The Versatile Writer – Anjum Hasan

anjum-hasanAnjum Hasan is the author of the novels “Lunatic in my Head,” “Neti, Neti” and “Difficult Pleasures,” a short story collection which was shortlisted for The Hindu Literary Prize and Crossword Fiction Award. She is also a poet, and her debut collection of poems was titled “Street on the Hill.” Hasan’s short stories, articles, essays, book reviews and poetry have been widely published in Indian and international publications. Her essay “Shillong, Bob Dylan and Cowboy Boots” won a prize in the Outlook Picador Non Fiction Contest 2002. Presently, she is the Books Editor at The Caravan magazine.

  • Your first book was a poetry collection and you need to be quite good at it to get a poetry collection to be published in India.  What were the challenges in getting it published and how well was it received? Do you think your book could have fared better commercially if you could change a few things in the post-publishing scenario for poetry books in India?

Street on the Hill, my first collection, got published by chance. I sent the manuscript to the poet K Satchidanandan, who had read my work in journals, and whose poetry I admired. He recommended it to the Sahitya Akademi, which happened to be starting a Navodaya scheme – to publish debutant poets in English. That’s how it came through. I had tried the big publishers before this but without luck. The book got a few great reviews but the more tangible response was at readings. I did several all over the country, in bookshops and organized by friends, and would sell copies myself. Since the book was priced at Rs 40 it didn’t embarrass me to foist it on people. I think English poetry in this country has always had an underground feel to it. It is not part of the mainstream discussion on literature but the mainstream discussion on literature is often shallow so maybe there’s nothing lost.

  • Your poetry book also has a Norwegian translation.   Tell us about the book and how was the response.

This was also serendipity, a publisher in Norway reading my poems in a journal and asking if she could publish my collection. However, I have absolutely no idea how the book fared in Norway. But that’s ok. I like the idea of the book finding readers (or not) without my knowledge. Books should have lives of their own.

  • You are also involved in translation and I have read somewhere that your father was also into translating Urdu poetry.  Translators are an under-rated species. What motivates you for translation work?

I’m not much of a translator but I’ve recently tried my hand at translating a few Premchand stories and also been involved in an anthology of contemporary Indian poetry in Swedish translation. My father, Noorul Hasan, is translator of modern Urdu poetry. I wish I knew a language other than English well enough to actually be able to translate substantially and call myself a translator. But I am enthused by the growth of good translations. We have enlightened editors, such as Mini Krishnan at Oxford University Press and R. Sivapriya at Penguin Books, who are doing much behind the scenes for translation.

  • You have published an anthology of short stories with a captivating title “Difficult Pleasures”.  In each of the stories you have dealt an interesting emotion in a beautiful way. Was there a common theme in your mind when you started or you were writing short stories which formed a common thread after you finished the collection? 

The latter. The stories were written as individual pieces over a period of three years but perhaps there’s something like a sensibility that unites them. 

  • Your first novel, ”Lunatic in my Head” is set in Shillong. The story revolves around 3 central characters, Aman, Firdaus and Sophie Das. Your second novel “Neti, Neti” is a sequel of the first novel and talks about the grown up Sophie Das and is set in Bangalore. While the two books are related, the styles are distinctively different and individually exist. While Lunatic moves in an easy pace and the environment around the characters are described in more detail. Neti, Neti is a fast paced novel and deals primarily with emotions. Was it a conscious move as both the novels are set in two different periods (a gap of 15 years) and two different cities with different characteristics?

Yes, they’re very different books! Their main characters share a sense of outsiderness though. And in both books I’ve tried to capture something of a contemporary Indian milieu, not just specific people’s lives but also how those lives are being playedanjum-excerpt out in a particular moment. So Lunatic is Shillong in the early -90s, a time of grave ethnic violence between communities but in some ways still an innocent time, pre-Internet and the rest of the country and the world feeling far away. Neti, Neti is new millennium Bangalore when outsourcing was just beginning to take off and the city started to get crowded with young people from everywhere including the North-east. But I had lived in Shillong all my life till the late 90s, so all of that experience is there in Lunatic. While Bangalore was still relatively new to me when I started to write Neti Neti and I wanted to capture that sense of newness as seen through the eyes of a restless young woman.

  • Both your novels also got published in Australia and your second novel got published in Sweden as well. The audiences in these countries are very different from audience in India. What were the responses like? Did you make any changes in the book for catering the sensibilities in these countries?

I didn’t make any changes of that sort. My Australian editor did wonder about a few things, such as if the sentence about Aman thinking he “shouldn’t use the word ‘prestige’ so often …It made him sound as if he were talking about a pressure cooker” would make sense to Australian readers. But I let those sorts of local quirks be.  In the event, the book got a few decent reviews. The Swedish edition very well received and widely reviewed. Some enjoyed the fact that it was about middleclass urban young, others felt that this class was in its desires “confusingly similar” to that in the West!

  • Your essays also got you critical acclamation. Do we get to see a collection of essays by you in the near future?

I would love to put together a collection of essays but I must write enough good ones first.

  • We are pretty sure that day is not so far.
  • You write in practically every medium, be it poetry, short stories, novels, articles, book reviews, essays or travelogues. Pardon me if I missed something, but how do you think it helps a writer to express if he/she is capable of writing in various mediums? It seems that you enjoy every medium as you have been critically recognized in each medium but what is your favorite medium?

I’ve gravitated towards these different forms because not everything I want to say can be expressed in any one of them exclusively. At the same time, I don’t think there is anything particularly unique about what I do. Many of the writers I admire – Amit Chaudhuri, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Rana Dasgupta, Pankaj Mishra – write in different genres. I consider fiction the heart of what I do, however. The somewhat ambivalent truths that can be expressed through fiction are the ones I’m most comfortable with.

  • You have always been surrounded by people who are into writing right from your childhood. Your husband also is into writing. Do you think, it has helped you grow as a writer and gives you an intellectual advantage as you can always discuss things before giving your work a final shape or getting honest critical reviews after getting your work published?

For sure. My father was a literary model for me when I was a child, he embodied the literary to me, especially the absolute indispensability of correct and felicitous English usage. I got that from him. Zac O’ Yeah, my husband, has a fine sense of the dynamics of especially fiction, so it helps me immeasurably to have him read my work before anyone else.

  • Of late, a term called Northeast Literature has cropped up in the Indian literary scene. What are advantages and disadvantages of this trend?

There has been a modern Northeast literature for a while – especially in poetry, the short story, plays, and especially in Assam and Manipur. The new label refers usually to the recent English fiction (and some non-fiction and poetry) coming out lunaticfrom the mainstream presses. What is new about it is a certain self-awareness, I think, of writing about the Northeast, creating it in writing. What kind of narratives has this self-awareness led to? We need more discussion on that rather than just – wow, there is so much writing coming out of the Northeast and that must be a good thing. It’s not just a question of volume. And then, it’s important to make connections. I often think of Dostoyevsky’s remark that “We have all come out Gogol’s Overcoat.” So the great 19th century Russian writers had that, the example of Gogol before them. What have we Northeastern writers come out of? Are we reading what was written earlier in our own languages? What are we drawing on when we invent the Northeast as this forgotten folksy place, or a scene of relentless conflict, or a characteristically modern if remote hub, as I tried to do in Lunatic and I think writers like Siddhartha Deb and Ankush Saikia have done. All these literary choices and what they reveal about ourselves are interesting and worth examining.

  • Would you like to discuss something about your upcoming work?

Yes, I’m writing a novel about the journey of a middle-aged woman in Bangalore and out of it, and about art – the question of whether art can have personal significance in a world where it’s always supposed to carry some other meaning – whether political or historical or ethnic.

  • We got quite a few aspiring authors in Fried Eye. Any words of advice for them?

I’m struggling with my novel and don’t particularly feel like a wise one who can speak to aspirants from on high. Perhaps all I can say is that what has helped in my own case is interest in literature as much as in writing. Writing is often talked about as a skill or a craft, which it is, but to become a writer means entering a universe in which the ability to put words on the page is just one part of the whole. Interest in the work of other writers is equally important.

  • Thank you Ms. Hasan. It was nice talking with you.

Thank you. It was my pleasure.

We welcome your comments at letters@friedeye.com

2 Comments

2 Comments
  1. A wide-ranging and most interesting interview. Thanks.

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