Interview 4- Rheea Mukherjee
Rheea’s debut short story collection ‘Transit for Beginners’ was published by Singapore based publisher ‘Kitaab’ early this year.
So excited about this interview! Never thought I would interview you for your debut book when I had first encountered a short story of yours online a few years ago.
This interview will be about your book and other things literary.
- The title of your collection borrows from a story in the collection. How did it become the title of the book?
RM: I was in grad school when I wrote that story. It was actually the first name that came to me, and it stuck. The collection of short stories was entitled ‘In these Cities We Dream’ and the manuscript went in with that title. Later on, as my own voice evolved, I realized that the title no longer represented my tone nor personality: it was a little too corny. Transit for Beginners made sense for the entire collection. Where are we all, if not in transit?
- I began your collection with the stories that I had read online previously. I thought that beginning with familiarity would make the reading more enjoyable but how wrong I was.
‘Unspeakable’ as an opening story is beautiful. I felt like I had been sucked into a portal where I had transformed into a shadow amidst the characters living out the scenes. How did you decide on ‘Unspeakable’ for the opening story?
RM: Unspeakable is very different from a lot of my work. It was written at a time of emotional turmoil, and I guess the story represents that time in my life. It would be very hard to recreate that style, I honestly think it’s one of those abnormalities in a writers’ life, but bah, what do I really know?
- Indian mainstream publishers are not very receptive to debut short story collections. Novels have a better chance. Your comments?
RM: It’s a tricky time. Short stories always do better, or are more likely to be picked up when you are more established as a writer. Novels are easier to bet on, because the likelihood of you setting up a brand is easier. That’ said, I don’t fault the publishers. We’re losing the art of reading: the act of reading for a sense of exploration, the act of reading to enjoy new boundaries and look at things with new perspectives. A generation ago, people would pick up anything: short stories, a novella, a novel, just to read. Now we need to read brands, we need to read for the sake of making better conversation. The rest is satisfied by social media and quick internet articles. Oh, well, right?
- How did you discover your publisher ‘Kitaab’?
RM: I have a FB friend, Anu Kumar who has written quite a few books. I saw that one of her latest books was a collection of short stories. Short story writers have to keep an eye out for this kind of thing. I asked her about Kitaab, she asked me to write to Zafar Anjum. I did, and a year and half later my book was (finally) published.
- What are the perks of being published by a small press?
RM: Being appreciated for the writer you are. No intrusive editor manipulations. The small press really aims to give all writers a voice. They give you a chance, and it’s not a chance people should shrug their shoulders at. Finding a press that is not betting on money as much as it wants to just release quality voices to the world- that’s something only ridiculously passionate people can do. That’s what Kitaab is- a press with a larger vision for what writing means to this world.
- Unlike a novel, a short story collection runs the risk of being abandoned at anytime as a reader can gauge the quality of writing from any story in the collection. How much effort went into deciding which stories would be included in your collection and the order they would appear in?
RM: This is a great question, because the answer is; not much time at all. I took out two stories that were in the collection, simply because I thought they were lame. But I did think about Unspeakable starting the book off, and Keeping Pace ending it. I am not really sure why, but I think everything comes full circle. Or, at the very least the reader might come to the conclusion that things coming full circle is irrelevant to begin with.
- Is ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ an MFA thing?
I recently read an article by Namrata Poddar titled ‘Is “Show Don’t Tell” A Universal Truth Or A Colonial Relic? in which the author implies (IMHO) that ‘telling’ or ‘oral narration’ comes from the East and that ‘Showing’ or ‘Written word’ comes from the West. Any comments?
RM: Yes, I think ‘show don’t tell’ is very American. It’s also what they drive home in the MFA culture, it’s all about scene building. It’s not all unwarranted, there is a lot to learn about constructing scenes and moving a story. It can empower your reader, and let them feel the textures of your story, it also lets them interpret things that are not spelled out. That said, I think the MFA style relies too much on scene building. Our culture has its roots in oral storytelling, we instantly trust a narrator, and we rely on them to guide us through the story. I personally like this style, but I do include a lot of scenes in my work. If you look at Pamuk, Camus, R.K Narayan you can see the difference in storytelling, VS say, Foster or Gaitskill. I think reading both kinds help both the reader and the writer. For me, it helps evolve my own style, where narrator, scene, and ‘showing’ all blur together.
- I remember, in one of our discussions you had said that you read a lot of stories that are well-written but not all of them are good ‘stories’ which have the ability to translate to great literature. Can you elaborate on this?
RM: Yes. You can have a lot of craft, but if a reader is not left with fragments of story long after they’ve read it, then something has fallen flat. As a writer, we need to say something about our world, our place in it, our injustices, our privileges. This can be said in many ways; Orwell is a great example of using Science Fiction to demonstrate how frightening humans can be. I think writing for the sake of writing will show, no matter how tremendous your craft is. I think everything is political, even Harry Potter. Everything you write has a history of culture, gender, sexuality, political movements, and anthropology behind it. It might not reflect directly on the pages, but as a writer you bring that in. You are making history as you write. For example, I am writing in a time of perceived binary reductionist political thought, a time incendiary headlines. I am writing on the privilege that thousands of feminists have given me. I am writing at a time I am being informed my selective media. I am writing in a global Indian city. All these things have a direct or indirect impact on my writing.
- After completing your MFA, there would have been the thrill, the pride but did you feel worried that readers would perceive your work as just-another MFA result?
RM: No, not really. I didn’t think my work is representative of the MFA cliché, I also think the MFA cliché exists, but it has as many exceptions.
- You had conducted the Bangalore Writers’ Workshop a few years ago. Can you tell us a little about the literary talent you encountered in Bangalore then?
RM: I founded in 2012 with Bhumika Anand. I was there for two years, and we worked with over 150 students during my time. What’s most prominent about our students? Our education system comes to mind. Here were many talented writers who had to relegate their time to writing after finishing their ‘respectable’ degrees. Most of them were working, and most of them wanted something much more out of life. I think we trample on so many budding artists in this country, just because we direct them into one way of urban success. That said, many of the writers I taught are making the best of both worlds, some are full-time writing now. I think we need a damn artists’ revolution in this country.
- You began taking writing seriously at 22. How were the years since then and now, that built up to your book? Did you ever think of giving up writing in the face of many rejections?
RM: Well a part from the fact that my very old work makes me want to vomit all over at the mere thought of it? Well, I’ve grown. I’ve also been lucky to see many perspectives. I’ve worked as a coffee barista, and in fast-food, I’ve worked as counselor at a psychiatric hospital in Colorado, as well as a counselor in a domestic abuse shelter and a step-down-fro-jail facility for boys aged 10-19. I’ve lived between the U.S and India for most of my life, and adapting to both cultures was hard, but also made me who I am today. I’ve taught at BWW, and now I am the co-founder of Write Leela Write a design and content laboratory, and we do a ton of branding for Indian startups. So I guess, career wise I’ve been all over the place, and that has impacted my writing. I am very grateful for how chaotic my life has been.
- My favourites from the collection are ‘Hungry’, ‘A Larger Design’ and ‘A Good Arrangement’ among others.
RM: Hungry is a favorite of mine. I think Sai really attached himself to me. In my head he was a simple boy from small town with moderate ambition. He just happened to get caught up in something really immoral: secretly videotaping couples having sex in the hotel he worked for. I think it’s represented of all of us: we’re all doing something to make ends meet, and some of it directly or indirectly is morally compromising. I think in Urban India our ways of contributing to excesses and vulgarity is so indirect, that’s why it’s easy to pretend everything is ok. In the end though, Sai makes a choice, and I think we all have a choice at any moment, to free ourselves of the constructs of society.
A Good Arrangement, I’d rather not talk about, if I must be honest it was a quick story I wrote, and I am not proud of it. I think there is a lot of lazy writing in there. But hindsight is always 20/20.
As for A Larger Design, I’ve always been obsessed with mental illness and the medical constructs of it. I explore this more thoroughly in my second book, which I am working on.
- What is the biggest challenge for you when you switch from fiction to non-fiction?
RM: My non-fiction tends to be a lot more socially political, and I see myself going in that direction if I expand on it. I like social observation, I like writing about the nuances of our micro-cultures and how that impacts the larger narratives and headlines in our world. Fiction is more liberating because I can reimagine things and experiment a whole lot more. I was just at the Seemanchal Literary Festival this last week. As a writer it was kind of life changing. For an Urban English Indian writer to step into a small town (Kishanganj) in Bihar, and to witness the hospitality, life, and reality of the state was mesmerizing and powerful. We had several writers, who have made their names in Hindi, Urdu, Malay, Tamil, and English. The main theme was humanity through literature, and that is something I identity with as a writer. To be a writer, you must have purpose, or at least acknowledge the lack of purpose in this very confusing world. I think we have to get really serious about things to see how un-serious things really are, how comedic, how ironic.
- You write for Scroll. Two articles that I found very interesting were: ‘Why self-publishing is not the best future you can give your book’ and ‘A seven-point manifesto for the Indian literary magazine’.
RM: I do write for Scroll occasionally. I’m allowed to be sarcastic and bring in social observations with practically no censorship. I am grateful for that opportunity. The two articles you mentioned there are my more circumspect ones. I do feel strongly about self-publishing I think vanity publishing can spell doom for the art of writing. I am old school that way, you have to put in the work, you have to face the rejection. Otherwise it’s as easy as uploading picture on FB. This is not to say that there aren’t successful books that have been self-published, I think a lot of good writers do this, and the market is such that sometimes it’s the only hope. But I think the practice itself is detrimental to our work. By the way, my latest Scroll article is about the Seemanchal Literary Fest.
- You have two dogs. Henna and Nimbu. When will we see them in your writing?
RM: Hmmm… what is it with writers and pets? Yes,me and my partner Indra are dog parents, and Nimbu and Henna do show up, but let’s just say they are metaphors.
- Your book has a blurb by Arunava Sinha and PrajwalPrajuly. How important is it for new writers to have book blurbs by well-known authors?
RM: Well, I think first of all there might be plenty of great writers who don’t have access to well-known writers. But I think if you keep at your work and craft and are really doing your homework, you will make those connections. You have to be pushing your work, editing it, submitting it, and collecting rejections, through that process you meet people, you get things published in increasingly well-known literary magazines. You go to small writer festivals, you talk, you read other people’s work. Your writing karma usually will be blessed with some very genuine souls who read your work and tell you honestly if it’s good. It’s here where I’ll say, you are not looking for just well-known writers, you are looking for amazing people, people who understand the struggle and know the honesty it requires to be a writer. And you’ll meet those people along the way.
- ‘Her moral compass frequently warned her that Brahmin girls from good families didn’t behave like this. But with every secret journey to meet him, the urgency of those mental alarms wore out, like ancient stitches from an old blouse.’
These lines from Reckless show your poetic streak. You have a few poems published online. When do we see a poetry collection from you (also a novel)?
RM: I am really not a poet. I do have a couple of poems published in ‘Cha’. At first my writing was very lush. My new writing is a lot blunter,or so I think, and blunt writing can be poetic too, though it’s a matter of perspective.
Buy her book here