POETRY, POST-PARTITION WOES AND WOMEN AND GIRLS CAUGHT IN THE SNARE OF HISTORY AND SOCIETY: AN INTERVIEW WITH NABINA DAS
By Kulpreet Yadav
Open Road Review contributor, Nabina Das has an MFA in poetry from Rutgers University and an MA in Linguistics from JNU, Delhi. Published with two poetry collections, she has two fiction books. ‘The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped” (LiFi Publications, 2013) is her first collection of short stories, after “Footprints in the Bajra” (Cedar books) a novel that addresses Maoist engagement in rural Bihar. This interview was conducted over e-mail.
Kulpreet Yadav: Tell us about your new collection of short stories ‘The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped’.
Nabina Das: The collection is a result of writing that started from 2005 when I gave up my full time journalism job with The Ithaca Journal, US. Quite naively, I wrote down the stories without much reworking them and structured a manuscript to mail it away for a prestigious first book award contest. The good thing that came out of it is that I received a personalized rejection letter. It said my stories had several good things in them but they required more economy of plot and narration and focus on character and action. Verbs are good things, it quipped. Until then, I wrote from pure instinct. I do that even now. But something about that comment changed the way I looked at my writing. I took majority of the stories in the collection to my MFA at Rutgers University, US, in 2010, where, my colleagues helped me work on them. This rigor meant a lot for the stories whereby they evolved and changed in ways I had not foreseen before. LiFi Publications, Delhi, took up the manuscript and in 2013-14, the book was published. The publisher’s book blurb says: “This is a collection of stories that span the lives of women and girls caught in the snare of history and society. The travails of the partition of the Indian sub-continent, a neoliberal India, non-resident joys and fears, and also coming of age in surroundings that are familiar or held hostage to a politics of fear - these are the themes subtly addressed in this volume. There are also stories about men searching for identity and justice, as well as ideal and memory - their portrait framed all along by the normative environment around.” Several of the stories have been individually published or been anthologized.
KY: How do you juggle the two, poetry and prose? Does being a poet add a new dimension to your prose?
ND: I like to think of myself as a poet first. But essentially, I don’t see any conflict between being a poet and a fiction writer. Some of the short fiction I read is very much like poetry – deep, concise and moving in their purport. Reading or writing a novel to me also involves a lot of poetic gleaning. I think good writing can just fan across the board and therefore, I don’t attempt to be a purist and segregate myself or the others from one genre to the other.
Now, being a *poet first* does make me think that I can flirt with the prose I write. For my debut book, FOOTPRINTS IN THE BAJRA, a novel, critics have said its prose has a “lyrical core” true to my vocation as a poet. Perhaps that’s a valid observation.
And most of my favorite writers – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Mahashweta Devi, Toni Morrison – write prose that’s seamless and effortless while evoking nuanced interpretation – some of the primary qualities of poetry.
KY: I have noticed that most of your stories are set in the North-East of India. Is that intentional or the experiences of your growing-up years eclipse the later life since I understand you haven’t lived in the North-East for a long time now.
ND: I have last visited my home state Assam in 2009-2010. My father passed away in 2010 and the family moved to Kolkata where my brother does his current job. I’m told the house that my dad built – he sold it off – and where we lived in from 1981, is still largely unchanged. The fact that it belongs to someone else now – naturally because it was sold away – makes me uncomfortable. I have family in Assam and the rest of Northeast India. A lot of what I write is about people and places with connections to the NE. It could be intentional as well as molded into my writer’s psyche. Nowhere else I find life as challenging, rich, varied, marginalized or celebrated. Although you would have noticed, my stories are also placed in Kerala, Delhi, Upstate NY, Kolkata, etc. Geography is only a temporary marker for me. It’s the sensitivity around characters and their obsession that matters to me while writing.
KY: Who is your favorite short story writer and why?
ND: I wonder if this question can be answered straightway! How can there be one short story writer that I like and am influenced by? Alice Munro, Nadine Gordimer, Mahashweta Devi, Mamoni Roisom Goswami, Sa’adat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, and so and so forth… Why do I like them? Munro for her vignette-style writing, Gordimer for her strong narrative hold coupled with strident political stance, Devi’s diversity of topic, Goswamis sensitive storytelling, Manto’s quicksilver plot and characterization, Chughtai’s wry humor and approach to LGB topics as seen in those times, and several other things. I also like Joyce Carol Oates for her impeccable Slice Americana, and Jorge Luis Borges for his “forked-ness”!
KY: After a full-length novel, you chose to publish a collection of short stories. Why? And what are you writing at the moment?
ND: I’ll answer the second part first. I have a manuscript in progress titled MALENA OF THE SPICES. The novel is a trans-continental story involving individuals from multicultural backgrounds grappling with options that literally may make or break them. Balu, an Indian man, and Magdalena, a Mexican paperless woman, dream up a world mixed of their own countries and the one they struggle to internalize. Although I’m working slowly this year, hopefully I’ll race through the first draft. I’m not in a hurry at all to have a book published too soon. For my love of writing, I’d like to see the novel unfurl in a smooth way because it is a story of many stories about lives. Right now there are about seven or so chapters done. They morph as I keep working on the book.
After my novel in 2010, I published THE HOUSE OF TWINING ROSES: STORIES OF THE MAPPED AND THE UNMAPPED in 2013-14 from LiFi Publications, Delhi. These were short stories that I’ve been writing since 2005. Primarily because I love the short fiction genre, I was happy to write them one after another and send them out to various places. Some got published sooner, the other stories came back with comments or suggestions. I have mentioned elsewhere earlier that FOOTPRINTS was also initially written as a short story in 2005. A well known NYC agent and editor did a phone-in workshop with me (as part of a workshop with a select group of emerging writers). That is when she had suggested that the story can easily become a novel owing to its potential in plot structure and characterization. You might say, the book of short stories was a natural candidate for publication by the time it was 2012 and we saw several revisions of the individual stories, particularly during my Rutgers University MFA from 2010-11. Individual stories had been published in magazines and anthologies by then too, spurring me to think of a collection.
KY: ‘Waterborne’, I thought, was a complex story about interracial love. It left me bewildered, compelling me to rethink of the space that divides love and expectations. What were you thinking when you wrote that story?
ND: While I wrote that story, interracial love was not what occupied my thoughts. I thought of Darya as a lonely woman from the backwaters of Kerala far out in the American east coast, faced with choices. A little like some of us who left home as a young person to experience the world on our own in a different socio-cultural atmosphere. But Darya is not quite the same again. The race factor is not upfront for me in that story. It’s more about Darya’s own alienation, right from her birth when she meets no father and grows to trust a Godmother from another culture. The US connection comes into play only because I have spent long eight to nine years living in that country. You mention “space that divides love and expectations”. That exactly is what the story dwells upon. As a writer, I saw that space being claimed by the protagonist’s experiential factors. By naming the story WATERBORNE, I was deeply engaged with the imagery that water offered in several layers. Now that you ask me, I perhaps chose a white American male in that narrative to layer the so-called cultural metaphor of water that might have been lost if it were an Indian person. Well, these are speculations! I leave it to the readers to decipher the narrative space.
Founder-editor of Open Road Review, Kulpreet Yadav’s latest novel Catching the Departed, shortlisted by Hachette-DNA in a contest called ‘Hunt for the Next Bestseller’, was launched at The Arts House, Singapore on 18 July 2014. He lives in New Delhi. More at www.kulpreetyadav.in