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The Reading Life with Parul Sehgal, Book Critic at the New York Times

On Privacy, Profile Writing, and Avoiding the First Person
Interview: Durga Chew-Bose

In Sehgal’s “First Words” columns for the Times Magazine, on topics like privilege and its devalued import, or cultural appropriation, or the rhetoric surrounding the use of ‘survivor’ in place of ‘victim,’ or in 2015, the frequency of ‘flawless,’ Sehgal recasts today’s usage (or erosion) of faddish language, recontexualizing occurrence in favor of meaning, ideological precedent, and perspectives that are rarely centered. There’s nothing showy about her criticism. Sehgal finds the thread and invites her reader to see not just as she sees, but to marvel at how she’s arranged her discoveries just so.

Sehgal is so precise and alive to, it seems, the pursuits and even strange tendencies authors of varied spheres might share—that lettered chromosomal-ness—that even the most popular-reviewed ‘it’ book, reads like an exclusive. An interception. Of Arundhati Roy’s two-decade-later return to fiction, with her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Sehgal wrote this past summer in The Atlantic: “You will encounter no victims in this book; the smallest characters are endowed with some spit […] From the fine-grained affection that stirs [Roy’s] imagination springs an ethical imperative—after all, how can one appreciate the world without desiring to defend it? And it must be defended not merely from war or political calamity, but from that natural, more insidious phenomenon: forgetting.” Her interrogation of Roy’s novel is a perfect instance of Sehgal positioning literary criticism beyond a work’s achievements or shortcomings, and locating its value not only within a literary tradition, but beyond. How art and criticism provide dynamic ways for understanding instead of limiting how to be a person in this world. And more urgently, how to pay attention.

ON GROWING UP

I was born outside of D.C. We moved a lot—every three years. I lived in Delhi, Manila, Budapest when I was little. I think I thought we were on the run, because it was always so abrupt. I remember my mother found me in the library of my school in Manila when I was nine, and she was like, “Okay, we need to go home early and pack.” And I was like, “Where now?” And she said India. It was a life of jump cuts.

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Writing Matters: In Conversation with Aamer Hussein

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Aamer Hussein

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.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane (SDA): Aamer Hussein ji, welcome to Kitaab, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Your writing is an inspiration in its lyrical intensity, its telling use of fables and folktales and in the knowledge of cultures and languages that layer your stories and their vast range of characters. They explore rich inner worlds with compassion and empathy that require intense involvement with the characters. This cannot come easily to any writer. How do you approach your writing? Do you usually know what you will write and how you will write it, or do you follow a process that is organic, the story and its characters leading you by the hand?

Aamer Hussein: I’d say that in most cases it does lead me by the hand. I sit down with an image, a line or an impulse, then the story takes un-imagined pathways and the characters do things I had no idea they were planning to do. Often the end is in sight when I begin and I do often know what I want to write, for example when I use a traditional story as a template, or when, as in my new collection, I was inspired by my mother’s diary about her singing; but there is always an element of surprise even in the process of retelling. And in what we now call life writing, there is the crucial question of arranging memories in a pattern and seeing what they reveal, which often is surprising.

SDA: The search for ‘home’ and the inevitable running away from it, the rootless-ness and at times the aimless wandering – this theme and its traces can be found across most of your short fiction as well as in Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger. What does ‘home’ mean to you as a writer and as somebody witnessing the evolving concept of exile and refuge in the world today? Does language, rather than any kind of physical manifestation, contain the sense of ‘home’ / homecoming?

AH: I’m wary of talking about multiple homes but in this case I must. There’s Karachi, the city I was born in and to which I often return (I’m going back in a fortnight), which remains home in some visceral sense – that location between desert and Arabian Sea is where my clay belongs. It’s at the seaside there, near where my father and grandfather lived, that I feel that sense of homecoming. I ran away from it for many years and now I keep running back. There’s London where I’ve worked and lived all my adult life, but I only feel at ‘home’ in my neighbourhood by a canal and in a small, central part of the city where I once studied and taught.  I also have a lost maternal ‘home’ where my grandparents lived in Indore. So yes: I wander among my homes and my notions of home. I’m not in any way an exile or a refugee; today I feel like a fairly privileged expat.  Yes, language as well – or rather the page on which I write, where I look for a landing place. That place too is ambivalent, as I read Urdu when I feel homesick, but rarely write in my mother tongue from any sense of nostalgia; English seems to be my memory-language, so yes, that’s a home too.  Urdu is a retreat.

SDA:   In The Cloud Messenger language seems to be a character with multiple layers waiting to be discovered. In Another Gulmohar Tree, Usman says, ‘You don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you.’ With your polyglot sensibility and sensitivities, how important has this knowledge of languages been for your writing? Has it created creative dilemmas for you or given a sense of freedom that has helped your storytelling?

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Hilary Standing

Hillary Standing

By Farah Ghuznavi

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

Have to – there are so many stories to tell! And if I go too long without writing, I can feel myself getting out of sorts with the world. It’s as if some critical dimension of my existence has gone missing.

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

Most recently, I completed a longish short story, set a few decades into the future, about a Bangladeshi family of climate change migrants that migrates along the ‘New Silk Route’ and ends up camped on a suburban lawn in southern England. It’s told through the perspective of the eight year old boy who lives in the house and secretly makes friends with the girl from the family. It’s essentially a story about the often brilliantly transgressive nature of children’s friendships. Their capacity to transcend adult-imposed boundaries provides the hope for the future.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

‘More is less.’ I am always trying to pare my writing down, to say the most I can in the simplest way. I really enjoy reading dense, rich styles but I think my own strength is in economy with words. And I’m not at all keen on adverbs!

Who are your favorite authors?

Oh, how does one choose? The world is full of brilliant writers. Some current contemporary favourites: Africa – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; South Asia – Neel Mukherjee, Michael Ondaatje; America – Barbara Kingsolver; Middle East – Naguib Mahfouz, Elif Shafak; Britain – Hilary Mantel

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The Rumpus Interview with Anuk Arudpragasam

Editor’s note: Anuk Arudpragasam’s novel The Story of a Brief Marriage won the prestigious DSC prize for South Asian literature, 2017 at the Dhaka Literary Festival. In this interview with The Rumpus, September 2016, he talks about the book and his approach to writing it.

The Rumpus: One of the things that struck me most about the novel is how little historical context is given. Instead, the reader is utterly immersed in the present moment of the main character Dinesh. So often, we read a book set in war which also gives the reader a history lesson. I’m thinking particularly of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the Nigerian civil war. Why did you decide to leave out this kind of context?

Anuk Arudpragasam: It is something I thought about, and there are a couple of reasons behind it. Because the subject matter of the novel is very graphic and it is so hard to be in the presence of, I think there is a natural tendency to find ways to divert one’s attention from these kinds of things.

To use a simple example, if you see somebody in pain or you see somebody suffering in some way, there are usually, if the pain is ordinary—of a conventional kind where somebody’s fallen say or somebody has been bereaved—there are established ways of providing some kind of therapy for the person who is suffering. If somebody is hurt you ask them if they’re okay. You give them a bandage, you rub them on the back. There are all these ways of helping them out. And then, there are situations in which there’s obviously nothing you can do in response to somebody’s suffering or somebody’s pain, and we tend to find other ways to deal with the person. You can’t actually help the person out, so you say, “I know how it feels” or “I’ve been there before” or you try to be with them in other ways.

There is an instinctive urge to act when confronted by the pain of another person, and I think this urge involves, in a way, a discomfort or anxiety about actually seeing that the other person is in pain. In trying to find a way to make their situation better, you’re doing something, and in doing something and in responding actively to someone’s pain, you are, in a way, free from having to contemplate the pain or reflect on the condition of the person. That’s not a bad thing at all.

I feel, though, when it comes to the suffering or the pain of people who are far away or in situations that are very different from your own, that the analog to giving somebody a Band-Aid or rubbing them on the back or talking to them is what you could call a political response. It is to say, “Who did that?” or “What was responsible?” or “When did this happen? How did this happen? Why didn’t anybody do anything?” And then to say, “It was these people. These people need to go to jail” or “These people need to be tried or taken to the international criminal court.” By making these kinds of political diagnoses—and I am not against them at all, they are natural and very necessary—by responding to the suffering of people far away in time and space in this very instinctive way, with some kind of plan for action, I feel that something often gets lost. And I feel that, at least in my case, what gets lost in my instinctive reaction to suffering is an understanding or a contemplation of the condition of the people who are suffering. So, in this situation, I wanted to give very little historical context and social and political context, so that this condition is forced on the attention of the writer or reader.

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Celeste Ng: By the Book

“I try to read omnivorously, because I never know what’s going to spark a new idea. Often the things that I least expect to seize my imagination end up being the most productive.”

The author of, most recently, “Little Fires Everywhere,” often returns to “The Count of Monte Cristo”: “Right now, I see it as an exploration of the complexities of good and evil and how easily one shifts into the other.”

What influences your decisions about which books to read? Word of mouth, reviews, a trusted friend?

Friends. Taste is idiosyncratic, so I don’t love everything people recommend me, and I don’t love everything my friends love. But if a friend adores a book or thinks I will, there’s always something in there that’s interesting and worth thinking about and discussing.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I was reading about life in the Soviet Union, looking for information about samizdat for novel research, and learned that people shared banned music by cutting old X-ray film into circles and making records out of them. They called them “ribs” or “bones.” I’m fascinated by the ways people under repressive regimes still manage to share information — and joy.

What kinds of books bring you the most reading pleasure these days?

I read with my 6-year-old son every night, and frankly, with the state of the world, it’s a relief to turn to children’s literature. We’ve been enjoying some classics like “The BFG” and some new books like Abby Hanlon’s “Dory Fantasmagory” and Shannon and Dean Hale’s “The Princess in Black” series, which make both of us laugh. And picture books — especially really thoughtful, beautiful ones like Aaron Becker’s “Journey” trilogy, Carson Ellis’s “Du Iz Tak?” and everything by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen — are a balm for the soul. They give me hope for the next generation.

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Balli Kaur Jaswal: It never hurts to think about who your audience will be

balli kaur jaswal

Balli Kaur Jaswal grew up in Singapore, Japan, Russia and the Philippines. She attended the creative writing programs in Hollins University and George Mason University in the US. In 2007, she won the David TK Wong Fellowship at the University of East Anglia, where she wrote Inheritance, her first novel, published by Sleepers Publishing in February 2013.

Currently, Jaswal teaches VCE English in a secondary school in Melbourne.

Inheritance is a story about a traditional family grappling with their rapidly modernising surroundings.  It is a nation’s coming-of-age story, seen through the sharp lens of a traditional Punjabi family as it gradually unravels.  Set in Singapore between the 1970’s and 1990’s, Inheritance follows the familial fissures that develop after teenaged Amrit disappears in the middle of the night. Although her absence is brief, she returns as a different person.

In this interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum, Jaswal discusses the journey of her first novel from its genesis to its publication.

Inheritance is your debut novel. How did the idea of this multi-generational saga come to you?

The characters came to me before the story did. When they started interacting with each other and conflicts began to arise, the story was born. In rising Asia, there is a palpable tension between tradition and modernity. The characters from different generations play out these tensions – they’re living proof of one country’s uneasy balancing act of past and present. As the landscape of Singapore changes, the characters have to decide between adjusting to them or completely retreating.

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Constance Singam: I think it is important that more of us write

connie - close upConstance Singam has been described as the mother of Singapore’s civil society. A patriot, a libertarian and a fighter, she describes her recently published memoir Where I Was (Select Publishing, Singapore) as a Memoir from the Margins.
“Her baby steps into the world of activitism started when her husband of 18 years, journalist N.T.R Singam, died of a heart attack in a private hospital because of a cardiologist’s bad judgment,” writes veteran Singaporean journalist P N Balji in a profile of her in Yahoo Singapore. “A letter she wrote to The Straits Times, A Rest In Hospital Became A Nightmare, triggered a debate about the standard of patient care in private hospitals with the government moving in to act.”
After her husband’s death in 1978 when she was 42, Constance decided to take charge of her life.  She moved

 to Melbourne to do an honours degree in literature. After she returned to Singapore, she joined Aware (now Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group) and worked on issues such as domestic violence against women and underperformance of Indian students in schools, among others.

“Whether it is Kerala, that narrow-strip of land in south India where everybody has an opinion on everything and where she lived for seven years as a child, or Singapore, where she spent almost all of her 77 years, she is a patriot,” writes Balji. “She could have decided to make Australia her home, disappointed with the events back home.”

In this exclusive interview with Kitaab, Constance Singam discusses her memoir Where I Was (her first solo title as an author), why she wrote it and what issues bother her as a concerned citizen of Singapore.


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Author Tips: List of bloggers who interview authors

Writing a book is not enough. You also need to promote it. Here is a list of bloggers/writers who interview authors. This is a global list.

Eri Nelson: Wonderful Reads of the Month – http://www.wonderfulreadofthemonth.blogspot.com/

Teddy Gross on Jewish-themed books – http://bit.ly/GEhQR8

Jon Bloch: http://www.jonpbloch.com/interviews.html

Sylvia Browder: http://bit.ly/z0nKjQ

Paper Dragon Ink: http://bit.ly/vZpdXG

Kris Wampler: http://bit.ly/ymaBEw

Morgen Bailey: http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/blog-interviews/

Sylvia Ramsey: http://www.thoughtfulreflections.blogspot.com

Kate Brauning writes excellent book reviews: http://katebrauning.wordpress.com/

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Jack Clark’s Nobody’s Angel

In Jack Clark’s pulp mystery Nobody’s Angel (Reviews, Mar. 29), a cab driver turns detective after another cabbie is killed and a young prostitute is mutilated and left for dead. Before the novel was picked up by Hard Case Crime, Clark, also the author of Shamus Award–nominated Westerfield’s Chain, self-published it and sold 5,000 copies to passengers in his Chicago cab.

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