novel Posts

Interview with Siddhartha Sarma: “I have found no greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story”

Siddhartha Sarma is a journalist, writer and historian. He has covered insurgency, crime and law in the Northeast and other parts of the country and written for newspapers and magazines as an investigative journalist. His debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic India, 2009), received the Sahitya Akademi Award for children’s literature in English in 2011 and the Crossword Book Award in 2010. His second novel, Year of the Weeds (Duckbill, 2018) is based on the land rights agitation in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha. His latest published work, Carpenters and Kings (Penguin Random House India, 2019) is a history of Western Christianity in India.

  1. Why and how did you get into writing? Where do you find your stories? How long does it take from inception to completion?

A.:  When I was seven, my school was bringing out a commemorative magazine to celebrate an anniversary. I was told anybody could contribute anything they liked for it, so I wrote an approximately 400-word story based on real events. A bit of a tragedy. They printed the story with no edits on the first page, with my name on it. But what I remember now and in the intervening years is not the feeling of seeing my name in print, or of reading my story in printed form, but the joy of writing it, the process of slowly putting things together in my head and of banging it out, over several hours, on my father’s old typewriter, literally sitting on his desk because I was too short to type from the chair. The fear of making a typo (which is such a frustrating experience on a typewriter, unlike on a computer where a typing error is merely an inconvenience). I have found no greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story, of entering or discovering a world, and of narrating it for myself and for any reader I might find. That is how I began writing, and what I still try to do.

I began my career in journalism as a reporter. It is a much-repeated saying in the newsroom that a good reporter never runs out of story ideas. I have never had a problem thinking up story ideas. The problem is deciding which are worth taking up. One does not have this luxury of choice as a reporter, but a writer has to be very selective about which idea she will devote her time and energies to. If my time as a journalist has helped me as a writer in any manner, it is in two: I can be objective in deciding which stories to write and which to shelve, temporarily or permanently. And second: I can be objective in editing my own work. One of the criteria I have for deciding on a story is whether I have the competence to write it. There are many genres that I have a bit of an interest in, but I know I might not be able to execute a story in them very well. Such as fantasy or science fiction.

The complete arc from story idea to research to writing and editing and the final draft depends on the length of the work, its complexity, scope of research and treatment. My first novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, took me a year and half to research and seven months to write. My newest non-fiction book, Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India took up nine years of research and eight months of writing. So it varies. But I do seem to spend more time thinking about a story than in actually writing it.

2. Is it only the long form of a novel that appeals to you? Would you ever consider other structures such as short stories or a series arc?

A.: My first work published in a book was a short story, in a humour anthology by Scholastic. Some other commissioned short stories have also been published. But, yes, I find the novel’s longer form more suitable for the kind of stories I have to tell. I have not yet thought of a series of books, although I can’t rule it out in the future. A standalone novel, however, suits the way I want to tell a story for one major reason. While working on a story, I spend a lot of time building the narrative arcs of individual characters. I go back in time, and also forward, into their futures. I create their backgrounds and populate it with other characters and circumstances. Most of these never get written in the final novel, but they do exist. So for me writing a novel is like baking a whole cake and cutting out just a slice of it for publishing. Or creating a tapestry and (again) cutting a slice of it. A short story might give me a much smaller, possibly unsatisfactory slice, while a series might need tough decisions about how many slices to make, or from which part of the cake or tapestry. So far, novels have worked for me.  

3. How much research do you delve into before you begin writing a book? How do you organise your notes? What is your writing routine?

A.: Researching for a book is among the most interesting parts of the writing process for me. Over time, I think I have become a bit more organized in my methodology. The Grasshopper’s Run caused me a lot of anxiety during the research process because I was not accounting for the volume of material I would end up having. For instance, I asked my sources for visual material to base my description of events and topography on, from the China-Burma-India theatre of World War II. I asked for un-curated photographs. I received some 1,800 photos, and most were directly relevant to my research. I had to sift through about 6,000 pages of correspondence and records from that theatre. For Carpenters and Kings, I examined 46 medieval and ancient manuscripts and translated seven of them from Latin because the previous translations were themselves dated. So gathering material is not a problem, particularly in these times. The more difficult part is knowing when to stop researching, or learning to leave out the peripheral or marginally relevant. Otherwise every book becomes a doctoral thesis.

I begin with a basic idea about the plot, in case of non-fiction the general outline of my argument. The notes I take from my research are based on their direct relation to this bare plot or argument. The most directly connected bits of evidence or material gets the highest weightage. Additionally, for fiction, any bit of non-fictional material which can help flesh out a character’s story arc or background (that part of the background which will get written rather than get left on the cutting room floor) also gets priority.

I have no particular routine. My best time is late in the night, but the slow cooking that happens before the physical act of writing can happen at any other time during the day.  

4. How did you decide to write historical fiction set in Nagaland during the Japanese invasion in WWII? And why write it for young adults?

A.: I wanted to base my first novel in the Northeast, as a mark of respect for my homeland. I thought a coming-of-age story during a conflict might work, because I had been asked to write a young adult novel by Sayoni Basu, then editor of Scholastic India. I did not want to base the story during any of the region’s numerous insurgencies, although I have covered them, because the political aspects of those insurgencies were too complex for a novel of the size I had in mind. That left the 1962 war and WWII. The actual fighting in 1962 took place in rather remote places where the human interest aspect did not play out much. WWII was, for my purposes, more suitable.

5. Did winning the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book for your debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run apart from pleasantly surprising you also put undue pressure on you to excel with your next book?

A.: ‘Pleasant surprise’ is very appropriate. I was surprised and gratified that readers and people who know a lot about children’s and YA literature liked the novel. It was very encouraging, and I met some noted writers afterwards and received valuable advice on writing from them. It was a very pleasant experience.

There has been no pressure. I have always been fortunate in the publishers and editors I have worked with. I just try to work on each story on its own merits, and don’t think much about expectations. The only expectation I have from myself is to write, at each stage, a better story than I have written before. If that happens, I am content. Ultimately, I have to write stories that I would like to read, and re-read.

6. Your second young adult novel, Year of the Weeds, is written nearly a decade later. The plot of the novel is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought mining company Vedanta’s attempts to exploit their land and emerged victorious. How do you achieve this fine balance between journalistic writing and creating fiction for young adult readers?

A.: Year of the Weeds is indeed based on the Niyamgiri movement and was inspired by it, although the novel ended up containing elements from other similar peoples’ movements, while the workings of the government and companies is based on what I have seen across the country as a reporter. I follow peoples’ movements and Niyamgiri was inspirational and unexpected, so I wanted to commemorate it, even though I suspect it was just a provisional victory. While writing it, I was conscious that my treatment had to be that of a YA novel. However, I have also tried to include in it ideas and insights I have had as a journalist covering different aspects of India, such as how most Indians in the hinterland live, how the government interacts and often exploits or victimizes them, and what the true face of development is in these parts of the country. So, while it remained a YA novel throughout, with the frame of reference being mostly that of the two YA protagonists Korok and Anchita, I also tried to make sure these insights and ideas were properly written into the plot.

Around the time that I began researching for The Grasshopper’s Run, I realised I could not continue as a reporter and simultaneously as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I was increasingly not content with the limitations (as I saw it) of a reporter, at least in terms of autonomy. I wanted to tell stories which could not be accommodated within my work as a reporter. So I shifted to the desk and have worked as an editor ever since, while writing books. I chose writing at the expense of reporting. I have not regretted it.

7. You have an enthusiastic passion for the Crusades and yet your first narrative nonfiction was Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India. Why?

A.: I have studied the Crusades, and my thesis for an M Litt degree was on strategy during the Later Crusades. I find the Crusades very significant in understanding world history in general and European history in particular, because those conflicts sit at the centre of a wide range of connected events, including the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Age of Exploration.

There is a number of good, accessible and recent works on the Crusades by scholars from the West, so I did not intend to write a work of my own, which would not have made any significant contribution to the subject. However, something interesting happened during my research for the thesis, which was a study of three proposals for crusades by scholars in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. One of these scholars, a Dominican monk, wanted to launch a crusade from India. My supervisor suggested that I could refer to a secondary source on what these Europeans were doing in India in the period before the Age of Exploration. We discovered that there was no work which explained the political history of Western Christianity in India in the pre-colonial period. In December 2017, I realized I had enough material for a book which dealt with this subject, so I wrote Carpenters and Kings. And yes, I did include a brief history of the Crusades in it, and one of the chapters is about the Dominican who wanted a crusade from India, because all these are connected events. What was the Dominican doing in India? Also, much later, what was Vasco da Gama doing here? The answer to both questions is the Crusades.

8. You write young adult literature, travelogues and non-fiction. This is a diverse range of genres. How did this happen?

A.: Each book happened in a specific context and for unique reasons. The Grasshopper’s Run was meant to be a YA novel. While researching it, I travelled in the Northeast and Myanmar, and afterwards wrote a series of emails describing my travels, which I sent to friends. These were read by a publisher, who asked me to expand them into a travelogue, from which East of the Sun (Tranquebar, 2010) happened. Meanwhile, I wrote two books for the popular 103 series by Scholastic, one on great travellers I admire and the other on historical mysteries. And then I wrote Year of the Weeds followed by Carpenters and Kings. I guess one reason why this is an eclectic mix is I follow a story to its natural place and write it accordingly. So we have a situation where, although history is what I am academically suited to writing about, Year of the Weeds is contemporary political fiction. I am comfortable with chasing a story wherever and to whichever genre it leads. I think the only concern for a writer should be whether the story is told well or not. Having said that, I am still learning, so if I discover that I should stick to specific genres, I shall do that.

9. Do the methodologies of research and writing for young adult literature and narrative nonfiction vary?

A.: It is possible that some researchers might have different research methodologies depending on what genre they are planning to write in. I do not have different methodologies. I choose a subject, start reading about it, examine primary and secondary sources, select those sources which are suitable for the story I have in mind, and then sift through the material I obtain.

There are certainly differences in writing YA fiction and narrative nonfiction for general readers, including tone, scope, complexity of ideas, presentation of this complexity. In some ways, like channelling all the research into suitable concepts, narrative nonfiction is more challenging. In several other ways, like writing in a manner which holds the reader’s attention, and creating believable characters and plots, YA literature has its own set of challenges. Both are very rewarding genres to write in.

10. What are the kinds of books you like to read? Any favourites?

A.: I have followed several genres over the years, although now because of demands on my time I have to limit myself to those genres which I have consistently read. Of these, apart from literary fiction, I seem to have read crime and espionage fiction fairly consistently. Fantasy, which I was reading a lot of till some years ago, seems to have dropped off. I do not know if this is a temporary phase.

11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced you?

A.: These are among the writers I have liked almost consistently. In literary fiction: Peter Carey, JM Coetzee, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Nelson Algren, John Steinbeck. In crime: Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Henning Mankell, Elmore Leonard, PD James, Janwillem van de Wetering. In espionage: John le Carre, John Buchan, Len Deighton.

12. What next? 

A.: Perhaps a dark story. One of the problems with India after 2014 has been we have been affected by the doings of the ideology and the people in power on a daily, personal level. On a daily, personal level, one finds it increasingly difficult to feel joy in most things, or to happily coast along choosing stories to read or tell at a leisurely, whimsical pace. I would have liked to write a story I was working on in 2013, but that will have to wait for some time. At the moment, we need stories that deal with or are related to the situation we have in India, or which go some way towards explaining things. We can’t ignore that. So, perhaps something dark, something angry.

17 August 2019

Book Post 37: 20 – 25 May 2019

Book Post 37 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks.

27 May 2019

Book Post 35: 21 April – 19 May 2019 / Trade list

Book Post 35 is being uploaded after a month. It focuses on the trade list. This include some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks.

20 May 2019

Book Post 26: 3 – 9 February 2019

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. In today’s Book Post 26 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought and are worth mentioning.

9 February 2019

On Dalit literature – recent publications

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir Ants Among Elephants and Baburao Bagul’s When I Hid My Caste are some of the recent publications of Dalit literature published.  Interestingly the writers come from different parts of India and different religions but because they share the same “caste” of being a Dalit, their experiences of life and anguish at the shocking social injustice they have witnessed is similar.

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir was launched in USA in 2017 to  great critical acclaim for being an unusual piece of writing documenting the horrors of Indian society even in contemporary India. Although Sujatha Gidla has been living in New York for many years and yet the searing pain at the injustices faced at being an “untouchable” or a Dalit in India are unforgettable. Her memoir about her family who despite being Christians faced social ostracism. Once she left for America she was eager to know more about her origins and began to record the testimonies of her family particularly her uncle Satyam. There is an extremely powerful moment in the book when she quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after Indian Independence was achieved. ‘A short, chubby dark boy …had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?” It is a question that remains to be answered many decades after Independence was achieved. ( Read an extract published in the Literary Hub)

When I Hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul (translated by Jerry Pinto) is a collection of short stories that were previously published in the Marathi literary magazine Navyug. The editor of Navyug Shirish Pai “confesses in her introduction to the Marathi edition of the book that she used to experience joy mixed with fear in anticipation of a Bagul story. The joy came from knowing it would be a good piece of fiction; the fear came from not knowing what the content would be.” This collection of very powerful and unnerving short stories are disturbing to read in English that one cannot help but wonder how powerful must they be in Marathi where possibly even the dialects used are evident. Four stories stand out  — “Prisoner of Darkness”, “Streetwalker”, “Revolt” and “When I Hid My Caste” —- that hopefully will be anthologised in other volumes focused on Indian literature.

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir attracted worldwide acclaim quickly becoming of those “must read” books featuring on many reading lists. Undoubtedly it raises some very sharp issues that continue to plague Indian society where casteism unfortunately still prevails yet Ant Among Elephants is not half as gracefully written as some other notable Dalit memoirs. For instance  Y. B. Satyanarayana’s My Father Baliah, Bama’s Karukku or even  Daya Pawar’s Baluta. But of the books discussed so far the recently released When I Hid My Caste stands out for the grittiness of storytelling evident even in the English translation where interestingly the sub-castes of Dalits are mentioned. There are graphic details of the violence and the horror that the Dalits continue to experience. It is hard to distinguish reality from fiction for many of the stories included in the volume seem to resonate the news published regularly in the media about regular atrocities against Dalits.

These are books that are valuable additions to the landscape of Dalit literature that is fortunately becoming richer and richer with every passing year as newer translations or original writings in English are being made available for a larger audience.

Do read!

Buy Ants Among Elephants ( Print and Kindle

When I Hid My Caste ( Print and Kindle

My Father Baliah ( Print and Kindle

Karukku ( Print

Baluta ( Print and Kindle

“Chalk Man” by C. J. Tudor

C. J. Tudor’s debut Chalk Man is a thriller that begins promisingly well. It is sinister, fantastically atmospheric.The opening pages of the story are very well written with obvious care to the words selected. The opening scene is unforgettably creepy! Unfortunately as with most first books the energy spent in writing the first section of the novel dissipates fairly rapidly in the subsequent pages. C. J. Tudor’s author blurb reads “Her love of writing, especially the dark and macabre, started young. When her peers were reading Judy Blume, she was devouring Stephen King and James Herbert.” She got a dream debut with Stephen King endorsing her book.

Yet despite this extraordinarily generous blessing from legendary Stephen King Chalk Man does not quite hold together. Chalk Man holds promise but is not quite there as yet. Perhaps by her third novel C. J. Tudor will well and truly come into her own for she is undoubtedly a new writer to watch.

Having said that Chalk Man has been shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger 2018 Shortlist.

 

 

Nevertheless read it if you enjoy reading thrillers.

Buy it on Amazon and Kindle 

Sarah Moon’s “Sparrow”

And then there it is, our new, terrible silent routine. And to top it off, I have no birds and the world feels like a different kind of dark than it felt before. Mom isn’t perfect, but I miss her. I miss her picky neatness, I miss her bothering me about taking my nose out of a book and making a friend for once, I miss her getting on my case about my hair. I miss telling her about what I’m reading, what I’m thinking, asking her about work, listening to her carry on about Aunt Joan and whatever drama she’s gotten into. I miss her. There is a sadness I can’t shake, that’s not just from breakfast. There are no birds by the feeder. There aren’t pigeons cluttering the sidewalk as I go to school. I know, now, that last night’s dream was the last flight I’ll take. 

Sarah Moon‘s debut novel for young adults Sparrow is about a teenager of the same name who has a nervous breakdown. Sparrow is fourteen. She was whisked away to hospital from school after being discovered on the roof. Sparrow maintains she was bird watching as she has always been fascinated them fly. Sparrow lives with her mother, who is a single parent. Sparrow is named after the bird by her mother because she was “so small and brown, almost breakable, but so strong. Tiny but mighty…”. Few weeks later Sparrow is released in her mother’s care with the stipulation she takes her prescribed medication and visits a therapist regularly. So it is fixed that Sparrow attends regular sessions with Dr. Katz which are protected by doctor-patient confidentiality and even Sparrow’s mother cannot sit in upon the hour-long meetings. At first Sparrow refuses to speak to Dr. Katz but after weeks of therapy Sparrow begins to come around. It is probably listening to Dr. Katz playlist which begins to break the barriers for Sparrow. So much so she orders the very same songs/bands she heard during therapy for her listening pleasure at home. All through months of treatment and close questioning by her mother Sparrow is adamant that she was not trying to kill herself but just wanted to be with the birds. Probable reason for her being found alone on the roof ledge was she was devastated upon hearing of the tragic death of her favourite librarian, Mrs Wexler, in a traffic accident. Mrs. Wexler had been warm and welcoming to the shy and reserved Sparrow, encouraging the little girl to sit in the library any time she felt like it, read, participate in the book club etc. Mrs. Wexler offered the fragile little Sparrow a refuge from a world which constantly overwhelmed her.

Sparrow begins from the moment Sparrow is released from the hospital. She is portrayed as a very lonely girl who slowly opens out under Dr Katz’s patient guidance. By the end of the novel Sparrow finds the smallest steps like conversing with other girls of her age still a daunting task but at least she is doing it! It suddenly dawns upon her during the finale when she is running away from her responsibility that the feeling of being ready will never come. She has to muster courage. “I am not going to be ready. I’m going  to have to do this without being ready.” The ultimate epiphany is that the very same music that helped her in therapy is where she finally gets what she has been craving for — to fly away, for her limbs to go light. In fact Sarah Moon created her playlist for Sparrow on Spotify. In it are listed all the pieces of music referenced in the story.

Depression comes in many shades. With the recent suicides of two prominent people Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain within a week of each other has suddenly put the spotlight on mental health. These issues were always there and always discussed but the magnitude of this problem is unthinkable. To quote Dr Anirudh Kala, Clinical Director, Mind Plus:

Clinical depression is the commonest mental illness and it is true that life time prevalence of depression(which means how many people at one time or the other during their life time will suffer from it) is about 18-20% and many times it just comes out of the blue without any stress like any medical illness which Clinical Depression  actually is a medical illness. Both drugs and psychological treatment methods help and these help the best when used together.
However many well meaning but ill informed persons and some pop psychologists keep telling the person that the key to getting matter is to feel positive implying that the patient can if he willed to feel positive and get better, which is not true. You cannot will away your depression like you cannot will away your fever or your thyroid problem. And it makes the person worse because because he is told he can and he cant’. That is why the quip,’ Positivity is a scam.’
( In fact Dr Kala is also a debut author with his forthcoming collection of short stories The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness)

In Longreads essay “Surviving Depression” by Danielle Tcholakian written after the deaths of the Bourdain and Spade one of the sanest pieces of advice shared for those who battle depression every day as well as those around them is:

…the biggest lesson I’ve learned in wrestling with this illness for nearly 20 years. You can’t get out of it alone. It is also, confusingly, true that no one can save you — you’re always the one who has to do the work, who has to slog through the muddy darkness — but the eminently human kindnesses of friends and family along the way are what make the slog even remotely possible. And the truth is, you don’t have to do much of anything most of the time. Just be there. . . . Depression is a beast that swallows you whole and forces you to live inside it until you fight your way out — always with help, always with the others safely outside the beast who can pull you back. 

Writing about a teenager whose mental health is being questioned by everyone around her even though the teenager herself is under the impression that her reality makes perfect sense is probably not easy. Yet Sarah Moon’s undeniable wizardry is evident in her sensitive storytelling. Sparrow can be challenging even for an experienced author to create as it is a potential minefield if not handled well. It can fall apart easily. After Nathan Filer’s The Shock of Fall this is another great young adult novel to add to a school reading list. Perhaps to be read in conjunction with Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive which is not a young adult novel, nevertheless an excellent memoir about coming-to-terms with depression and easily accessible to readers of all ages.

Do read Sparrow. It is not always easy to read for it can be a challenge to read but it is time well spent.

Sarah Moon Sparrow Arthur A. Levine Books, An imprint of Scholastic Inc., New York, 2017. Hb. pp. 270 

21 June 2018

 

 

 

“First Person” by Richard Flanagan

My review of award winning Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s latest novel First Person was published in The Hindu on Sunday, 4 February 2018. I am also c&p the text below. 

Flanagan examines the art and artifice of autobiography writing

Kif Kehlmann, a writer struggling to write his first book, is approached by his childhood friend Ray to ghost-write a memoir of Ray’s boss. The said boss is Australia’s most notorious conman Siegfried Heidl or Ziggy, who had swindled banks of 700 million dollars. Ziggy is out on bail.

This gives his publisher, Gene Paley of Schlegel Trans-Pacific Publishing, about six weeks to commission a “page-turner” and have it published in time for the trial.

For this Ziggy is to be paid the handsome sum of $250,000 whereas Kif is offered $10,000, with no royalties, to be paid in equal instalments upon submission of the manuscript and the publication of the book. If Kif failed to deliver he would be paid only the termination fee of $500.

Faustian pact

The book is about Kif attempting to get Ziggy to share incidents from his life which he could then convert into a saleable story. This Faustian pact is a soul-sapping task for Kif as Ziggy is evasive or spins incredibly fantastic tales that are impossible to verify.

There are rumours of Ziggy’s links to the CIA in Laos in the early 1970s, of him being hired by NASA to establish a rocket facility in the southern hemisphere, being involved in the deposition of Australian Prime Minister Whitlam and his alleged role in the Allende-Chile affair. Kif’s description of Ziggy is apt: “Even working with him it was hard to see him. I remember he didn’t have much hair and he was of indeterminate age, small, slightly stout, [a] hobgoblin… little sorcerer… From the beginning he was always there and never to be found.”

The novel traces Kif’s growing frustration with his elusive subject. Kif had hoped that the book would be his ticket out of writerly poverty and perhaps fetch him a better publishing contract. While those possibilities seem to recede, his current publisher becomes more and more difficult.

Paley dispels any notion Kif may have had about artistic freedom by mentioning that in France ghost-writers are called Nègres or slaves.

With such limiting conditions, Kif sets to work, inventing where he cannot find facts. He delivers the page-turner within the stipulated time by “learning to distract from the truth by amusing the reader; to flatter the reader by playing on what they believed to be their virtues — their idea of goodness and decency — whilst leading them even further into an alien darkness that was the real world and, perhaps, the real them; and, on occasion, I feared, the real me.”

In the early 1990s, Richard Flanagan had been hired by the fraudster John Friedrich to ghost-write his autobiography in six weeks as he awaited trial for a 300 million dollar fraud. Friedrich died during those six weeks, as does Siegfried in the story.

Writing the self

Although First Person is promoted as a novel, it closely follows Flanagan’s experience of ghost-writing a novel for a criminal. It brings into focus much-debated issues of craftsmanship, of remaining true to one’s art or capitulating to market forces.

Flanagan also questions the premise of autobiography as an art form. Autobiographies are trending now as they go well with the general preference for reality shows and intimate confessions made in the first person.

For Flanagan, an autobiography is a literary selfie.

When Kif dwells on the fine balance between truth and storytelling in an autobiography, he too concludes that “a memoir was a series of selected lies”. Kif is a nom de plume, a short for “keefer” — a substance, especially cannabis, smoked to produce a drowsy state.

Isn’t the reader expected to suspend her disbelief while reading the novel?

First Person; Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus, ₹599

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: an Interview with Balli Kaur Jaswal

My interview with Balli Kaur Jaiswal on her new novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows has been published on Bookwitty today, 8 May 2017. The interview is reproduced below. 

Balli Kaur Jaswal is a Singaporean-based author of Indian origin. She is the author of Inheritance, which won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2014, and Sugarbread, a finalist for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is her third novel, for which film rights have been acquired. The novel’s premise is a young girl under the impression she will be leading a creative writing workshop at a gurdwara, or Sikh place of worship, in Southall, London. Instead, she is confronted with a room full of mostly bored Punjabi widows, some barely literate, who have enrolled in classes to pass the time. In an unexpected turn of events, the women discover they are able to narrate and share raunchy stories which are quickly transcribed by a young educated widow amongst their midst. Before anyone realizes it, the stories are being copied and circulated around London. Exploring the Punjabi Indian diaspora community via this vibrant group of women unearths a Pandora’s box of social mores. Despite its incredible title, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is a fascinating exploration of how women fight for their space and how feminism is lived within the community today. Balli Kaur Jaswal kindly answered the following questions for Bookwitty:

What sparked this story?

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with questions surrounding identity, migration, women’s sexuality and notions of honor in close-knit communities, among other things. Those themes are prevalent in all of my writing. About ten years ago, I spent some time in Southall, London’s Punjabi enclave and I knew it was the perfect setting for a novel which explored these ideas. I was particularly interested in how elderly traditional women experienced and expressed desire in these male-dominated communities, and I started questioning what would happen if I got those women together and gave them a space to talk freely about what they wanted.

Bringing together the concept of the Brothers, a young band of men who have been indoctrinated with a militant version of religion, along with the rising confidence of women in the local Sikh community is well done. Was it inspired by real events?

This is one of the strangest things about writing – you create a fictional character or scenario and then you see it play out in real life and you’re either thrilled or horrified. In my case, it’s the latter. I made up the Brothers, and through multiple drafts of the novel, I kept pausing and thinking, “Would Sikh men do this? Has the policing gotten this zealous and organized?” I decided that I could afford to ask the reader to take that leap with me. Then, a few months after the novel sold, I read reports in The Guardian about groups of British-born Sikh extremists in the UK protesting interfaith weddings in the gurdwara and intimidating the family members. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, it’s the Brothers.” It was heartening to read responses from moderate Sikhs in the UK decrying these acts and calling upon these people to focus on the important issues that need urgent addressing in the community, like domestic violence and alcoholism.

Linking the deaths of Maya, Karina and Gulshan to honor killings in the story is impressive. Was the subject difficult to research?

It did hit a raw nerve. I actually read about honor killings when I lived in the UK because around that time, Jasvinder Sanghera’s memoir Shame had just come out and there was a lot of talk about it. What she went through to escape a forced marriage, and the advocacy work that she so bravely pioneered, are remarkable and inspiring. A few years later, she published a memoir of her experiences in supporting honor crime victims. The stories were heartbreaking, and they served as a reminder that her experience was part of a wider problem that still affects girls in this generation. I think what struck me most was the idea that loyalty to the community overrode common sense and conscience. In one of her books, she recalled giving a speech in a Punjabi community in England about being a victim of forced marriage, and she mentioned her work in raising awareness about honor crimes. Afterwards, women lined up to meet her and a few whispered into her ear that they had stayed silent while rebellious daughters or nieces had been sent to India and “taken care of.” I thought about this moment a lot when I wrote this thread into the narrative – it made sense to me that once the women found their voice to discuss their suppressed desires, they’d also find the courage to speak up and act on bigger injustices.

Offering different perspectives of women—modern, young and confident (Nikki), young and conservative (Mindi), young widow (Sheena), distraught mother and lonely wife ( Kulwinder), is a fascinating journey in understanding how women operate in a conservative patriarchal structure. How did you achieve this? Did you need to work on separate character sketches or did they all come together as you were working on the novel?

The best way to create a character is to think about how others would react to them. Nikki was easy enough to conceive because she was a lot like me and so many women I knew in my early twenties. For Mindi, I wanted a character from that same generation to counter Nikki and introduce us to the conservative and traditional “going back to our roots” subset. Mindi calls out Nikki on her one-sided take on social justice and liberalism, and actually reveals herself as somebody with more autonomy than we initially think. Sheena was a sort of bridge from Nikki to the widows. Quite literally: she did some translating, but also she was young and accessible and they developed a friendship which brought Nikki into the fold. Kulwinder was the anathema to Nikki, and I enjoyed alternating their perspectives because it really felt like a cat and mouse game between the protagonist and the antagonist. I would say all of the characters pivoted off Nikki, which is how I usually write – start with the main character and work out who everybody else is and how they help or hinder her.

Your novel seems to represent the second wave of feminism very well. From its references to Fem Fighters and feistiness as displayed by Nikki to the more moderate opinions offered by her sister who focuses on exercising her choice, even if it veers towards conservatism. Even with the bibis, the band of widows, different shades of women exist but they represent a range of women’s voices that could be representative of feminist movements. Did this involve research or did it happen naturally as a consequence of living your feminism?

The research in this area was experiential and anecdotal. I didn’t read up on feminist theory while writing this novel—it was definitely more about the day-to-day applications and how they become complicated by other facts of life. I attended a liberal arts women’s college as an undergraduate which forever changed the way I looked at the world. I found that in the years after, and even now, I’m drawn to people who have that perspective as well. I’m a little surprised when I meet people (women and men) who flinch when you bring women’s rights to the conversation because it’s 2017; who is still regarding “feminist” as a taboo word?

The contrast between the open-mindedness of the widows compared to the more politically correct and careful opinions offered by the younger women such as Mindi is striking. Were these at any point modeled on real conversations and experiences you may have witnessed?

I really wanted to convey the idea that feminism comes in different forms and that one character can be conservative in some ways but quite progressive in others. We can also define modernity and independence depending on our contexts and what balance works for our circumstances. There isn’t a prescribed way to be a feminist; this is the major lesson for Nikki in the novel. Mindi and Nikki have differing definitions of “choice” and they exercise their independence in ways that put them at odds with each other. The widows come from an interesting perspective because they have been marginalized by patriarchal structures but they are also powerful matriarchal figures in a culture that respects and fears mothers. This is why there is room for them to speak up through these classes. I can’t pinpoint any actual conversations or experiences but I know that throughout my adult years, I have observed the various ways in which the same women who command respect are also silenced when their voices become too inconvenient for people in power.

A classic straitjacketing comment often used by women to ensure no one strays from the flock is “Women like us”. You use it sparingly but well in the novel. How well does the phrase sit with you?

I find it worrying when women buy into this narrative about how they should behave, but even more so when they start reprimanding other women. It’s an insidious way to maintain compliancy, and it has its roots in the larger policing carried out by men, especially in conservative communities. The fathers, brothers and uncles who want to keep “their women” in line are aware that there are spaces exclusively for women that they cannot enter, so certain self-appointed women do their bidding for them. “Women like us” sounds deceptively inclusive as well but it’s still about ownership – you can be part of the club but we’ll be charge of what you wear and how you speak.

Given how you show widows as women with real feelings and not individuals to be ignored, silenced and discarded, do you think that writing this novel will have repercussions on your personal life?

So far, I’ve received very positive responses from readers. The only repercussion I’ve faced is becoming a confessional for other people’s secrets, especially Indian women. They come to book signings and then they lean in and whisper these stories from their lives about their mothers doing special prayers after finding their birth control pills or their husbands being turned on by some of the saucier scenes in the novel. But I’m happy to listen!

What are the challenges that lie ahead for women’s movements?

Awareness of intersectionality is an issue. That’s the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to feminism and especially that women from certain backgrounds are vulnerable to other forms of oppression which influence and compound their experience of sexism as well. I’ve experienced this firsthand; people who rally for feminist causes being quite ignorant of the hurdles faced by women from minority races. I know some feminists who will say, “I didn’t get that promotion because I’m a woman” but if you said, “I didn’t get that promotion because I’m a woman and I’m a minority,” they are dismissive or they say you’re playing the race card. I’m not sure where this glitch in the system came from—where if someone mentions suffering from more than one kind of institutional oppression, instead of empathizing, people get indignant and protective over their own stake in the issue. I hope we can resolve it with more open and judgment-free conversations.

Do you think diaspora fiction needs to be pinned down in the “thingyness of things” such as illustrated by Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows and those of the Bengali women as seen in Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s novels to resonate effectively with readers across the world or would a more general form of literary fiction be equally powerful? 

Readers connect to novels that they can identify with, and I think the days of navel-gazing singular “who am I” narratives are probably over. That element exists in all diaspora fiction of course (and arguably in all literary fiction regardless of the audience or the cultural background of the characters) but it needs to converge with a larger narrative. I think it’s an exciting time for diaspora fiction because readers want to be challenged and they’re open to nuance. Some exoticism still exists but readers have a more savvy experience of other worlds now.

Who are the writers and other creative people who have influenced your writing? 

The list keeps growing but a very early influence was Judy Blume because she told those stories that we needed to know. Like most people who grew up with her novels, I felt as if there was finally an adult in my corner, somebody who understood and didn’t judge the confusion of growing up. A number of writers exploring the migrant experience in the UK have shaped my perspective as well – Andrea Levy, Nikita Lalwani, Zadie Smith, Sathnam Sanghera and Meera Syal to name a few.

Balli Kaur Jaiswal Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows HarperCollins 

8 May 2017 

Meg Rosoff, “Jonathan Unleashed”

Award-winning young adult writer Meg Rosoff is a brilliant writer. No wonder she has been awarded the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award ( ALMA) this year or what is fondly referred to as the Nobel Prize for Children’s Literature, given its whoppingly delicious prize money of £430,000. It is given to an author for their body of work. ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/05/meg-rosoff-wins-astrid-lindgren-memorial-award-how-i-live-now ) What is particularly satisfying is that such a passionately ferocious storyteller is conferred the award for her work in young adult literature within weeks of the publication of her first adult trade novel, Jonathan Unleashed.

Jonathan Unleashed is about Jonathan Trefoil, in his twenties, living in New York, working in an advertising firm that he does not particularly relish but the saving grace in his life are the two dogs he is babysitting. Dante and Sissy belong to Jonathan’s brother who has had to relocate to Dubai for a job. Thrown into this mix are his girlfriend who does not particularly care for the menagerie, a vet and old school friend/colleague. His girlfriend persuades him to get married online since her magazine will sponsor it. He has a breakdown with the pressures of work and a love-life that is nerve-wracking — Jonathan has a better sleep at night cuddled up in bed with Sissy, the cocker spaniel, than his girlfriend! It is a Meg Rosoffromance novel with the rawness and honesty of young adult writing and at a quick pace that is never dull to read. Meg Rosoff gets the various emotions of dogs ever so well. Not surprising given her love for the four-legged beasts. The relationship between humans and dogs is superbly executed and can only be written by one who has lived and observed dogs closely. Jonathan Unleashed is hilarious and impossible to put down.

Read it.

Meg Rosoff Jonathan Unleashed Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp.280 Rs 499 

18 April 2016