Thursday, February 15, 2007

Writing from Here vs. Writing from There

Kathleen McCaul writing in the Guardian discusses the current literary scene in India and how the focus is changing from the NRI (non-resident Indian writer i.e. living in the west and writing for a predominantly western audience) to homegrown writers. (Of course, there are some interesting parallels with the situation for Malaysian writers.)

Literary critic Nilanjan Roy (who turns out to be Huree Babu of the Kitabkana litblog!) explains why so many Indian authors have moved westward in the past:
For the Indian writer working in English, going abroad was one way to reach the marketplace, to lessen the very considerable distance between publishers, editors and agents in the west and the writer at 'home'. Vikram Chandra and Amit Chaudhuri teach at universities abroad; other writers have shifted because they have access to better jobs, more scholarships.
But other Indian writers feel they want to stay close to their roots, and author Altaf Tyrewalla talks about his difficulties writing as a NRI:
I don't know how, for instance, I could write from the perspective of an imaginary butcher in a chicken shop if I wasn't also suffering the humidity like him, suffering the noise of a ghetto like him, and yet trying, like him, to think amidst this discomfort, this cacophony ... Midway through writing No God In Sight, I went to New York to be with my fiancée (now wife), hoping to continue with the novel there. I assumed I could write anywhere, that I could stretch my imagination wide enough to surmount the distance of thousands of kilometres. I was back in Mumbai in two months. It was a very expensive misadventure.
The article points out the need for a local literary infrastructure for writers. Delhi-based reviewer Hirsh Sawney says:
There aren't as many literary institutions in India so writers aren't challenged to produce better work - aren't nurtured.
However, things there do seem to be improving and there's another sign of a maturing literary culture - Indian writers are beginning to write novels set in parts of the world, says Rana Dasgupta*
I have a lot of pressure from my publishers to write about India (but) it is a colonial hangover in publishing to think that writers in India, Africa and the Caribbean must write about their home cultures while writers from the West could write about anywhere. Mature literary cultures should feel like they can write about the world.
*Rana Dasgupta has a very cool website - you can leave your graffiti all over it!

Pic of a Calcutta bookseller nicked from the Guardian.


Kenny Mah said...

I'm wondering if the same applies for Malaysian writers living here and abroad. Is it merely geography that makes it more common for local authors living abroad to be published by foreign publishers?

tunku halim said...

I doubt that geography alone applies. Perhaps its more to do with the mindset whilst abroad. I find it easier writing whilst being away from Malaysia. There's too much going on in my hometown KL: lunch appointment, dinner appointment etc. Abroad, I can look with fresh unhindered eyes.

Janet said...

Tunku Halim - I agree with your comments. I think David TK Wong said the same thing about why he set up the Fellowship, because he experienced the same problems; he couldn't write in HK because friends & relatives kept calling him for drinks, meals etc. Finally I think he went to London to write. It IS difficult to write with interruptions, even little ones.

Chet said...

Sharon - the Rana Dasgupta link does not lead to any web site. Please check it. Thanks.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks chet

Anonymous said...

You can't write here because you have obligations -- your parents call and want to visit, festivals you have to attend etc. Family emergencies, whatever and whatnot. You need complete privacy for years to write. That's why it's easier to write outside of the country -- you have a legitimate excuse for not attending, and they can't go all the way there to preossure you into doing stuff.

Zafar Anjum said...

This was an intersting Guardian piece, and when I had read it, it made me think --as India is booming, it seems, so is the authenticity of writing from India itself.
Earlier, one had to go to London, or New York to strike back at the empire, to borrow Rushdie's phrase. As Rushdie spoke for his generation of writers, looking at India from a distance was like looking at it from an angle of advantage--the image was clearer. He gave the example of a cinema screen--if you looked at it with your nose near the screen, all you saw were grains (pixels). The farther you moved away from the screen, the clearer was the image.
Now, has the logic changed, as people like Tyrewalla claim?
In any case, Tyrewalla and Jeet Thayil are not the first ones to leave the west (f0reign shores or whatever) and live among their characters to create that authetic fiction. Decades ago, well-known Bengali poet and novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay, to give an example, returned from the US after doing a creative writing course. He wanted to live among his own people, close to the characters that he was wrote about. It does not matter that he chose to write in Bengali, not English.
I don't think it matters where you live or write from--what does matter whether you can get inside the skin of your characters. It might take some research and travelling and that's what writers have been doing since ages.

Zafar Anjum said...

Sorry for the typos in my post:


He wanted to live among his own people, close to the characters that he wrote about.