Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Thanks Len, for the questions. They deserve in-depth answers. I will try my best.

You write not only fiction for adults, but also non-fiction and books for children. Your most recent work (I think) is a book describing the experiences of the survivors of the terrible tragedy at Bhopal. Which type of writing do you get most satisfaction from?

Yes, I have tried my hand at everything and found publishers in all three areas of writing, which is atrangely satisfying. If I have to say which has remained an abiding interest, I am almost hesitant to choose. I began writing for children in 1998 with a work of non-fiction based on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. It was an unlikely topic, but once I plunged into research I knew I was going to return to it some day. Since I was dealing with a man-made tragedy that impacted the lives of people I was collecting stories or oral narratives. It drew me to fiction writing, and all through the year 2000 to 2005, I wrote novels and short stories for both children and adults. From 2005-2008 I was on a fellowship in a research institute to work on oral history of women survivors of the Bhopal disaster. My research findings resulted in an academic book that was published last year. Now I am re-working on a novel and a compendium of shortstories after feedback from the editor of Picador (India), giving final touches to an article that will be part of an academic book on Fieldwork and Ethnographic Research from Oxford University Press (India) and writing a short story for a children's anthology to be brought out by Scholastic (India). Clearly, my writings over-lap, and I have the satisfaction of saying that I have dug my roots deep in all three areas of writing!

Do you feel that your non-fiction work impacts on how you write fiction – and indeed vice versa?

My inspiration is strictly through non-fiction; I begin with issues and then choose the form. Usually my writing and research happens simultaneously and my ideas are polemical and philosophical in nature and my characters embody ideas. My Picador editor puts it rather shrewdly. She says, "You are an instinctive story teller, but you never leave your characters alone! Fiction writing has very different rules from writing non-fiction. Once you have let your characters live their own lives, come back to me!" At the moment, I have brought my characters home and they are leading an independent life, which I am dutifully transcribing. I try to be disengaged and do most of my readings on politics, third world problems...and so on...

Yes, fiction impacts my scholarly writing. I am always lapsing into the anecdotal; I want the layman to understand what I am writing. I do not like the idea of my books merely circulating in university libraries and read by fellow academics. Oral history takes me to people's voices and each of the women I have interviewed in Surviving Bhopal...are as quizzical and finely etched as any of my fictional characters.

One further point that intrigues me is this: how does it feel to be writing in English in India today? Does English-language writing in India feel well-connected to the rest of the English-speaking world – and what is its place within contemporary Indian literature? And finally (of course) what are you working on at the moment and when can we buy it?

This is the most difficult part. Yes, I write in the colonial language and like most Indians I am well-versed in my mother tongue, Bengali, and the national language, Hindi, but I have never tried my hand at writing in any one of them. So in India my readership is limited to the urban, city-centric and elite readership. Happily for me, the Bhopal book for children has been translated into Malayalam and Hindi, so it is now read and recognised more widely. Writing in English catapults you into the international scenario, gets you more reviews, but till you win big awards, gives you less sales and visibility. But since India is seen as a potential market by publishers, an Indian writing in English has the added advantage of drawing the attention of major publishers. To the more political question of whether I write with an western audience in mind, my honest answer is yes and no. I have naturalised English and made it part of my post-colonial and indigeneous cultural heritage, but my novels have a local setting, my characters think and speak the Indian dialect and are very rooted in our sensibility and way of living.

For Aliya: You are a fairly prolific and well published short story writer. Do you write them as and when a story idea strikes you or do you write many of them together with a common theme in mind? Are they linked to your novels? Do they remain a secondary form that nevertheless occupies a distinct imaginative landscape?

Your novels do not seem to fit a distinct genre. Is that by choice? Does it work to your advantage? Do you write with sequels in mind?

How do you relate to your characters? Do you visualise them in their entirety or do they take you by surprise? I find that you portray strong and rather intriguing women. You also have a strong sense of place. How instinctive are you as a writer? How do you research a place? What sort of readership do you want for the women you create?

And finally, what is it about veggies that fascinates you?


Aliya Whiteley said...

Great answers, and good questions, Suroopa!

C. N. Nevets said...

Suroopa-ji, as an anthropologist as well as writer and reader, I am fascinated and inspired by writers and artists whose creative process must pass through so many more layers than someone such as myself who writers from and to a much more culturally and linguistically homogeneous context.

Thanks for sharing your experience.

suroopa said...

Thanks Aliya, I am just so looking forward to your response!

Thanks, Nevets! An anthropologist and writer is a very potent combination and I would certainly look out for your work. Yes, the Indian multi-cultural context is very, very complex and rich in the oral tradition. There is always a story waiting to be told.

C. N. Nevets said...

Suroopa-ji, I have some very good Panjabi friends (one of whom is married to a Bengali woman) and I could just sit and listen to them talk for hours on end.

Some day my wife and I need to make it over to India ourselves!

Len Tyler said...

Hi Suroopa - great answers. Like most people here, I'm very impressed by anyone who is fluent in three languages - still more writing in a language that is not your mother tongue.

Good question for Aliya re veggies. I'd been wondering about that too ....

Frances Garrood said...

I second Len's comments. Multi-lingual and multi-genre - it doesn't come much better than that!
Great answers, Suroopa!

Matt Curran said...

Great answers Suroopa. I love that there are so many facets to your writing. I always think writers should be creatives in not just one medium, but as many as they can lay their hands-on. For example Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker, who have dipped their toes into poetry, film, comic books, non-fiction and Childrens books as well as adult fiction. It's a wonderful way of working out that imagination-muscle. I'm envious - if only I had more time myself to follow your example!