Writing in English seems natural to me as breathing, but the fact is, despite being my ‘first language’, English is not my mother tongue.
I’ve not spoken often about the experience of writing in English because I find it difficult to articulate the plight of a person who is unable to write in her mother tongue, who is somewhat trained in the Western canon of storytelling, and who must make herself accessible to the West in order to continue in genre writing. In the West, I’m forever translating my experience into English, making every effort to be understood to a culture that makes very little effort to understand mine.
Meanwhile, in India, my own country, the audience for fiction written in English by Indians continues to shrink, choking itself instead with a glut of self-help books, and books that will ‘add value’ in the form of ‘information.’ In India, I’ve had readers tell me how shocked they were at the quality of my crime novels–that they didn’t expect it from an Indian non-literary book.
When I speak of my writing, the questions I face are often about the patriarchy and politics in India. Not about my writing. I’m expected to give sound-bytes on what it means, as an Indian, to be published in the West.
People read what they want to read, however, and nowadays readers do seem to respond to the most glaringly political aspects of my work, though the obligation to do so is in their head, not mine. I notice this particularly when I meet Western journalists—very few of them ask me about the craft of fiction. Their questions are almost invariably about caste, religion, women, and contemporary Indian politics. This may be because they haven’t read the books, or haven’t read them as I myself intended them to be read, but it certainly has something to do with the obligation they want to heap on every writer from a non-Western country—to be a kind of artistically articulate native informant.
Of course we know it isn’t possible to separate politics, or the political threads of everyday life, from fiction—the fact is that writing is inevitably political, and the whole shape and force of a narrative makes clear the politics within it. We also know that it is not only writing but how we ordinarily live that is a political act, and right now, in our country, living itself is a hard thing to pull off.
The entire interview is an absolutely worthwhile read, and though I write in the crime genre, some of the concerns reflected in this interview are relevant to me, as well.
It feels unsafe to speak about topics in India that touch religion, and I watch with horror and trepidation as those I considered friends continue to spew venom in the name of religion, and patriarchy. As Anuradha says above, it is impossible to avoid politics in writing realistic novels, and as I write the sequel to The Blue Bar which seems to involve religion in at least a peripheral way, I keep wondering what readers think the role of a writer should be.
I’d expect an author to write, and for me to read ( the fact that my interactions tend to sell books has been a source of conflict.)
The longer I live the author life, the less my desire to ask serious questions at an author talk other than aspects of craft. I feel a book is the most important and effective communication. If the author could have said their say in a tweet or a presentation, why would they labor over a book?
As a bipoc creator I feel the weight of the questions and ‘author expectations’ when I’m invited on a podcast or an author talk. In the West, I’m confronted with the responsibility of educating the reader, interpreting my culture for their consumption. Within India, it is this fraught atmosphere where I feel unsafe and attacked when expressing my view on human rights and political beliefs in response to pointed questions.
I freely admit that it is a privilege to write a book, to be able to share it, and to have readers be interested enough to ask questions, but sometimes all of it affects the one aspect I feel loth to risk, my writing self, where my words meet the page.
As a reader, what are your expectations of an author? As a writer, do you feel the obligation to respond to questions about different issues and not just your story/ storytelling?
My lit crime novel, The Blue Bar will be out soon with Thomas & Mercer. It is already available for preorders. Add it to Goodreads or pre-order it to make my day.
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