Sunday, November 27, 2005

Have Pen - Will Subvert

My article in Starmag today:
Romesh Gunasekera doesn’t believe in pigeon-holing, nor does he write to an agenda.

IDENTITY is never a one dimensional thing,” says author Romesh Gunasekera, neatly sidestepping my question about whether he sees himself as a British or a Sri Lankan writer. His novels and short stories are set in both places and he clearly relishes the ability to move between worlds without being pigeonholed himself.

(British Council Malaysia brought the writer to Malaysia recently; he gave a reading from a selection of his works at the Silverfish bookshop in Kuala Lumpur.)

His second novel, Reef, a lyrical story about memory and imagination, put Gunasekera firmly on the international literary map. The novel was nominated for the 1994 Booker prize, and while he says it was wonderful that it was shortlisted, he claims that it was “kind of ideal not to have won because the one or two first time writers who did win with the first book tended not to have written after that.”

At fewer than 200 pages, Reef is an unusually short novel in an age where fiction writers seem obliged to turn out complex and lengthy tomes. Says Gunasekera with characteristic humility, “I didn’t think I had the right to demand someone read a long novel by a writer they didn’t know.”

It is impossible of course to write about Sri Lanka without reference to the atrocities that have been part of its recent troubled history. I ask him whether he felt he had a duty as a writer to make sense of the violence.

“I’m not writing to an agenda, but writing stories that interest me,” he says. “But I also have to write to understand the world I live in and the fact that the world is getting more violent.”

In his earlier works, that violence tends to occur outside of the frame of the story, but its effect and reverberations are felt by the characters in the foreground. It’s his third novel, Heaven’s Edge, set in a dystopian fictional country, which deals with the subject more directly. It “explores the whole idea of violence, how it comes into our lives and how man has to come to terms with it”.

Gunasekera says ideas for the next novel are germinating even as he writes the current one. “I already know the books I intend to write if I live long enough,” he says. But he finds it hard to talk about the process that he goes through when writing fiction because it’s been different for each book.

“One thing I’ve learned is I don’t know how to do it. I do know roughly how long it’ll take me, which is longer than I think. I have a rough idea of how much of my life will go into it. Otherwise, when you start any book you are always a novice.

“If you write the kind of books I tend to write, which don’t conform to a genre, you start with nothing and you have to invent the way to do it each time. People always talk about giving birth to novels, and I think that there is a similarity. Afterwards you tend to forget what’s involved, how difficult, frustrating and painful it is.”

It’s vitally important for him that the book feels alive to his readers and totally engages them. The key to making this happen is a great deal of revision.

“Unless you are making a Jackson Pollock (the American abstract artist famous for his ‘drip and splash style’), which is fine in terms of self-expression, creating different worlds does involve rewriting. I’d happily continue rewriting for many more years except that some time it must come to an end.”

Gunasekera’s first book, Monkfish Moon, established his credentials as a writer of short fiction at a time when it was relatively rare for writers to bring out a collection as a first book, and although he says that he would love to bring out another, it not be commercially viable.

Indeed, the short story has been declared so seriously endangered in Britain that a campaign to save it from extinction has been instigated. But Gunasekera sees the tide beginning to turn with the awarding of an annual short story prize, and with the growth of e-zines (online magazines) and the increasing popularity of the short-short story. He firmly believes the short story is still the best form for the novice writer to tackle.

I tell him that I read that he’d once warned that fiction can be dangerous because it “opens up things that probably shouldn’t be opened up” and ask him what he meant by that. It’s a theme he warms to.

“Literature should be subversive. When you read a book, you become the story. You can imagine it exactly how you like and no one can tell you you’re right or wrong. External authority has no place – and this is why in a repressive regime fiction is banned and fiction writers are persecuted.”

And that is probably the most powerful argument for our need to read good books!


lil ms d said...

out of curiosity sharon: are you allowed to put up your published essays on your blog? i'm not allowed to publish my column at all anywhere else! i was told to provide the link and tellr eaders to subscribe!

bibliobibuli said...

yes ... have decided to do this too but shall post up more if i can when the whole article vanishes behind subscription ...

it's great to subscribe to the star online ... but since more than a third of the readers of this blog are from overseas i think that is unlikely.

i really admire the excellent overseas newspapers who manage to keep their content free and provide easily searchable archives. the guardian/observer has the best literary pages of any newspaper internationally and i can read articles published years ago and post links knowing that they won't disappear overnight. and it's free!!!!! the new york times lets you buy individual articles from its archives without having to subscribe to the whole newspaper which i think is a sensible compromise. locally the sun keeps its content free and has full archives. the edge has the cleverest trick of all - articles aren't put online for a week, so you buy the print version.

tricky issue li'l ms. d - how would you handle this? (wanting your words to be out there but not wanting to hurt the publication you write for) thought i saw some of your articles on your website? other writers seem to put up whole posts but without saying which publication they were printed in ...

i haven't posted any of the crome articles though would like to have a website and put links to them later on

Eric Forbes said...

Really nice meeting you the other night, Sharon. And I thoroughly enjoyed your interview with Romesh Gunesekera in the Star this morning. Yes, the Guardian website is excellent. So are the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Kak Teh said...

yes - i posted most of mine that were published years ago. and some after it has been published online. So far not heard anything from the publication. Yes, tricky issue indeed.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks eric - it was a fun evening and great to finally talk to you in RL

kak teh - there really should be such a thing as a bloggers license ...

Anonymous said...

Subversion is worthless -- is not a successful subversion the beginning of a new dictatorship ?

Anonymous said...

KT -- it's a question of ethics. They can't rightly sue you because they'd never win. Corporations rarely win against individuals where something this trivial is concerned. But then again you have to think about whether it's right to print something you've already sold to someone. Is it theft ? if it is, is it right to steal even if you know you'll not be prosecuted for it ?

bibliobibuli said...

anon - you're always nicely subversive ;-P

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I learned a lot from "Animal Farm" :) sooner or later all successful rebels become the new dictators :)