Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Preeta Samarasan Interview Part 1

Eric's given me the green-light to put up this interview with Preeta which appears both in the most recent issue of MPH's Quill and the special Ubud edition. I've split it into two parts because it is rather long and will post the second tomorrow. Enjoy!

When did you first decide that you wanted to be a writer? Was it something that you had always set your heart on?

I always loved writing; I remember making up little stories and writing them down from the time I could write full sentences. In Standard Three I wrote a tragic, multi-generational saga about a family of cockroaches in a notebook which is now, thankfully, missing. But when I decided I wanted to be a writer -- that’s a much tougher question. My parents encouraged us to pursue a variety of interests, but in their thoughts on career choices they were quite traditional and conservative. I think this reflects Malaysian society in general, especially as it was in the ‘80s, so I didn’t think of writing as something that real people could actually choose to do as a career. Being an author was, you know, for dead people, or white people, or (ideally) for dead white people. So I tried a number of other things (while continually fantasizing about being a writer) and went through a period of disaffectation before I decided, in the winter of 1999, that I was going to finish a novel and try to get it published, and see where that took me. I was at the time enrolled in a PhD. program in musicology; a few years after that, when the novel was going well and I was getting a lot of positive feedback, I decided to leave and Become A Writer.

You dedicate the novel to your parents and brothers who you say taught you that words matter. How exactly was that love of words fostered during your childhood?

My mother taught us to read when we were very young, and books and language were always accorded great respect in our house. While my father was teaching, he would bring home a fresh batch of books from his school library every week, and this was understood by all of us to be the finest of treats. There were books everywhere, and books were an expense my parents never questioned, even though we were not rich by any means. Even now, when I’m browsing in a bookshop in KL with my mother and I stop myself from splurging on hardcover books, my mother protests, “But it’s books, what!” As a child I was encouraged not only to entertain and better myself with books, but -- and I think this is crucial -- to seek solace from them. This is what I mean when I talk about words mattering: the understanding that beautiful language, in and of itself, is fundamentally good for the spirit. I’m grateful for being allowed to discover that at a very early age.

You decided to do an Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA) in Creative Writing. One criticism of creative writing courses that I’ve heard repeated is that they push authors to write in particular way. Did you find this?

No, absolutely not. I’m not sure if that might have been true in the 1970s; it isn’t true now, of any good creative writing program. The programs I know about do not even try to “teach” people how to write; they select students who already can write, who have strong, distinct voices and a demonstrated commitment to their art. They merely help you do the best writing you want to do, as you define it, and they do this primarily by asking questions and getting you to think deeply about your own writing.

How did the course actually help you? Is it a path that you would recommend to other people who want to write?

Getting my MFA was immensely helpful in three ways: 1) it gave me the time and money to concentrate on my writing for two years, and this, when you think about it, is a pretty substantial statement of validation for an emerging writer: We think you’re good enough to make it, so we’re going to pay you to come here and write for two years; 2) It introduced me to some amazing, generous mentors who had been writing for longer than I had, and who therefore gave me lots of new ways to think about writing and the writing life; 3) It introduced me to some truly gifted writers of my own generation. The connections I made in the MFA program will last my whole life; we still read each other’s drafts, discuss what we’re reading, and encourage each other. This kind of community of writers is possible to forge outside an MFA program, of course, but it’s more difficult. So my answer to “should others go?” is a resounding yes: if you can get into a good creative writing course with significant financial aid.

What was your starting point for Evening is The Whole Day?

I began with the idea of these two sisters, one in America and one left behind; and with the image of a skinny young servant girl, accused of a crime, friendless and confused. I’ve always been interested in the place of live-in servants in their employers’ households. In many cases the relationship is a basically feudal one that persists in affluent, apparently Westernised societies. I wanted to get to the heart of such a relationship, to the precariousness of a servant’s place in the household and to her employers’ constant justification and willful blindness.

Those were two separate ideas in the very beginning, but they quickly came together, and I can’t quite explain how; the more I thought about these three characters, the more the parallels and the links revealed themselves.

The novel is about the secrets and betrayals in an Indian family living in Ipoh. How far is the family based on your own?

Not far at all. I have two siblings and we lived in Ipoh. That’s about the extent of the similarity. The plot is entirely invented; we never had servants, and my parents are nothing like the parents in the book. We had a lot less money and a completely different lifestyle. Some of the minor characters are amalgamations or modifications of people I came across or heard about in real life -- Malaysian readers will recognise some familiar elements in the murder trials scattered throughout the main narrative, for example, but even in these cases I’ve invented more than I’ve preserved. There isn’t a novelist on earth who doesn’t draw from his or her environment in this way, and no one in their right mind would argue that it counts as autobiography. A few material objects are taken from my own life, because, for some reason, I have very strong memories of material objects. The red Formica table, the green PVC settee, and the grandmother’s rattan chair are all real objects from my childhood, though not all belonged to my immediate family. There is a lot of emotional truth in the book, of course -- this, again, is true of all novels -- and I think the material objects helped me to access that emotional truth, if that makes sense. I’ve felt the father’s resentment at the political situation (though I wasn’t born early enough to experience the disappointments of the immediate post-independence era) and the mother’s anomie, and at various moments in the narrative I found myself identifying with one or the other child.

Which of the characters do you most identify with? You seem closest to the youngest daughter, Aasha at times, yet Uma’s story surely reflects your own to a great extent as she’s the gifted child who leaves Ipoh to go and study in the US.

Much of Uma’s story reflects the stories of many smart children from middle- and upper-middle-class Malaysian families; I do identify with her to some extent, but if I had to pick one character, it would be Aasha. Like her, I was much more of a watcher than a talker, and though I never had to keep such momentous secrets as she does, I did occasionally feel responsible for protecting the adults around me from what I knew or thought I knew -- again, in my case, this was more often a consequence of my personality than a reflection of reality. The perception of responsibility, in other words, was usually inaccurate, while for Aasha it is quite accurate. Popular rhetoric depicts children as trusting creatures who vociferously announce all their needs and desires; yet having been a deeply distrustful, secretive child myself, I wanted to speak for, even to defend, such children. Many of my favourite novels are about children who have too much knowledge (and/or who end up making terrible, irreversible choices): Waterland, The God of Small Things, Atonement, The Go-Between, The Story of Lucy Gault.


Anonymous said...

"Popular rhetoric depicts children as trusting creatures who vociferously announce all their needs and desires; yet having been a deeply distrustful, secretive child myself, I wanted to speak for, even to defend, such children."

And I thought I was a rarity ... :)


june said...

I recently finished reading "Evening is the Whole Day" and Preeta's sympathetic portrayal of a tragic family won me over. The novel reminded me of the first line of Tolstoy, "Anna Karenina", - "... every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Kudos to Preeta! I am looking forward to getting my book signed. :)

Anonymous said...

Sort of like "Joy Luck Club" except with Indians ?

bibliobibuli said...

oh my. that is so patronising. why don't you pick up a copy before displaying your ignorance further, huh? not that you had the courage to add your name.

Anonymous said...

Hello Preeta,

I enjoyed your book. You're an amazing writer. And I loved the fact that you were so scatologically frank :-)))

Twan Eng

Anonymous said...

Thank you, friends :-) .

Yes I happen to think scatology is underrated and underused. We'd all be a lot better off if we just talked about shit a bit more. I'm only half kidding.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

I agree with you! If only we could be like Cartman pretending to be suffering from Tourette's Syndrome


Anonymous said...

No need to pretend lah just be brave and talk about shit when the spirit moves you (pun intended)! It's all for the good of our society and our country.


Anonymous said...

Well, excuse me for asking lol :)

june said...

Anon 5:22pm: I've read Joy Luck Club and enjoyed it (although I got progressively bored of the mommy issues theme in Amy Tan's novels). And to answer your question, 'Evening is the Whole Day' isn't like Joy Luck Club, except with Indians. The novel moves beyond the parental-child relationship, and while the family is the centerpiece of the story, it is also about nostalgia Malaysia, the complex race issues, etc.. Believe me, I too was rather skeptical with the very glowing reviews (sorry, Sharon!) but I decided to read it for myself and I believe that it does warrant such reviews. I guess the excitement is also because of a fellow Malaysian finally writing the story we've always wanted to read about our country, about our local idiosyncrasies, Manglish, etc.. There were times when the language got too flowery for me (didn't like the personification of Truth and Rumour - but really enjoyed Preeta's explanation of it - great inteview btw!) but overall, I do think that it is a strong body of work. So yes, do grab a copy if you can. :)

Damyanti said...

I really loved the writing in this book, it is quite mersmerizing. I found myself wanting to be able to write like that some day. The characterization is sublime, Asha and Chellam in particular, but I love all the others too.

Being a non-Malaysian, the writing perhaps did not have all those layers of meaning for me that it is obviously meant to have, and for me the book was a tad too long. But those are just subjective opinions.

I have met journalists and book-enthusiasts galore who are very impressed with the book, and rightly so. Can't wait to see what the author comes out with next, there's a lot of promise in this book.

bibliobibuli said...

sorry anon!

june - yeah, i know i was gushing ... but it was heartfelt gushing!

Anonymous said...

I've lived in the city all my life, so the Indians I know are mostly city folk, and largely indistinguishable from other races as far as language is concerned.

Chet said...

Preeta's use of the English language in the book brought back a lot of memories for me. There were phrases I haven't heard in years. One in particular stands out - "one tight slap" - and made me laugh.

Chapter 7 gave me the shivers, while chapter 8 was the hardest to read through, so far.

bibliobibuli said...

abu says "one tight slap"!

John Evans said...

Sorry, Preeta, (and Sharon). I was totally intoxicated when I wrote my insensitive message about the demise of David Foster Wallace. I must- and I will - stay off-line when I am out of my head....


Anonymous said...

Oh -- the apology is most certainly accepted! Few things impress me as much as a gracious apology. Thank you for taking the trouble to post it, and no hard feelings. I think we've all said stupid things when intoxicated (or not!) :-) .

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Actually, some of the best books were probably written when the writers were off their heads.

Anonymous said...

Now this is interesting, who has the right to demand an apology when someone is being insensitive? and who has the right to accept it?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous -- I most definitely never demanded an apology. I merely reserved my *own* right to think poorly of people who say insensitive things and don't apologise.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

My mother used to warn me about 'two tight slaps'!

- Poppadumdum

Anonymous said...

My mother didn't say much.