Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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The writer getting a copy of Janice Pariat autographed by the author

Janice Pariat; My Love for Writing and Telling Stories Grew Out of Being Immersed in Oral Storytelling Community

The following is the transcript of a conversation this reporter had with Indian author Janice Pariat


Lakshmi: Hi Janice, thanks for doing this interview! Right now, I am reading Everything The Light Touches.

Janice Pariat: Wonderful!

Lakshmi: Of course, I want to start from the inception what inspired you to write…were you always interested in writing? What pushed you on this path?

Janice Pariat: Right. Um, I think I’ve always been interested in stories and storytelling. I think that’s because I also come from a community… from the hills of Meghalaya, who are a largely an oral community. The Khasis. So, we’ve always been a very vibrant oral storytelling community and I grew up in that kind of space amidst family and friends and neighbors who loved to sit and tell stories.  This is a very valid and very important way to pass time as you might know back home. Um, and I think that has always attuned me to a love of telling stories and a love of listening to stories.

And, I think the writing of stories is something that followed…you know…rather than… kind of being conjured in isolation. My love of writing and telling stories actually grew out of being immersed within an oral storytelling community. And I have to admit that I am possibly one of those very annoying writers who cannot remember a time when they were not writing, because I’ve always kind of always been writing…Even when I was very little, um, and not to say that I was writing anything of much brilliance but I wrote little stories in school, at home, and I would share them with my parents and my grandparents, and they were very sweetly  encouraging…despite the fact that I was  mostly plagiarizing from Enid Blyton!

But, that’s how it began, I guess. And even though I retained the love for storytelling in terms of reading a lot at school and university, I don’t think I really imagined myself as a writer until much later, because I also grew up at a time when it wasn’t easy to imagine yourself as a writer because we grew up in an India where parents would tell you that you have to do something else to sustain yourself. You have to be a doctor or a lawyer, yeah, or an engineer or whatever it is, something safe, lucrative… It wasn’t as though I had much space to imagine myself as a writer until much later. Um, you know, when I’d gone through a series of jobs that had something or the other to do with books and writings when I was an editor or when I worked at a magazine and then I realized that, actually, what I really wanted to do was write. I took a slightly indirect journey despite being very keen to write and tell stories from a young age. It was still quite long-winded journey to get here. To be a published writer and to think of oneself as a writer…I think that, that takes time.


Lakshmi: Your first book is Boats on Land which was published in 2013. It is a short story collection. Was it daunting to start your first work as a novel? Which one do you like writing more? Short story or novels?

Janice Pariat: I think I love both forms, really. I love the form of the short story still, and I love the poetic form. I love the form of the novella. I love the form of the big fat novel. Um…I just think that for me at the moment, the questions that I’m asking… the issues that I’m exploring feel like they lend themselves to be better explored within a longer form. There might come a time when I feel I want to explore something else and those things might actually suddenly be more appropriate for shorter fiction. I like to keep an open spectrum in that way…You know…the form also chooses me at a particular point instead of me choosing. I think it’s a bit of both. I think there’s a sense that I choose and the form chooses me and there’s a bit of a duality there but at the moment I’m really enjoying writing within this expansive space of the novel. Who knows what lies ahead but I like having options. I like having the privilege and the ability to choose and to be chosen by all of these forms so that in some ways I’m always doing something new. So that I’m always challenged. I’m always pushing myself as a person and as a writer. So, in some ways, I’m not tending to do the same thing, hopefully over and over again. But I do love the form of the short story. In fact, at Ashoka, where I teach creative writing, we have a class which is dedicated just to the short story form. And it’s one of my favorite classes because it’s a form that is so delightful and so challenging and calls for such a beautiful and delicate balance.

Um, so, you know, who knows? I would love to return to the short story format someday, at some point, but for the moment I feel as though it’s the larger landscape of the novel that’s calling to me and the themes that I’m looking to explore at the moment.

Lakshmi: Okay. Amazing! Can you tell us a bit about Boats on Land…about the title and what is the significance of the title to the book?

Janice Pariat: Um… Boats on Land is the title of one of the stories in the book. We felt at the time with my editor that it was, in some ways, one of the strongest stories in the collection. It also in some ways, encompassed many of the themes that the other stories were also exploring. It had that broad umbrella that swooped all of the stories under its embrace. So, we thought it might actually work as the title for the collection. When I think of it now… I also see how it’s a story that sort of hints that at separate, different points in our lives ; we might feel a bit displaced…We might feel like we’re not really in the  place that we ought to be or be with the person that we would be with or that we’re kind of a little misaligned, out of place, out of time. And the characters…I think, within these short stories are, in some ways, searching for that place to be and searching for the person to be with and sometimes also searching for who they are. So, rather like boats on land which is already sort of a juxtaposition of two things that are not usually found together… I think that it kind of hints to that -that misalignment that sometimes we feel in life and our attempts to roll back into a current where we feel well and at home.

Lakshmi: I think that’s really beautiful! I’m definitely going to read that book. I think that the same theme of finding oneself is prevalent even in Everything the Light Touches, right? All these characters go on the journey to find themselves and then they are met with their own destinies…Is the storyline something that you’ve been inspired from your own life or something else?

Janice Pariat: I think that apart from several other common themes that run through the books, even though they’re very different books, all of them still have similarities and they work in some kind of continuum because, well, you know, they’ve all been written by me, by one person. There are several common motives and themes that run through all the books. And one of them is definitely this: this idea of characters, people-searching and through various means whether that’s through travel, through love, through learning, through art…there is the hint of a quest of always trying to find who you are. Recognizing at some point that, who you are is also changing; that it never quite arrives at some kind of destination of self…It’s a lifelong discovery. But at some point, we do begin to feel more comfortable in our own skin. We negotiate with the world so that we are doing things a little bit more on our own terms…We do find some kind of steadiness and quietude which doesn’t mean that we’re not changing and evolving, but it does mean that we do find a place to be, you know, in all sorts of ways as well.

Lakshmi: Can you talk a bit about your novella Seahorse and The Nine Chambered heart?

Janice Pariat: Seahorse was my first novel but I do feel that in some ways, I felt a little bit compelled, like I had to write a novel now after a book of short stories and not that I regret it but I do feel that it might have been a decision that was also influenced by external factors…publishers and editors feel like, “Oh, now you’ve written a book of short stories. How about moving on to a novel?” And you think, oh, maybe that is a good idea because you’re a bit young and a bit malleable and you think, okay, well, maybe they know better. I did enjoy writing Seahorse even though it’s a huge challenge as you are facing the prospect of writing a first novel. That is already intimidating. But what helped was that I used a template of a Greek myth. I used a preexisting story, an ancient story – the Greek God of the Sea, Poseidon and his lover and devotee, Pelops. I used their story as a template, as a preexisting structure to reimagine in  a contemporary world and a contemporary  space. Um, and I peopled it with characters, you from spaces in my own life, of course, but also from beyond. It’s a book that’s set-in spaces like Delhi University and London…spaces that I’m familiar with, but people with characters.

Lakshmi: When I was reading Everything the Light Touches, I was feeling like I’m in a time capsule as if I’m being transported from one place to another or from one time to another. So, that’s real interesting…

Janice Pariat: It’s true…I think my characters do travel a lot, just like me. Yeah. And they travel for many, many reasons.  For the character in Seahorse, it’s really to find not just himself, but also to find, a person who has been missing from his life for very mysterious reasons. And he never sort of really knows why that person went missing from his life. Um…so he’s also in on to find what happened.

With Nine Chambered Heart, it was really a fun experimentation with form. At the beginning, I really wanted to write a novella that sort of echoed the kind of learnings that I was going through at the time, particularly, in terms of therapy and how therapy was helping me acknowledge that there are many, many versions to one thing. And there are many, many versions to one person as well. So, the novella quite literally orchestrates this chorus of voices who all speak about their relationship, their love, their friendship with this one person, with this one woman. And the woman is at the center of the novella. Yeah. And you hear from her through the narratives, but she doesn’t quite have her own narrative. She’s always spoken of and conjured for you by these nine other characters. And it was a way of saying that, you know, people will have many versions in their understanding of you and who you are.  And each one actually is perfectly valid.  And each one might be about who you are and how you might have contributed to that narrative in the first place. So, it was really an experimentation that explored identity… who we are, who we think we are…and the narratives that surround us in our lives.

Lakshmi: I think that’s real interesting… Now, moving on to Everything the Light Touches which is your fourth book …there is a variety of characters from different places on Earth and different times, yet, they all come together beautifully woven in this novel and they’re all connected by their love for nature. Evelyn, Goethe and Shai…How did you come up with these characters and what were your inspiration behind these creations?

Janice Pariat: The character who came to me first was Evie.  The protagonist. I was in a garden in Salisbury in the U.K … I was a student there, so I was sort of wandering all the free exhibitions that I could find and at that point happened to be a little display on  women, Victorian and Edwardian botanists, set up in the corner of this garden. And I was reading about these women and their lives and they are very, very interesting lives because often a lot of them were doing things that women at the time were not supposed to be doing. They were traveling on their own. They had ambitions of being scientists. They were artists, they were collectors. It was really quite fascinating! And I remember the character… This Evie, this woman, this young woman traveling from the UK to India, suddenly started forming and I asked myself why is she traveling to India? What is she looking for? And I feel as though I had to write the rest of the book to find out! The project actually begins with the spirit of inquiry, the spirit of questioning…of asking, what is she seeking and why? From that question, I was led to the other characters.

At some point, I very fortunately had a conversation with a friend about Goethe, and Goethe’s scientific ambitions, his scientific writings and I learned about Goethean science. And I thought, this is interesting because it feels as though there’s a connection between Evie, my character, and the kind of things that Goethe was writing about. And then when once you read Goethe, you realize that he was writing and doing all of this research not just for himself and for his love of the living world, but also because he was working in resistance to the ideology that someone like Carl (Linnaeus) stood for – the spirit of the enlightenment, the spirit of rationality, of logic, of the mind and the brain over the heart and the self… A world where things were being categorized because apparently that was the only way to make sense of things. So, what emerged then was this tussle between two ways of seeing, one that was extremely enlightenment driven, driven by rationale, by calculation, by quantification, by categorization and a way of seeing the world that actually rejected all of that and said, ‘No, the world is as it is, it is connected, it is unified, it exists in wholeness’. And only when we recognize that, we begin to have a healthier relationship with the world around us. All of the characters in Everything the Light Touches exist in some way to explore that tussle. Once you get to the middle of the book, you’ll see that Linnaeus occupies that central position. That’s because in some way, our world is still dictated by a Linnean way of saying, we still categorize, we box into nations and gender and, ethnicity and identity, and we do it all the time.  But the rest of it, and Evie and Shai exist in resistance to that.

Lakshmi: I think that this book is really important because now more than ever, we have been moving away from nature and the wild and have become so tamed and clogged up in this machine-like space where we are constantly working and we don’t even have time to remove our shoes and feel the Earth… we are living in such anxiety… that’s why I feel that this book is so relevant! Thank you for writing this book! This book made me want to re-connect with nature nd we come to know about Meghalaya, about Goethe… it’s brilliantly done! My next question is: As an Indian writer in English, you do use a lot of words and phrases in other languages. What do you think about language and writing?

Janice Pariat: I write in English because we have an undeniable history of missionary activity, especially in the region where I come from, where we come from. In some ways there was no choice…we went to schools where we were forbidden to speak our mother tongue. We were encouraged and instructed to only speak in English. We were also exposed to a certain kind of syllabus that encouraged Eurocentrism. We read English poets, the romantics, we read Shakespeare. It’s a pity because I feel that there is so much to love about our own hills and about our own histories and about our own poets and singers and songwriters. But that’s the way it is. History has shaped our circumstances in such indelible ways that we’ve often had no choice, but we do have a choice now, I think, yes, I feel I do…and that is to return to the place that I come from into the language that was once mine in a way that might be diminished, but is still filled with great love. I’m not a nationalist at all. And if I had to categorize myself, I would actually say that I am very much a post-nationalist because I don’t believe in nations, I don’t believe in borders and I don’t believe these political constructions that often cause more strife and more violence than anything else. I think that the nation is this terrible, fixed entity where so much violence lies at its borders and we have been subjected to that in the North-East so much. I think for me…Khasi and the space of Khasiness like territory …I have only actually begun to explore in a meaningful way now. I walk the landscape quite literally. I go for walks and treks and trails. I am trying to relearn Khasi language and speak more Khasi. So, of course, as you’ve noticed … it makes it way into my writing as well because my writing for most part, is also anchored in these places. So, to not acknowledge that this language exists would be to not acknowledge that a large aspect of this landscape exists. It has to make its way into my stories. Rather, it already exists…I just have to find it.

Lakshmi: Yeah. So, you make your English your own when you write it.

Janice Pariat: Yeah. Yes, absolutely.

Lakshmi: My last questions would be: (1) First, what advice would you give a budding writer and (2) second, What/ Who are you currently reading?

Janice Pariat: Right… Um, well, to your first question, I would share a piece of advice that I once received, which I thought was very useful and that is no one can write your story, but you. What am I reading currently? I am currently reading a nonfiction book on walking. It’s called Wanderlust and it’s by Rebecca Schmidt… I feel as though it might be an inspiration for the research for my next book! We’ll see how it goes!

Lakshmi: I’ll be eagerly waiting for your next book! Can’t wait! I have had such a great chat with you! Thanks so much for taking time out for this interview!

Janice Pariat: You’re most welcome, Lakshmi and all the best!

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