Friday, January 14, 2011

An Interview with Anjali Joseph

ALAN WONG talks to the exciting young novelist ANJALI JOSEPH about life, writing and her elliptical and enigmatic début, Saraswati Park

WHEN ANJALI JOSEPH sat down to write her first novel, Saraswati Park (Fourth Estate, 2010), she found herself wanting to write about her parents and grandparents’ bookish, quiet life—contrary to what is usually depicted in literature from or about the Indian subcontinent. “What I found was more Bollywood and such, which was not what I knew,” she said when interviewed by The Hindu. “So I supposed in a way this is my attempt to find a fictional base for my Bombay, which I think still exists.”

It’s rather quaint how she tends to refer to her birthplace by its old name, but Mumbai was never quite “home” for Joseph, who was seven when her parents moved to England. She studied English at Trinity College in Cambridge, taught English at the Sorbonne in Paris, and spent several years writing for The Times of India back in Mumbai. She’s currently based in England, but travels to India from time to time.

One can see glimpses of Joseph’s past in the two main characters in her novel. Ashish is a college student with no interests or direction in life; his letter-writing uncle Mohan scribbles little notes in the margins of books—seeds of stories he hope to write one day. Joseph wrote down her story ideas, too; she was between jobs while backpacking in India, and was wondering about her own future. Fate intervened, and after her stint in The Times of India, Joseph returned to England, earned her master’s degree in creative writing, and began working on Saraswati Park.

She still writes for the media, and reviews the occasional book. “I haven’t done a review for The Times of India for a while now, but I’m sure I will again,” she says. “I write reviews for The Times Literary Supplement fairly regularly and have also written for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. I write monthly columns for a Delhi newspaper called Mail Today and for a website for writers called The View from Here.”

She will be attending the Perth Writers Festival in March 2011, where she is scheduled to appear at the University of Western Australia with other writers, including philosopher Raimond Gaita (Romulus, My Father and Gaza: Morality, Law & Politics), Man Asian Literary Prize-winner Miguel Syjuco (Ilustrado) and scientist Tim Flannery (The Weather Makers and Here on Earth).


When did you discover your love of writing? Was it a sudden revelation or something that took time to realise? What were the books you grew up with, and how much influence did they have on your writing?
I’ve written since I was a young child. I remember sitting on the floor of my room when I was quite young and realising I wanted to be a writer. I grew up reading various things, including the novels of Enid Blyton, Gerald Durrell’s memoirs, P.G. Wodehouse, Sherlock Holmes, [and] Tintin.

Besides your novel, you’ve written for The Times of India and have been a commissioning editor for Elle (India). Isn’t journalistic writing a bit different from writing novels? How do you—if there is a need to, and for lack of a better term—shift gears?
It is different—journalistic writing is less exploratory; it’s about getting to the point, and requires a more focused state of mind. Writing fiction (for me) is less linear, more patient and associative.

You once mentioned Saraswati Park was a response both to the literary and journalistic impressions of Bombay—“big business, the film industry, the criminal underworld, life in the slums”—and to some of the Indian writing by the likes of Amit Chaudhuri (The Immortals), R.K. Narayan (The Painter of Signs) and Upamanyu Chatterjee (English, August: An Indian Story). How did their impressions of Bombay differ from yours, and what was the kind of impact these Indian writers have on your impressions of the city? Can you tell us how your novel “responds” to those impressions?
I think I must have said roughly that the world of Saraswati Park is more like the Bombay I’d grown up in and lived in during my twenties. That although if one were to attempt to encapsulate the city in a description, elements like the film industry, the underworld, and the slums might be used as synecdoches—parts of the city taken to represent the whole—those elements had been more peripheral in the sort of life I, and lots of other Bombayites, had lived in the city. Just as a person might live in London and not be involved in the Stock Exchange, or media industry, or the Houses of Parliament, although some of those things might seem to be emblematic of the city. I was interested in representing the sort of life I’d been leading and had seen around me.

I admire the work of these three Indian writers, and specifically, in the beauty of Amit Chaudhuri’s sentences, and the way he writes of meditative moments when apparently nothing is happening, also of things like street noises offstage, or the life observed from a window; in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s work, I love his rudeness, his considerable wit, and also his compassion. R.K. Narayan wrote wonderfully of small towns, restricted milieus, and affection in the family; I admire his emotional suppleness, the way he can gracefully follow the modulation of feelings from love to irritation.

Some have insinuated that you were peddling an “exoticised” India to the West. Why would they feel that way? Why do you think some authors tend to do that?
Maybe there is a feeling in some writing that literary writing is a heightened linguistic register and requires something more special and exotic than one’s own daily experience. I don’t know. I like the everyday, myself. Paradoxically, there are people who feel that Indian writers who don’t write magic realism but instead slow down to write of the quotidian, of things like a person having a bath, making a cup of tea, or taking a train to work, are making an illegitimate attempt to turn a common experience into art.

In an article about you in The Independent, you seem somewhat annoyed with attempts to label you. To some extent, people tend to label to make sense of their surroundings, draw borders, and reassure themselves and cement their worldviews. Do labels still make any sense today? Why, and why not?
Actually I wrote that article, though the headline wasn’t the one I wrote. I was specifically arguing that it doesn’t make sense to see writers as ‘Indian writers’, ‘Malaysian writers’ or whatever. It’s better to read with an open mind and realise that writers, like other readers, read widely and not only within national boundaries.

Do you still get asked where you’re from, even though you’re now a published author? What do you feel about being named one of the top 20 authors under 40 by The Telegraph?
Yes, of course. I don’t see how being published would alter that. It’s one of the basic questions. The newspaper listing you’re referring to came out just before the novel was published, so I took it as a compliment that early readers had liked it, and I was naturally very happy about that.

You’ve worked and lived in several countries: England, France and India. What were the reasons behind these migrations? Are there any countries you wish to visit or perhaps migrate to in the future?
They weren’t all migrations. We moved to England when I was seven because my father began teaching at Warwick University. I lived in France for a year after I graduated from Cambridge because I was teaching in Paris IV-Sorbonne as a lectrice (a female person who teaches her own language in a foreign country’s university). And I moved back to India, a little accidentally, when I was 25. I do see myself living in India in the future at some time, though for now I’m based in England. Other countries might also be nice. I’d like to spend time in Japan, and France always feels familiar in a good way.

Having lived and worked in several different cities, most would feel disoriented, or “unsettled”, as you put it in that article in The Independent. But you seem to have embraced that unsettledness, packing it with you wherever you go and using it to help you get settled. Is there a secret to that, and would you like to share it? Would it be bad if, one day, that unsettledness is gone?
Actually, I was quoting Amit Chaudhuri. It is a familiar unsettledness, and probably for a lot of people who live in many places and without a clear sense of how their own sense of self fits within national or regional boundaries. There’s no real secret to unsettledness, except perhaps travelling light where possible. I don’t have a manifesto for unsettledness, either, and I certainly welcome a sense of stability in many areas of life, for example, my personal life, or continuing to write.

I read that you’re working on your second novel, featuring a protagonist whose migratory path is similar to your own. Can you tell us a bit more about it? Does it have a title yet, and when can we expect it?
I am working on a second novel, and it does follow a similar trajectory to some of the facts of my own life. The sense of looking for a home, in whichever way you might interpret that, is one of the driving ideas behind it. It follows a few characters in their twenties in Paris, London and Bombay, and the ways in which they discover who they might be amid the things they do and the events that occur to them. No title as yet. I hope to finish it in the next year or two.

The paperback edition of Saraswati Park will be published by Fourth Estate in March 2011

Reproduced from the Annual 2011 issue of Quill magazine

Wednesday, January 05, 2011


TANIA HERSHMAN was born in London in 1970. After living in Jerusalem for 15 years, in August 2010, she and her partner moved to Bristol, U.K., with their two cats. A former science journalist, her short stories imaginatively marry her two loves, fiction and science, in the here and now. She has won awards and prizes for her stories which have been widely published in British, American and other international literary journals. Many of her stories, which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in print and online, are inspired by articles from popular science magazines. In November 2007, she founded The Short Review, a website devoted to reviewing short-story collections. Her début collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was published by Salt Publishing in September 2008, and was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. It is now available as an e-book and can be bought and downloaded for the Kindle.


Congratulations on your first book of stories, Tania. Tell me something about yourself. Who is Tania Hershman?
There’s nothing like starting with an easy question. Well, here goes. Tania Hershman is a writer. She loves words and she loves numbers. She loves short stories, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Albert Einstein, Lorrie Moore, Ali Smith, Richard Feynman, well-crafted sentences and string theory. She was born in London, lived in Jerusalem for many years, and is now back in England. She has a degree in Mathematics and Physics, another one in Philosophy of Science, another one in Creative Writing, and a diploma in journalism. She was a science journalist until a few years ago. She has a partner and two cats. She hears voices, writes things down and sends them out in case anyone wants to read them.

When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
At the age of six I began my first novel. It was never finished, fortunately. I have always written and have always wanted to be an author.

Was it difficult getting published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for your first collection of stories?
Difficult? Yes. Difficult to take the first steps, to learn how to write a short story and then to learn how to write the sorts of stories I wanted to write. The MA in Creative Writing didn’t teach me to write but it got me to another point, a point at which I could almost say “I am a writer”. I sent a short story to a production company calling for submissions for BBC Radio 4 and they accepted it. They passed it on to an agent. She took me on but couldn’t find a publisher, so I did it myself. I sent out stories to many, many publications, and was thrilled when several editors wrote back, liked what I wrote and published them. I am still sending stories out, still thrilled when they find a home. With my confidence boosted, I sent three stories to Salt Publishing; they asked for my collection, and then they made my dream come true and offered me a book deal. I am very grateful to them; they made me a beautiful book.

What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
I read everything! Well, anything fictional. I loved books about girls and horses, girls and ballet, girls and ice-skating, all the Chalet School books (thank you, Elinor Brent-Dyer), anything fantastical such as C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series and Edith Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. I read through every meal―and in between meals. I devoured books.

Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite authors? And why?
Ali Smith and Lorrie Moore are enormous influences; their short stories show me the possibilities of the form, that stories don’t have to be mini-novels, that they can be magical and otherworldly, can play with language. Alice Munro’s stories always inspire me, her language is unfussy, not pretty, not frilly, yet her stories slam into you and leave you reeling. Aimee Bender is another favourite author, revealing truths about our world through the fantastical. Recently I have greatly enjoyed Roy Kesey’s minimalist stories which force the reader to do a lot of the work, Paddy O’Reilly’s wonderful collection, The End of the World, and lots and lots of flash fiction (stories under 500 words) such as Nik Perrings’s newly released Not So Perfect and Stefanie Freele’s Feeding Strays.

What are you reading at the moment?
As editor of The Short Review, I try and review a short-story collection or anthology each month, and the most recent collection I read was Peter Orner’s Esther Stories, which I loved, and I have Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories waiting for me on my bedside table. I’ve dipped into it already and it is wonderful. I have also just read several novels that impressed me: Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, which I enjoyed partly because it had scientific themes; Nora Chassler’s Miss Thing, which is a wild ride of a book, experimental yet tender and moving.

Could you tell me a bit about your collection of stories? Why ‘science fiction’-based stories?
My collection is comprised of 27 stories (it’s great value for money!). Half of them are flash fiction, one or two pages long. The other half are “science-inspired”: I read articles from the U.K. science magazine New Scientist and allowed my imagination to roam. This lead to some odd scenarios: a woman sets up a roadside cafe on the way to the South Pole, a grieving widow bakes science cakes, a girl is paralysed when it rains, another talks to her knees. I don’t know if this would fit under “science fiction,” I don’t like to label or pigeonhole my stories―or anyone else’s for that matter.

What do you read when you take a break from writing?
Many, many short stories, in collections, anthologies and literary magazines. I am always on the lookout for new literary magazines with the type of writing I love: quirky, surreal, magical, weird, playful with words, poetic and true.

What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
A hard, hard question. I can’t pick just one story or collection. It depends on what I am reading right now, I find new favourites all the time.

Short stories appear to be gaining more popularity. Jhumpa Lahiri continues to publish wonderful collections. Anne Enright published a short-story collection after her Man Booker Prize-winning The Gathering. What are your thoughts on this?
I am reluctant to declare that there is a new and sudden rush for the short story in mainstream circles ―Lahiri and Enright are already well-known, as is Alice Munro who won the 2009 Man Booker International Prize—but where are the new writers being lauded and reviewed? What I wonder is if Lahiri and Enright’s collections actually bring new readers to the short-story form as a whole, or are they only read by readers who enjoyed the authors’ novels? That said, it is good for the short story to have some “celebrities,” such as Miranda July, who brought a little razzle-dazzle to our world, and Petina Gappah, whose collection, An Elegy for Easterly, won the 2009 Guardian First Book Award. There’s no need to feel sorry for the short story; who wants to read something if it is portrayed as the poor cousin? The short story is alive and very well, you just have to know where to look. I recently compiled a list of U.K. and Irish literary magazines that publish short stories on my blog, expecting to find maybe 20 or 30—the list currently numbers 108, which astonished and delighted me!

Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell. Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people read more of such collections?
Someone said to me at the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, that perhaps people are afraid of short-story collections, they think that―as with poetry, perhaps―they won’t understand them, or that all short stories are dark and depressing. However, another author present, who teaches creative writing, said that when she introduces short stories to her students, they quickly get addicted to them, to the “high” you can get from a fantastic story that you can read in one sitting but which stays with you for far longer. So I think the answer is to show readers that everything you can get from a novel is available as a short story, too―great plots, fascinating characters, wonderful writing, suspense, horror, mystery, humour, magic, science fiction, erotica, etc. This is what I am trying to do with The Short Review. As for publishers, I think that not even trying to market something to the public that the public may not currently think it wants is a failure of imagination. It’s easier for publishers to keep on doing what they’re or have been doing, but surely they have talented sales and marketing people? Try harder, I say!

“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
This statement doesn’t mean much to me. I don’t consciously write from life. I write from my imagination. I don’t take actual events as inspiration, I love to make things up, to meet new people (my characters) and find out what their stories are. I will leave history to the historians and the writers of historical fiction!

What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently writer-in-residence at Bristol University’s Science Faculty, a post I initiated myself with the aim of writing short stories inspired by spending time with scientists in the labs. I am loving it, the laboratory is a world non-scientists are not often given access to, let alone on a regular basis. I feel like I am learning an enormous amount about what it is to do science on a daily basis, the rhythms of experimentation, the pitfalls and the moments of joy. I have two ideas for new book-length projects related to science, but won’t reveal them just yet. I will say that I hope to be carrying on this residency next year, too—with the whole Science Faculty open to me, it’s like a treasure trove of inspiration! I am blogging about it on the new Science Faculty blog:

Saturday, January 01, 2011

January 2011 Highlights

1. Panorama (trans. from the German by Peter Filkins) (Random House, 2011) / H.G. Adler
2. Chapman’s Odyssey (Bloomsbury, 2011) / Paul Bailey
3. Darkside (Bantam Press, 2011) / Belinda Bauer
4. By Nightfall (Fourth Estate, 2011) / Michael Cunningham
5. Being Polite to Hitler (Little, Brown, 2011) / Robb Forman Dew
6. The Lake of Dreams (Viking, 2011) / Kim Edwards
7. The Memory of Love (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011) / Aminatta Forna
8. Destiny and Desire (trans. from the Spanish by Edith Grossman) (Random House, 2011) / Carlos Fuentes
9. We Had It So Good (Virago Press, 2011) / Linda Grant
10. This Glittering World (Kensington, 2011) / T. Greenwood

11. The London Train (Jonathan Cape, 2011) / Tessa Hadley
12. Don't Be Afraid (Random House Canada, 2011) / Steven Hayward
13. A Kind Man (Chatto & Windus, 2011) / Susan Hill
14. The Red Garden (Crown, 2011) / Alice Hoffman
15. Mistaken (John Murray, 2011) / Neil Jordan
16. A Special Relationship (Atria, 2011) / Douglas Kennedy
17. The Cypress House (Little, Brown, 2011) / Michael Koryta
18. Pictures of You (Algonquin Books, 2011) / Caroline Leavitt
19. Is Just a Movie (Faber & Faber, 2011) / Earl Lovelace
20. Cedilla (Faber & Faber, 2011) / Adam Mars-Jones

21. The Leopard (trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) (Harvill Secker, 2011) / Jo Nesbø
22. Sugar Island (John Murray, 2011) / Sanjida O’Connell
23. The Guardians (Doubleday Canada, 2011) / Andrew Pyper
24. The Death Instinct (Riverhead, 2011) / Jeb Rubenfeld
25. The Still Point (Counterpoint, 2011) / Amy Sackville
26. Heartstone (Viking, 2011) / C.J. Sansom
27. The Gordian Knot (trans. from the German by Peter Constantine) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010) / Bernhard Schlink
28. A Man in Uniform (Crown, 2011) / Kate Taylor
29. Clara and Mr. Tiffany (Random House, 2011) / Susan Vreeland
30. Dream of Ding Village (trans. from the Chinese, Ding Zhuang Meng, by Cindy Carter) (Grove Atlantic, 2011) / Yan Lianke

First Novels
1. Rebirth (Penguin Books India, 2011) / Jahnavi Barua
2. The Weird Sisters (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2011) / Eleanor Brown
3. Stealing Karma (HarperCollins India, 2011) / Aneesha Capur
4. Scissors, Paper, Stone (Bloomsbury, 2011) / Elizabeth Day
6. Merit Badges (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2011) / Kevin Fenton
7. The History of History (Faber & Faber, 2011) / Ida Hattemer-Higgins
8. The Poison Tree (Pamela Dorman Books, 2011) / Erin Kelly
9. The Fates Will Find Their Way (Ecco, 2011) / Hannah Pittard
10. Snowdrops (Atlantic Books, 2011) / A.D. Miller

11. To Algeria, With Love (Virago Press, 2011) / Suzanne Ruta
12. Ours Are the Streets (Picador, 2011) / Sunjeev Sahota
13. King Crow (Bluemoose Books, 2011) / Michael Stewart
14. Caribou Island (Penguin, 2011) / David Vann
15. Annabel (Grove/Black Cat, 2011) / Kathleen Winter

1. Palo Alto (Faber & Faber, 2011) / James Franco
2. Pulse (Jonathan Cape, 2011) / Julian Barnes
3. Gryphon: New and Selected Stories (Pantheon/Knopf Doubleday, 2011) / Charles Baxter
4. The Beggar’s Garden (HarperCollins Canada, 2011) / Michael Christie
5. Quiet Americans (Last Light Studio, 2011) / Erika Dreifus
6. Widow (Bellevue Literary Press, 2011) / Michelle Latiolais
7. Night Soul and Other Stories (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011) / Joseph McElroy
8. Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) / Joyce Carol Oates
9. Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories (Lookout Books/University of North Carolina Press, 2011) / Edith Pearlman
10. The Empty Family (Scribner, 2011) / Colm Tóibín

11. While Mortals Sleep (Delacorte Books, 2011) / Kurt Vonnegut

1. Collected Poems (ed. Matt McGuire) (Carcanet Press, 2011) / Iain Crichton Smith
2. Night (Faber & Faber, 2011) / David Harsent
3. Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2011) / Jaan Kaplinski
4. Fiere (Picador, 2011) / Jackie Kay
5. Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems (ed. Leslie Scalapino) (University of California Press, 2011) / Michael McClure
6. Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 (W.W. Norton, 2011) / Adrienne Rich
7. Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems of Tadeusz Róźewicz (trans. from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak) (W.W. Norton, 2012) / Tadeusz Róźewicz

1. The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart (Rodale Books, 2011) / Stephen Amidon and Thomas Amidon
2. The Memory Palace: A Memoir (Free Press, 2011) / Mira Bartók
3. The Professor: A Sentimental Education (HarperCollins Publishers, 2011) / Terry Castle
4. Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2011) / Hamid Dabashi
5. Lastingness: The Art of Old Age (Grand Central Publishing, 2011) / Nicholas Delbanco
6. Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel (BBC Books, 2011) / Sebastian Faulks
7. How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (Harper, 2011) / Stanley Fish
8. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (HarperPress, 2011) / Judith Flanders
9. Your Voice in My Head (Bloomsbury, 2011) / Emma Forrest
10. A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press USA, 2011) / Ruth Franklin

11. India: A Portrait (Allen Lane, 2011) / Patrick French
12. The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (University of Akron Press, 2011) / Mary Biddinger & John Gallaher (eds.)
13. Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) / John Gimlette
14. India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking (Times Books, 2011) / Anand Giridharadas
15. The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (Allen Lane, 2011) / John Gray
16. Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2011) / Conor Grennan
17. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (Free Press, 2011) / Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
18. Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life (trans. from the Russian by Jane Ann Miller) (Yale University Press, 2011) / Lev Loseff
19. The Making of a Writer, Volume 2: Journals, 1963-1969 (Random House, 2011) / Gail Godwin (ed. Rob Neufeld)
20. What Do I Know? (Beautiful Books, 2011) / Paul Kent

21. I Love a Broad Margin to My Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) / Maxine Hong Kingston
22. Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) / James Miller
23. Jerusalem: The Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011) / Simon Sebag Montefiore
24. Bird Cloud (Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2011) / Annie Proulx
25. Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (Little, Brown, 2011) / Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
26. Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing (Eco, 2011) / Roger Rosenblatt
27. Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York (De Capo Press, 2011) / Ariel Sabar
28. The Stranger in the Mirror (Chatto & Windus, 2011) / Jane Shilling
29. J.D. Salinger: A Life (Random House, 2011) / Kenneth Slawenski