“Of war and peace”. Interview with Romesh Gunasekera, The Hindu, 2 Feb 2014
(My interview with Romesh Gunasekera was uploaded on the Hindu Literary Review website on 1 Feb 2014 and published in the print edition on 2 Feb 2014. Here is the url to it: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-literaryreview/of-war-and-peace/article5643819.ece I am c&p the entire text below. The review of the book, Noontide Toll, will be published in the first week of March 2014.
I met Romesh Gunasekera at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014. The photograph was taken at the Penguin Random House reception on 17 Jan 2014. But this interview was conducted via email.)
Romesh Gunaseekera, interview
Born in 1954, Romesh Gunesekera grew up in Sri Lanka and the Philippines before moving to England in 1972. His first novel, Reef , was shortlisted for both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize. In India recently to launch his latest collection of short stories Noontide Toll, Gunasekera took time out for an interview.
1. What was the gestation time for this book and how long did it take to write it? There is a reference to the killing of LTTE founder, Prabhakaran, so it seems to have been finished recently.
I started thinking about this book in 2009 but didn’t start writing it until 2010 after I had travelled around Sri Lanka and visited some of the places in the north that had been difficult to get to during the war. Most of it was written in 2012 but I only finished the final draft towards the end of last year. So the gestation was about 4 years and the actual writing and rewriting 2 years.
2. Why do you have a driver as a narrator?
Vasantha, the van driver, was a natural choice when I realized the story was going to involve journeys around the island. The appropriateness of the character grew as the metaphor of the road grew. A passenger on a road journey is in the hands of a driver; a reader embarking on a book is in the hands of a narrator. Vasantha is both.
3. Why did you call the book Noontide Toll?
The title has particular resonances at this point in time and also has some links in meaning and sound with the titles of my first two books: Monkfish Moonand Reef. As this book like those two has a strong Sri Lankan connection it seemed to be the right choice.
4. The mode of a journey as the spine of a narrative are as old as the epics. Why did you choose this mode for Noontide Toll?
The story of this book is the story of a journey from the past to the future. It is the journey the narrator Vasantha makes but it also the journey we all make as human beings. A journey through time. A story of being on the road seemed a natural way to tell the story of these times. Vasantha is trying to understand how we should live in a world that is fast-changing and has a difficult past. Whether we live in Sri Lanka, or Malaysia, or India, or Britain or America we face similar issues of understanding the road we are on, remembering the past that has made us and seeing the future we want.
But in this book there is also a more specific reason. Vasantha is travelling to parts of his country that he has been unable to visit before because of the war that had been going on for nearly thirty years. So the journey was the way he would balance the north and south of his world.
5. Can you talk about issues of war, memory, and language in relation to the book?
The book is all about how we deal with memory. Vasantha is in a country that has seen a very long and bloody war. He wants to move on from that past and is trying to find the best way to do it. He doesn’t know how much of the past can be left behind and how much is a part of him. Language is the means by which we negotiate our relationship with time. For Vasantha language is a means of communication, of touching someone, and of remembering. All over the world, including in India, people are trying to grapple with the memory of conflicts, and trying to find a way in which language can help us understand history without being trapped in it.
6. For a book that deals with war, “>Noontide Toll is surprisingly very calm and structured in its sentences. Is this how you composed it in the first draft or was it “refined” later?
I believe if a sentence is to retain its strength over time it needs to be carefully made. In fiction the structure of sentences matter. In this book I have tried to make sure the narrative flows as naturally as possible, but that doesn’t just happen. It has to be made to happen.
7. Is there a South Asian Literary identity?
I have just been to a literary festival in Kolkata where there was an hour long discussion with a panel of writers on this subject. From that discussion it seemed as though there wasn’t a clear identity. Obviously there are ways in which you could identify some commonalities between South Asian writers but the problems begin from the moment you try to identify and define the terms e.g. who are South Asian writers? Those born in south Asia? Those who live in South Asia? Those who write about South Asia? Or those who are all three? The language used by the writer is perhaps the more important factor. People who study a wide range of writers would be in a better position to decide whether a geographical term is the best way to describe an identity. I think the idea of a specific geographic literary identity might be too restrictive and constraining to be helpful. I would like to think that South Asian literature (in whatever way it is defined) is as varied and surprising as any other kind of interesting literature.
8. You have been teaching creative writing for many years in Great Britain. Recently you have begun to collaborate on workshops in India as well. What would be your critical assessment of the writing pool/talent in India/South Asia?
I’ve only run one workshop in India and that was in Kolkata last year. We had an excellent group in the workshop and although they were mostly from India we did have some international participants too. I couldn’t generalise from one course, but as far as I can tell there are plenty of aspiring writers and the ones I have come across have similar talents and ambitions as workshop participants I have worked with in many other countries around the world. The prospects for writing in India, and indeed in the region, are good. But then, surely, we all know that.
2 Feb 2014