew expectations of what I should write, the kind of stories I should be telling, where my books should be set.

What impels you to write, especially the kind of books you write?

I’m afraid I’m not very good at anything else – painting, pottery, playing a musical instrument. I feel kinship though with literature and books and writing. Reading impels me to write. As does remembrance, and memory. Bleakness. Joy. Frustration. Fun. Anger. Sadness. At the risk of sounding like one of those terrifically earnest people, writing is at the very centre of everything I do because it helps me make sense of the world, to record it, unravel it, and give it away. They say we write the books we want to read? Perhaps. I guess I write the books I do to explore aspects of myself, and other people and the world that most intrigue me.

Tell us about your most recent piece of writing apart from what you have published.

A terrible poem which must never see light of day. Hastily scribbled notes, which may make it into the next book. To be honest, I’ve been reading more than writing this summer.

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10 famous book hoarders

(From Lit Hub. Link to the complete article given below)

I have a hard time getting rid of books, and if you’re reading this space, you probably do too. As Summer Brennan put it, “what kind of degenerate only wants to own 30 books (or fewer) at a time on purpose?” Not anyone I know. But apparently, you only have to own one thousand books to qualify as a book hoarder. Which seems a bit low, to be honest—unless we’re talking about one thousand books in a New York City one-bedroom, in which case, sure.

In general, I’m interested in other people’s book collections. How many books, which ones, how are they kept, where are they kept? So, one rainy afternoon, I started poking around the book collections of famous people, to see which ones happened to be (technical or actual) book hoarders. Some of the results surprised me—though I admit I already knew about Karl Lagerfeld.

N.B. that of course this list is in no way scientific or exhaustive—no doubt there are scores of famous people out there with large libraries (disposable income and lots of space tend to make that possible), but either the actual numbers have never been documented, or I simply couldn’t (or didn’t) dig them up. Notables with high figures who didn’t make the top ten include Marilyn Monroe (400 books), George Washington (1,200 books), Charles Darwin (1,480 books), Oprah (1,500 books), Frederick Douglass (2,000-odd books), and David Markson (2,500 books). If you have any further intel on this score, please add on to the list in the comments as you see fit.

Karl Lagerfeld: 300,000 books

Karl Lagerfeld has more books than pretty much anybody. During a “master class” at the 2015 International Festival of Fashion and Photography, Lagerfeld explained: “Today, I only collect books; there is no room left for something else. If you go to my house, I’ll have you walk around the books. I ended up with a library of 300,000. It’s a lot for an individual.” No kidding. His collection includes books in French, English, and German, and in order to create more space in his home for all the volumes, he stacks his books sideways—that is, horizontally instead of vertically. Oh, and there’s a catwalk to reach the upper levels. This is Lagerfeld, after all.

Read more at the Lit Hub link here


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From Orwell to ‘Little Mermaid,’ Kuwait steps up book banning

(From the New York Times. Link to the complete article given below)

No book, it seems, is too substantive or too insignificant to be banned in Kuwait. Recent targets of the government’s literary censors include an encyclopedia with a picture of Michelangelo’s David and a Disney version of “The Little Mermaid.”

David had no fig leaf, and the mermaid, alas, wore half a bikini.

“There are no hijab-wearing mermaids,” said Shamayel al-Sharikh, a Kuwaiti women’s activist. “The powers that be thought her dress was promiscuous. It’s humiliating.”

Kuwaitis like to think of their country as an enclave of intellectual freedom in the conservative Persian Gulf, a haven that once welcomed exiled Arab writers. But that self-image is becoming harder to sustain.

Responding to the demands of a growing conservative bloc in Parliament, the government is increasingly banning books.

In August, the government acknowledged that it had banned 4,390 books since 2014, hundreds of them this year, including many works of literature that had once been considered untouchable, setting off street demonstrations and online protests.

Read more at the New York Times link here


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Subverting the Chinese immigrant story

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

The first time my parents read my fiction, my mother had just one comment about the short story, which featured a server at a Chinatown restaurant: “Chinese can be more than waitresses.”

On a visit home, in my early thirties, I’d given them a copy of the literary magazine that had published my story. I’d recently quit my newspaper reporting job, taken the leap into an M.F.A. program, and for the first time, I was showing them the result of my labors. Of all the reactions I might have anticipated—pride or excitement or maybe boredom or disappointment—I hadn’t foreseen that one. My mother seemed to feel that I should portray Chinese Americans only as model minorities, highly educated engineers and doctors who live the American Dream.

She didn’t know that for a time, I’d stopped writing about Chinese Americans at all. For a year or two in college, I had convinced myself that if I wanted to be considered a real author, all my characters had to be white—as if those were the only worthy stories to be told. After all, that’s what I’d grown up with and what I’d studied in school.

Even though we didn’t share the same race or place, I’d recognized myself in feisty aspiring writers in children’s literature: Jo March in Little Women, Laura Ingalls of the Little House series, and the titular Anne of Green Gables. As a girl, I also read and reread Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings—published the year I was born—about the Chinese immigrant son of a master kite maker in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early twentieth century. But I didn’t identify with the main character, even though we were both of Chinese descent; he was a boy, and he spoke often of demons, which my scientist mother and engineer father never mentioned. 

I was still in middle school when Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club was published. I don’t remember exactly when or how I got a copy, but I cherished the interlocking stories about mothers and their daughters, their secrets and their struggles, in China and the San Francisco Bay Area. I related to the push and pull of homelands adopted and ancestral, and the unspoken expectations that passed between parents and their children. Our parents had given up their language and culture and family to make a life here. We, their children, owed them a debt we felt we could never repay.

Read more at the Paris Review link here


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A tiny Indian publisher is translating hidden gems of world literature for global readers

(From Quartz India. Link to the complete article given below)

“It isn’t about size. Or the scale. It is about the choice. The instinct that allows you to take the risk to step outside the structures the world of corporate publishing has so magnificently set up. And publish books that in your opinion need to be read.”

The mission statement of Seagull Books says it all: This is not your usual Indian publisher.

Founded in 1982, the Kolkata-based company publishes everything from literary fiction and poetry to philosophy and even cultural anthropology. But these books aren’t what you’d find on the catalogues of publishing giants such as HarperCollins or Penguin Random House. At Seagull Books, the focus is on translated writing from around the world, much of which has never before appeared in English, in India or anywhere else.

“We publish anything and everything to do with what I like to call ‘the human condition,’” founder Naveen Kishore told Quartz. “It is in many ways a wish-list of books we want to publish. Not dictated by trends or the marketplace or target readers.”

And that’s a far cry from the norms in India’s publishing business, which is estimated to be worth $6.76 billion, according to Nielsen. Though the sector is poised to grow at a compounded annual rate of over 19% until 2020, far above the global rate, it is overwhelmingly dominated by educational books. As a result, the massive success of commercial fiction writers, such as Chetan Bhagat, has prompted most publishers to focus more on cookie-cutter stories that sell well. And in this quest for bestsellers, original and unconventional writing has been pushed to the sidelines.

Read more at the Quartz India link here


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Should we stop reading into authors’ lives and get back to their books?

(From The Guardian. Link to the complete article given below)

As soon as the news of VS Naipaul’s death broke a few weeks ago, a thousand think pieces rose as one, as though to take his place. His legacy was both attacked and defended, his misogyny and racism condemned and forgiven. This frenzied conversation crystallised around a question readers have been grappling with for years, but with increasing urgency: to what extent should we consider an artist’s personality, politics and ethics relevant to our appreciation of their work?

It seems that almost no one can separate the writer from the books when it comes to Naipaul. The same is true of our response to work by authors who have recently been accused of various levels of misconduct following #metoo. In the past week alone, compelling and devastating reports of abuse by lauded authors have appeared in the media: Gwyn Conger Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s second wife, detailed his sadism and womanising in a memoir that has recently come to light; author Joyce Maynard has written of her experiences with JD Salinger, who summoned her to live with him when she was 18 and he was 53.

Practical criticism – the academic approach to texts that aims to consider words on the page independently of their author or the reader’s preconceived ideas – began almost 100 years ago; now, in 2018, such death of the author” talk appears to be dead itself. While the takes on Naipaul were diverse, and some argued that Naipaul’s bad character was irrelevant to his work, the fact of his bad character was always front and centre. It could not go unmarked– but what remains to be decided is the extent to which it marks the legacy of a Nobel prize-winning author.

Read more at The Guardian link here


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What does immersing yourself in a book do to your brain?

(From Lithub. Link to the complete article given below)

The act of taking on the perspective and feelings of others is one of the most profound, insufficiently heralded contributions of the deep-reading processes. Proust’s description of “that fertile miracle of communication effected in solitude” depicts an intimate emotional dimension within the reading experience: the capacity to communicate and to feel with another without moving an inch out of our private worlds. This capacity imparted by reading—to leave and yet not leave one’s sphere—is what gave the reclusive Emily Dickinson what she called her personal “frigate” to other lives and lands outside her perch above Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts.

The narrative theologian John S. Dunne described this process of encounter and perspective taking in reading as the act of “passing over,” in which we enter into the feelings, imaginings, and thoughts of others through a particular kind of empathy: “Passing over is never total but is always partial and incomplete. And there is an equal and opposite process of coming back to oneself.” It is a beautifully apt description for how we move from our inherently circumscribed views of the world to enter another’s and return enlarged. In Love’s Mind, his numinous book on contemplation, Dunne expanded Proust’s insight: “That ‘fruitful miracle of a communication effected in solitude’ may be already a kind of learning to love.” Dunne saw the paradox that Proust described within reading—in which communication occurs despite the solitary nature of the reading act—as an unexpected preparation for our efforts to come to know other human beings, understand what they feel, and begin to change our sense of who or what is “other.” For theologians such as John Dunne and writers such as Gish Jen, whose lifework illumines this principle in fiction and nonfiction alike, the act of reading is a special place in which human beings are freed from themselves to pass over to others and, in so doing, learn what it means to be another person with aspirations, doubts, and emotions that they might otherwise never have known.

Read more at the Lithub link here


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is Literature dead?

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

One evening not long ago, my fifteen-year-old son, Noah, told me that literature was dead. We were at the dinner table, discussing The Great Gatsby, which he was reading for a ninth-grade humanities class. Part of the class structure involved annotation, which Noah detested; it kept pulling him out of the story to stop every few lines and make a note, mark a citation, to demonstrate that he’d been paying attention to what he read. “It would be so much easier if they’d let me read it,” he lamented, and listening to him, I couldn’t help but recall my own classroom experiences, the endless scansion of poetry, the sentence diagramming, the excavation of metaphor and form. I remembered reading, in junior high school, Lord of the Flies—a novel Noah had read (and loved) at summer camp, writing to me in a Facebook message that it was “seriously messed up”—and thinking, as my teacher detailed the symbolic structure, finding hidden nuance in literally every sentence, that what she was saying was impossible. How, I wondered, could William Golding have seeded his narrative so consciously and still have managed to write? How could he have kept track of it all? Even then, I knew I wanted to be a writer, had begun to read with an eye toward how a book or story was built, and if this was what it took, this overriding sense of consciousness, then I would never be smart enough.

Now, I recognize this as one of the fallacies of teaching literature in the classroom, the need to seek a reckoning with everything, to imagine a framework, a rubric, in which each little piece makes sense. Literature—at least the literature to which I respond—doesn’t work that way; it is conscious, yes, but with room for serendipity, a delicate balance between craft and art. This is why it’s often difficult for writers to talk about their process, because the connections, the flow of storytelling, remain mysterious even to them. “I have to say that, for me, it evolved spontaneously. I didn’t have any plan,” Philip Roth once said of a scene in his 2006 novel Everyman, and if such a revelation can be frustrating to those who want to see the trick, the magic behind the magic, it is the only answer for a writer, who works for reasons that are, at their essence, the opposite of schematic: emotional, murky, not wholly identifiable—at least, if the writing’s any good. That kind of writing, though, is difficult to teach, leaving us with scansion, annotation, all that sound and fury, a buzz of explication that obscures the elusive heartbeat of a book.

Read more at The Paris Review link here


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From Insta Novels to “Cat Person”: The digital platforms revamping literature

(From The New Statesman. Link to the complete article given below)

The popularity and ubiquity of online fan fiction (fan-written fiction created based on existing narratives) cannot be overstated. While often relegated to a niche in internet culture, assigned the same nerdy status as Tumblr teens and Reddit bros, “fanfic” is due the credit for a growing number of pieces of mainstream culture (Fifty Shades of Gray was originally Twilight fan fiction). But while fanfic has thrived, the internet has remained an unobvious place for the majority of society to go to read fiction. Opting for Kindles, literary magazines, or hard copy books, mainstream culture tends to use digital platforms for consuming news stories, culture reports, and opinion, and leaves its literary consumption to more traditional channels.

However, that could all be changing. The New York Public Library announced last week the launch of their series called “Insta Novels”: a “revolutionary new program that will bring digital novels to Instagram”. Classic novels, poetry, and short stories will be shared via their Instagram Stories feed, making literature accessible on a platform that millions of people visit daily. The first in the series is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; told through a series of animated videos and pictures spliced between images of each and every page of the book. It will be followed by the Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and the short story The Yellow Wallpaper.

Read more at The New Statesman link here


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Country of Focus: 9TH AFCC celebrates Singapore as country of focus

AFCC 2018 | 6-8 Sep | afcc.com.sg

9TH AFCC Celebrates Singapore as country of focus: Spotlights literary heritage through 3-day children’s festival; two award shortlists announced

SINGAPORE, 20 August 2018 – In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Singapore Book Council, the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) celebrates Singapore as the Country of Focus with a three-day programme that showcases over 100 local writers, illustrators and publishers; an exhibition on illustration pioneer Kwan Shan Mei; and a Singapore Night gala dinner and awards ceremony. The 9th AFCC will run from 6 to 8 September at the National Library, marking the theme Imagine-Asia.

Over three days, participants can attend over 130 ticketed and free programmes, featuring 150 Singapore and international speakers.

AFCC has also announced the shortlists for two awards this year, the Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award (HABA) and Scholastic Asian Book Award (SABA), which come with a top prize money of SGD10,000 each. Six books have been shortlisted for HABA, which include titles by Xie Shi Min, Ben Lai and Low Ying Ping. Recognising the best Singapore children’s book, the award received 71 submissions this year. SABA has shortlisted six works by writers from Singapore, Hong Kong, India and The Philippines. A joint initiative between SBC and Scholastic Asia, it is given to the best unpublished manuscript by a writer of Asian descent. The winners will be announced at the Singapore Night-cum-50th Anniversary dinner and awards ceremony on 8 September. Please refer to Annex V and VI for the full shortlists and panels of judges.

AFCC casts the spotlight on Singapore’s literary heritage in children’s books as the Country of Focus, whilst highlighting new means of content creation and digital platforms for storytelling. Boasting a line-up of speakers that range from established writers and illustrators – such as Adeline Foo, Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo, David Liew, David Seow, Emily Lim, Patrick Yee, Rilla Melati and Rosemarie Somaiah – to new, emerging ones (Eunice Olsen, Eva Wong Nava, Quek Hong Shin) and Gen-Z writers like Gabby Tye and Ashley Koh, the programmes will tackle a wide range of topics. The topics include creating iconic kid lit characters; advocating for inclusivity; getting children to read Sing Lit; and learning our history through children’s books.

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