Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Books Interview: Samrat Upadhyay

Samrat Upadhyay’s book of short stories The Royal Ghosts, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Times in February, is among the two or three best books I’ve read this year. Samrat kindly consented to an interview over email, and I present here his replies to some questions I asked him about his writing and reading. The Royal Ghosts will be out in India soon.

You have now written two books of short stories and one novel, which is unusual given that most writers today privilege the writing of novels. What do you find attractive about short story form?

The short story remains my first love. It is the form in which I began seeing myself as a serious writer, starting as an M.A. student in the late eighties. I love its compression, the deadline it gives me: I have a number of pages in which to accomplish certain things. No time or room to dilly-dally (although great writers are adept at taking us to the edge of dillydally-ness and turning around). I like the story’s shunning of luxury, a luxury the novel welcomes. In a way the story is saying, “Here are the rules, here are ways to break the rules, but you’d better be really careful.” (I just realized how closely that sounds to the mother in Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” offering admonishment and advice to her daughter. Kincaid’s story in itself is a meditation on the form of the story.)

Another attraction of short stories is that working on them allows me to enter multiple worlds and perspectives, some drastically different from one another. I am not bound to one world for months on end, as I am while writing a novel. I find this incredibly freeing. If I get tired of a story, I can bring it to a reasonable end and move onto something else. Alice Munro has said that the story form’s absence of elongated engagement suited her life as a busy mother. Nadine Gordimer has talked of stories being appropriate for our modern, restless consciousness; I greatly like how she talks of the story as a flash of the firefly for its sudden illumination.

Could you talk a little about the stories from which you've learnt the most about matters of technique or the delineation of character?

Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” remains an all-time favorite with me: the shock of the first line (“When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug”) followed by a languorous opening of several long paragraphs in which the body of the cockroach battles fiercely with the soul of a traveling salesman. It can’t get better than this, just in terms of “bursting” into a story, turning our world topsy-turvy, then relaxing and teasing out the implications of the opening line. When I read “The Metamorphosis,” I find myself participating in the writing process.

I’ve learned much from Nadine Gordimer on how to control narrative distance—you know, move away to provide a larger, omniscient picture, then zoom in on an individual character’s intimate feelings and thoughts. William Trevor is a writer whose technique I admire the most, but feel as if it’ll take me a couple of lifetimes to master what he does: provide a startlingly visual picture for the reader without compromising psychological accuracy. His compassion for his characters, even the “baddest” ones, seeps through the gaps between the words, and I’m in awe of it. “The Potato Dealer” from his collection After Rain is a good example of this. Simultaneously, we experience three characters’ point of view, and Trevor manages to make us feel for all of them.

Realist fiction relies to a great extent on verisimilitude, on its ability to persuade the reader through minutely observed details. Your stories are full of details about Nepal, but you yourself do not live in that country any more. How hard is that when it comes to matters of description, of scene setting? Or is your distance from Nepal helpful?

It’s not hard at all. Most of the core images I use come from my first twenty-one years of life in Nepal, often from my childhood. Both the emotional and geographical distance helps me observe, I believe, the terrain of my stories more objectively than I would otherwise. Of course, I visit Nepal at least once every couple of years, as my parents and relatives still live there. Naturally, I “update” myself with the latest changes so that at least in terms of sensory images my stories maintain an illusion of verisimilitude. I say ‘illusion’ because some people take realism to mean “authentic,” a term which then is used to lash out against writers who they feel aren’t “representing” reality as they see fit. Needless to say, South Asian writers living in the west are easy targets of what Vikram Chandra has called “the cult of authenticity”. The epigraph to my first book Arresting God in Kathmandu recalls the Tibetan yoga’s practice of regarding every life detail as a dream—that’s my philosophy of fiction.

The American novelist and short-story writer Bernard Malamud once said of his methods, “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times - once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say. Somewhere I put it this way: first drafts are for learning what one's fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.” Would you agree with that?

Yes, I do, although with the caveat that it depends upon the story. Only one story I’ve written, “Deepak Misra’s Secretary” from my first collection, didn’t go through the three stages that Malamud speaks of. That story I finished in a week, did some minor editing, and that’s how it was published in a journal and later in the book. All the rest have gone through various stages of exploration and discovery. In almost half of my stories the pleasure has come about only in the revision stage, once the story really begins to come together. But then, sometimes revision is pure drudgery—but necessary.

Every reader has some favorite passage from literature, something that seems to him or her an example of the sharpest, most subtle writing? Is there a passage like that you'd like to cite from a book, explaining what you like about it?

I can recall many such favorite passages, but the one that gives me goose bumps every time I teach it, and one that I even managed to echo in one of my stories, is from Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” The story charts the agony of a mother forced to live through her son’s coma and eventual death, all the while hounded by a baker who keeps making nasty phone calls about the son’s birthday cake that was never picked up. After their son’s death, the furious mother, accompanied by her husband, goes to the baker’s shop to accost him. When they tell him that their son is dead, the baker changes. The passage below, for me, shows what great literature really does: bring together antagonistic forces, with ample respect for the complexities of emotions involved, so that even the most extremes of feelings become transformed into some sweet, earthly, and meditative:

"You probably need to eat something," the baker said. "I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this," he said.
He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. "It's good to eat something," he said, watching them. "There's more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in here."
They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.
"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
You work in the USA as a teacher of creative writing. I'd like to ask you to what extent it is possible to teach someone to writer better fiction or poetry? And is there another way to the same goal? Is it possible to write better by learning to read better?

If you think of learning how to write as similar to learning music, then “creative writing” doesn’t seem like such a bizarre notion. I can’t teach those students who have no ear for language, or those who can not distinguish between easy, clichéd ploys of commercial, genre-oriented literature and serious, artistically compelling stuff. But I can teach students to gain better control of their material, to expand and refine their vision, and to come to terms with the reality of the profession. If you think of writing as an “apprenticeship,” which includes both learning skills and practicing, then reading becomes a way of learning skills. But this doesn’t necessarily need to happen in academia; writers groups in local communities can mirror the kind of gathering one finds in MFA programs like ours at Indiana University.

Which are the dozen or so books that you would like to take with you into the afterlife, if such a thing exists?

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas
Anita Desai, In Custody
Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey
William Trevor, Collected Stories
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems
Franz Kafka, Complete Stories

What are your work habits like?

I tend to get up very early in the morning to write, but get tired easily. Also, I have a full time job of teaching, so I write at most 3-4 hours a day.

Do you read literary criticism or book reviews? What, in your opinion, is the work of such activity? Are there any critics you specially like reading?

I do read book reviews; not only my reviews of my work but of others. I think discussion and reflection are nourishing activities for writers. I prefer to read works of criticism or essays by writers themselves, as I find them more illuminating. So, Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands remains a favorite of mine, a work I’ve often gone back to repeatedly. I’ve also learned much about the social responsibility of the writer from Nadine Gordimer’s The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, a collection of essays on what it meant to be a writer under apartheid.

Would you care to make any observations on the political situation in Nepal today?

Now that an autocratic regime has been defeated, I am very optimistic about the resolution of the Maoist political impasse in Nepal. Here’s my recent op-ed on the subject, "A King in Check", from the New York Times. And here’s another essay that appeared in the Times three years ago.

Have you been to India? Did you find yourself comparing to to Nepal in this way and that?

I have traveled extensively in northern India; studied in Bombay for a year in the early eighties; and now frequently visit Kolkata as my sister lives there. I grew up on a steady diet of Hindi movies, and I think sometimes my stories have undercurrents of the dramas of Hindi movies of yore. Nepali and Indian cultures are quite similar, with similarities in food and Hindu rituals and festivals.

These interviews always end with a question not related to literature, though related to the good life. Please tell us what your favorite meal is - and if you cook yourself, how it is cooked.

Momos, Nepali dumplings. Even thinking about momos makes my mouth water. Best momos will explode in your mouth, filling your palate with sharp, tangy juice that’s simply heavenly. The meat itself is yummily spicy, and before you even finish swallowing one momo, you must plop the next one into your mouth so that it’s a continuous, seamless orgasm.

I know of no Nepali who doesn’t like momos, so I’d venture to say that momos are probably more a symbol of Nepali unity that the institution of monarchy can ever be! Here’s the recipe my friend Karl Eisenhower put up on his website after he learned how to cook momos from my wife Babita. Chicken instead of pork will do just as well.


amit varma said...

Excellent interview, Hash, thanks.

I'd like to know your feelings about Carver and momos as well. I suspect you like the latter considerably more than the former. That so?

Amardeep Singh said...

Hey, thanks for posting this. It's a very good interview.

Chandrahas said...

Dear Amit - As even Samrat appears to like momos more than Carver (and he is a fan of Carver) I, who haven't read him much, can't really be expected to prefer him to momos. The Carver that has been of greatest value to me in my life has been a meat carver that used to be in a house I lived in while at university.

Rahul Bhatia said...

Well done, Hash.

Masood Ahmed said...

Dear Chandrahas: Fabulous undertaking....the interview's depth really helps us know about the Nepalese writer Samrat...pretty soon I will be reading his books.Keep the good work.

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview. The passage by Carver that he mentions is wonderful. I must read some Carver soon.

Having read this, I now want to buy the book. Hopefully, its affordable.

Abha Iyengar said...

Excellent interview, Chandrahaas. Thanks. Great insights.

Pessimist Fool said...

great interview chandrahas, it seems you are really interested in knowing what goes inside a writer's mind. great job