Interview 10- Anjum Hasan
Anjum Hasan is the author of the novels The Cosmopolitans, Neti, Neti and Lunatic in my Head, and the short story collection Difficult Pleasures. She has also published a book of poems called Street on the Hill. Her books have been nominated for various awards including the Man Asian Literary Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Hindu Best Fiction Award and the Crossword Fiction Award. She was the Charles Wallace Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury. Her short stories, essays and poems are widely published including in Granta and Griffith Review, as well as in Five Dials, Wasafiri, Drawbridge, Los Angeles Review of Books, Asia Literary Review, Caravan and anthologies such as A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present and The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. Anjum is books editor at The Caravan, India’s leading magazine of long-form reporting and essays. She lives in Bangalore.
It is an honour to interview you. It is tough to come across a writer as prolific as you. You write Poetry, Fiction (Short stories and novels) and Non-fiction.
I hope this interview will benefit writers who wish to learn from you.
I loved this poem of yours and I wish to discuss it a bit.
COMING OF AGE IN A CONVENT SCHOOL by Anjum Hasan
The year is 1985
and Phoebe comes to class wearing a golden wig.
A group of girls walk around school with moles
carefully drawn above their lips in blue ballpoint ink.
They’re in love with Madonna.
This is the year that Sister Carmel, our English teacher,
will refuse to believe that Boy George is not a woman,
the year she will talk animatedly about Live Aid.
This year everyone loves the sex education class
but pretends not to.
Sister Monica shows us a film in the library
about an American teenager whom everybody bullies
because he’s still a virgin.
The point of the film is that he’s a winner nevertheless,
and can’t be cowed down.
Next year Prisca will have a baby
but this year she giggles and squirms like everyone else,
and when the girl I sit with stains her overall,
I’m so utterly envious.
I long to be part of this sisterhood.
This is the year of George Michael’s stubble,
the year of Stevie Wonder jokes.
This is the year I realise that there are only,
only women in the entire school building
and am astonished at the thought.
1- Is this poem inspired from your life? (You have been asked before in other interviews whether your protagonists are ‘you’ and you have answered: it is you and also not you.) Can you please elaborate?
AH: Delighted you liked the poem. Some of my poetry is definitely autobiographical, my fiction less so. This poem is from my own life – I studied, came of age and was introduced to the idea of sex and the lure of pop music in my convent school. I wanted to bring those things together in the poem the way they were in my experience – the discipline of the convent as well the discoveries one makes as a teenager. And also how the nuns took it upon themselves to educate us about sex in a remarkably frank, almost humorous, way.
2-How do you decide on enjambment in a free verse poem?
AH: It’s based on the breath, one reads the poem out loud and there is a natural break according to the rhythm of one’s breathing when one reads.
3- Why have you structured this poem as 5-5-5-5-5(2+3)?
I’m not sure! It came out that way – the longer initial verses and then the last two shorter ones, closing down on the experience, each beginning with the same “This is the year…” I don’t really believe in analyzing structure too much. It comes instinctively to me when it does and I go with that. Which is not to say I don’t edit and rewrite. But there is something like the intrinsic core of a poem which often just suggests itself.
1- I have read your books ‘Neti Neti’, ‘Lunatic in my Head’ and currently reading your short story collection ‘Difficult Pleasures’. I feel your prose attempts to capture the nomadic nature of people in cities in India. Any comments?
AH: Cities can be great, monstrous, impersonal things and I am always interested in the ambivalent relationships people might have with them. There is an alienation even if there might be love for a place. So, yes, I am interested in this slight feeling of rootlessness which is not the result of a major disaster – not war or dictatorship – but still people asking themselves if they really belong to the places they live in? I think in other genres of writing and not just fiction we are asking that question much more in this century.
2- You have judged different contests like Helter Skelter new writing, TOTO fund the arts etc. What do you see in new unpublished writing from India that pleases/displeases you?
AH: I think the hardest thing as a young writer, or maybe as a writer at any age, is describing experience in a way that it is not so abstract so as to seem unhuman but neither is it so personal that it’s of relevance to no one but the author. That’s the fine and difficult balance one has to strike. I’ve learnt the hard way, I’m still learning, that one can sound sophisticated and well-read without having that core experience holding the writing up, and it’s also easy to give in to sentimentalizing. We live in an age where we’re increasingly living similar lives so how do you create a sense of your own uniqueness and that of the world and characters you want to create?
3- (i) What is your take on fiction from other North East Indian writers like Janice Pariat, Kaushik Barua, Jahnavi Barua and others?
AH: I very much like Jahnavi’s work, particularly that first book of stories, and also some of Janice’s stories. I’m afraid I haven’t read Kaushik Barua.
(ii) Do you consciously consider them as competition?
AH: I think for a writer on some days all other writers are competition but on other days you’re writing for yourself and it doesn’t matter. I also don’t consider myself only a North-east writer, however one might define that. I write about Shillong but also about Bangalore, music, art, loneliness, travel, love, children, water problems, servants – life.
(iii) How according to you your fiction differs from theirs?
AH: I think that’s for readers to decide!
( c) Non-fiction
1- I loved your article: Why do people seem so weary with literature? How do we rebuild the alphabet for writing?
On one hand we have new writers who wish to write good fiction and suffer from anxiety of influence, on the other hand we have writers like Ravinder Singh who says he hasn’t read anything before publishing his book.
You mention this about his book:
The young man’s grief at losing his fiancée-to-be is genuine but the novel is not a tragic one. Our man is secure in the choices he makes and it’s just the ugly hand of fate that intrudes. Shit happens is the only conclusion one might draw from the novel in a moral sense. So we encounter pain at a personal loss here but no wrestling with life itself.
Do you think his fans (young readers in India) sense this or even care about the lack of existential crisis in his work even though they might be experiencing it in some way or another every day?
AH: That’s a good question! If our fiction in English provides a mirror of what it is to be Indian then that mirror is showing up a very shrunken image at the moment. There is an obsession with middle-class success in the popular fiction of the moment. We have different phrases with which to dismiss better writing – elite literature, novels of ideas, boring, high-brow – but what we’re really dismissing is the possibility of looking beyond that constricting middle-class paradigm. So, yes, I do think it is limiting that young people might read only Ravinder Singh and Chetan Bhagat growing up. In fact if one looks to literature in the Indian languages the legacy of modernism (including the existential questioning that you refer to) is stronger there. I am thinking of writers such as Geetanjali Shree or Vinod Kumar Shukla in Hindi, for instance.
1- What is your next book?
AH: It’s a book of short stories which doesn’t have a name at the moment. I’m still working on it.
2- Is your marriage to Zac O’ Yeah(a writer himself) a contributor to your prolific career?
Being married to Zac and being a writer have been very intertwined experiences for me. I think I wanted to be a writer since I was about seven years old. But the daily work of writing, the setting of writerly goals, the enjoyment of and patience with the slog – all of that I learnt from him. And we edit each other’s work which has been great for me.
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