Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Preeta Samarasan Interview part 2

Continued from yesterday ...

Your former writing teacher Peter Ho Davies has compared your writing to Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy in the blurb he wrote for the novel. How far did you absorb the influences of these, and indeed other favourite authors?

It would be disingenuous and ungrateful for any postcolonial writer worth his or her salt to deny Rushdie’s influence. Rushdie gave us the permission to speak (though he would probably not phrase it that way himself: I suppose you could say he showed us that we could give ourselves permission to speak), and he gave us the language with which to speak. His impact on postcolonial writing in English is immense. I’ve been inspired by him on many levels: by the energy of his language, by his elevation of Indian English into poetry, by his use of magical realism to depict events and emotions too large for conventional Western realism. I think of Arundhati Roy as someone who inherited these ideas and made them her own instead of simply imitating Rushdie, and I tried my best to do the same: to absorb their influence, digest it, and come up with something entirely my own. But no, the comparison doesn’t bother me in the slightest; I’m flattered, really, because I’ve always seen them as major influences. Other major influences of which I was very conscious while working on this novel: Waterland by Graham Swift (from which I took one of the novel’s epigraphs); Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

The writing is gorgeous with every sentence so perfectly crafted and images on every page that are fresh and surprising. Was this a writing style that was particularly hard won?

Thank you -- what lovely praise! A writer, as Thomas Mann said, is one for whom writing is more difficult than it is for others. Writing this book was the hardest thing I have done in my life so far. I did a massive amount of revision, because in the beginning my learning curve was so steep that by the time I got to the middle of the book I would hate everything I’d written. This happened four or five times. My standards were getting higher and I was learning so much about myself as a writer, about my voice, my priorities, etc. I had revised the first half or so an uncountable number of times before I even applied to MFA courses. Then I revised the first few chapters four or five times in the MFA program. Once the novel was sold I revised the entire thing twice with my editor at Houghton-Mifflin -- these were major, major revisions, the first of which involved cutting more than half of what I’d written. Then I worked with a copyeditor on smaller scale revisions. The novel was sold in the summer of 2006, and I just finished my last revisions with the copyeditor late last year (2007). So yes, it’s been a long, hard road.

Did you find it hard to let go of your manuscript in the end?

At the very end, no, it wasn’t difficult to let go, because I felt ready and the book felt ready. I felt like I’d been pregnant for eight years. Get this thing out of me!

The story moves incrementally back in time for the most part, slowly revealing the motivations and back stories of your characters – how did you decide that this was the way that you wanted to tell your story?

I experimented with so many structures before it finally hit me: the reader needed to already know what was going to happen in the end, so that the weight of that ending would imbue everything that came before. There’s a certain inevitability that film scenes or photographs from the historical past exude, that the present can never quite match. The simplest way to give my narrative that kind of gravity -- to make the whole thing past instead of present -- was not through frequent and coyly oblique flash forwards (oh, how annoying they were!), but by moving backwards from the end. The further back the narrative goes, the more significance every little detail gains, so that by the time we reach the end (which is really the beginning), I don’t have to do much to expose the sadness inherent in that hopeful beginning. When I read Graham Swift’s Waterland, the idea of moving backwards began to seem inevitable. As he says (and I paraphrase), we’re always asking why, why, why; as human beings, we’re always wondering how far back in time we would’ve had to go to “fix” this or that present problem. I wanted my novel to enact that obsessive backtracking literally.

How did you decide on the rather god-like omniscient narrative voice?

I have always had a thing for that grand nineteenth-century voice. I like sweeping stories and authoritative narrators; in this, I’m a bit old-fashioned because that god-like narrator has fallen out of favour, particularly in America. But the stories I love best have big, bold narrators who refuse to explain how they know what they do (the narrator of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, for example: logically speaking, he should not know nine tenths of what he does!). As a writer, I love the power and freedom that that narrative voice gives me.

What has the path to publication been like for you?

Ah, another significant benefit of MFA programs: agents come to visit the good ones, because they are constantly scouting for new talent. My agent came to visit in my first year of the course, and I signed with her well before I graduated. Compared to the writing itself, the path to publication has been surprisingly easy. The novel was sold within a few days of my completing a reasonable draft, the summer after I graduated with my MFA. My agent sent it out to only three publishers in the US, and two of them offered to buy it. After the revisions were done, it sold very fast in other countries -- much faster than any of us had expected.

One comment made recently by Silverfish Books proprietor Raman Krishnan is that all the Malaysian novelists who are becoming successful on the world stage (such as Tan Twan Eng, Tash Aw, Rani Manicka) are writing from outside the country. Does being outside of things here in some sense free you up to write more honestly, and do you think you could have written the same book if you had stayed here?

It’s too easy to say, Of course, of course one has to leave to be a writer, of course people who never leave don’t see the same things about their country. But I actually believe the reality is slightly different. I think writers are people who identify as outsiders whether or not they have the opportunity to leave physically. Frequently, they identify as outsiders from childhood, though they are not always sure why -- sometimes it’s simply a matter of temperament. Perhaps those who feel they’re outsiders are more likely to leave, and that’s why so many writers -- not just Malaysian writers -- have been expatriates at some point. But they don’t have to leave to feel like outsiders. Conversely, plenty of people leave but never give up their unquestioning patriotism: Nothing like Malaysia lah! So, to answer the rest of your questions: I think I would have still written, and I think I would have made many of the same observations about Malaysia if I hadn’t left. But one thing would probably been different: I don’t think I would’ve been brave enough to say these things as loudly as I’m saying them now. Like most Malaysians, I had lots of unexamined fears when I lived in the country. Fears of the government, fears of What People Will Think -- between those two, it’s hard to say which is the greater set of fears! I think of my expatriate status as a luxury that allows me to say what I want without these fears.

You are the first Malaysian novelist that I have read who actually ventures into the events of May 13 1969, and it has been little discussed even in non-fiction. (Lloyd Fernando’s 1993 novel Green is the Colour being a notable exception.) Why did you decide to place your characters right in the heat of the fighting? Did writing about that incident take particular courage?

Writing that doesn’t take courage is not worth doing. Serious fiction (and nonfiction!) should take on the hard subjects -- whether they are hard for emotional or political reasons, or both. Which is not to say that other novelists have not chosen other hard subjects -- there are plenty of hard subjects in Malaysia, more than enough to go around! In my case, this novel is so much about race that to leave out May 13th would’ve seemed like a glaring omission. I also wanted to include May 13th precisely because it has been little discussed in Malaysia, and I think it’s the job of writers to talk about the things people don’t want to talk about. Race defines everything in Malaysia, and yet, ridiculously, it is a “sensitive” subject. Historically, writers have been the consciences and voices of their nations -- that may sound presumptuous, but I really believe it very strongly -- so if you’re going to abdicate that responsibility, you may as well do something else for a living. As to why I put my characters right in the heat of the fighting -- the only way to get into it, to immerse the reader fully in the event, was to put some of my characters there. They needed to experience it directly, not just hear about it.

Why did you decide to handle this part of the book in such an abstract way – with the personified Truth and Rumour dancing in the streets?

This is the very best sort of question -- something I hadn’t even thought about myself until you asked it! Now that I have to articulate it, I think it has everything to do with Rushdie’s explanation of magical realism, which I’ve referenced above. I wish I could find the essay in which he talks about this, but the basic idea is that some events and emotions are so huge that they don’t seem to be governed by the laws of realism. The best magical realism captures what the incident feels like in a way that a “realistic” portrayal could never have captured it. In that part of the book I’m resorting both to magical realism and to allegory, because I also want to get across the idea that Truth and Rumour have taken on lives of their own, become actual characters. And I think this is still true in Malaysia today. We are still a nation mesmerized by Rumour’s sexy moves. “Eh, people say....” “I heard somewhere....” “It seems....” And then, bit by bit, the “people say” is dropped and the rumour becomes true. If I had ten sen for every time I heard a rumour presented as if it were truth, I’d be able to buy myself a mansion in KL with just that money.

Malaysian novelists based overseas have sometimes been accused of “exoticising” this country for a Western readership. You seem to have deliberately gone the other way. Was this a deliberate decision?

I had an interesting discussion on exoticism the other day with another Malaysian storyteller (Amir Muhammad). He pointed out that “exotic,” in its original definition, simply meant strange. And to highlight the strangeness of our culture -- that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and some of the best books consciously try to be strange. But I think now when we complain about “exotic” writing we often mean writing that isn’t strange anymore -- writing that merely trots out the same tired clich├ęs about Asia. I’m not referring to any recent Malaysian novel; this is a general observation. On the surface such writing may appear to be pointing out unusual details, yet the choice of details, and the very way in which they are pointed out, is formulaic. The problem with this kind of writing is often that it self-consciously sets out to teach people about a particular culture, which is simply not the job of literature. The narrator takes you by the hand and explains everything; nothing is allowed to remain strange. So, to extrapolate from what Amir said, the writer is not exoticising but de-exoticising. I suppose what I’ve tried to do -- and yes, I have thought about this in great depth because it’s a question on which I have very strong feelings -- is to maintain the real strangeness of the place that is Malaysia. Which lies not in the images any Tourism Board advertisement can show you, but in the things we do not want to talk about. If on occasion -- for example, when it comes to ideas about class -- this strangeness makes us similar to other cultures instead of different from them -- well, all the better, because Western readers don’t expect similarities and are invariably excited to discover them.

I was delighted to see that you have used a lot of local words, particularly Tamil expressions, and you neither provide a direct translation nor italicize them. Why did you decide to do it this way?

Well, I was delighted that my publishers never even questioned that decision. I didn’t know what to expect, but from the beginning I wanted to weave the local words into the narrative in the natural way we do in Malaysia. We don’t translate, and we certainly don’t pause to note the non-Englishness of the word, which I think is the effect italicization has: ATTENTION! PLEASE NOTE FOREIGN WORD HERE! To us it’s all one language, our language, and I really wanted to preserve that. The way we talk -- our hybrid vocabulary, our loose syntax, our breathless lack of punctuation -- embodies our collective character in ways I think most people reading this interview will understand. If I’m going to presume to speak for Malaysians, I should try as far as possible to remain faithful to the way they would say these things themselves.

The obvious reaction is: But won’t this make it harder for your Western readers? Perhaps a little, though I think in many cases the gist of what’s being said is clear from the context, or the specific detail is not so important that a non-Malaysian reader will lose track of the story if they don’t grasp the detail. It’s a price I was willing to pay, because it’s also somewhat of a political choice. Other postcolonial writers have said this far better than I can (I’m thinking, in particular, of Jamaica Kincaid), but what I would say to any Western reader who complains is: the West is not the centre of the universe. Fifty, even thirty years ago, we were all taught to believe it was. Schoolchildren studying literature in the colonies had to navigate Cockney speech patterns, imagine for themselves what toad-in-the-hole might taste like, picture moors and bogs and fens and determine the emotional significance of each of these landscapes. Now we get to tell our own stories, and this requires your dealing with my rubber estates and char kuay teow and cursing in Tamil. In the long run, this will be good for all of us. A little cultural immersion never did anyone any harm.

It might seem too early to ask this, but what’s next?

I’m working on another novel, set mostly in Cameron Highlands. I’m not sure I can say more than that at this point! I’m very much at the groping-in-the-dark stage and I fear saying too much will paralyse me. So far it seems as if this one will not take me so many years -- I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’m also writing short stories and revising old ones. A couple of my stories will be published in the next few months in literary journals in the US. In the past I’ve considered putting together a collection, so we’ll see if that happens.


k said...

Sharon, what a brilliant interview!

I love all your questions, and all her answers equally.

k said...

was it a face-to-face spontaneous interview, or was it conducted in writing?

bibliobibuli said...

thanks K. it was an e-mail interview. preeta did all the hard work therefore and i got paid for it.

Jane Sunshine said...

Thanks for posting this Sharon - a good insight into Preeta's mind.

KittyCat said...

What a great interview! Thanks for posting it, Sharong, and thanks to MPH, for granting the permission.

If it wasn't online, I wouldn't have been able to read it all the way here in China :)

Preeta - Great job on speaking up esp "Fifty, even thirty years ago, we were all taught to believe it was. Schoolchildren studying literature in the colonies had to navigate Cockney speech patterns, imagine for themselves what toad-in-the-hole might taste like, picture moors and bogs and fens and determine the emotional significance of each of these landscapes. Now we get to tell our own stories, and this requires your dealing with my rubber estates and char kuay teow and cursing in Tamil."

I can't wait to read your novel and review it too!