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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Jaina Sanga

By Aminah Sheikh

J Sanga - photo

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

I was always fond of reading. When I was young, I read constantly, often finishing a novel in a day. But I never aspired to becoming a writer. In school I was fascinated by chemical equations and lab experiments, but was never encouraged to go into Chemistry. I studied English Literature in college and graduate school and worked as a professor for some years. I write because that is the only thing I know how to do.

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

Tourist Season (published by Speaking Tiger), a collection of two novellas is my most recent book. Having written a novel, Silk Fish Opium, and a book of short stories, Train to Bombay, I was eager to take on the challenge of the novella. It is a difficult and eccentric form, but offers immense possibilities. I was also attempting to focus on environmental issues, and this theme is embedded in both the novellas.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I try to write everyday, from about 8:00am until 2:00pm. I use a laptop computer for the manuscript, but outline scenes and take notes longhand on chits of paper. Whenever I get stuck while writing, I pace the floor. I end up pacing a great deal.

Who are your favorite authors?

That’s a difficult question. There are so many authors I admire for different reasons. But to name a few, I’d say John Banville, Ian McEwan, William Trevor, ItaloCalvino, Haruki Murakami, Gustave Flaubert, Magda Szabó, Ruth Ozeiki, Laleh Khadivi, Hillary Mantel, Michael Ondaatje, and J. M. Coetzee.

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Back and Forth with Kaveh Akbar

“Poetry is deeply democratic—it can exist in the mind alone, and it’s therefore infinitely potent as a political haven.” Kaveh Akbar

 

Thibault Raoult (TR): Such robust and odd images in “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Shattered Pelvis.” Did these all originally belong to this poem? Might you have a daybook of images? Do images happen to you? Or do you seek them out? 

Kaveh Akbar (KA): Oh, I totally keep daybooks. (I like that word for them.) I’ve dozens of physical notebooks scattered around, as well hundreds and hundreds of digital pages between my phone and my laptop—phrases, misheard song lyrics, lines from other people’s poems, words, thoughts, riffs, etc. I delete them when they go into a poem to avoid reusing things, so that’s hundreds of pages of pristine unused material just waiting for the right poem. And I’m constantly adding.

I think there’s this magic thing that happens for poets—when we spend enough time in poetry, in our poems and the poems of others—where everything we experience in our day-to-day life enters our consciousness through the filter of its poetic utility. Every phrase and interaction acquires the charge of poetic potential. The cruel name your partner calls you mid-fight, the mistranslated item on a restaurant menu, the bizarre instructions a girl on the sidewalk whispers into her cell phone. All of it enters, first, as poem lumber.

TR: I see your poem “Portrait” nodding to Frank O’Hara and Catullus, among others. Which poets/authors inform your rhetorical modes and discourses?

KA: I love, differently, both of the poets you mention. O’Hara for many reasons, but chief among them his notion that a poem is a conversation between two persons, not two pages. That feels immensely useful to me and true to my experience of writing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat around writing a mystifyingly flat poem that ballooned to life only when I realized to whom I was writing. And this is maybe dumb or juvenile or whatever, but I think I love Catullus most for the startle of his filth. I privilege surprise (a form of delight) above pretty much any other craft element in poetry, and what’s more surprising than an ancient Roman poet whose poems are full of bestiality insults and excrement?

To the second part of your question, one of the great breakthroughs of my poet life was discovering Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters, seeing how taking traditional punctuation out of her poems lent her this incredible control over momentum and inertia. … I’m still kind of in the throes of that, and all my first drafts are still unpunctuated. Sometimes I’ll add punctuation in later, but often I find it to be more distracting than useful.

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Chhimi Tenduf-La

 

Chhimi Tenduf-La Photo

By Aminah Sheikh

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

I can edit what I have already written but not what I have already said. So in a first draft of a story, I can say whatever I want in a way I can’t when I speak. This makes writing enormous fun. Also, with age I am getting worse at everything else I enjoy doing, such as sports and looking human. With writing, I imagine I will get better with time.

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

Loyal Stalkers is a collection of linked short stories. An author who read it told me that it was like a painting coming to life with each chapter filling in the colours of one other corner of that painting. With it I want to challenge assumptions about gender roles, sexuality, etc. With each story I think there is a message; for example, that the fear of shame can break up families and ruin futures. There is a lot in there about what is wrong with society, but my hope above all else is that people will find it compelling, moving and surprising.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I am terrified of a reader being bored so I try to get in and out of a story or scene as quickly and as smoothly as possible. I try to be punchy, sometimes almost rap-like. I try to create rhythm. I want to surprise and shock, make people laugh or cry. I try not to be overly descriptive because as a reader I like to fill in the blanks and imagine settings for myself. In some ways I write imagining my stories as a movie. I imagine the soundtrack and the dramatic pauses. Because of this I try my very best to make my dialogue as punchy and as natural as possible and in this regard I am influenced more by say, Tarantino, than any author.

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The Best Books on Sri Lanka Recommended by Ahilan Kadirgamar

Editor’s Note: fivebooks.com took this interview in 2009. They call it one of the saddest interviews on their site in which Ahilan Kadirgamar, the Sri Lankan activist, takes readers down the years tracing the best books written about and during the civil war and its many injustices.


So the first book you chose was written back in colonial times: The Story of Ceylon by Evelyn Frederick Charles Ludowyk. Why choose such an old book?

This is my favorite history of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, as it was then called. It was written in the late 1950s, just at the time of the escalation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Ludowyk grew up in Sri Lanka, he was a Shakespearian scholar, half Sri-Lankan, half British, I believe, who taught at the University of Ceylon. He taught my parents’ generation, the generation that saw Ceylon gain independence from Britain in 1948 and after he retired he returned to England and died there. But before doing so, he wrote this book.

And for me, it is like reading something written by someone from an unimaginable era. Ludowyk tells the story of Ceylon, and he is conscious where it all might be heading, and you have glimpses of where 50 years later it could all end. But what is so refreshing for me is that it is also clear from the book that it didn’t have to go in this direction. That for people of that generation, and my parents’ generation, it would have been almost impossible to imagine the militarized conflict that would subsequently erupt. And looking back, it makes me wonder what went wrong: Why couldn’t we resolve our problems politically? Why did Sri Lanka’s history become so tragic?

I read this book a number of years ago and it made an enormous impression on me. Also because it takes a very sobering look at the history, which is at the centre of many of the claims made by both sides in the conflict.

History is at the center of the conflict? In what way?

Nationalism was used to polarize the two sides, and that nationalism was partly based on history.

On one side there is the myth of Sri Lanka’s origins. This idea that the country was blessed by the Buddha. That’s a large part of the basis for Sinhala nationalism. And on the other side the Tamils claim that certain areas always belonged to them, that they have had a clear homeland since time immemorial. And what Ludowyk points out is that in reality society was very mixed, very hybrid. The nationalists used history to polarize everything, but in fact the two sides were very interlinked, even by marriage.

So your next book is written when the conflict is already well under way.

Yes, The Broken Palmyrah—the palmyrah being a palm tree and a symbol of Jaffna.

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Ananda Devi

Ananda

By Aminah Sheikh

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

This is the kind of question, like “what do you write about”, that plunges me into a regular quandary because it’s as if I were being asked to summarize my life in one paragraph. I actually don’t know how I came to writing because I started as a child, almost as soon as I began to read and write, and it grew up with me. But I realized its importance when I was around 12 years old and started writing my first “novels”. I obtained my first literary prize at 15, published my first collection of short stories when I was 19 and never really looked back. I would say that I began to write because it was a way to break the silence – both mine and that of Mauritian society around me, which is one where things are left unsaid, where there is a kind of culture of stifling real feelings, and where, as in many other parts of the world, a large number of people are condemned to be unheard and at times invisible. My first novel, after my collections of short stories, was a first person narrative about a prostitute of Port-Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Written in the eighties, it broke a taboo in many ways, including the sexual violence being described and the sensuality of the writing. I’ve sometimes been described as a writer who writes for the voiceless. But this is a little too grand and emphatic for me. We are all voiceless in certain ways, and writing delves deep into our psyches, into fears and obsessions that fear to reveal themselves because they make us vulnerable.

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

The novel I have just completed and that will be published early next year was probably one I found most difficult to write because it broke away from my usual literary haunts. For instance, in all my novels, the place where the story is set is extremely important and plays a major part in the narrative. Whether it is Port-Louis, or Terre Rouge, in Mauritius, New Delhi or London, my characters tend to take on part of their meaning from their surroundings, which closely reflect their states of mind. This roots them in history – their own and the larger history of the place – in their being, in their becoming. In this last novel, however, I do not name the place; it could be any modern city, and there is hardly any description of the outer environment of the main character. This is because the story is told by a morbidly obese 16-year-old for whom, in a way, the “place” is her body. It is her prison and her shrine. She is captured by this inflationary process, trying to come to terms with it, with the fact that her mother left her with her father when she was still a baby, and her father, who adores her, also destroys her by constantly feeding her the most delicious food. He has also created the myth that the protagonist is obese because originally her mother was expecting twins, and that somehow, one was absorbed by the other. So the girl is both constantly shadowed by this invisible sister, and believes she has in a way devoured her inside the uterus. At the same time, it is a very contemporary novel because it talks about the constant “eye” of social media and the virtual world on all of us and on her especially, which turns her into a monster that is constantly being watched. The virtual world is the fourth dimension in which we now live, whether we like or not, and that has unleashed the most negative traits in people, mockery, aggression, hate, racism, behind the walls of anonymity. It all ends in an orgy of self-inflicted violence, the nihilism that is reflected in the many different sorts of violence surrounding us.

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