Interview 16: Sumana Roy
Sumana Roy with her nephew. Photo Courtesy: Sudipto Roy
Sumana Roy’s first book, How I Became a Tree, a work of non-fiction, was published in India in February. Her poems and essays have appeared in Granta, Guernica, LARB, Drunken Boat, the Prairie Schooner, Berfrois, and other journals. She lives in Siliguri in India. In this interview we discuss trees, her book, fiction, poetry and her nephew among others.
- Let us begin with your book ‘How I Became a Tree’. How did you think of the title? It somehow reminded me of The Vegetarian by Han Kang and it also sounded like a self-help book to empower others through your journey.
SR: I cannot exactly remember how the title came to me. It certainly didn’t come to me before I began working on the book. I also cannot exactly remember when I began working on the book. I had been making notes on my phone and in notebooks for months, perhaps years. When they started to acquire girth, I began to notice a pattern in them – that in all these questions I was asking myself, there was the urge to live like a tree. It was an emotional response. Is it a self-help book? Every book – every piece of writing – is for self-help, I suppose. We are writing to clear things for ourselves, aren’t we? I like to joke that it should be put in the DIY category, but at that time I was groping for something whose emotional economy was self-contained. Stupidly, I chose the tree.
I haven’t read The Vegetarian. I might, some day.
- It has been shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2017. How does it feel and what is your view on awards such as these?
SR: Awards and prizes are a new kind of patronage in our times. This is a non-corporate and non-governmental prize. I don’t know what awards really mean, but in this case my first thought was that two readers who were writers had read my book. That touched me, as it would any person who writes.
- One of my friends is quite passionate about trees and preserving them. She is part of an initiative which maps trees with the help of an app, finding out what environment helps them thrive etc.
Do you think the role of a writer is restricted to the page or should they be activists too?
SR: All art is, in some way, a kind of activism. I could be wrong, but I think it’s the temper of our times that we associate only a certain kind of politics and a slightly high-pitched tone with activism. This might be the influence of the news studio on our consciousness. When Marcel Duchamp took a porcelain urinal and called it ‘Fountain’, he was being an activist as well.
- You recently won a fellowship to write a book on the Teesta. Tell us a little about it.
SR: I grew up in Siliguri. Most of our school picnics were on the banks of the river Teesta. By the time I was a student at university, I noticed that the river was dying. I’ve watched it turning comatose in the last two decades. I’ve been awarded a Carson writing fellowship by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich to write a book on the Teesta.
- In one of your articles ‘Living in the chicken neck’ you talk about your debut book that you abandoned. You talk about Siliguri and how most debut manuscripts are autobiographical. Despite being longlisted for the Man Asian Prize and it being a very dear topic to you, you knew it wasn’t meant to be. How did you find the courage to discard it?
SR: I thought it was a badly written book. How could I have allowed it to get published?
- It was in the making for ten years. Nowadays in the rush to be published a lot of young writers get self-published. Do you think they lack the patience and wisdom to be a good judge of their own work?
SR: I don’t think self-publishing is necessarily a bad thing. Many of the modernists – Joyce and Woolf, I think – wouldn’t have had their books published if they hadn’t set out to do so themselves. Proust too, didn’t he? Laurence Sterne too, I think? I think a lot of good books will emerge from self-publishing. That is because publishers have almost closed themselves to books that lie outside marketing categories. Any new kind of writing will have to fight publishing boxes to meet the world. The new distribution system will also encourage and facilitate the meeting of these books with their readers.
- Your poetry is published in GRANTA, one of the more prestigious literary magazines of today. Where and how did you train as a poet?
SR: I read a lot of poetry. In fact, that is almost the only thing I read now. A few favourite poets in English, but mostly in Bangla.
- Amit Chaudhuri talks about the ‘First sentence’ in his essay in GRANTA. Do you give much thought to an opening line of your poem? I think the opening line (break) of your poem ‘Are you lonesome tonight?’ is strong.
The door opens itself
SR: I think Chaudhuri talks more about the first paragraph than he does about the first sentence in that essay. For me, every single line in a poem is a first line. A poem is not a house with doors and windows, with fixed points of entry. It is more like the skin of the sea – I should be able to jump into it anywhere (and anytime). So every line is equally important for me.
- What is it about free verse that draws you to it?
SR: I’ve never dreamed in rhyming couplets or iambic pentameter. Perhaps that’s why.
- Let us talk about your short story ‘My Mother’s Head’ published by Himal SouthAsian Magazine. Some beautiful lines I experienced in it like these:
– I felt helpless but also distant – this thing called pain is like god; one needs to experience it to believe in it.
– I began to detest the burden of that love.
As a poet, do you approach your fiction at sentence level too?
SR: Always. Like every line in a poem, every sentence in prose matters to me. In fact, I think there is very little to distinguish between a line in a poem from a sentence in an essay or a story for me.
- How did you conceive this story? I noted two themes through which the sentences throb: Pain (Physical/Emotional) and Love (Filial). I thought you did well in bridging the gap (if there’s any) between mental and physical health. When you construct a story, do you pay emphasis to theme or dialogue or…?
SR: The story wrote itself, I think. Like most things I write about, this came from a very personal space. I know the people in the story intimately, as I imagine all writers know the characters in their stories.
There is so little to tell between physical and mental health. We call it “heartbreak” because we feel the heart breaking, for instance.
To answer your question, I’m conscious neither of theme nor of dialogue. I’m only aiming to be as honest as I can to the life in the story – it is difficult to turn that into words.
- Your story reminded me of Jerry Pinto’s book Em and the Big Hoom. The need to capture the memory of the mother and coming to terms with it is alive in both stories. Any comments?
SR: One of the first stories that I wrote – I began writing very late, in my early thirties – was “My Mother’s Lover” (Pratilipi). That was ten years ago. “My Mother’s Head” (HimalSouthasian), which was published last year, is, like “My Mother’s Lover”, an exploration about the relationship between a mother and daughter. As a daughter, I feel that there are many things that I shall never know about my mother – I’m interested in her childhood, in her adolescence, in her love stories, in her secrets. A mother knows more about her daughter than a daughter shall ever know about her mother. It’s a very unequal relationship in terms of such knowledge, and also the direction and duration of affection. I haven’t read Pinto’s book yet, and so I cannot comment on the similarities of our ambitions, if any at all. Our mothers are our best lovers – I’m interested in that love and its unknowability.
- Tell us a little about the ejournal you co-founded
SR: Manjiri, Debojit and I wanted to create a forum which would allow space for literature (poems, essays, stories; artwork) around what was considered the non-serious, particularly in a self-important and serious country like India. I wanted “Are You Serious” as the name of the journal, but that URL was unfortunately already taken. So we came up with Antiserious, though we are anti-everything, including anti-anti.
- What do you think about the current publishing scenario in India?
SR: I wish there was more space for poetry and for the essay. Also, shorter forms – the short story, the novella, the long essay. I think we tend to imagine that there is a ‘market’ – or lack of it – for certain forms and subjects. But that such a market is only an imagined construct is proved by the success of a new kind of Hindi films in the last eight years or so. What would be good – and it’s possible to do that – is to bring in more variety in our writing.
- Tell us how Aleph chose your book for publication.
SR: I submitted my manuscript to Aleph. I consider myself extremely fortunate that David Davidar wrote back to me on the third day after my submission. I’ve enjoyed working with Davidar and Aienla Ozukum at Aleph.
- Who are your influences and by influences I don’t mean writers. You are quite fond of your nephew as your Facebook posts show. Has he appeared in your work?
SR: I’ve written a few poems about my nephew. An essay or two. Writing about him is a good reminder to me that the people we write about are not necessarily our readers (like Friday wasn’t in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe).
I find questions about influences very difficult to answer – they presume a kind of extreme self-awareness, as if it was some kind of organ transplant. I think I’m influenced by everything around me, both things I like and those I don’t.
- Any advice to young writers?
SR: None. Except to reject advice perhaps.
- Favourite books?
SR: Amit Chaudhuri’s writing – his novels, A Strange and Sublime Address, The Immortals, Freedom Song, the essays, his book of poems, St Cyril Road and Other poems; James Salter’s sentences which I read like I do poetry; Aranyak, Middlemarch, the poems of Shakti Chattopadhyay and Jibanananda Das, Tagore’s songs (the most beautiful collection of sounds I’ve ever encountered); essays in The Common Reader, The Sacred Wood, The Collected Prose of Robert Frost.
- If I’m not wrong, paper comes from trees, right? What is your view on print books?(Your book is in print. Isn’t it counter productive to what you are trying to convey through the book- your love for trees.)
SR: Publishers – I’ve seen two such books, one from Brazil, the other from Kerala – have tried to reverse this by attaching seeds for plants and trees along with books or a mechanism to plant the book which is engineered to grow into a tree. But, of course, it’s only a token gesture.
Thank you for speaking to me Sumana!
Her book is available for sale here
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