Regardless of its basis, the politics of hate and identity is age-old and ubiquitous – Aurangzeb can by no means be adduced as its sole standard bearer. Coming to the lessons of history, the very term brings to mind the Churchillian formulation: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” I seriously doubt its continued legitimacy in our present times. Instead, I agree with what Yuval Noah Harari proffers as the new role of history: to study the past, not in order to avoid repeating it – but in order to be liberated from it. Right now, the liberation we all need is not from the glories of the past, but from its burdens – communal, economic, and psychological.
Rahman Abbas, the 2018 Sahitya Akademi winner for Urdu, had much to say in favour of Faiz’s poem: “Faiz Ahamd Faiz is best known for being a revolutionary poet who aesthetically merged romanticism with the desire for a revolution, a social struggle or peoples uprising against the tyrant rulers. His poetry and life were a struggle to become the voice of the voiceless — it challenges dictatorship and repression. ‘Hum Dekhenge’ can be seen as the voice of the masses against the tyrant rulers or dictators who have subjugated poor people.”
Nabina Das, a well-known poet from Hyderabad added:“The first line ‘Hum dekhenge’ itself is a broad hint about what the poet, a Marxist, an atheist, a revolutionary in his word and spirit, is going to bring to the table for us readers. ‘We shall see’ is a declaration of collective will, a will to change a rotten order and bring about peace and sanity. And how can one miss the meaning of these expressions ‘Uthega Analhaq ka Naara Jo Main bhi Hun aur Tum bhi ho’ (There will rise one cheer – I am God!/ Who I am /and so are you) or, ‘Raj karegi khalq-e-Khuda Jo main bhi hun aur tum bhi ho’ (Then the masses, people of God will rule/Who I am/and so are you) to be read along with the reference to ‘but’ and ‘Allah’ and misrepresent them as anti-Hindu? Faiz wrote this poem specifically as a mark of protest against the cruel regime of Pakistan’s General Zia-ul-Haq, and was banned. “
And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
Auld Lang Syne, Robert Burns,1788
It is that time of the year again when we bid adieu to the old and party to welcome the new. And this year it is not just an old year but the old decade that ends – this new year we start the third decade of the second millennia. With much goodwill, as the poet Burns says, we asked some writers who have featured on our pages to contribute two of their favourite reads from this year and they obliged… A huge thanks to all these fantastic writers who share what their favourite books have been this year.
PEN believes literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals. In all circumstances, and particularly in times of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion. As part of PEN, we involve in mediating if freedom of speech faces any danger, we mediate to free the imprisoned writers, we work closely with humanitarian and semi-governmental bodies and provide platform to voices that are forced to get silent. On 15th of November we commemorate writers in prison day.Writing only for the sake of writing is not my cup of tea. I do not believe that literature is only for enjoyment or for literary discussion in salons. Literature in my opinion should evoke without losing its literary standards. I am blessed to be part of PEN where I can work for such convictions.
San Lin Tun
San Lin Tun is a writer from Myanmar who wants to create a school of writing in “Myanmar English”. He writes and publishes in English. Recently, he published one of the few novels in English written and published within the Burman borders. The novel is historically important because you do not find too many novels published in English within Myanmar, though San LinTun very humbly calls himself, “a third-generation writer in English”. His novel, The English Writer, brings to life CJ Richards, a civil servant who turned writer during the last days of the British Raj, about a time when Burma was part of the Indian empire.
So, we ended up having Turkish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, even Malaysian English, inside the texts, among other languages. One last consideration was geographical, Asia covers a huge expanse of land, peoples, and cultures, and an anthology claiming to be Asian, has to (somehow) live up, even partially, to that claim.I am happy that the anthology contains contributions spanning from Palestine, and Lebanon in West Asia, to Japan in East Asia, passing through Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Philippines, Uzbekistan, India, Syria, China, Bangladesh, Singapore, Taiwan, among other countries.
“Performance drives my art,” he said. “I am an artist and I find the form to fit what I want to say.” It is this central motto that drives him to experiment with different mediums and work with other artists. His latest release, Sightlines, is a great example of that. This book of poems with photography is a collaborative piece between him and photographer Tsen-Waye Tay. The short, sometimes haiku-like, poems jot down the observations of a wandering photographer as she journeys around the world. One of the poems is called “Four at Wuḍū”, consisting of four haikus arranged underneath a landscape photo of four men at a wall. The austere photography and the artful composition and arrangement of the poems bring the inner lives of the four men to life. The chemistry of the two artistic approaches is very apparent. Simple and minimalist, both picture and words form a stark harmony.
I want my works to travel and be read in many languages. I feel that readers need to know about the Malays in the context of Singapore and the world. I want to present the issues faced by us Malays, who are mostly Muslims, to readers afar — concerns that are to do with what we confront, negotiate and resolve. And these issues are actually very vital, relevant and significant to everyone – issues on displacement and dispossession of a people, reinterpretation of established history, compartmentalisation of temporal life and spirituality, and many more.
He is a well-known figure on television. He is a prominent actor in films… a good friend to famed actor Nasseruddin Shah and actress Ratna Pathak. He is kind to young filmmakers who start their career and does short films for them as he recently did in Singapore. He starred in Kitaab and Filmwalla founder Zafar Anjum’s first short film that has been shown to the public — a fourteen-and-a-half-minute movie called The Sacrifice with a talented actress from Singapore, Renita Kapoor. And yet this man has a secret, a small office in Mumbai where he spends time by himself and writes. Meet Shishir Sharma, the character actor who can be seen on stage in theatre, on the silver screen, both in Indian television and cinema.
And what does the actor write?
I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan. Graduating as the valedictorian of my class I won a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. In the first week of school, I took a class in International Relations and it sparked a passion for economic development. Why were some nations poor yet others not? Whey were the economic and social indicators of some nations improving while others worsening? Until then I had been cocooned in my school life – academics, sports and activities. My classes in Economic Development and International Relations opened my eyes to the poverty around the world and in my home country, Pakistan. And in that one class, I realised that I knew nothing about it. Upon my return to Pakistan, I saw that the poor didn’t need my sympathy – they needed access to economic resources and networks before they could voice their demands for social justice.
At Bookosmia, we look to not publish more than 2-3 physical books every year. A very strong driver for us is to be able to find the topic / basic storyline meaningful and one that moves us. It helps to start out being very clear to yourself and the team that book publishing is not about making great money — it is about using books as a medium to amplify reach of a certain cause. We took up this book because we were excited about the challenge of using a children’s story book as a medium to spread awareness of a dying Indian dance form in a fun way and we were confident that we would be able to tap into our steadily growing network of parents /schools/ organisations that engage with kids across India.
Potentially any subject can be treated as a modern Dastangoi presentation provided the writing is of a certain quality, the narrative flows like a fable or a satire or a tale, and there is the right admixture of poetry. Texts must speak as performance and then the sky is the limit. But whatever we do, we take care to make it contemporary, to be tongue in cheek, to be reflexive and to make sure we present something that appeals to all as well as has something for the select few, the commoners and the initiated alike because it is a popular art form. If we experiment too much with our narrative then we can’t perform to large audiences. The masses must be entertained only then will they be edified.
Amrita was one of the most celebrated poets whom I admired. I sang her Punjabi songs on the All India Radio and on other occasions, on the stage. When I personally met her in 1995, we became friends. I was also her Reiki healer. I visited her house often. I watched her and Imroz interact. They had a unique relationship. A river of love flowed before me. I was highly moved. I have expressed the same feelings in the book, in my own language. That’s all.
unke ghar mein mohabbat ka ek darya beh raha tha. Meine usi ehsaas ko
lafzon mein piroya hai….bas aur kuch nahi
(In their home flowed a river of love. I just translated those sensations
into words… I did not do more.)
My tomes of curry-stained, mango-splattered travel journals still inform my writing. I shifted to writing short fiction out of disillusionment with the direction travel journalism was taking many years ago. Social media now allows anyone with a mobile device to be a travel writer-photographer, and news websites prefer mostly info-heavy stories these days. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just that the narrative-driven travel story has been edged out by ‘The Ten Best Places to Visit in Japan’ or the ‘The Top Ten Must-try Restaurants in Kyoto’. I’m trying to keep the narrative alive, albeit in a fictional form.
I am sceptical of the idea and expression of ‘the Asian experience’ in relation to poetry. It sounds like marketing to me. I have qualms about the article ‘the’, its ambiguous but potentially purist exclusivity; the adjective ‘Asian’, its vague geographical and ethic undertone which suggests a dubious, indiscriminate inclusivity; and the noun ‘experience’, its over-ambitious envelope that risks the indulgence of generalisation. I don’t believe in a collective identity in most things, let alone poetry. I have not consciously sought to explore notions of an Asian identity in my poetry, though I have unconsciously explored my life and memory in poems, in a place I was born which happened to be a British colony, in a geographical construct called Asia possibly first used by Pliny.
Meet Siddharth Jain, the founder of The Story Ink (TSI), India’s first story company for premium content for screen. It is also “India’s No.1 Book to Screen Adaptation Company” and has sold the adaptation rights of almost 70 books to Producers/Studios in India. It is now expanding its footprint by solving the story problem for Indian regional language content producers and international producers, who are searching for local stories for global audiences. TSI was founded in April 2018 by Jain who had earlier worked for India’s largest OTT (over the top) — Hotstar.com (now acquired by Disney from Fox), iRock Films, Adlabs Films (Reliance Entertainment), Hyperion Studio — Los Angeles and Baazee.com (Ebay India).
I never envisioned cli-fi being a dark or dystopian genre. For me, the term was open to all kinds of interpretations and iterations, and both optimistic, utopian novels and pessimistic, gloomy novels were always part of my concept of cli-fi. The media turned the genre into a doomsday thing, but that was never my intent. In this case, the media was wrong to paint cli-fi as only dark and dystopian. It’s a very open-ended genre, as people are now discovering.
Market Price will be a collection of five stories, about how vulnerable women — widows or girls from under privileged families — are duped in the name of marriage; about the auction of virgins in Chitpore of 19th century; of the social price of WW2 on orphaned girls and the determination of a girl in a brothel to come out and make a new life. It ends with a love story — a chapter in the life of Gauhar Jaan, who lived as a mistress but was celebrated for her singing and dancing. She was the first singer recorded on 78 rpm by the Gramophone Company in India. The 600 records in ten international languages popularised Hindustani Classical music between 1902 and 1920.
Technology has aided the making of fantasies, not put a lid on it. Because? Cinema, like literature, has human beings at its core. Men and women, big or small, rich or poor, with their loves and losses, follies and fantasies, pains and privations will remain of eternal interest to creators. For, through every little drama in a protagonist’s life, we get to know ourselves a little better.
I came to Japan shortly after I graduated from college in order to teach English on a program sponsored by the Japanese government. During my second year on the program, I fell in love with the man who is now my husband, and then we had two children, who have dual citizenship. I do feel more or less at home, here, but I am not really part of the culture. I am not a Japanese citizen, so I am not allowed to vote. Most of my books have been published in the United States for an English-speaking audience, so I feel as if my writing career is taking place somewhere else. Like many foreigners, I feel perpetually between cultures, but I am comfortable in that liminal space.
Germaine Greer, the iconic feminist said in a recent interview that each of the #Metoo cases would fail in court – every single one of them – because our legal systems are just not in place. We need to make systemic changes in order to deliver justice to women who have suffered. We need something more than #MeToo to bring an effective change in society. It’s sad that there were a few isolated cases where the movement was weaponised, where women falsely accused individuals just to suit their agenda.
I think every writer should be prepared for rejections. Every writer should find his own way of dealing with rejections. Rejections did shatter me but they also strengthened me and made me write more. And I strongly believe that writing is an art one should teach oneself. I will ask aspiring writers to read and write whenever they can.
I am interested in intensifying metonymy and iconicity. Not fragments but constellations of particulars. Not de-construction but re-constructions as a process without endpoint. In the Jewish tradition there is a prohibition of “graven images,” which is to say, images of idols. In my secular mutation of this idea, I would say –– in place of images are actions and processes that allow the readers/listeners a space to project their phantasies/desires/anxieties. But I do this not by minimalism or abstraction but by rhythm and association.
I think I was exposed to poetry through an anthology we used in my secondary school (Raffles Institution) called Touched with Fire. It was my first introduction to poets such as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, and, if I’m not mistaken, also Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin. I think these poets left quite a significant impression and I started hunting for their collections in the school library. I was at that age when I took on melancholy as adolescent affectation, and I remember committing Larkin’s ‘Faith Healing’ to memory.
I probably started dabbling in poetry when I joined the Creative Arts Programme, which was a residential programme for students who displayed some aptitude in creative writing. This was when I was 15 years old. We spent one week staying at a hostel at the National University of Singapore. Every day, the other students would publish some of their writings in the daily newsletter. This was one of my earliest exposures to a writing community of peers.
At the core of Rohan Chhetri’s poems are memories: his own and of moments—based in history or moments turning into history rooted within the intricacies and details of mundane daily lives–that transform into memories.
Reading these poems also strike a chord about the universality of death intertwined with the ways one tries to come to terms with it; of love that, even in its transience, creates something permanent, and of the impermanence of all the things that one wants to be permanent: family, home, country, and finally life.
Beatles’ music was instrumental in making me pay close attention to words and by extension, poetry. I remember spending hours – talk about the devil finding work for idle hands to do! – trying to write down what they were singing (thank goodness there was no Google back then). Through the sheer act of transcription, I had my first lesson in poetic rhythm. I loved – and still do – the musicality of their lyrics, such as “A Day in the Life”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “She’s Leaving Home”.
A long time ago, in Delhi, my yoga teacher, Shivachittam Mani, taught me a concept in meditation – in every breath we die, in every breath we are born again. This tenet has stayed with me through my darkest days, through all the heartbreak, the ups and downs, that if I have my breath, it’s going to be ok. In fact, the name of this collection originally was Just One Breath.
Translating this novel definitely involved research but not so much for its emotional core. I had to study the events of the Korean War, the military tactics, and some period terms. Studying those technical aspects was not difficult. It was the emotional delivery of the text that was challenging. It was important for me as a translator to use the English language to conjure up the same or similar emotional reactions as those who had read the book in Korean. However, there were certainly cultural and linguistic barriers I tried to minimize, as there were words and expressions that could not directly be translated. So trying to get as close to the emotional core of the original language in English was definitely challenging.
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.
Since the seventies and eighties, when I worked on the postmodern subversive ideologies and the ancient Sanskrit and Buddhist poetics, especially Nagarajun, Anandvardhana, Saussure, Derrida, Barthes, Foucoult, Edward Said, I got some fresh insights whenever I touched Ghalib. Ghalib’s poetry is my favourite. My real quest started when I was on a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship at the Rockefeller Study Centre at Bellagio in Italy near the Alps; no phones were allowed, only a laptop and your books.
I didn’t actually think any publishing house would take on the year of publishing women – I just wanted to get a conversation started. So I was delighted when And Other Stories said they’d do it. That’s felt very nice. Beyond that, there are many people involved in a larger conversation around gender and publishing; I’m glad to be a part of that conversation. And you do see some changes over time as a result, but not nearly enough
When I first started writing, I thought that my business is to write without bothering about reach and accessibility. Because I was influenced by modernist poetics and thought that one writes for a discerning individual. That was my belief at that time. Later, I discovered that when I read my poems in person, well-read people expressed admiration but the common people were not feeling good. Then I said no, I must write for these people, not for the scholars and critics. I decided I should make the simple style my model.
I grew up in the cultural and literary ambience of Alipurduar which had some artistic and traditional inheritance. The Little Magazine Movement also played a significant role in shaping and sharpening me up as it has had tremendous impact over the progression of Bengali literature. Since a young age I got to know the avant garde litterateur and poets of North Bengal who were involved in little magazine movements and an experimental writing process.
Bergman wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern that ‘a film is not a document, it is a dream’. That is a great way of looking at cinema. That’s what I learnt after watching the films of Bergman. Yet, Bergman’s characters were grounded in reality.
Understanding this, from Bergman’s films, has influenced my approach to cinema. Bergman’s films emphasize the significance of human connection in a world of emotional isolation, in a world of changing social mores and in a world without God. That emphasis speaks to me quite loudly.
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.
Design, photography, and the act of creation are all governed by the need to tell a story. They’re subservient, in that sense, to the larger picture – which in this case is the word. The relationship they share – whether it’s centred around what form the cover takes or even an author portrait – is that of confidantes: giving each other enough space to express themselves, one leading the eye towards the other, together forming a narrative that conveys some but also leaves much to the reader’s eye.
I don’t know really where the future of translation of Tibetan literature is going. Sadly, there is not much support coming from the exile government or major funding agencies. Some institutions such as Latse Library in New York and Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamsala and some individuals like Tenzin Dickie are doing wonderful work in the area of translating Tibetan literature.
Kohinoor is one of my short books, not one of my major projects. Anita Anand has co-authored it. I have written the early history of the diamond through the Mughals till Ranjit Singh, and then she takes over. I mean, the Brit tells the Indian part of the story and the Indian narrates the Brit part of the story. Living in India, I was aware of how much the loss of the diamond meant to the Indians, how passionate they were about it, mainly the Punjabis. But I hadn’t realised it also said a great deal to the Afghanis, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Iranians and the Taliban. Six different countries claimed it, and it was like the ring of power and everyone who touched it came to a horribly painful end. So, I felt the story of the diamond had to be told.
Some characters, she says, interfere with the story till they are made a part of it. The character of Weng, the dizi player, kept popping up when she was writing the novel, The River’s Song. ‘I saw a woman playing the pipa. Then I kept seeing Weng with the dizi,’ says Suchen. She had to rewrite the novel to include Weng in it. However, it’s not all from imagination. Suchen talks about how she draws her characters from her surroundings. She compares writing to cooking and says that all the ingredients (like imagination, personal interactions, our surroundings and their influences) are stirred in a pot to create a character that has a life of its own, like a unique dish.
Then there is the cover, a work of great care and aesthetics by Aleph’s art director, Bena Sareen (who also designed the cover of my book Red Sun when she was at Penguin). The cover image of The Bengalis, besides being elegant and arresting, conveys several layers of the Bengali – the people as well as the book: a hankering for history, a faded grand past, the playful and yet focused child a symbol of a possibly energized future, the Bengali obsession with football and politics, the slightly rural tone even in an undeniably urban setting. The image by Plabon Das works wonderfully. As to the content, the book of course attempts to deal comprehensively with all this and much, much more.
JLF has a life of its own – it’s a vibrant ecosphere of books, ideas and dialogue which has four editions across continents and cultures. Our fifth edition in London will be in the British Library in June. Then there is our US curtain raiser at MOMA in September, followed by the incredibly beautiful JLF at Boulder Colorado. Then Australia, and soon after that, the mother edition – the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival – in January. Twelve years down, the real challenge lies in keeping the spirit of the festival alive, and I think we are doing that.
I was born in a small town called Gopalganj, in the district of Faridpur in Bangladesh. This was before Bangladesh was formed and was still known as East Pakistan. I grew up in this small, near-idyllic town and got my early education in the only Government school for boys there, S.M. Model Primary and High School. When I was eleven, my father sent me to a public residential school several hundred kilometres away, known as Jhenidah Cadet College. This marked a turning point in my life. It was an English medium school and the fees were very high. My father could hardly afford the fees and yet he sent me there, mainly to secure a good future for me.
The responses have been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had numerous child sexual abuse survivors reach out to me and say reading the book let them acknowledge what had happened to them in childhood. I had an older Sri Lankan man in his 60’s write to me and tell me that as a child he had been molested for years by the local Buddhist monk. He had never talked about this until he read the book. I was the first person he talked about it with. That one story makes my time spent writing the book completely worth it. My character is female, but I think the abuse of boys is yet untold and much more taboo story. Someday someone will write about it. I’m waiting for that book.
Prizes are relevant to writers. They offer exposure, hope and succour. But your question is Trump and Restless-specific. Look, even before Trump’s rule of rage, Restless knew they wanted to publish writers who straddled multiple worlds and languages, on top of the books they translated into English from various languages. Frankly, if it hadn’t been for Restless and the prize, much of what’s happened to me post-prize couldn’t have happened. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit Trump’s election made (some) people more curious about my book. But you know, when I won the prize, my status in the States was still under consideration. In U.S. immigration parlance, I was an Adjustment of Status applicant. If Restless had wanted, they could have made my status an issue when they chose the winner of the contest, yet they chose not to. Perhaps the conversation didn’t even come up during the judging. And that’s why I’d go to bat for them any day of the week…
Sometimes protest becomes still. We lose heart and start to despair. I like to believe that it is during times of stillness that protest gathers steam. During that still period, we need poetry. The poetry of protest. That is why I dare to visualise Veils Halos & Shackles in the hands of not just random or selective readers but anyone who wishes to become more conscious across societies, across the world. Even those who are not diehard fans of poetry; yes, even them. I visualise this book as reading material in classrooms, and not just for literature or liberal arts students. It is no longer enough to be outraged by newspaper and television reports. Poetry must outrage us. Oppression fears poetry. The winds of change feed on poetry. Hence the need for Veils Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, published by Kasva Press, 2016.
Here we get behind the scenes regarding the making of this volume and also try to get an understanding of what the editors – Smita Sahay and Charles Fishman – experienced.
Indira Chandrasekhar is a scientist, a fiction writer and the founder and principal editor of the short fiction magazine Out of Print. She also curates an annual short story contest along with DNA, called the DNA-OoP Short Story Prize. Indira has a Ph.D in Biophysics. She worked in scientific institutions in India, the US and Switzerland, before turning into a full time writer and editor. She co-edited the short story anthology, Pangea in 2012, Thames River Press, along with British author and Editor Rebecca Lloyd. Indira’s stories have appeared in Eclectica, Nether, Cosmonauts Avenue, Far Enough East, The Little Magazine, Guftugu and others.
Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi in 1955 and moved to London in 1970. He has been writing short stories since the mid-80’s and has been anthologized across multiple languages. He has written six short story collections, a novella Another Gulmohar Tree and a novel The Cloud Messenger. A master of lyrical writing, his knowledge of languages and cultures informs his story telling. His most recent book Love and its Seasons has been published by Mulfran Press, UK.
Dr. Manjiri Prabhu is an independent film-maker for Television, a Writer/ Novelist in English and also the Founder/ Director of Pune International Literary Festival. Having authored 9 books published by Penguin, Bloomsbury, Random House USA and Jaico Books, Prabhu has been acknowledged as a pioneer in India among women writers of mystery fiction. She is also the first female mystery Author to be published outside India and has been labelled as the ‘Desi Agatha Christie’. She has been invited to reputed International Literature Festivals like The Agatha Christie Festival, UK and International Women’s Fiction Festival, Matera, Italy.
He lives the life of a real Hero, a superman of sorts , whose life and career is nothing short of a thrilling story — novelist, playwright, former Tory deputy chairman, a mayoral candidate for London, champion athlete, a celebrity, and tragically a prisoner and failed businessman — he has done it all and triumphed. His stint in prison could not pin him down and there he wrote his Clifton Chronicles, a runaway bestseller yet again. Although he is reluctant to talk about most parts of his life, Jeffrey Archer has mastered the craft of popular storytelling, and has understood and grasped the dynamics involved in it.
Sudeep Sen is widely recognised as a major new generation voice in world literature and ‘one of the finest younger English-language poets in the international literary scene’ (BBC Radio), ‘fascinated not just by language but the possibilities of language’ (Scotland on Sunday). He received a Pleiades Honour (at the Struga Poetry Festival, Macedonia) for having made “a significant contribution to contemporary world poetry”. Sen’s prize-winning books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Distracted Geographies, Rain, Aria (A K Ramanujan Translation Award), Ladakh, The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), Fractals: New & Selected Poems|Translations 1980-2015, and EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House). Blue Nude: New Poems & Ekphrasis (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) is forthcoming.
She read one of her short stories from Love Across a Broken Map during the recently held Manchester Literature Festival held in Manchester. Reshma Ruia is a British Indian writer based in UK. She is the author of Something Black in the Lentil Soup. The Sunday Times described the book as “a gem of straight-faced comedy”.
Born in Motihari, India, and brought up in Italy, Reshma’s short stories and poems have appeared in various international anthologies and magazines such as “Too Asian, Not Asian Enough”, and was also commissioned for BBC Radio 4. Reshma is also the co-founder of The Whole Kahani — a collective of British fiction writers of South Asian origin.
Reshma speaks to Kitaab about the challenges faced by British Asian writers, and their effort to break the glass ceiling.
She read one of her poems with a lot of poise, to an audience sitting in the jungle that played host to the Kumaon Literary Festival, in Uttrakhand. A practising poet, Shelly Bhoil’s first poetry book An Ember From Her Pyre has recently been published. But her interest goes beyond poetry. It extends to Tibetan literature, an area in which she is doing meaningful work. Shelly speaks to Kitaab on her role as a growing Tibetologist and poet.
Crime fiction writer Vish Dhamija speaks to Kitaab on the sidelines of the recently concluded Kumaon Literary Festival, where his latest book Nothing Else Matters was launched.
Author of the bestselling coffee table book – ‘The Indians’, a lawyer of international repute Sumant Batra’s dream is to mark Dhanachuli (in Uttrakhand) on the culture map. And this he hopes to do through his various literary initiatives, Kumaon Literary Festival (KLF) being one of them. Close on the heels of the second edition of KLF, Sumant gets candid with Kitaab.
I see stories everywhere; in overheard conversations, in the gestures and body language of passing strangers, or a post-it note stuck on someone’s fridge door. I often play with various themes, techniques and styles. Fantasy, ghostly supernatural stories, “literary” stories, magic realism, have all touched my writings at different times. While I have a soft corner for literary fiction, it’s challenging to step out of the comfort zone of a favourite genre. It’s also more fun to come up with the unexpected.
I don’t choose subjects. Stories appear to me, god knows from where, and demand to be written. I am not a historian, an anthropologist or a sociologist, and as such have no point to establish successively through my books. My stories are simple manifestations of my wildering imagination.
I started writing in my mid 30s. I was running English classes for women from South Asia who had come as adults to live in the UK, and learning about their lives was the stimulus for a collection of fictional stories, A Language in Common. That did well, and gave me the confidence to write my first novel, A Shield of Coolest Air, which was set among Somali refugees. Then things began happening. My novel got great reviews – I was getting letters from readers – one of my short stories won a prize, and then so did my novel. By the time my second novel, If you can walk, you can dance, won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, I understood – This is something I can do. I can tell stories about people, fictional people but inspired by real life, people my readers can get involved in, and feel they know. So I have kept on doing it.
The earliest verses that I can recall – though they were definitely not poetry! — were when I was seven or eight years old. I wrote something about a puppy named Terry though I had never owned a dog; this was published in a newspaper thanks to the efforts of a freelance journalist called Rajika Kirpalani, who believed children should be encouraged. There was also something about a strange man, who was “beautiful as a bullfrog/ pompous as a pig” – I have no idea where that came from. And as a schoolgirl, I filled many notebooks with verse.
I think it’s not just important for us (BooksActually), but rather it is essential to the Sing-Lit ecosystem. More often than not, folk within this ecosystem don’t interact enough because of the few opportunities outside the usual book launches or readings. And even when that happens, you are looking at a brief conversation. But if someone is invited to a casual sit-down dinner of a small group of not more than 12 people, the conversations are usually more sustained, and hopefully, more meaningful as well.
When I first began working on Urmila, it was like the start of a love affair. There was some shyness, a few hesitant explorations, the temptation to dress up the text, sleepless nights, questions of “will this last” or “where is this going”. At that point, the direction of the narrative was so uncertain that the very act of writing seemed like an indulgence. I remember for instance, my husband returning home every evening after a very long day at office, having been through a dozen crises, and he’d ask me “So how was your day? What did you do?” And all I could say was “I thought of a new scene” or “I wrote a page of dialogue”, all of which sounded terribly inadequate.
Kato completed his studies in Art History at Keio University in 1971. He studied Greek drama in college (the topic of his thesis was“Greek Tragedy in Kabuki”, Kabuki being a classical Japanese dance-drama). In his thesis, he examined the process of how Hippolyutus, an ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, was trasmitted via India and China and evolved into “摂州合邦が辻”(Sesshuu Gappougatsuji), one of most renacted Kabuki plays. At the same time, the thesis also referred to French classic drama, Phèdre by Jean Racine starring Melina Mercouri.
The remnants of the Sikh heritage are in abundance across Pakistan. Seven decades after the searing partition of 1947, the Sikh community remains deprived of its glorious heritage, wrenched from it and now virtually inaccessible to most. For those fortunate, who are able to visit Pakistan, they remain confined to the few functional gurdwaras (Sikh Temples). Would the heritage of the land where Sikhism was born and the Sikhs had created an empire, be limited to just these few functional gurdwaras (Sikh Temples)? Are there any remains of the Sikh era that could provide insight of the erstwhile society? This is what prompted me to be observant as I moved across the country. The remnants lie scattered, abandoned and some occupied. The abandoned sites were easier to access while to view the occupied sites, was challenging at times. In addition, for North-West Frontier and Pakistan Administered Kashmir, I was advised not to travel in these areas because of the trailing effects of terrorism. However I consider myself fortunate to have been able to make brief visits to these places too.
I try to write about socially relevant issues and open up a dialogue about taboo topics. Malaysian readers will identify with my novel on very recent events in the country…I don’t stop at the Japanese Occupation of Malaya and leave more contentious issues alone. I hope that my writing inspires some thought; my two most recent stories (included in Rules of Desire) touches on the silencing of speech after the 1MDB scandal (“Doppelganger”) and the disappearance of MH370 (“The Hierarchy of Grief”).
I’ve been wanting to publish short comics in LONTARfrom the very start; there has always been a category for sequential art in our submissions portal. But up until now, I did not have the time to chase down comics creators to get them to send me something. Thankfully, Adan Jimenez has recently come aboard as comics editor, and has hit the ground running. The first comic he acquired is called We Still Need to Makan by Benjamin Chee, and combines an examination of the price of technological hubris with a hopefulness about human survival, in a very unique way.
I wrote The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey when I was in medical college. I did not have many responsibilities. It was relatively easy to write at a stretch. The stories in The Adivasi Will Not Dance were written at different times. Some stories, like I told you, are like 10 years old. Some I have written recently. But short stories do not take much time. I am not saying that it is easier to write short stories than to write a novel. It’s just that a short story can be completed early. I am working now, and it did not take me much time to write some of the stories that I wrote after I started working. A week or so, if I wrote in a disciplined manner. I do not know if, now, I will be able to finish writing a novel in 5-6 months, the way I finished writing The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey when I was still in medical college. Carving out time is difficult, but not impossible. It might be difficult for me to carve out time for writing, but for reading I will always have time. I love reading. I have both Amazon Kindle and Flipkart eBooks apps installed on my Windows phone. I also have a Kindle. So it has become easier for me to read books even during my working hours.
If I really dig long and hard, I think my interest in Burma stems from a childhood spent in Calcutta. Frequent references to Burma are to be found in old Bengali literature when under the British, Rangoon or the beautiful mountainous town of Maymyo (later renamed Pyin U Lwin) was an alternate home to Bengalis; when many Bengali families considered Bengal to be their janmosthan (place of birth) but Rangoon to be their karmosthan (place of work). I cannot forget the Burma of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Srikanta—a place where the hero comes of age and is forced to redress his moral and ethical perspective. Or the letters Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose wrote to his brother in 1925 when he was imprisoned in Mandalay, marvelling at the social status of Burmese women.
I write because I like telling stories. If you ask the girls and boys who went to school with me of their oldest memories of me, they will probably tell you how I would tell stories to the class during times when a teacher was absent, when coursework was complete and there was spare–free–time, or on days when it rained outside and we weren’t able to go to the grounds to play. There was one particular story which I began in my fifth grade and completed it sometime at the end of the seventh grade. No I don’t remember much of it, except that it dealt with an androgynous James Bond who sometimes fooled villains by calling himself “Maria Rosenberg”. Alas, I don’t remember much else!
Poetry to me is not a rhyme scheme or a Wordsworthian rushing out of powerful feelings. It is rather a ceremonial state of mind when the ordinary word assumes the fullness or satisfaction of theatre in terms of sound and image and steps out of the green room of the moment. Its logic is associative and cursive. And in my case it’s a journey inward. For the resolution of its movement it can tap into the ear and eye of the language. Prose on the other hand moves outward. No matter how abstract, it tends to have a certain linearity of logic of things as they are.
For a long time I fantasised about writing science fiction novels for a living, in the style of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson. Or cryptic thrillers with ambitious world-building and a sense of manic futurism. But then, in 2011, I started having to make library runs twice a week for my two sons, who were devouring picture books and chapter books at a crazy rate. For every 10 books that I lugged home, they might enjoy maybe three or four. They taught me to be a lot more discerning about children’s books.
Writers today I feel are increasingly becoming insular and go gaga only when their next book is due to be released, indulging in shameless self-promotion (since most publishers do little or nothing to market an upcoming author) or when their mug appears in papers/glossy lifestyle magazines (even if it’s a tiny snippet, somewhere) or when they land a big ticket to a popular lit fest, or happen to share a table with a bunch of firang agents or better-known writers or a commissioning editor from an international publishing house. It’s vital to be noticed these days, to immediately declare your itinerary brimming over with a latent self-loathing – to show just how well-networked you are. How many Likes your status update manages to get. How many followers you attract on social media.
Basically, I work a lot and sleep less than I should! I pretty much write every day, in the evenings and weekends. I’ve recently gone part-time at my day job, so I now have two additional working days a week for writing. It’s a bit more relaxed, but to an extent the work expands to fill all available space!
When I write I am in my own world and I constantly create new worlds which are apart from the rest of the world during the creative process. However, the genesis of what I write has always been from life itself. In that sense, it has always been authentic and I hope my works will remain relevant and be beneficial to life.
I have often argued that Modi wouldn’t have been where he is today had there been no Godhra carnage and the subsequent riots. He probably might have failed in leading BJP to victory in the assembly elections when they were due (in February 2003 originally). Godhra would not have happened if there had been no Ayodhya agitation. Modi is a ruthless leader, as ruthless as one can get. I have said in the past that he doesn’t forgive and forget easily. This trait remains visible even now. He is extremely pragmatic, and is driven by personal ambition that is a greater motivation than ideology. On the positive side, he is extremely hard-working and can push himself to the brink.
Terms like “steampunk”, “biopunk”, “dieselpunk”, “clockworkpunk” etc. are usually used to describe the technology language used in a particular subgenre. For my novel, I wanted to create a new aesthetic based on a specific technology language. I chose to create a world in which the nouns of the technology language are materials of historic importance to East Asia (silk, paper, bamboo, ox sinew) and seafaring cultures of the Pacific (shell, feather, coconut, coral); the verbs of the language are wind, water, and muscle, and the grammar is based on imitation of biomechanics and the inventions of legendary engineers like Lu Ban and Zhuge Liang. Thus, my silk-and-bamboo airships regulate their buoyancy with gasbags that contract and expand like the swim bladders of fish, and are propelled by giant feathered oars that evoke the birds from which they’re modeled. There are also giant battle kites that carry warriors into the air for duels, and underwater boats that move like scaled whales.
I don’t like collaborating on poems. I like giving and receiving criticism on poems, which is a different thing entirely. Artists and writers are egotistical individuals and generally don’t share well–but can play nice if they can clearly own something. Comic books have a few different components for specialist individuals to lay claim to – writing, inks, colours etc. I don’t think it works that way for poets. The words are what they are. Poetry collectives and workshops can work in terms of developing pieces with strong mutual feedback – but at the end of the day you’re only going to see one name under each poem.
If India moves away from secularism, forget claiming moral superiority over neighbours, we shall be unable to command the respect and confidence of our own people! And without the people behind our national identity, with only some welcome in India and others shunned, there is no doubt that we will find ourselves in waters far more tumultuous than anything even a state like Pakistan has experienced. As I have written before, a Partition in the Indian soul would be far more devastating than the Partition that has occurred on the Indian soil.
Looking back, I read comics from all over the world. I read Beano and Dandy comics from the UK, Asterix and Tintin from Europe, Australian comic strips like Ginger Meggs, and of course, a lot of American strips like Garfield, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes, and also MAD Magazine. I collected superhero comic books seriously when I was a teenager. All of these definitely affected my style—as a kid, you soak it all up like a sponge.
I am really an accidental playwright. I had been writing prose fiction for a long time (which I suspect is how many Singaporean writers start out because of all the compositions we have to write for school.) I was also painting a lot and toyed with the idea of being an artist. I stumbled upon playwriting during my first year in NUS when I took “Introduction to Playwriting” taught by Huzir Sulaiman. I discovered that playwriting combined my love of words with my penchant for strong and symbolic visual imagery.
Celebrating 50 years of cordial diplomatic relations in 2015, India invited Singapore, through the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS), to be the Guest of Honour for this year’s New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF), from 14 to 22 February 2015. In this exclusive interview with Kitaab’s editor-in-chief Zafar Anjum, Dr. R. Ramachandran, Executive Director of NBCDS, shares his experiences from the NDWBF.
Ah, India. I’ve never quite gone the whole way. I haven’t committed to the relationship (with India) completely or given up my British identity; I’m still a British citizen and have property there. So the relationship remains an affair rather than a marriage. Like any affair, it has its ups and downs. Some days I knock my head against the wall and wonder why I haven’t taken a new lover. I’ll probably die in her arms. India can be frustrating, demanding, difficult…but is never, ever boring. She has accommodated herself to me, provided me with understanding, inspiration, passion.
I have found that in order to be a novelist and a publisher you necessarily have to compartmentalize the way you deal with writing—your own as well as that of others. If I started editing my own work during the process of creation I wouldn’t get much done. The way I usually work is to give my imagination free rein while I’m composing a first draft; I then revise and edit the first draft three more times to arrive at the final manuscript. As a professional book editor it is imperative that I work from within the voice and technique of the writer whose work I’m editing. It wouldn’t do for me to try and impose my own style on the work of other writers. The best editors are always invisible—that is to say, their contribution towards improving the writer’s work is never obvious. I believe my work as an editor has helped my career as a writer, especially when it comes to things like concision, building plot and characters and so on.
“It’s true we need all kinds of books, not only because the publisher needs to make money but because of the vast number of readers with a vast number of tastes out there,” says famous Indian novelist and short story writer Shashi Deshpande in this interview with Kitaab fiction editor Monideepa Sahu. “All readers cannot appreciate the same kind of books. The problem, as I see it, especially in India, is that we seem to confuse fast-selling fiction with significant writing and then giving it undue importance.”
The process of writing makes me aware of my self, of how I see the world. Poetry for me is an intense form of writing. Performance feels silly, but I like to give voice to my poetry, express how I mean it. I believe there is more clarity when a reader and a poem interact, uncluttered by the person of the poet. Reading is also sound, sounded in the mind.
I was very lucky because I started writing at a time when locally written plays were starting to be picked up. When I was growing up the only English language theatre I saw was by English and American people. There was the Theatreworks Writers Workshop and the Shell lunchtime theatre and there were playwriting competitions–I wrote for everything I could and entered every competition I was eligible for. It wasn’t difficult because I was writing all the time anyway. The only difference was shaping the writing I did into a form that could be submitted and performed. As for stories, there are stories everywhere!
Most writing emanates out of everyday experiences and occurrences. When you associate these happenings with what transpires inside you, you begin to discover new perspectives and new realities, or realities which were always there but which you didn’t notice, or never gave thought to. In the Maze of a Gaze points to the appearances we put up, the masks we wear. We are rarely happy about such masks and pretensions, and least so in the presence of a loved one. You not only begin to see yourself in your true light, but you also want to seethe real you. This you might not be your best image, but it’s one that confronts and, by and by, cleanses your private self of the deceptions it’s prone to clad itself in. We all love simplicity, but life rarely allows us to be simple. We may start simple, but become complex, and our masks add to our complexity.
‘Catching the Departed’ is a popular fiction novel. Though my first thriller in a commercial sense, this is not my first novel. The two books that I had written earlier had a literary slant. And so did my collection of short stories. ‘Catching the Departed’ is a spy novel that has an intricate plot and a high entertainment quotient. It reminds us of the imminence of manmade tragedy that surrounds our lives, where money and power are the only remaining elixirs of gratification.
My stories used to be set in Mumbai. The city has started to wane from my fiction. Ironically, so have actual identifiable characters. My fiction, too, has started to become more conceptual, experimental, less rooted in actual physical milieus. I no longer live in the neighborhood I grew up in. In a sense, I’ve become estranged from the part of the city I knew most intimately. I live in a suburb now. I am navigating a different Mumbai: a Mumbai without pavements, with too much traffic, a place where one doesn’t loiter too much. It’s changing my writing already.
At the metaphorical level, Asif’s story is a parable of moral corruption, of the moral decline of a person who loses his path and gets spiritually gutted out by the modern city life. You see, life asks us to make moral choices all the time and hence, we have to keep taking moral decisions at every turn in life. Should we give money to the drooling beggar with chapped lips sitting on the pavement, whose body is emaciated with hunger and starvation? Shall we help the blind man cross the street even if it means missing the bus to office and being late for work? Making a moral decision could be as simple as that.
Everybody asks aspiring writers to read, and that’s invaluable. But there’s more value still to be found in re-reading. When we read an excellent non-fiction piece or book, we’re rightly sucked into the storytelling, so that we don’t stop to notice how this narrative is weaving its spell. It’s a good idea to then revisit the piece more closely – to take it apart and see how it ticks, so to speak. If you understand the sort of mechanisms that go into a really fine work of non-fiction, you’ll also understand how you can then deploy similar mechanisms in your own writing.
I was totally immersed from the very first moment I arrived in Japan! I was 19 years old and the Japan I went to was not the modern Japan of today. There was still a feeling of post-war recovery – no bullet trains, no super highways, no high tech of any kind – at home not even proper heating or hot running water in icy winters. I lived in a provincial town in the middle of rice fields, the only non-Japanese in sight – I lived as the Japanese lived. It was hard, but now in retrospect, I am so glad I had that glimpse of an older Japan, without the gloss it wears in this modern day, where its culture is packaged and exported.
Initially, when I started writing short stories in the early 1970s imagination was probably bountiful. Any remark, any incident, any confrontation could take the shape of a story. But when I got into academic writing and started looking at fiction with the eyes of a critic, ‘lady story’ got irritated with me and I could not write – as R. K. Naraya’s story teller (mendicant) forgot how to tell his stories or like Rushdie’s struggling story teller.
Samrat Upadhyay – 2014
As far as I know, I am the first fiction writer in English from Nepal to be published in the West. English writing in Nepal, compared to India, is quite young. You have to understand it in context: Nepal was a remote country that didn’t open up to the outside world until the 1950s. When I was growing up in the 70s, the government newspaper The Rising Nepal carried a Friday supplement, in which some creative writing was published—the only venue with a wide audience for imaginative writing. There were writers writing in English, for sure, who were published in the region and had limited readership. Compare this to India, where publications in English were appearing by the nineteenth century and by mid- twentieth century Tagore and Raja Rao had already gained international recognition for their work.
It was while walking past the house where R K Narayan lived in Yadavagiri, Mysore, that I began to wonder how Malgudi would appear on the page, if it were being written about today. After a number of drafts, this eventually became a novel set in contemporary Mysore. And in the novel, the construction of Asia’s largest theme park, HeritageLand, and what it represents to the inhabitants of the city, raises questions that could apply to almost any other city in India.
I’d long adored and admired New York publisher Akashic Books’s award-winning Noir series — a series of anthologies, each one set in a country or a city. (“Brooklyn Noir” was a personal favorite.) Some really big names have edited these collections of dark stories set in these locales — Joyce Carol Oates edited “New Jersey Noir,” for example, and Dennis Lehane edited “Boston Noir.”
To an extent, crony capitalism is a natural wart or an inevitable corollary of neo-liberal economic policies. But crony capitalism is also a consequence of inadequate and/or ineffective regulation and deliberate manipulation of rules. Our book has attempted to highlight how one corporate conglomerate was allowed to blatantly exploit loopholes that were consciously retained in the system. The book underlines instances of policies and procedures that were tailored to help increase the fortunes of a few. It points out how, even when laws and policies appeared fair, rational, and reasonable, the way in which these rules and procedures were framed and implemented by bureaucrats acting at the behest of their political masters resulted in crony capitalism.
Most of what we write is non-fiction, in my opinion. My characters are composites of people I know but they hardly ever appear as themselves. There are bits and pieces of Devi which were drawn from my own childhood, and that of my nieces and daughters, there is a piano teacher who still lives across the way from my parents’ home down a dead-end street in Colombo, but Kala Niles is not really her, and so forth. I don’t know where they come from, except that the story needs these people and so they arrive from memory and imagination.
‘Die’ in the sense that it is not selling, maybe, but the ‘literary’ I think will be written and will be read for some time yet, at least in the tradition of how we understand ‘literary fiction’ today. Until that is, ‘the literary’ morphs and becomes recognised as something else. It’s possible. Our notions of ‘literary’ in the English-language scene (at least) are fairly bound to certain historical and cultural legacies which in turn are anchored in certain systems of writing, critique and dissemination but as the world changes, English changes and the Englishes of the world are more commonly written alongside the creation of new dissemination and market routes, then I believe it is entirely possible that the term ‘literary’ might mean something different from what it means currently.
India captured my imagination immediately when I first visited in 2006. I connected at some deep level and can only speculate that the seeds of this were planted by 2 Anglo-Indian teachers I had in primary school. They spoke with such love about India, and their stories of childhood stayed with me. Anyway, after that 2006 trip I returned home to start reading a lot of Indian books for both adults and children, and planned my next visit. In 2008 I was selected for an Asialink Fellowship, funded by the Australia-India Council, which enabled me to write for nearly four months in Delhi. I had intended to write only one story, but I wrote several – I couldn’t stop! After presenting sessions at the Mussoorie International Writers Festival, I returned to Delhi and wrote Advaita the Writer – my first book with Indian characters and settings. I’m incredibly proud that this is now so popular, and recommended by CBSE. Subsequently, my many visits to Indian schools gave rise to Daydreamer Dev, while the sight of Indian kids in Australian classrooms inspired the Radhika stories.
I wanted to write a story that explored Chinese mother daughter relationships, their power and their weaknesses. I also wanted the main character, Feng, to look back at her life and relate her mistakes to her children. The book is set in Shanghai in 1937 and follows the changes in China until the Great Leap Forward, during that time some of those mistakes cost her children dearly. The book is written in the first person so it’s subjective and it is only later in Feng’s life, and therefore also in the book, that she reflects and is finally able to explain herself.
I usually write when I already have an idea. My novel was based on certain things that took place in my village. To those real-life happenings I added certain things out of my imagination. So the story was already there in my mind, my characters, the scenes, the lines and paragraphs, when I sat down to write it. In one way the novel was already planned. Yes, my plan failed and I had to begin anew, but that plan was there. When I began afresh it was according to the original plan. The story was the same, the characters were the same.
The key thing about writing is that it pays more than being a stay-at-home mum! You see, I actually quit my job as a lawyer to become a stay-at-home mum. Unfortunately, it soon became evident that I was the worst stay-at-home mum in the history of the universe so I decided to find some part-time work to give myself an outlet and save my children from my parenting. I tried teaching, started a business and eventually turned to writing. So, in effect, there were two transitions – lawyer to stay-at-home mum, and then stay-at-home mum to writer. I have to confess, the latter was easier than the former.
Without question, poetry will always be my first love. It seems the most liberating of all the artforms. For me, that is. Sculpting – working with clay – makes me one with the earth. It grounds me. Drawing and design allow me to work outside of language, to revel in shape and color and line. These same aspects permeate poetic craft, but somehow the being of language provides me enough substance from which a necessary friction can be made, and thus a resistance – and new fire. Language is so tied to history and culture and place and people; yet it can wander into an illimitable expanse of meaning. What language is – what it can do – is simply wondrous.
[Video] This is an interview with Romesh Gunesekera, the British Sri Lankan writer of novels such as Reef and Heaven’s Edge. This interview was produced by Kitaab International for Writing the City (British Council Singapore) in 2014. Interviewed by Melissa de Villiers, the video was shot and edited by Zafar Anjum. In this interview, the writer talks about memory and time in is his past works and discusses aspects of his soon-to-be released book, Noontide Toll.
I was always intrigued with the imagery and the way Gulzar saheb weaves his words in his writings. I have been reading his poetry, and listening to the songs written by him ever since I was child, and could always feel a distinct difference in his writings and that of his contemporaries. It was just that parallel that I could see between his writings, that I wished to analyse and dot the connecting points in his poetry.
There are two major ways in which a person remains in touch with his or her roots. One is by visiting the homeland, both physically and imaginatively, and/or finding an expatriate community nearby, both of which were accessible to me in San Francisco and around. The other way, which may not be available to all immigrants, is through literature and art and cinema. I was lucky enough to have felt a pull that drew me in those directions.
I’ve always loved reading from a young age. Books were my closest friends. I suppose writing was simply a way out for all those words stored up in my head. I first started writing in rhyme, maybe as a throwback to all those nursery rhymes my mother read to me as a child. But poetry has always been my first love, amongst all forms of writing.
Memory and time are irreversible entities and a writer knocks at the disjointed coexistence of these to search material for his writings. Relationship between short-term memory and long-term memory is necessary for whole, unified material images and perceptions. Long poems are marked by the presence of interconnected concepts and images and sometimes by the presence of imageless thoughts–say, like an unclear photograph stirring imagination. Many times a poet’s search for logical connections in the images he explores in order to write his poems propels him to move somewhere else. He has to clamber up monoliths towards the basis of his imagination. Memory, a resurrection of the past, helps in interpretation of past and present: jumbled and incoherent memories hide realities of every day existence. Without layers and depths of memory no imagery with its symbolism can be possible and more so no creative urge is feasible.
When I first stumbled into writing, I would leave home at 6 am every morning with my Olivetti manual typewriter. I would take the bus to where I could walk past a Chinese cemetery and be alone with my thoughts. Then I would take another bus to the National University of Singapore, and by 7.30 am I would be writing in the students’ canteen despite the noise. This was my routine every day for more than a year even though at the time I didn’t know that my writing would lead me to write and publish my first novel, Rice Bowl.
Land Where I Flee is, in many ways, an uncomfortable novel. The tone – if you can call it that – is often satirical. At other times, it’s pharisaical. And then it pokes fun at this self righteousness. It laughs at the world and in many ways and laughs at writers who take their writing too seriously. At its core, it is a family saga, so there is some melodrama.
While I honor memory in poems, I don’t think it is healthy to conceptualize “memory” as a frame for writing. When writing about a memory, I try not to look back but to look ahead. It helps me to avoid solipsism. Is it possible not to confuse memory with the past? Can one be in flux, the other absolute? Time becomes elastic, non-mathematical and without limits. It is very human, but more than what I can manage.
My first book, Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt, was something my husband, Meghnad and I had discussed as a book we would do one day, together, as we are both very interested in Indian cinema. And, after we met Sunil Dutt, we even started planning it. However, very soon after, Meghnad became busy in the UK Parliament, and I ended up doing the research and writing the whole book by myself! The trilogy of novels featuring the social worker cum detective Simran Singh, on the other hand, was something I had wanted to write for a long time. Especially the first book, Witness the Night. It evolved out of a chance meeting with a woman who told me how she had survived an attempt by her family to kill her as a new-born baby. As a journalist I had written about female foeticide–but this woman’s story was so moving I wanted to make it into a film. At that time I was working in TV. So after writing Darlingji, I sat down to write a film outline for Witness the Night–and it grew and grew into a book. And then my publisher liked Simran Singh so much I was asked to write a second and a third.
When I was 13, I got into punk music and DiY culture, and released my first 45 RPM single at 15 years old – I was a premature monster. Back then, I was writing my own punk rock and B-movie fanzine. My “literary debut” came when I was 17 and I pieced together a string of 10 ultra short, super extreme short stories titled Cannibale (Cannibal) with the sole purpose of shocking potential readers: it was a collection of murderous, gratuitous scenes of violent torture, snuff and death soaked in quality vintage erotica, with real perverts and vampires who would make a sandwich out of any Twilight-esque phony character. I was really obsessed with splatterpunk literature: at the time it was quite a novelty and had a huge impact on me. I loved authors such as David Schow, Poppy Z. Brite, Joe Lansdale and Skipp & Spector, because they wrote like they didn’t care, like a loud hardcore punk song. This first “book” almost got me suspended from high school when one of these funky self-produced pamphlets – which I, the fool, obviously distributed to some of my professors at the time – ended up on the principal’s table… it was a life-changing moment. For I understood that my words were able to impress people, and especially, to piss them off. They were a tool to raise heads and overtake the status quo, an extension of my punk rock spirit.
I always want writers to think first and foremost about style. I want them to ask themselves how they sound on the page, and whether their sentences are theirs alone. But at the end of the day, I can never forgot what William Maxwell said: “After forty years, what I came to care about most was not style, but the breath of life.”
I was inspired by actual market women in Kota Bharu, some of whom were my neighbors, all of whom were very ‘take charge’. Mak Cik Maryam is also named for my mother, Miriam, and she’s definitely part of the character.
I don’t think it is more or less difficult to write historical or contemporary fiction. Some authors are brilliant at getting the contemporary scene and the prevailing zeitgeist. I find my muse in historical fiction, recreating worlds of the past. For me contemporary fiction writing would be like pulling teeth so it is definitely easier for me to write historical fiction. I enjoy the whole process of research and then pulling the reader into a time they might know nothing about. Read the interview
Writing Legacy has been a deeply moving experience for me because I have realized that reading my book has been the catalyst for so many young people to reach out to their parents. Just this morning I was on Skype with a book club comprising young women and one of them told me that she read the book and actually reached out to her father and told him of her need for more bonding with him. She said she had never before told him how much he inspired her. That revelation, she said, has brought them closer than ever before… Read the interview
In Calcutta, where we have this rich blend of neo-classical, Islamic and art deco style architecture, we are seeing this dangerous trend of pulling down old buildings and replacing these with urban monstrosities that are kitsch architecture at their best. Instead of trying to conserve, restore and re-inhabit these buildings by creating a space for culture or imagining new and benign uses for these spaces, what we see is a mushrooming of hyper-stores and malls replacing these grand old structures. We are suffering from this hunger to grow at all costs and if the realtors win this round, the old city will soon vanish and the residents will have to move into abandoned subway tunnels or disappear in the suburbs. All these thoughts went into the conceptualisation of Hotel Calcutta. Read the interview
Asians have far too long been the consumer of books from the West and I speak from a country where many kids know the stories of the West better than their own canon, much less the younger writers. I am sure this is not just true for the Philippines but for many Asian countries. I am not the first person to feel the need to push the Asian agenda, there are many people who feel this way because our stories are rich, varied, and paint a picture of Asia that’s different from the stereotype. So we have to be out there. We need people to push Asian stories—agents, journalists, publishes, writers, and all forms of media. I think I am the first literary agent from the Philippines, working from the Philippines. Read the interview
Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. I was always drawn to stories, to words, to the lyrics of songs, to the ways in which people expressed their understanding of their lives. That’s what drew me to journalism, where I got to ask people their stories, that’s what drew me to academics, where I got to apply statistics to stories, and that’s what drew me to writing a novel, where I got to tell a real story in a format new to me. Storytelling is a rigorous yet liberating thing in all forms. Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. Read the interview
I always wanted to be a poet. But, I was (and still am, in many ways) a really, really bad poet. And so, in order to spare would-be readers, I decided to write prose instead. Of course, the tale gets a little more exciting, because the poem I abandoned for prose was what you see today as my novel series: The Aryavarta Chronicles – At first it was a satirical poem, but when I reached a stage where I needed to explore the larger socio-political macrocosm of the story, I realized I needed a different device. Read the interview
“I don’t know when we got to the point where people are surprised to see a documentary that tells a story. But we’re there. You wouldn’t have asked the question otherwise. Even industry nomenclature is reflective of this. We’ve got “narrative films” on one side and “documentaries” on the other. And never the twain shall meet! Bullshit. The only dichotomy should be fiction and non-fiction, because docs should have narrative arcs too.” Read the interview
“I am drawn to stories about human hardships and interactions of cultural societies in way of conflicts, compromises and accommodation. Stories of how nature, art and objects inform characters, history and society also interest me.” Read the interview
“My friend and teacher Richard Bausch always reminded me to do my day’s work. You’re not always going to complete the same number of pages or words each day; you might spend one day writing an entire chapter and another day trying to perfect a sentence. You know you’ve done your day’s work when you feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.” Read the interview
“I think it is important that more of us write. We live in a country which is dominated by a one-party system of government, by a dominant culture and value system, by a one-sided view of history and a narrow view of success and happiness. It is important to provide younger generation of Singapores an alternative view of Singapore and a different way of seeing the world. My readership is not just women. From the feedback I have received the book is being read and enjoyed by both men and women.” Read the interview
“It was not easy living with four unpublished manuscripts on your writing table. They were like Post-it notes scribbled with things you were powerless to do. But deep inside me I knew my manuscripts had a chance, if not all four, at least a couple of them. That ray of hope sometimes brightened, sometimes waned, but always stayed with me and kept me going. No, I never blamed people, I blamed places. I believed that I was born in the wrong part of the world, in a small sleepy town that never gave you the material for a sellable manuscript.” Read the interview
“A writer uses the written word to express himself. The words are merely tools (of course he needs to use them well). In the end, like any creative person, a good writer has something useful or meaningful he wants to say from the well of his life experience. I thought of myself as a writer when I was in Holland studying broadcasting. One of the modules was “Scripting to Pictures” and I surprised myself. I did well, but more important, I felt lifted by the words I used. I realised then that my tools were my words, I can use them to access the inner most recesses of my being.” Read the interview
“Becoming a writer is becoming someone other than your material self,” says Bangladeshi-Canadian novelist Neamat Imam in this exclusive interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum. “It is a new identity added to what you already are. Gradually, you are consumed by it and at one point replaced by it. You cannot go back to what you had been. You can burn all the copies of your books and throw away all your manuscripts into the river; still you will not cease to be a writer. It may sound scary, but it is not. It is the opposite of it, a blessing. It is a blessing because that is exactly what you wanted to happen to yourself; that is why you wanted to be a writer.” The Black Coat, Neamat’s first novel, was published by the Penguin Group (Penguin Books India, in Hamish Hamilton imprint) in May 2013. Press Trust of India (PTI) has already declared it one of the “must read” books of 2013. Read the interview
Writing is the not the production of a book. It is not a manufacturing process. Suchen Christine Lim
My first book was a collection of short stories that Writers’ Workshop published in 2002. I went on to write a novel after that, the manuscript was read by Shama Futehally, Pankaj Mishra and Kiran Nagarkar too read some parts. They were so wonderfully kind and generous and I learnt a lot from them, especially Shama Futehally who died before ‘Letters for Paul’ appeared in 2006. Mapin published it and it did get good reviews. I did a kids’ novel after that, a historical fiction one called ‘Atisa and the Seven Wonders’. Am not really sure why this children’s writer tag should cling to me. Not that I mind it but wouldn’t ‘writer’ be simpler and far more appropriate? Anuradha Kumar
To me, writing is to imagine, to create a world that readers can enter and be part of. I firmly believe that writing is only half the creative process – the other half happens when people read what is written and recreate it in their heads. Also, word-smithy – the craft of writing – is as important and enjoyable to me as the logical consistency of the plot and the appeal of the story I tell. Maybe that’s why I enjoy the very act of writing, even if it’s something as mundane as a letter for a change of address! Krishna Udayashankar
I think I would have been a writer, regardless. I am not a ‘doctor-writer’, in the sense that people normally understand the term. I am a writer who also happens to be a doctor and a lover of certain types of music, and much else besides. It’s not as though I’ve invented penicillin! If I had been a real scientist, I’d have wanted to push the envelope. But I feel that I definitely have written unique works, which, I hope, may advance the discourse that is literature. My real place – and any talent I have – lies in books.
I often wonder, and obsess about, how much more I might have been able to achieve, had I simply been a writer. But for that, you need serious money and backing, and a weight of critical approval which, frankly, can come only from cultural maturation (and specifically, an expansion of cultural literacy) that has yet to occur among the elites of the West, who, in recent times, in terms of literature, have become increasingly orthodox. It also requires a diminution of the associated corporatist, marketing/ PR ideology that increasingly inhibits literary entrepreneurship and innovation in the book world. Suhayl Saadi
To be a tool of the Establishment while writing one of the most anti-Establishment, unconventional, and freewheeling books ever written by an Indian—it would have felt false, like the Pope writing a book disproving the existence of God even while preaching God to the public. I have no talent for leading a double life; I have to live the way I write.
To study literature and start my writing career in the U.S. I didn’t think of it as “leaving India”, because I take India with me wherever I go—it doesn’t matter what my passport says, some people spot me as an Indian or an Ah-lab from a mile away. I feel I am a world citizen, not bound by national borders–passports being merely an unfortunate necessity, like credit cards or library cards. Richard Crasta
I’ve always wanted to be a writer since I began reading children’s books at the age of four or five, without realising how difficult it is to write. But as I grew older I became aware that it’s almost impossible to make a living from it, and so I decided to read Law when the time came to choose a career. I don’t regret it, because it’s given me an awareness of the importance of writing with clarity, and it’s made me a more disciplined writer. As I used to be an intellectual property lawyer, it’s also been useful whenever I have to read the publisher’s contracts.
Some of the books I’ve read were so awful that I often told myself, ‘I can do much better than this.’ But I was also galvanised into action by some writers who took my breath away with their writing: Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Andre Brink, Edmund White, Anthony Burgess, Vladimir Nabokov. Reading these authors made me realise how unlimited, varied and vibrant the world of the imagination could be. Tan Twan Eng
Sujit Saraf – 2009
Well, that’s the story of Indian writing in English. We write about people who do not read us, and the people who read us are not people who we write about. So, no, to the best of my knowledge, no one in Chandani Chowk has or will read it. My uncle has a large number of shops in Chandani Chowk. He, of course, has a copy of the book but maybe one of my cousins will read it. So far the only reaction I can point to is that of Indians.