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‘A novel is like building a house’

Anjum Hasan is a young Indian writer who won the Man Literary Prize in 2009 for her book “Neti, Neti”. Her latest book “Difficult Pleasures” has been listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. “Difficult Pleasures” is a collection of short stories in the form of a montage of characters who go about their busy lives in big, anonymous metropolitan cities – Mumbai,Bangalore,Calcutta. Anjum Hasan casts a spell on these characters and they bare their deepest, darkest emotions to the readers. There is rebellion and disappointment, love and melancholy and the reader experiences the intimate emotions of her characters. Hasan delves into the emotional spaces of the characters and bares all without any inhibitions leaving one with more questions than one had bargained for. 

DW’s WomenTalkOnline had the opportunity to speak to her:

DW: The short story is a struggling genre, but you take the risk anyway. Why?
Hasan: In English today, the short story stands in the shadow of the novel and narrative non-fiction. But in many Indian languages it was the pre-eminent modern form and continues to be a favored medium. In my own case I turned to the short story because there is something very human about its scale. It allows me to focus on intricate, personal, day-to-day elements – I don’t have to write about the nation, or a whole community or even about the sweep of a person’s life. I can write about the smaller, more nuanced things, the things that fall between the cracks, that are not noticed by those who think of fiction as journalism – in the sense of something that reveals the larger picture and the cold facts.

Short story writing in English by Indian authors is rare. Why is that so?
In fact it is not rare at all. Many of the pioneers of Indian writing in English such as RK Narayan and Anita Desai have been accomplished short story writers. I think the popularity of Indian fiction in the West, starting with Salman Rushdie’s novels, gave rise to the idea that in English we mostly write novels or that the best Indian writing in English is in the form of novels. But as English writers we have always done both. And there seems to be a resurgence lately with several excellent collections appearing by writers such as Daniyal Muenuddin, Rahul Mehta, Tania James, and Jahnavi Baruah.

Your stories are grounded in the reality depicting the crisis in urban Indian society. Why did you choose this topic in particular?
I try to write in a modern way about modern people. And the modern in fiction, starting from the beginning of the 20th century, turned upon the portrayal of the individual somehow at odds with the world. I don’t think I’m writing about urban Indian society in crisis, but about specific men, women and children discovering their complicated inner lives. That these stories are mostly, but not always, set in Indian locations does not necessarily make them a commentary on Indian society.

Tell us something about the setting of the book?
Settings are important in “Difficult Pleasures because the characters are often trying to figure out their relationship with the city or the space they are in and this drives the stories. In “Good Housekeeping” a young woman has just moved toBangalore for work and is conflicted between staying on in the city, returning toDelhi where her sick, alcoholic and divorced mother lives, and her memories ofEngland where she fell in love with a man who turned out to be mentally disturbed. Similarly “Banerjee and Banerjee” is about an economist who has moved all overEurope as an adult and when faced with a tragedy wonders if it’s time to settle down in one place.

Where did you draw your inspiration?
From day to day life. Chatting with a friend, reading the newspaper, overhearing a conversation in a bus – all of these can trigger a story. I think ordinary life has inexhaustible potential for fiction but life is not fiction. You have to create the pattern that is not there, bind elements together, make connections. It is one way of organising the world, a form of knowledge which I believe is as complex and interesting as any other.

Give us a peek into your head. What goes on in your mind when you develop these characters?
What starts off a story is usually a simple image or one central idea – say, the image of a woman boarding a plane for the first time. Or the idea of a man learning that the brother he never quite managed to love has killed himself. Once I am hooked by this idea or image, I sketch out the story, I need to have the skeleton in front of me before I start the writing. I need to feel that I am telling a story but at the same time what drives me is less the plot and more the elements that go into making the whole pattern – the characters, their inner selves, the things they notice, their feeling for a place and the way they relate to the people around them. All of this is very specific for me.

Your sister and your husband are writers too. How is it coming from a family of writers? Living under the same roof with a writer? Do you exchange scripts in the family?
My husband and I have very different sensibilities as writers but we totally inspire each other. What I have got from Zac is a sense of the discipline of writing, the daily work. Before I married him I thought of writing as something one did occasionally. We enjoy working under the same roof and our routines as writers are similar. And yes, sharing manuscripts is essential. We are each other’s first readers and need and respect each other’s opinions. My sister Daisy and I share manuscripts too but since she lives inEnglandand I inIndiawe don’t discuss our writing as closely as I do with Zac.

What are you reading right now?
I am going to be in conversation with the post-colonial critic Gayatri Spivak at the Jaipur Literature festival later this month so I am reading about her. I am particularly interested in her views on literature – her belief that English literature was an instrument of colonial domination and her interest in Mahashweta Devi’s stories as a representation of the lives of subaltern women. I have also recently re-read Amit Chaudhuri’s Clearing a Space for a feature I wrote on him. I think it’s the best book of Indian literary criticism ever.

Who is your favourite author?
This is difficult to talk of in the singular. I admire the work of Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, EM Forster, Qurratulain Hyder, Flaubert, Kiran Desai and Vladimir Nabokov. 

What does feminism mean to you?
Feminism is humanism. Human beings respecting each other’s uniqueness and ways of thinking and seeing.

Was it difficult to find a publisher for your first book?
Luckily not inIndia. I sent it to two publishers and one of them wrote back promptly saying they’d like to take it.

Do you ever experience writers block?
Writer’s block is there every morning, leering at you from the white screen. One has to try and work one’s way through it. There are so many guises that writer’s block can take – temptation to procrastinate, feeling uninspired, the pressures of other work. One has to fight to make space for fiction and give it importance, and then the words will come. That’s the daily battle.

How much time did it take you to write Difficult Pleasures?
I’ve been writing stories periodically over the past six years. Some of these were published in magazines and short story anthologies. I think I was encouraged by the growing opportunities for publishing the individual story. When I had about ten stories, I started thinking about putting together a collection.

How different is short story writing from writing a fiction novel?
Yes, a story is perhaps simpler to write than a novel. I said in an interview some time ago that a novel is like building a house, a short story is like furnishing a room.  But this simplicity does not guarantee success. You have a smaller canvas on which to try and achieve perfection.

Interviewer: Roma Rajpal
Editor: Grahame Lucas


14.01.2013 | 15:21