historical fiction Posts

Theme of Independence in children’s literature in India

(The following article was commissioned in 2015 by Sarah Odedina for the Read Quarterly. With her permission I am posting it here.  On 15 August 2017  India celebrates it’s seventieth anniversary of independence from the British. )

15 August 1947 India won its independence from the British. It had been a long freedom struggle. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, “Father of the Nation”, is recognised as one of its leaders especially with his non-violent method of protest. His birthday, 2 October, is a national holiday. When the British decided to leave the subcontinent they did so after partitioning it into two nations—India and Pakistan.

The uprising of 1857[1] was influential in instilling in the Indians “a rudimentary sense of national unity” that when a genuine Indian freedom movement began within a few decades later it inspired the leaders with the hope that their British masters could be defeated. Significant highlights were the Partition of Bengal, new words such as Swaraj ( “self-rule”), Swadeshi (self-reliance) and Boycott ( of all foreign goods and products), Satyagraha, Jallianwala Bagh ( massacre of peaceful protestors by General Dyer in Amritsar), Chauri Chaura ( burning of a police station, killing 22 policemen on duty), rise of communalism with “parties based on religion like the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh …these parties only cared for their own communities, it was to their advantage if they could divide the country around religion.”[2]The Dandi March or the salt satyagraha, the Civil Disobedience Movement, Quit India Movement, and Independence.

It is now nearly 70 years since Independence, three generations removed from the momentous events. The freedom struggle still exists in living memory as it is not too far back in time. Yet for children, history is a mish-mash in their minds — the Harappan civilisation, the Mughals, Mauryan Empire and British India/freedom struggle are a blur. This is where literature plays a crucial role in offering perspectives.

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Globally children’s literature is understood to include fiction and non-fiction, a category distinct from literature used as textbooks and supplementary readers in schools. In India these fine lines are blurred. For the toddlers and primary school students there is variety of material available – fiction, folktales, mythology, non-fiction. As the pressure of school curriculum increases on students the focus shifts from reading for pleasure to textbooks. Till recently this attitude was deeply ingrained in society. Now the slow shift to reading for pleasure is perceptible. It is a coalescing of multiple factors –an increase in income of parents allowing disposable income available for purchase of books, a rise in publishing and retailing for children, establishment of specialist bookshops, increase in direct marketing efforts by publishers like book fairs and book clubs in schools and growth in popularity of children’s literature festivals like Bookaroo[3] has made the category of children and young adult book publishing the fastest growing and lucrative category in India. (It also helps when the target audience/market of less than 25 year olds constitutes 40% of the 1.3 billion Indians.)

Children’s literature with the theme of independence is found in school material and trade lists. In the 40s (actually from 30s onward if not earlier) the best children’s literature came out in Bal Sakha – a Hindi Magazine brought out by Bengalis settled in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Some of the best writers, including Premchand, were first published here. This magazine dealt with the issue of independence, presenting it to children in what still seems a fairly contemporary way[4]. In 1957 two publishing houses were established – National Book Trust ( NBT) [5]and Children’s Book Trust ( CBT)[6]. According to Navin Menon, editor, CBT, every year in August Children’s World “publish[es] content related to Independence either written by children or stories/ articles contributed by adults.” Amar Chitra Katha (ACK)[7], specialise in comics, usually the first introduction to children on folktales, Indian mythology and stories about the freedom struggle published its first title on freedom struggle, Rani of Jhansi[8] on 1 Feb 1974, around the 25th anniversary of Independence. Historical accounts by writer and niece of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal’s The Story of India’s Freedom Movement (1970) continues to be in print[9]. As she told me in an email, “The freedom movement is part of our modern history. Obviously it is important for young people to know their country’s history.”


Writing for children about the independence movement began to pick up pace in the early 1980s when CBT published writers like Nilima Sinha’s Adventure before Midnight[10]. In 1984 after the assassination of the prime minister, Delhi saw terrible communal clashes. It led to writers like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Amitav Ghosh drawing parallels between their experiences with that of Partition. In the 1990s preparations for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Indian independence began. To commemorate it there were a deluge of books. For instance, Shashi Deshpande’s novel The Narayanpur Incident and Macmillan published The First Patriots (series editor, Mini Krishnan) consisting of short illustrated biographies[11]. Biographies, bordering on hagiographies, are the most popular genre for introducing children to this period in history. These books sell extremely well since it supplements school textbooks. Scholastic India with its Great Lives[12], Puffin India with Puffin Lives and Hachette India with What they did, What they Said? series have profiled freedom fighters registering steady sales too. Gandhi is a popular subject of biographies. From picture books ( A Man Called Bapu and We call her Ba on his wife, Kasturba), standard biographical accounts, profusely illustrated with photographs like DK India’s Eyewitness Gandhi and graphic novels like Gandhi: My Life is my message ( Gandhi – Mera Jeevan Hi Mera Sandesh). [13] An unusual book is Everyone’s Gandhi by Subir Shukla[14] which looked at Gandhi from children’s point of view. It asked provocative questions. It was syndicated in some 75 newspapers (English and regional languages) and the author used to get 500 postcards every week from children across the country, proving that it is possible to approach independence in a manner that generates serious response. Paro Anand, writer and founder, Literature in Action[15] says “I loved this book because it brought me closer to Gandhi. It took the capital letter out of it because made me see him like a human being who I could be not a saint or god who I could never aspire to be. I have used the book often with kids urging them to be a Gandhi for 5 minutes every day, in a single act of kindness or a single act of care. To me empathy is a very important component of kid lit.”

Now there are a variety of books available in terms of writing styles and formats. For instance late Justice Leila Seth’s fabulous book on the Preamble of the Indian Constitution – We, The Children of India[16]; graded readers with pictures like Bharati Jagannathan’s movingly told One Day in August[17], Nina Sabnani’s heart-warming animation film (later book) based on a true story Mukund and Riaz [18]and Samina Mishra’s Hina in the Old City[19] — all focused on Partition and Ruby Hembrom’s award-winning picture book Disaibon Hul on the Santhal Rebellion of 1855[20]. Young adult fiction inevitably has the story of one person caught up in the dynamics of the movement. So the author tries to take a micro level view and build upon that. For instance, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Neela: A Victory Song[21], Jamila Gavin’s Surya trilogy — The Wheel of Surya (1992), The Eye of the Horse (1994) and The Track of the Wind (1997)[22], Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie[23],[24] Siddharth Sharma’s award-winning debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run[25] which focuses on the Kohima war and Mathangi Subramanian’s Dear Mrs. Naidu[26] about a young girl who corresponds with Sarojini Naidu through her diary. Forthcoming is the retelling in English of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( Urdu) by his niece Syeeda Hameed[27]. Award winning historian-turned-writer, Subhadra Sen Gupta has written a clutch of biographies, historical fiction, picture books and nonfiction titles with the freedom struggle as the literary backdrop[28]. Roshen Dalal has published India at 70 ( 2017) chronicling the seven decades since Independence.

Some other examples of literature are listed by writer Deepa Agarwal, “Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s popular poem Jhansi ki Rani and Makhanlal Chaturvedi’s Pushp ki Abhilasha. Outstanding historical novels on patriotic themes were written by Manhar Chauhan, like Lucknow ki Loot (The looting of Lucknow) and Bihar ke Bahadur (Brave men of Bihar) both published by National Publishing Company in 1978. His series of sixteen novels about British rule Angrez Aaye aur Gaye (The British came and went) is a monumental work with each book standing alone and yet connected with the others. In Urdu Allama Iqbal’s collection Hindustani Bacchon ke Qaumi Geet and Zakir Hussain’s Abbu Khan ki Bakri are on the theme of freedom. Pandit Brij Narain Chakbast’s patriotic poems,  Hamara Watan dil se Pyara, Watan Ko Hum Watan Humo Mubarak, from the collection Subhe Watan were meant for children. In Marathi V.H. Hadap wrote patriotic stories ranging from historical to modern times; his Sattavanachi Satyakatha is about the heroes of the 1857 revolution like Mangal Pande, Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai. In fact the centenary … was celebrated in 1957 with many books for children about the people who participated. Vasant Varkhedkar’s Sattavancha Senani is a novel on the life of Tatya Tope.” In Telugu Komuram Bheem: A children’s Novel on a Tribal Hero by Bhupal is about the tribal rebel from Telengana, published by Vennela Prachuranalu (Telugu)[29]. CBT also has a book on Gunda Dhar/ Bhumkal revolt of the Bastar tribal area.

Apart from written literature in India oral histories play a very important role too. Target, a popular children’s magazine, started a comic strip in the mid-eighties called “Freedom’s Children”, where a freedom fighter was profiled based upon extensive interviews. Prominent writers and illustrators collaborated for this project. At the end of each strip a photograph of the actual person was published. Now some schools organise interactions between grandparents with students to recount their memories of independence movement. Many times it is discovered that the children are unaware of the trauma the older generation experienced as if the elders want to protect the younger generation from the horrors they witnessed.

Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, Publisher, Children & Reference Books, Hachette India says, “General response to these books is quite good. Our children take their cues from USA/ UK, so they do not look at India too much. … I do not think there is enough experimentation in children’s writing to create fiction in this area, so far.” Tina Narang, publisher, Scholastic India adds “Since this is a period in our recent history for which a wealth of detail is available, relevant research material is easy to come by for authors[30] who have written Independence-themed stories. But that I think is the biggest stumbling block. Most such stories tend to become stereotypical in their portrayal of that period and of independence as a valiant struggle by a group of noble and brave souls. There is little or no independent analysis of this struggle or attempt to question the motives, methods or outcomes (partition included).” Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, (then) Editorial Director, Red Turtle echoes this, “We do need to do more books that present a more diverse view of  the independence movement and that talks about the role of women or tribals or gives other kinds of alternate views.” Radhika Menon, founder, Tulika Books agrees, “Now we would like to do something that includes the contemporary discourses on the freedom struggle. Something that reflects a more inclusive idea of the freedom struggle with all its complexities so that the reader is urged to think and question rather than be left with certainties about history in her/his mind which tend to be rigid. The challenge is of course to make such a book reader friendly for the pre-teen age group.” Ruby Hembrom, publisher, Adivaani is clear when she says, “If we were to do a book on this period, I wouldn’t feature the Indian Nationalists who have been done to death in textbooks first and have hijacked the ‘independence’ space. I would do Jaipal Singh Munda and his eclipsed role in the constituent Assembly for example.”

Writing about Indian independence and the freedom movement for children is a tricky area since it raises more questions than helps map it. There is an apparent shift in the styles of writing over the generations of writers. From the writer like their subject (usually evident in biographies) have a sense of pride at being an independent and self-reliant nation to contemporary writers whose fiction is based research for using history to comment upon the present politics and social status of marginalised groups. Disaibon Hul is ostensibly about the revolt as mentioned in the book, the introduction refers to “outsiders”, and the story is about the fight against the British. It concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Siddhartha Sharma says he wrote The Grasshopper Run because “I wanted to explain how the Assamese and Nagas got along earlier, unlike today. To contemporary Indians, I wanted to show what the people of the region are like, and how history turned out for us.” [31] Mathangi began writing Dear Mrs Naidu when working in government schools and angadwadis and discovered Sarojini Naidu whose letters she was reading. Mathani realised that Naidu was so human compared to the “demigods of independence” students learned about. She adds, “I think there is a lot of literature on the theme of independence that focuses on a couple of the male freedom fighters, and I’d like to see this change. History is such a powerful force: it shapes the way we think about ourselves, and the way we think about the possibilities for our futures. I want to see more histories of women freedom fighters, and freedom fighters who were not elite. I want to see more literature that helps children understands that heroes are just people with a lot of guts and passion, and that everyone has the capacity for greatness.”[32]

I asked eminent historian Romila Thapar, “What are the events/perspectives and aspects of the freedom struggle that you would recommend are also included in the narratives of the freedom movement?” She replied via email, “You have posed a difficult question. My reaction would be that we need to acquaint children with situations that went into the making of what one may call a ‘wholesome’ society. Not the stories that encourage divisiveness and violence but stories that underline in subtle ways the values of a plural society that we once were. This is disappearing fast and it will be an uphill task to retrieve this as we shall have to do in future years. The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times. Often they can be more easily seen in activities related to regional and local history. It may be worth doing a little investigation into how people in rural areas and small towns remember the recent past.”

This observation gains significant urgency when a Muslim man is lynched by a mob on the outskirts of Delhi for his food habits[33]. Noted Hindi journalist Ravish Kumar’s who met a young man, Prashant, at the site says he showed no remorse at the death of Akhlaq, “Instead, he asked us that after the partition, when it had been decided that Hindus will stay here and Muslims will go to Pakistan, why did Gandhi and Nehru ask Muslims stay back in India?… These are the typical beliefs that keep the pot of communalism boiling.” Ravish says he lost the heated argument and could only wonder dismayed, “Who are those people who have left young men like Prashant to be misled by the purveyors of false histories?” Ironically this happened on 2 October, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, a man recognised worldwide for his belief in nonviolence.

[1] In A Children’s History of India Subhadra Sen Gupta refers to the events of 1857 and the widespread anger that ensued being an eye-opener for the British “who believed that they were ruling over a peaceful society reconciled to British rule”.

[2] – ibid-

[3] Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival 

[4] Email correspondence with Subir Shukla, Principal Coordinator, IGNUS-erg and formerly associated with NBT. He wrote a few books at this time too.

[5] National Book Trust (NBT), India is a part of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. It was established in 1957 and publishes in English, Hindi and some other Indian languages. It also organizes the annual World Book Fair, New Delhi to which publishers gravitate from around the world and country.  NBT and CBT between them have published many books, many continue to be in demand such as The Story of Swarajya by Vishnu Prabhakar (Hindi), Jawaharlal Nehru by Tara Ali Baig, Stories From Bapu’s Life by Uma Shankar Joshi (Gujarati), Jallianwala Bagh by Bhisham Sahni (Hindi), Bapu by FC Fretus and How India Won Freedom by Krishna Chaitanya. Email from Rubin DCruz, Editor, NBT. He has also put together an invaluable annotated catalogue of select children’s books in India, Children’s Books 2014, published by National Centre for Children’s Literature, NBT.

[6] Children’s Book Trust ( CBT) established by cartoonist Shankar in 1957. Its objective is the promotion and production of well-written, well-illustrated and well-designed books for children at prices within the reach of the average Indian child. CBT publications include an illustrated monthly magazine in English, Children’s World. Shankar also set up the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children (AWIC). Shankar started the Shankar’s International Children’s Competition in 1949, and as a part of it, the Shankar’s On-the-Spot Painting Competition for Children in 1952. He instituted an annual Competition for Writers of Children’s Books in 1978. Some of the CBT titles are Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal  & Col. P.K. Sahgal, Adventure before Midnight  by Nilima Sinha, The Return Home by Sarojini Sinha, The  Treasure Box by Sarojini Sinha, Kamla’s Story: The Saga Of Our Freedom by Surekha Panandiker, Ira Saxena, & Nilima Sinha,  A Pinch Of Salt Rocks an Empire by Sarojini Sinha and Operation Polo by A. K. Srikumar and the 12 volumes on freedom fighters Our Leaders or Mahan Vyaktitwa ( English and Hindi). Some of the original titles in Hindi are Aprajita, Hamare Yuva Balidani and Barah Baras ka Vijeta. Email sent by Navin Menon

[7] Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) founded by Anant Pai or Uncle Pai specializes in publishing comics. These comics are usually the first introduction to children about stories of the freedom struggle stories. The ACK titles are Rani of Jhansi (date of publication, 1 Feb 1974), Subhash Chandra Bose (1 March 1975), Chandrashekhar Azad (15 August 1977), the Rani of Kittur ( 1 July 1978), Bhagat Singh ( 15 March 1981), Rash Behari Bose ( 15 May 1982), Veer Savarkar ( 15 May 1984), Mangal Pande ( 1 June 1985), Jallianwala Bagh ( 1 June 1986), Beni Madho and Pir Ali (1st Sept.1983), Velu Thampi (1st May 1980), Senapati Bapat ( 1 February 1984), Surjya Sen (October 2010), Vivekananda (15th October 1977), Rabindranath Tagore (20th may 1977), Babasaheb Ambedkar (15th April 1979), Lokmanya Tilak (1st August 1980), Lal Bahadur Shastri (1st October 1982), Mahatma Gandhi – The Early days (1st June 1989), Jayaprakash Narayan (15th January 1980), Jawaharlal Nehru (November 1991), Subramania Bharati (1st December 1982), Deshbandhu Chitaranjan Das         (1st November 1985), The Story of the Freedom Struggle (August 1997)

[8] Rani Lakshmibai was one of the leaders of the uprising of 1857. She also became a symbol of the resistance to British Rule.

[9] Nayantara Sahgal The Story of India’s Freedom Red Turtle, an imprint of Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013. First published 1970.

[10] Midnight refers to the coming of Freedom and this book describes the events that preceded it. It is about a group of teenagers who participated in the Quit India movement and tried to hoist the tricolour in Patna. It was selected for the International White Raven List for libraries.

[11] Tipu Sultan, The Rani of Jhansi, Kattabomman (the rebel of Pudukottai), Pazhassi Raja (Kerala) and Bhagat Singh. The idea for these series was to write about various legendary heroes and heroines who played a pioneering part in the un-enslaving of the country. According to biographer Shreekumar Varma, “Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma was one of the earliest such freedom fighters. He fought the marauding armies of both the British and Tipu Sultan. His story is full of adventure and thrill, intrigue and treachery, a case-book of bravery. The book is profusely illustrated. It was heavily researched. The surviving members of the Raja’s family were interviewed at Pazhassi and information was gathered from many books and historical records. The text in the book is but a fraction of the material actually obtained.”

[12] Aditi De’s Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and illustrated by Pooja Pootenkulam in the Great Lives series published by Scholastic India has been released this month.

[13] Gandhi: My life is my message by Jason Quinn, illustrated by Sachin Nagar. It is available in English and Hindi. The translator is Ashok Chakradhar. It is part of Campfire Graphic Novels’s  Heroes Series that introduces readers to historical figures who led lives worth knowing, and whose stories are true life adventures.

[14] It is available freely for circulation since “Mahatma Gandhi cannot be any one person’s property, there is no ‎copyright of this publication.” First edition 1997.

[15] Literature in Action is a programme started by Paro Anand that seeks to bring young people and books together.

[16] It was co-authored by her writer-son, Vikram Seth and illustrated by the late Bindia Thapar, published by Puffin India ( English) and Pratham Books ( Hindi).

[17] Published by Pratham Books

[18]  In an email Nina Sabnani wrote, “Mukand and Riaz was initially an animated film that later became a book. It is a true story about my father Mukand and his friend Riaz. There were several things that brought this project together. My father told me the story of his life very late, close to his death. I wanted to share this with my siblings so I just wrote it up like a story and shared it with them and some friends. My friends persuaded me to think about it as a film. I was quite disturbed by the frequent riots in Ahmedabad that happened and me as a designer did not respond in any way. I thought it maybe  my way of protesting. But protests always forget children. So I wanted to reach children. Fortunately I also received some funds at NID as students were working towards making films on the rights of children for a UNESCO Israel project, Big Small People. Since my father had repeatedly said how much he missed his best friend and how the partition separated them, I thought I would create a film that focused on the rights to home and friendship. I also had a fond hope that if the film was made and Riaz happened to see it he would contact my dad. Of course that did not happen but my father was able to see the film one week before he passed away. I used cloth because he worked in the Textile Mills and was passionate about fabric and prints.” Mukund and Riaz  is published by Tulika Books.

[19] The reader shares moments with 10-year old Hina who lives in Purani Dilli, the walled city of Delhi. She comes from a family of zardozi embroiderers. This exquisite craft is, however, slowly dying as craftspeople find fewer takers for their work or are forced to compromise on care and quality to meet the prosaic demands of the times. Along the way, we get glimpses of life in Old Delhi – its lanes, its ancient mohallas which have seen the pain of Partition. Hina loves where she lives, and warm colour photographs take us right into her world. Guides for projects / discussions and a reading list are provided at the end as further avenues for exploring.

[20] To me it is an example of using history to comment on the present. It is ostensibly about the revolt (and the story calls it a revolt too whereas an uprising would be more accurate given it is written from the perspective of the adivasi), the introduction refers to the “outsiders”, the story is about the fight against the British and then it concludes with “Almost 160 years have passed since the Hul. We are alive but still not the owners of our lives? What will it take for us to be really free?” The term “outsider” is left open-ended. Ruby is the founder-publisher of Adivaani, a publishing house that focuses on  producing literature for an by the adivasis.

[21] Neela: A Victory Song is published by Puffin Books India.

[22] Jamila Gavin’s Surya Trilogy is published by Egmont.

[23] Beautiful Lie was published by Bloomsbury

[24] A book review article I wrote on Partition and Children’s Literature and I interviewed Jamila Gavin and Irfan Master.

[25] The Grasshopper’s Run was first published by Scholastic India and worldwide by Bloomsbury.

[26] Dear Mrs Naidu ( 2015) is a Young Zubaan publication.

[27] Forthcoming by Pratham Books is Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Bharat Mata ke Paanch Roop ( The Five Forms of Bharat Mata) which are character sketches of five ordinary women whom he considered as the true faces of the Bharat Mata trope. These are originally in Urdu but have been done for us by his niece Syeda Hameed. According to Manisha Chowdhury, Editorial Head, Pratham Books “we see this as a good way to introduce the idea of subaltern narratives to children and expand the idea of history.”

[28] For instance, Saffron, White and Green: the amazing story of India’s independenceA Flag, A Song and a Pinch of Salt: Freedom Fighters of IndiaPuffin Lives: Mahatma GandhiLet’s Go Time Travelling; fictional biographies of Jahanara and Jodh Bai; a short story collection called History, Mystery, Dal Biryani and a novel called Give us Freedom and most recently the bestseller, A Children’s History of India, published by Red Turtle. Email from Subhadra Sen Gupta.

[29] There is also a book on Alluri Seetharama Raju in Telugu.  He led the ill-fated “Rampa Rebellion” of 1922–24, during which a band of tribal leaders and other sympathizers fought against the British Raj. He was referred to as “Manyam Veerudu” (“Hero of the Jungles”) by the local people

[30] It explains why authors like Deepak Dalal and Nandini Nayar have been able to write historical fiction set in 1857. Research is easy to come by. Deepak Dalal’s historical fiction set in the time of 1857 Sahyadri Adventure series – Anirudh Dreams and Koleshwars Secret. He says, “I have received good feedback about the books. Demand is ok, but nothing to thump my back about. We are into the 3rd edition now. Schools love the books and many have used them as readers. But then most of my books are picked up as readers.” Nandini Nayar’s When children make history: Stories of 1857 is a novel about two Indian children who befriend an English boy who considers India his real home. The three of them chance upon a bunch of soldiers making rotis and help them. So, basically, the novel ends with the beginning of the Uprising. In an email to me she wrote, “I wrote the book [since] I was reading a lot about 1857 and the British Raj and began thinking about how it would be if some Indian children were to befriend an English boy. “ The book was first published as an ebook, then print and has recently been translated into Malayalam by Mango Books, the children’s imprint of DC Books.

[31] In an email to me.

[32] In an email to me.

[33] According to rumours that spread like wildfire, fifty-year-old Akhlaq had stored beef (cow’s meat) in his fridge. The cow is sacred to Hindus. A mob gathered and lynched him and injuring many members of the family. On 2 October 2015, two days after the incident in a village in Dadri, 35 kms from Delhi, Ravish Kumar went to report. “A Sewing Machine, Murder, and The Absence of Regret”  (Published and accessed on 2 Oct 2015)

15 August 2017 

An interview with Xan Brooks ( 5 June 2017)

(I interviewed film journalist Xan Brooks on his debut novel The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times for Bookwitty. It was published on 5 June 2017. Here is the text. ) 

Xan Brooks began his career as part of the founding editorial team at the Big Issue magazine, which is one of the UK’s leading social investment businesses. He then worked at the Guardian newspaper, first as a film editor and later as associate editor, before going freelance in 2015. He published his first novel in 2017, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times. He kindly answered questions for Bookwitty:

Your novel focuses sharply on the darker side of society in the 1920s. It’s so sinister and the plot line is devastating. How did this story come about?

In October 2014, my father recounted a conversation he’d had with his aunt, shortly before her death. She told him that, as a girl, she’d been transported to Epping Forest, outside London, to see (in her words) “the funny men from the war”. My father had the impression that she had never told this to anyone before and she seemed so traumatised by saying it that he didn’t feel he could press her on the details. The novel came out of that conversation. It was an attempt to understand what might have happened to her and why. I would stress that the whole thing is made-up. It’s fiction. It is emphatically not the story of my great-aunt (who I only met three or four times in my life). That said, this made-up story has a kernel of truth.

To create historical fiction did you have to research the period or not? For example the fabled Eye of Thoth Amon, Amulet in the 1920s and 30s, the time of the expeditions to Egypt…

Ideally, you conduct lots of research that you then wear very lightly. I should have spent longer preparing, but I was too eager to start writing. So I only researched for about two weeks (on 1920s Britain and the effects of World War One) and then would just check details as I went along (how much did a pint of beer cost in 1923? How fast would a car typically go?). I’m not sure I’d recommend this as the best approach. There are a few historical inaccuracies in the book and these (genuinely) keep me awake at night. With regards to the Eye of Thoth Amon – yes, the news at the time would have been full of Howard Carter and Tutankhamen. It seemed likely that a fraud like Uriah – the fake spiritualist – would have tried to capitalise on that public fascination by claiming to possess an ancient artifact of fabulous powers.

Did the research extend to getting the language and expressions accurate as far as possible or were you keen to make the story relevant to a modern reader?

That’s an interesting question. On reading back over the first draft of the book, I realised that some of the dialogue was too self-consciously antiquated, almost mytho-poetic, like a parody of how one imagines people would talk “in olden times”. On the second draft, I tried to loosen the speech, roughen its edges; make it more natural and easy – possibly more modern, although I’m not altogether convinced people spoke very differently one hundred years ago anyway. By and large, I trusted my ear. If some phrase or piece of slang sounded too modern, I’d take it out.

Commonplace names like “Uriah Smith” and “Lucy Marsh” are chilling. They lull you into an ease that is horribly shaken by the story. How did you achieve this outwardly placid tone of the story with its violent undercurrents?

I knew from the start that the tone would be crucial. The story is horrible. It’s a thing of darkness and cruelty and it also has a thick vein of operatic wildness, in that it contains masked monsters and flaky magicians and debauched house parties and fiery airplanes. The danger with such ingredients is that the tale risks overheating, becomes hysterical and ludicrous. I had a faint terror of the book turning out like a bad Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with lots of wafting dry ice and plastic foliage, masked dancers and anguished show-tunes. The best way to counter this threat was to downplay everything and observe the events very matter-of-factly, without fuss. Lucy’s perspective was crucial in this regard. She sees and questions but does not rush to judgment – partly because she is still establishing a moral framework to measure all these crimes against.

The Yellow Brick Road is meant to lead to something happy and comforting instead it is dark and twisted in your novel. Why develop a story dwelling on the nightmarish aspect to a beloved children’s tale The Wizard of Oz?

The yellow-brick road leads to The Wizard of Oz but, while not actively evil, the Wizard is a lie, an arrangement of smoke-and-mirrors, so there are some immediate parallels there. Plus I like the idea of false sanctuaries in fiction; the safe haven that isn’t. If the first half of the book is about the abuse and exploitation of childhood innocence, the second is about the gaining of wisdom, a coming to terms with an adult world that sustains and replenishes itself by exploiting the weak and the innocent. In a more traditional fairytale, the girl would survive the ordeals of terrifying forest to find a happy ending at the big house with the handsome prince. I liked the notion that the people in the big house are—at least tangentially—responsible for what has occurred in the forest. Instead of finding safety, Lucy finds herself behind the scenes at the sausage factory.

Trying to read this book, as a straightforward novel does not necessarily work although the opening pages are written in a classical manner. It’s only when one orients the mind to read the text as if it were a film camera in motion, focusing upon some details and panning out in others, that it becomes easier to engage with the story. Do you think being a film journalist has inadvertently affected your literary style of writing?

No doubt about it—but I think I’m only now realising the extent to which it has. I’ve never written a feature-length screenplay and have no desire to. That said, the story primarily came to me as a series of images and bursts of dialogue. I’m aware that I’ve framed it using what might be termed as the traditional tools of film grammar, with the occasional flashback and plenty of cutting between parallel story lines, especially during the opening half. I would stress that I didn’t want to write a sort of flat prose-blueprint for a movie. I wanted to write a novel filled with beautiful writing, interior monologues and shadowy mysteries. But I do recognise that the writing is very visual—and that this reveals my journalist background and my love of cinema. I basically saw and heard the book as I was writing it.

“Terrible things happen all the time and there is nothing to do but hope that whatever comes next will be brighter and better.” Is this what you hope to illustrate with your novel?

Well, that’s specifically Lucy’s feeling at a specific point of the book, when she is arguably at her lowest ebb. I think it’s a decent ethos so far as it goes, but it risks being a little passive—hoping for something better as opposed to actively taking steps to make it so. My opinion is that Lucy eventually does take those steps—although perhaps not entirely consciously—and that her situation improves as a result. But yes, terrible things happen all the time, there’s no arguing with that. Cruelty, abuse and hypocrisy are the constants in any era.

The use of masks by the “Happy Men” illustrates the historical fact of prosthetics being made for injured soldiers from tin and copper. Why did you decide to weave in this little-known aspect of the Great War into your story instead of just having a group of ordinary men?

Again, it goes back to my great-aunt’s account of what happened to her as a child. But it also nicely muddies the moral waters of the story. Yes, the children are the obvious victims. But then (without ever excusing their actions) you realise that the abusers are themselves victims. That they have been made into monsters, that they are cogs in the wheel of a wider, industrialised pattern of abuse. Hopefully the masks serve to make the abusers more frightening – and then more tragic too.

It’s set at the time immediately after the Victorian era and the beginning of the 20th century when there is a perceptible shift in how children are treated. Reading The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times today with the dreadfulness of the sexual abuse of children during the Great War is very disturbing. It is captured dramatically in the conversation between Lucy Marsh and her grandfather. Was this section difficult to write?

Yes, very. I felt it was important that Lucy confronts her grandfather directly about what he is doing. Except that then—in the way characters sometimes have of surprising you with their responses—it suddenly seemed equally important that he didn’t break down and plead for forgiveness. If anything, his primary emotion is irritation at being challenged by a child. Now, partly that’s a self-defense mechanism, him not wanting to admit any guilt. But it also says something about an admittedly fairly ill-educated, un-principled man of that era and class. One, children were often viewed as just a rung or two above livestock on the social scale. Two, evidence suggests that the war had this incredible desensitising effect on the people of Britain (and Germany, France etc.). So although he’s ashamed of his actions, he’s able to brush them aside, or explain them away. Would it have even been described as sexual abuse in those days? I suppose it would—assuming anybody bothered to investigate the crime and deliver a verdict. But would it have even reached that stage? Growing up in the 1980s, I vividly recall the way that sex abusers were typically referred to in jokey, derogatory terms, as though they were pathetic little clowns—with the implication being that the actual abuse was somehow pathetic and clownish, too; some dirty embarrassment that it was best to ignore. If that was how sexual abuse was presented in the 80s, I imagine it was even more easily dismissed in the 1920s. So long as the children came back alive at the end of each day, it was possible to avoid asking too many awkward questions.

Why did you make the leap from film journalism to novel writing?

Partly it was circumstantial. My job (which I loved) was being dismantled and I figured I’d better get out quick, before the situation got any worse. Thinking back on it now, this book came out of a very strange and stressful period. In the space of six months, we had a baby, my wife fell ill, my father suffered a stroke and my job came under threat. Also, we had no money. And so at some point you just find yourself living in a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty; it becomes the water that you’re swimming in. So you think, “Forget trying to do the right thing, the sensible thing. Forget trying to play the percentages, because that clearly hasn’t worked out”. Writing a novel, then, could be seen as the equivalent of doubling down, of embracing the fear, of diving even deeper. And yes, that’s partly what it was. But it was also something I’d always wanted to try. I’ve always read voraciously and I love writing too. I loved writing features, news stories and reviews and am still able to earn money doing so. But writing a novel is a richer, more frightening, more exhilarating adventure. It was a wonderful experience. Everyone should try it.

How did you select the intriguing title: The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times?

Actually, it was something my wife said. We were sitting in the living room, midway through writing the book, and she made this throwaway remark, which stuck in my head. I used it as the opening line of the chapter I was writing—but then we started thinking of it as a good, resonant working title for the whole book. I didn’t think it would survive because it’s too long and strange; I thought we’d certainly end up calling the book something else. But my publisher (Salt) either came around to the idea, or generously decided to give me the benefit of the doubt. Now, of course, I can’t imagine it being called anything else.

Who are the storytellers (in any form) who have influenced you?

I’m going to stick with novelists otherwise I’ll still be coming up with names in November. Off the top of my head and in no particular order: EL Doctorow, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Stone, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Joseph Roth, John Steinbeck, Richmal Crompton, Stephen King, Nathanael West, Willa Cather, Denis Johnson, Bernard Malamud.

Xan Brooks The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times Salt Publishing, London, 2017. 
11 June 2017 

Pakistani Author Maha Khan Phillips on her New Novel, “The Curse of the Mohenjodaro”

This interview with Maha Khan Phillips was published on Bookwitty on 7 March 2017. 

Maha Khan Phillips is the author of Beautiful from this Angle and The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. She is a financial journalist and the editor of Professional Investor Magazine in the UK, where she lives part of the year, the rest of the time she spends in Karachi.

Her novels are set in Pakistan and her fiction is unusual in its portrayal of the economic basis that defines relationships and her astute observation of social dynamics make her fictional landscapes absolutely believable. Her books show women are empowered if financially sound, irrespective of the socio-economic strata they inhabit.

In her latest novel The Curse of the Mohenjadaro, Maha Khan Phillips has taken her literary skills to a new level by venturing into myth-making and exploring the alternative social spaces of cults which ultimately tend to imitate conservative patriarchal structures globally. She kindly answered questions for Bookwitty about her new book:

Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre
Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre

Why this story? Why Mohenjodaro?

I visited the ancient civilization of Mohenjodaro a couple of times when I was a child on school trips. I was enthralled by it. The thing that resonated most was that nobody knew what happened to its people, or how the civilization declined. I remember being bored and surfing the web one day and idly typing in “Mohenjodaro Mystery”. I wanted to see if there was information out there about the decline of the civilization. Instead, I was astounded to discover the so-called Forbidden History/Forbidden Archaeology movement. I learnt that an archaeologist named David Davenport had written a book entitled Atomic Destruction in 2000 BC (Italian, 1979) and that Mohenjodaro was the epicentre of many conspiracy theories about ancient technologies. I decided it would be a great premise for a thriller. In those days, I wasn’t writing at all, so I sort of forgot about it, for a few years, and then picked it up after Beautiful from this Angle.

How long did the research for this book take?

In reality, researching Mohenjodaro was the easiest bit, because there is so little known about the Indus Valley Civilization. I spent some time learning about archaeology in general, and had some help from a couple of brilliant archaeologists. I also researched Mesopotamia and Egypt in an attempt to get inspiration when creating my imaginary Mohenjodaro. But mostly, I researched cults, the psychology of cults, and the Forbidden History movement.

The Forbidden History movement is a term that derived from conspiracy theorists who believe that any artefacts or discoveries which question mainstream history or current theories of evolution are either dismissed, or covered up. They believe in ancient technologies, in humankind being older than we think, in alien influence on pre-historic earth.

Your fascination with trying to understand cults is evident in the ruthless characters of Iaf and Sohail. Why cults?

I could talk about this for hours… I’ve always been fascinated by cults. How do they work? Why on earth do people fall for charismatic leaders, giving up everything, even their lives in some cases? I suppose in my mind, there’s a resonance with the political world now. People have started positioning themselves with these myopic identities and ideologies and aren’t willing to broaden their thinking. Cults are very much about ‘Us and Them’ and I feel the world is heading in that direction too. Look at all the fake news we have been seeing, and how quickly it’s being disseminated as gospel through social media. Look at religious extremism. And, perhaps the best example – was there ever a cult leader as successful as Donald Trump? I don’t know what’s in the Kool-Aid he’s been handing out, but he’s tweeted his way to cult like devotion amongst his followers, in my opinion – providing them with an ideology that will not help them, and yet spinning the tale so well that they believe life will get better.

How did the creation of the Shakari, Goddess-Blessed and the Bloodstone myth-making come about?

I knew I had to have something – some supernatural force that would cause the chaos which occurs at the beginning of a novel, when the archaeologists go missing and are set on fire. I probably spent more time on trying to figure out what that would be than I did on anything else. In the end, I settled on a stone, because I liked the physicality of having something that could be held in someone’s hand. As for Shakari, many icons of goddesses were found in Mohenjodaro, and so I liked the idea of a matriarchal society which had been corrupted, but which believed in a Mother Goddess. I knew there would be priests and priestesses, and the Goddess-Blessed emerged as those priestesses, for want of a better name for them.

The icons of Goddesses were clay figurines. Numerous kinds have been found in the Indus Valley, wearing headdresses, for example. These could just be images of women, but archaeologists believe they are goddesses .

To my mind the character Jaya’s story was far stronger and tautly told compared to the Nadia & Layla story. Yet how do you occupy two dimensions/time and write two powerful stories?

For ages, I resisted the idea of setting anything in the ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha. I felt I couldn’t do it justice or make it credible, not without knowing more about the place. But that information simply wasn’t available. Eventually, I realised that it was the not knowing that was liberating. It meant I could let my imagination go wild. With so little information out there, I had a blank canvas to make up whatever I wanted. But before I made that realization, I had written an entire novel in the present day. It didn’t work, and so I tried other things. I initially wrote a couple of the ancient scenes as dreams that Nadia had, as a way to give context to some of the modern day plot. I quite liked those scenes, and they were so easy to write, they came pouring out. So I started writing more. And soon, I realised I wanted to intertwine the two narratives.

Why interweave stories? How did you decide to break one story with the other while retaining the reader’s interest?

I’m not sure I consciously thought about it. I’m a big fan of the novels of Kate Mosse, and she did this so effectively in Labyrinth. But more than that I didn’t want to give up either story, I felt emotionally invested in both. I let the writing decide when it was going to break from one story to another – I just did it when it felt like a chapter was finished.

The financial details of your novels are always so fascinating. For instance in this case “River trout which was bartered” and even the activities of Giving of Light Foundation have a clear economic basis which are outlined logically. Do you work out the economic intricacies along with the fictional landscape? 

I suppose that’s the financial journalist in me! I’m really aware of how economic realities affect our lives. I would argue that the Financial Crisis brought about Donald Trump and Brexit, for instance. I didn’t feel like the decline/destruction of my ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha was credible without a bit of an understanding of why the civilization’s economic system may have failed them, particularly since the character Iaf is driven by greed and power. I was also quite interested in how the people in this ancient civilization would have traded with one another. I loved the cubes they discovered on the site, and the weighing scales, it was such an advanced approach to trading.

The defiant assertion of independence by Jaya, Layla and Nadia against Iaf and later, Sohail, are very well etched. How challenging was it to create these women characters fighting “patriarchal” structures?

I think the challenge for me, at least early on, was actually to make them less assertive and bolshy! I needed, at least initially, for them to be reactive. For example, I needed to justify Jaya’s decision to remain in Meluhha, despite the loss of her parents, to passively accept her fate. I needed Nadia to go to Pakistan without asking too many questions. It was later that the characters all started to fight back, once they realised what they were up against. That was a more comfortable place for me to be in! Some of what happened in the ancient city is mirrored by patriarchal societies which still exist, which we see all around the world. That was deliberate, on my part. I liked that my characters were strong enough to take those on. I am a feminist, and my family is full of strong women who have never let anyone stop them from achieving whatever they set out to achieve, so I enjoyed writing these kick ass women!

“I set up the Foundation after 2001, after the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. I’d been a banker then, but I have always been passionate about antiquity. Our history often defines our future, don’t you think?” It may be unfair to read the personal in fiction you create but somewhere does this novel stem from what you too feel – maybe the importance of getting to know the past better and how it informs our present?

Trust you to find the one sentence in the entire novel that means the most to me personally! Yes, I passionately believe this. History gets lost, but without it, we don’t know who we are. How can we learn from our mistakes, if we haven’t understood when and how we made them? Mohenjodaro belongs to the world – we’ve seen people in Scotland trace their roots back to Mohenjodaro, for instance. There is a worrying trend, as I mentioned, for myopic ideologies, and we have seen what ISIS does to pre-Islamic history and how they want to abolish the past. In their mind, there’s a good reason for their actions. The past can be dangerous. It shows us that we are smaller than we think we are. We will all, eventually, belong to history ourselves. And so we should not seek to impose our ideologies on others because no ideology, no civilization, no one culture, can withstand the sands of time. Instead, we should celebrate our extraordinary heritage and be made richer by what we learn from it.

Maha Khan Phillips The Curse of the Mohenjodaro PanMacmillan India, 2017. Pb.

9 May 2017 

An Interview with Award-Winning Indonesian Author Eka Kurniawan

( My interview with award winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan was published on literary website Bookwitty on 6 February 2017.  In India the books have been published by Speaking Tiger Books.) 

Award-winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, whose writing, often compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an exceptional blend of myth-making, supernatural, fantastical, historical facts and horrendous amounts of violence. Told with such a flourish, his storytelling is unforgettable. Kurniawan was born in Tasikmalaya, Indonesia, in 1975 and has a degree in Philosophy. He writes novels, short stories, as well as non-fiction pieces. Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger are two novels set in unnamed places with all the characteristics of Indonesia. His third novel to be published in English,Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, will be available in July 2017. Eka Kurniawan kindly agreed to an interview for Bookwitty:

How and why did you get into writing fiction? What is your writing routine?

First of all, it was just for fun. I read some stories when I was a teenager, and I tried to write my own versions. I shared my stories with some of my friends. When I studied philosophy in University, sometimes I got bored with my study and skipped my class to go to library and read a lot of classic novels. And then I found a book by Knut Hamsun, Hunger. After I read it, I felt like I wanted to be a writer. So I started to write stories, seriously. My writing routine? I don’t write everyday. I always think that I am more a reader rather then a writer. I read anything every day, and only write something when I want to.

Who are the writers who have influenced you?

Like I already mentioned, Knut Hamsun. I love his deadpan humor and how he discovered his characters. And then there are three great Indonesian novelists: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Abdullah Harahap and Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo. The last two are a kind of genre writers. They wrote horror and martial art novels. I can make a very long list of writers that I believe have influenced me, but let me add these three writers: Miguel de Cervantes, Herman Melville, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Your storytelling is told with such a flourish that at times it is very visual or creates a strong physical reaction much like a response to watching a theatrical performance. While writing, how conscious are you of the reader’s response?

I am very conscious about the reader, but that reader is me. When I write something, at the same time, I always place myself there as a reader too.

“Magic realism” and “historical fiction” are how your books are described but how exactly would you like your special brand of storytelling to be known as?

I never think about it. People can give me any kind of label they please. But let’s be honest: in my novels, there are not only historical or magical elements, but you can find romance, saga, fighting, horror, adventure, even political and social criticism. I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

Your stories seem to rely heavily on the oral storytelling narrative form as the structural basis allowing you the flexibility to expand and repeat details and incorporate supernatural elements…

It is something inevitable. I grew up listening to a village storyteller when I was still a kid. And then there was also drama on the radio, told by one particular storyteller. I was very fascinated by all of these stories, especially because I had only read a small number of books at that time. The stories were usually about village legends, full of monsters, jinn, beautiful ladies and brave men. Many of these stories I actually retold in my novels, including the princess who married a dog.

There are so many brutal aspects of sexual violence which you explore in your stories. Why?

First, when you take a look into Indonesian history (maybe even world history), you can’t help but find yourself faced with this kind of violence. It can be sexual, physical, mental or political violence. Second, I wrote my first novel just two years after the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship. It was time for us to be bolder in writing, to open all these scars in our history and face them. Third, I used to write stories in a “matter of fact” manner, I don’t want to hide things.

You write with the sensitivity and understanding of a woman, often sharing her point of view, making the stories seem more feminist than what some women themselves pen and yet the plots move with a predominantly male gaze. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

It was a conscious decision. Actually, my first two novels were inspired by some women, and they are really at the center of my novels. I tried to place myself from their point of view. It is always something important for me as a writer to be there, to know how they feel, how they see the world around them, and how they react to something.

 

The strong women characters  in Man Tiger and Beauty is a Wound make choices which they follow through only to be labelled by society as insane. Why and how did you choose to create these women?

I think they just appeared like that in front of me. These two characters are very different from each other. They are strong, die-hard, but have different reactions. I never write stories with a plan. I usually just have a small idea, and develop it gradually. The characters come out one by one. I rewrite it several times, and the characters, including these two women, become more complex and have their own personality in the end.

Dewi Ayu (in Beauty is a Wound)  remarks “The best stories are in religious texts”. Your stories seem to imbibe a lot of storytelling elements from the Hindu epics, the Bible and the Quran. How have these stories influenced you? What are the challenges posed in transference of popular tales when trying to recreate or apply them in secular literature?

My grandmother used to tell me stories from the Quran, and my father taught me to read it. So I am very familiar with these stories, as well as stories from the Bible (I read it later) as they are close. I discovered Hindu epics from wayang (puppet) performances, that usually used Mahabharata or Ramayana epics. The challenges occur with the fact that these stories are very popular. Many writers and storytellers retold them. I just picked the basic ideas and retold them in my own stories that have nothing to do with religious aspects, but with a parallel allusion to them.

Are the English translations true to the original Bhasa texts? How closely did you work with the translators – Annie Tucker and Labodalih Sembiring? Also why did you choose separate translators for the books – it is a slightly unusual practice given how authors and translators tend to forge a long term relationship. 

It’s almost true. I worked very closely with the translators and we tried our best to render the original into English. Of course we faced some problems with grammatical and word nuances, as Indonesian and English are very different, and we discussed this a lot. Those two books were acquired by two different publishers. Verso and I approached Labodalih to translate Man Tiger after we tried some translators, and around the same time Annie Tucker proposed to translate Beauty Is a Wound, later acquired by New Directions. So, that’s why I have two translators.

Given the time lag between your novels being first published and then made available in English do you think having Indonesia as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 helped in discovering contemporary Indonesian writers and making them available to the English-speaking world?

To be honest, before the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015, I knew nothing about that. My books were published in English translation the same year, but we prepared them three years before, in 2012. But of course, as guest of honor at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, this gave us an opportunity to be discovered, including my books. Publishers started to wonder about Indonesian literature…

Who are the Indonesian writers – based in the country or of the diaspora – that you would recommend for international readers?

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, of course, and Seno Gumira Adjidarma.

7 February 2017 

Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”

Anthony DoerrAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is set in Sant Malo, France during the second world war. It is primarily about three people — Marie-Laure LeBlanc, her great-uncle Etienne and Werner Pfennig. An elegantly written story about conflict especially between the Nazis and French, what happens to lives of ordinary folk, the emergence of the French Resistance, how circumstances force people to explore their limits without overreaching and the importance of communication. The young and blind girl, Marie-Laure is brought to Sant Malo by her father from Paris. She learns the routes around town after exploring the miniature, true-to-scale, wooden structure her father recreates for her on their bedroom floor. Her great-uncle Etienne fought in the Great War, but ever since was too shell shocked to venture outside. Yet he would every evening go to the attic in his house and from there using an amateur radio set up transmit recordings he had made with his brother explaining science. Etienne had been doing it for years. Unknown to him the radio waves could be caught as far as Germany, where two young orphans — Werner and his sister would wait for them every day. Years later, Werner Pfenning was sent by the Nazis to France to locate illegal radios and other modes of communication.

All the Light We Cannot See is a novel that is placed in a physical and real world, rather than relying upon emotions to propel the story forward. It is a story that has been a decade in the making and as Anthony Doerr says “he is something of a magpie”, when it comes to tell a story. ( Martha Schulman “How the Story Comes Together: Anthony Doerr”. 11 April 2014  http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/61823-how-the-story-comes-together-anthony-doerr.html ) Over 1 million copies of the book have been printed so far and it continues to sell. Understandably it has been longlisted for the 2015 NBA longlist. As historical fiction goes, this is an immensely readable book, believable too to some extent except when one comes across tiny slips such as Etienne boasting to Marie-Laure about his eleven radios. ” I can hear ships at sea. Madrid. Brazil. London. I heard Pakistan once. Here at the edge of the city, so high in the house, we get superb reception.” ( p.135) This is said in section three, set in June 1940. Pakistan did not come into existence till August 1947. Faux pax like this leave you wondering about how accurate are all the other details in the book, yet you cannot help but appreciate the story for what it is. A fine blend of history, politics and science with a sensitive account of three people who are marginalised by society and yet in a curious way come together, joined by technology of 1940s– a blind girl, a terrified old veteran and an orphan boy. Not an unfamiliar concept in the twenty-first century, is it?

A book worth reading.

Anthony Doerr All the Light We Cannot See Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers , 2014. Pb. pp.540 Rs 899 

Who will win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature? (13 January 2015)

DSC shortlistAccording to the vision statement, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature celebrates the rich and varied world of literature of the South Asian region. Authors could belong to this region through birth or be of any ethnicity but the writing should pertain to the South Asian region in terms of content and theme. The prize brings South Asian writing to a new global audience through a celebration of the achievements of South Asian writers, and aims to raise awareness of South Asian culture around the world. This year the award will be announced on 22 January 2015, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Diggi Palace, Jaipur.

The DSC Prize for South Asian Shortlist 2015 consists of:

1. Bilal Tanweer: The Scatter Here is Too Great (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
2 Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
3. Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury, India)
4. Romesh Gunesekera: Noontide Toll (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
5. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Mirror of Beauty (Penguin Books, India)

( http://dscprize.com/global/updates/five-novels-make-shortlist-dsc-prize-2015.html )

The jury consists of Keki Daruwala (Chairperson), John Freeman, Maithree Wickramasinghe, Michael Worton and Razi Ahmed.

All the novels shortlisted for the award are unique. They put the spotlight on South Asian writing talent. From debut novelist ( Bilal Tanweer) to seasoned writers ( Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie) and one in translation – Shamsur Rahman Faruqui, the shortlist is a good representation of the spectrum of contemporary South Asian literature in English. Three of the five novelists– Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekera and Kamila Shamsie–reside abroad, representing South Asian diaspora yet infusing their stories with a “foreign perspective”, a fascinating aspect of this shortlist. It probably hails the arrival of South Asian fiction on an international literary map. The three novels — The Lowland, Noontide Toll and A God in Every Stone are firmly set in South Asia but with the style and sophistication evident in international fiction, i.e. detailing a story in a very specific region and time, culturally distinct, yet making it familiar to the contemporary reader by dwelling upon subjects that are of immediate socio-political concern. For instance, The Lowland is ostensibly about the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, India and the displacement it causes in families; A God in Every Stone is about an archaeological dig in Peshawar in the period around World War I and Noontide Toll is about the violent civil unrest between the Sinhala and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Yet all three novels are infused with the writers’ preoccupation with war, the immediate impact it has on a society and the transformation it brings about over time. The literary techniques they use to discuss the ideas that dominate such conversations — a straightforward novel (The Lowland), a bunch of interlinked short stories narrated by a driver ( who is at ease in the Tamil and Sinhala quarters, although his identity is never revealed) and the yoking of historical fiction with creation of a myth as evident in Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone. All three novelists wear their research lightly, yet these novels fall into the category of eminently readable fiction, where every time the story is read something new is discovered.

Bilal Tanweer who won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 for his wonderful novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great. Set in Karachi, it is about the violence faced on a daily basis. (Obviously there is much more to the story too!) Whereas Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s novel The Mirror of Beauty, translated by him from Urdu into English is primarily about Begum Wazir Khanam with many other scrumptious details about lifestyles, craftspeople, and different parts of India. It is written in a slow, meandering style of old-fashioned historical fiction. The writer has tried to translocate the Urdu style of writing into the English version and he even “transcreated” the story for his English readers—all fascinating experiments in literary technique, so worth being mentioned on a prestigious literary prize shortlist.

Of all the five novels shortlisted for this award, my bet is on Kamila Shamsie winning the prize. Her novel has set the story in Peshawar in the early twentieth century. The preoccupations of the story are also those of present day AfPak, the commemoration of World War I, but also with the status of Muslims, the idea of war, with accurate historical details such as the presence of Indian soldiers in the Brighton hospital, the non-violent struggle for freedom in Peshawar and the massacre at Qissa Khwani Bazaar. But the true coup de grace is the original creation of Myth of Scylax — to be original in creating a myth, but placing it so effectively in the region to make it seem as if it is an age-old myth, passed on from generation to generation.

13 January 2015

 

Sarah Waters, “The Paying Guests”

Sarah Waters, “The Paying Guests”

Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests“…men never do want women to do the things they want to do themselves, have you noticed?” 

( p.80)

The Paying Guests is Sarah Water’s sixth novel. It is about a middle class family, the Wrays — a mother and daughter, Frances— who have fallen upon hard times and are forced to taken in lodgers or as they would prefer to call them “paying guests”. Mrs Wray is pained when her daughter refers to themselves now as landladies. The story is set in the inter-war years, so the Wray household like many others around them have lost their two sons in the Great War, and soon after the war, Mr Wray passed away, leaving a mountain of bad debts. Mrs Wray continues to manage her life, a pale semblance of what she was used to but her young twenty-six-year old daughter has no qualms behaving like a char woman, if required, to maintain the house and manage expenses. All though Frances had begun to recognise “the look very well–she was bored to death with it, in fact–because she had seen it many times before: on the faces of neighbours, of tradesmen, and of her mother’s friends, all of whom had got themselves through the worst war in human history yet seemed unable for some reason to cope with the sight of a well-bred woman doing the work of a char.” ( p.25) The young couple who arrive are Lilian and Leonard Barber are obviously from a different social class ( “Len said you’d think them common”), but have the means to pay the weekly rent ( “fifty-eight shillings for two weeks”). Mr Barber is described as having a “clerkly neatness of him”. Mrs Barber on the other hand is “all warm colour and curve. How well she filled her own skin! She might have been poured generously into it, like treacle.”

The story moves at a leisurely trot. There is a very slow build up to the crux of the plot– the love affair between Lilian and Frances. But once there the novelist focuses upon these two character, shutting out all other interactions and references to the outside world, save for the occasional visits by the butcher boy, fishmonger, milkman and news headlines from The Times. Then suddenly the outside world is very present in the story, with a murder, police investigation, media reports, a courtroom drama as the story develops into a murder investigation with many unexpected twists and turns.

The Paying Guests is a wandering and an exploration of women’s lives, what it means to be a lesbian in 1922 when it was barely discussed or even acknowledged openly. The empowerment of women was happening in small ways, the Suffragete movement had happened, at the Wray house such as “Nelly, Mabel, or any other live-in servant since the munitions factory had finally lured them away in 1916”, Frances’s friend Christine was living in a building run by a society offering flats to working women — all very revolutionary for a society that was emerging from the prudish and conservative shadows of Victorian England and the socio-economic devastation wreaked by World War I. In a recent interview with The Independent, Sarah Waters acknowledges paying attention to women’s secret lives and history. ( The Independent, 6 September, 2014. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/sarah-waters-interview-i-pay-attention-to-womens-secret-history-and-lives-9715463.html ) In the same interview, Sarah Waters admits that writing about a lesbian relationship was a conscious decision since she “missed writing about love”.  This novel is a good example of historical fiction meticulously researched, another fact the author acknowledges. As the news about her new book filters through social media platforms, conversations are erupting on various platforms focused upon the well-written sex scenes that Sarah Waters is known for writing. In The Paying Guests she has apparently surpassed herself for creating scenes “electric with passion”. ( I use the word “apparently” advisedly, since this is the first book of Sarah Waters I have read.)

For period fiction written by contemporary authors to focus upon lesbian relationships, a murder mystery and engagement with the law is not new at all. Most notably Emma Donaghue’s novels especially Frog Music released earlier this year tackle similar issues raised in The Paying Guests. Ultimately it is the treatment of the story, the atmosphere created, the plot development and an understanding of the period where the writer’s strengths lie. While comparing these two novels — The Paying Guests and Frog Music — it is evident that the pace of storytelling and settings are very different, but The Paying Guests requires huge dollops of patience to read and appreciate.

Sarah Waters The Paying Guests Virago Press, London, 2014. (Distributed by Hachette India) Pb. pp. 580. Rs. 599

Guest post: Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History, Sami Ahmad Khan

Guest post: Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History, Sami Ahmad Khan

Sami Ahmad Khan( On 21 February 2014, during the World Book Fair, New Delhi, Sami Ahmad Khan was in conversation with thriller writer Aroon Raman and Sangeeta Bahadur. Aroon Raman had just released his latest novel, a historical thriller – The Treasure of Kafoor and Sangeeta Bahadur had published Jaal.  Both the authors are published by PanMacmillan India. Here is an account of the event sent by Sami Khan. ) 

Historicizing Myths, Mythologizing History

We’re a nation built around myths. Or maybe we’re just a myth built around a nation. Whatever the case may be, can we ascribe historicity to myths and study such mythologies as running parallel to certain socio-historical processes spawned by the material realities of their times? More importantly, where does mythology end and where does history begin?Aroon Raman

Similar questions raged in my mind as I strode towards the Authors’ Corner at Hall 10-11 of Pragati Maidan on February 21, 2014. The Delhi World Book Fair 2014 was in full swing and I was moderating a session scheduled to begin at 2.30 pm. Wading past Siren-esque stalls (that featured books on sale) and Charybdian crowds (replete with delightfully engrossed bookworms), I odysseyed to my destination to converse with two brilliant minds and wonderful writers – Sangeeta Bahadur and Aroon Raman.

I knew Aroon Raman from before, having read him earlier with much gusto. Raman had obtained his masters degree from JNU, Delhi, an MBA from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and was now an entrepreneur based out of Bengaluru. The Shadow Throne was Aroon Raman’s debut – an electrifying thriller involving the R&AW, ISI and an India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. The Treasure of Kafur, his second published novel, was incidentally written first. A fast-paced, historical thriller set in Mughal India, the novel fictionalized the treasure of Malik Kafur being sought after by contemporary figures such as Akbar, Rana Pratap, and (quasi-historical?) characters such as Asaf Baig (of Khandesh) to wage war for the control of Hindustan.

Sangeeta BahadurOn the other hand, it was the first time I was going to meet Sangeeta Bahadur, writer of Jaal and Vikraal. I was told she had graduated from Sophia College (Mumbai), an institution I admire a lot. Bahadur is an Indian Foreign Service officer who is currently posted as the Director of the Nehru Centre, London.  If Raman writes about politics, coming-of-age, and action, Bahadur too weaves a deep, engrossing web of inner conflict – this one around mythological fiction. She utilizes Indian spirituality and metaphysics, fuses them with the world created by her own mind, and comes up with a whole new mythos. Bahadur’s Jaal is the first of a trilogy – set in a syncretic, eclectic past where a young boy must train himself to become the ultimate fighting machine to combat the forces of Maya, the novel is a more spiritual version of LOTR set in a land that resembles India. A sequel called Vikraal will be out soon.

How do we comprehend, decode, and analyze mythological and historical fiction written by people from such varied backgrounds and visions? As Bruce Lincoln defines myth as “ideology in narrative form,” one of the first questions I asked Bahadur and Raman was how mythology and history interacted in their minds and in their texts – and if they chose their respective genres to enable them to fuse their narrative styles with the content, i.e. what (and how) they wanted to say.

Their answers were complementary to each other (an aspect that continued throughout the duration of the conversation) – both made me realize something I had so criminally overlooked – writers make genres, genres do not make writers. Both regarded writing as an act of unbridled creation – unfettered by the limitations of any genre. Yes, they wrote about mythology and history, but as fiction writers, they perceived both as two sides of the same coin. Both clarified that rather than being true to the narrative conventions of any genre, culture or style, they rather wanted to be true to the reader and to themselves. The end-result, for both Bahadur and Raman, was to use any template close to them that could give the readers a fast-paced, layered and interesting narrative for the reader.

I then raised the question of spirituality – both Bahadur and Raman draw upon Indian classical traditions. While Bahadur’s primary lens to synthesize different mythologies and traditions and further the plot is primarily aastik in its outlook, advaita-vedanta in particular (which becomes explicit at times), Raman has his implicit groundings in the naastik traditions of Buddhism. Both Jaal and Kafur have a dense spiritual/philosophical subtext that not only drives the plot further but also seeks to define why characters do what they do. It is their belief in fixed ideological structures that make these characters come alive – and shapes their behavioral patterns.

For individual questions, I asked Aroon Raman why his second book was markedly different from his first, and why he chose to jump across genres despite the commercial success of his debut venture. The Shadow Throne is a contemporary military/political thriller, whereas The Treasure of Kafur is historical fiction. Apart from reiterating that genres do not matter for a creator, and that thoughts and ideas rarely come to writers filtered and censored via the sieve of pre-existing notions and genres, Raman made me realize that the end-goal was to write a book that was fun to read, and that a writer should concern himself with creating without worrying about genre pigeonholing – and that the two books weren’t that different after all. Both his books have a central character caught in hostile surroundings and his constant striving to prevent evil from triumphing – the temporal dislocation does little to blunt this action-oriented narrative.

I then asked Bahadur that while Raman may write about ISI and RAW, she, as a serving government officer, cannot. So was this mythological fiction, replete with betrayals, realpolitik, machtpolitik, coups, warring kingdoms and political federations, actually a political allegory meant for the contemporary times? In response, while Bahadur graciously acknowledged that although historicity did shape some parts of Jaal, the novel was in no way a political allegory. She was not merely utilizing an already established ideological narrative, but creating a whole new ideating philosophy, politics, sociology and world in her head.

The two also talked about how, as writers, both were aware of the social implications of the outlooks of their characters. Raman talked about spending time in Tihar as a student-activist (and a member of the JNU Students’ Union) almost 30 years ago – but then accepted that now he was a capitalist entrepreneur, though that did not render him politically unconscious or reactionary. His characters, to prove a point, are strongly feminist, anti-casteist, pro-hoi polloi, progressive, and anti-parochial – people who speak up for the masses. Bahadur also has some similar characters who seek unity in diversity (rather than differences), and raise their voices against injustices and hegemony. This forms the basis for a layered characterization by both the writers.

The session concluded with both Sangeeta Bahadur and Aroon Raman giving the audience some tips about writing fiction. They urged budding writers to break free from the shackles of form and classification – and just go write a good story that was fun to read and did not spoon feed the reader what the writer thought.

It was great talking to these two thinkers – they just proved that to write one sentence, one must think an hour at least! Lastly, all this is based on my understanding on what the writers said and meant, not to mention a failing short-term memory – it may not wholly coincide with what they actually meant, but I hope I’ve been able to be true to their ideas.

I look forward to more such opportunities.

 Sami Ahmad Khan read Literature at Hindu College, Delhi University, completed his master’s in English at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and then went to the University of Iowa, USA, on a Fulbright grant. Currently, Sami teaches at IIT-Delhi, apart from being a Doctoral Candidate at JNU, where he is working on Techno-culture Studies. He has engaged in theater, writing, and teaching. His debut thriller Red Jihad won the “Muse India Young Writer (Runner-Up) Award” at the Hyderabad Literary Festival 2013 and Ministry of Human Resource Development/NBT’s “National Debut Youth Fiction Award – Excellence in Youth Fiction Writing” at the Delhi World Book Fair 2013. He is now working on a SF sequel to Red Jihad. He can be reached at sakhan1607@gmail.com

( On Sunday, 24 August 2014, Sheila Kumar wrote a lovely review of the novel in the Hindu Literary Review –  http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/more-than-just-a-treasure-hunt/article6344815.ece . On 26 August 2014, Aroon Raman will be in conversation with Sumeet Shetty at Literati, SAP Labs Book Club, Bangalore. http://bit.ly/1pazgf4 )

26 August 2014

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

the-miniaturist-978144725089001The Miniaturist is Jessie Burton’s debut novel. It is set in seventeenth century Amsterdam. It is a tale about the young bride Nella Oortman, wife of the illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. She is given a wedding gift of a replica of their home which is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist. Nella tries on many occasions to meet the miniaturist but fails, only catches fleeting glimpses of the woman artisan — Petronella Windelbreke. Nella is mystified and at times terrified by how accurately the miniaturist depicts events in the Brandt household. She seems to be privy to secrets which even the family members are oblivious of. 

This is a novel that purports to be historical fiction but is not exactly one. It has the details and atmosphere of seventeenth century Holland, but for all purposes of storytelling it caters primarily to a modern reader. Some of the issues are about homosexuality–considered to be a criminal offence; out-of-wedlock mother; interracial alliances; women being the head of the household or not; emancipation of women etc.
Jessie Burton was inspired to write this novel after a weekend visit to the Rijk Museum where she spotted Petronella Oortiman’s miniature doll house. ( Here is more: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/works-of-art/dolls-houses and http://www.themagicaldollhouseblog.com/petronella-oortman/)  Soon thereafter she attended a creative writing course run by a literary agency. All this while she , was a struggling actress. So what she has achieved is a balance between an unusual story, creating the atmosphere, tackling something new, making it relevant to a modern audience and through it all kept her eye on strong storytelling. Even so this novel was five years in the making. Now it seems to be giving even Ms. Rowling a run for the top slot of bestseller lists of Europe. The Silkworm has slid below The Miniaturist on Booksellers charts within days of it being released.
01-11-2001; rgb 19-02-2007For many struggling writers, Jessie Burton’s dream run is like a fairy tale. She sold the novel for a six-figure deal to Picador. It has already been sold in over 30 countries and now a film option is being considered as well.

Oh well! It is a book meant to be read and enjoyed. It certainly is!

PS It has an incredibly stunning cover. Here is a wee bit more about how it was designed. — http://www.picador.com/blog/february-2014/the-miniaturist-book-cover-design

Jessie Burton The Miniaturist Picador, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 450 Rs. 599 

8 August 2014 

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

( My interview with Emma Donoghue was published in the Hindu Literary Review online edition yesterday. 7 June 2014. An edited version has been published in today’s print edition. 8 June 2014. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-spirit-of-fiction/article6092640.ece I am c&p the entire text below. ) 

Author Emma Donoghue.

Special ArrangementAuthor Emma Donoghue.

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is an award-winning writer of fiction, drama and literary history. She did a PhD in eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge University. Her books include fiction both historical ( Frog Music, Astray, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) and contemporary ( Stir-fry, Hood, Touchy Subjects, Landing, and the international bestseller Room). These days she lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two children. She is currently working on the screenplay of Room ( which will be filmed in this autumn) and her first children’s book. For more information, please go to www.emmadonoghue.com . Excerpts from an interview: 

Why do you like writing historical fiction?

Let me reverse that question: why do so many writers limit themselves to the historical era they were born in, when they probably wouldn’t dream of restricting their fiction to the place in the world where they live?

How long do you spend on research before you begin writing?

Hard to quantify, because I get ideas for moments, scenes, or even entire subplots of the novel while I’m in the middle of doing the research, so by the time I start actually drafting, I have already done much of the imaginative work of writing. Then I go back and do more research during the writing process as questions arise. So I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on each, but I would say that my historical novels probably take a bit more time to write than my contemporary ones.

How did you discover the subject of Frog Music?

In somebody else’s book: I found a page on the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’Wild Women, a marvellous compendium of American female rule-breakers of the nineteenth century.

When do you stop the research and begin writing the story?

For me there’s no hard line between the research and the story-making, because I approach the research in a spirit of fiction, meaning that at every point I’m looking for the unusual, the eye-catching, the strange and the atmospheric, rather than as a historian might, trying to generalise about the times.

How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel?

Hard to say, because my projects overlap, to keep my working life varied. I got the idea for Frog Music about 15 years ago, but I’d guess that I spent about three solid years on it. If its historical fiction, I do spend time on checking facts once the story is completed. I keep checking things even while I’m proofreading.

Do you have a fondness for nineteenth century events? All though Astray had short stories set earlier.

Yes, my range (if you include my first collection of fact-inspired fictions, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) has been from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. But it is true that the nineteenth century is an appealing one for me because it’s close enough to be highly relevant to our own society, but far enough back to be exotic.

Jenny Bonnet, the cross-dresser, is unusual in nineteenth century San Francisco, but she resonates with readers of the twenty-first century for the kind of debates about sexuality in society. The topic certainly will with Indian readers, especially after the recent Supreme Court judgement. Was it a conscious decision to set this story as a response to contemporary events?

No, I don’t write historical fiction as a commentary on today (because that would be a perversely indirect way to comment on modern events!) but I find that it always does shed an interesting light on the now, especially because so many things that matter to us today (women’s rights, say, or anti-racism, or democracy) have their origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

The details about the baby farms/orphanages are horrifying. Did it require a lot of research?

Yes; I had to work for a long time to find out what it cost to farm out your baby, how bad these places were compared with the other available childcare options, etc. The key detail was when I found one farm that had a separate room for the babies who were ‘paid up’, meaning handed over with a lump sum, and a silent expectation that they would not survive. For the details of how it might stunt a child to live in such an institution, I looked at modern evidence about, say, children in Romanian orphanages. The great historical fiction writer Mary Renault once said that history is horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that almost everything that happened in the past can be found happening somewhere in the world today.

Blanche Beunon’s character, being a whore and on the margins of society, has greater social mobility than most people. Yet it is her aspect as a mother that comes out very well. Frog Music is a comment on how a mother balances parenting and being a working woman — a conundrum that exists even in the twenty-first century. Did this development in the story occur to you consciously?

I was conscious of it, yes, but surprised when I first found the book moving that way. I had thought I was more or less done with the subject of motherhood after Room (both the novel, and the screenplay which I’ve been working on since the novel was published), but Blanche’s reference at Jenny’s inquest to her missing baby really haunted me. And once I’d decided to let Blanche narrate the whole story, it seemed irresistible to make the plot a sort of double hunt, for Jenny’s killer and Blanche’s child (and for her own moribund motherhood).

Why did you choose to make the protagonist ex-circus performers? Were circuses popular in nineteenth century America?

They were, but here I was drawing on fact: when I finally found Blanche (under her real name, Adele Beunon) and Arthur on a ship’s passenger list, they gave their jobs as bareback rider and acrobat respectively. I thought circus was a great background for them anyway: so cosmopolitan, bohemian, and literally risky.

Why did you include a glossary of French words and expressions used in the novel? It is an aspect that is fast disappearing from literature published in the Indian sub-continent.

As recent immigrants, Blanche and Arthur — I felt — would be very likely to use at least some French between themselves, and I liked the additional flavour — the almost untranslatable cultural concepts — that the French gave. But I don’t want to make the reader who knows no French feel left out. Of course I tried to make each sentence so that you could more or less guess what the French meant — an insult, say, or an endearment — but for the reader who likes to be sure, I wanted to offer the glossary. All the extras at the end (glossary, author’s note, song notes) can be skipped, but many readers do like to have those resources.

Would you consider Frog Music also as a kind of immigrant literature? It gives details of the French, Chinese and Irish lifestyles, the challenges including the rioting they faced upon moving to America.

Definitely. It goes with my recent collection Astray (which is all about immigrants to or migrants within North America) and my contemporary novel Landing which is about a half-Indian, all-Irish flight attendant who moves to Canada.

Do you prefer to write in longhand or directly at the computer?

I’m so dependent on software that I really doubt I could write great epics on dried leaves, come the apocalypse! I use a great program that allows me to write each scene in its own little file and them move the pieces around freely.

Where did you find much of the musical references in the novel as well as compiled in your playlist (http://8tracks.com/emmadonoghue/frog-music)? Does it continue to be available today?

I did things like looking up lists of 1870s, 1860s, 1850s songs on Wikipedia, reading books of folk songs, searching listings of spirituals, ballads, and bawdy songs. What was really tricky was finding versions of the lyrics (and the tunes, for using in the audiobook) that were definitely published before 1923, to ensure that they were out-of-copyright. Folk songs are usually passed on in a hazy spirit of ‘this is an old song’, without references, so it was a really hard slog to find their earliest published versions. But that gave me such interesting data about each song’s history (for instance, the fact that the famous Negro Spiritual ‘City Called Heaven’ turned out to be adapted from a white gospel song, or the poignant Irish ballad ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is actually an English music-hall satire) that I ended up including detailed notes on them too. I never end up resenting the time I’ve spent on research!