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January 25, 2015

Zee JLF Conversations: Janice Pariat

Text by Nittal Chandarana

“What really worries me most is that people expect more of the same from me.”

Verve speaks to author Janice Pariat

On growing up in the northeast
“I grew up in very specific parts of the northeast, between Shillong and pockets of Assam. My father worked in the tea industry. He was a manager. We were transferred a lot around Assam, so my most vivid memories of childhood are of living in bungalows, in isolated parts of Assam, and just reading a lot. There was nothing else to do! The club libraries were open to all of us and I read loads of children’s books and Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, all of that.

When I was older, I was sent to school in Shillong, which is where I spent a lot of my time. I remember unfortunately, a lot of unrest, because it was the ’80s and the ’90s when various Khasi groups were vying for more political influence and power because they felt that other communities were in positions of power, so there was a lot of instability, curfews and bandhs but amid all of that I remember going for walks in forests and the scent of pine trees and just generally having a happy childhood, regardless. I think it’s amazing how children just have this ability to try and be happy wherever they are!

After that I was in Delhi University, but I think the northeast, or at least the parts I grew up in will always be a part of my fiction in some way or the other, at least for me. I know other writers who don’t do that but for me, it really matters, where I come from. I’ve lived in a lot of places after that, so those form as much of an influence as Shillong or Assam. There’s London, there’s Italy, where my husband is from and New Delhi. The others have also shaped me in a lot of ways.”

On her love for poetry
“I used to write a lot of poetry and I’d like to think that the poet in me has not died. The poet in me is still there, and finds its voice in my prose. I’m not a poet in the technical, official sense of the term as I don’t subscribe to meter and form but I do take the ambiguity and playfulness of poetry and try and infuse it into my work. There is a book of poetry in the pipeline. A slim collection of poems called The Memory of Place: poems from Shillong and Elsewhere that should be out later in the year.”

On water, the connecting link between Boats On Land and Seahorse
“Of all the elements, water is my favourite because it is transformative. It can be one or the other. It can be both at the same time. It moves from one elemental stage to another quite quickly and quite magically and I feel like my books are about my characters’ transformative journey and it works rather well together.”

On the most difficult bit to write in Seahorse
“Delhi and London were easier, I’m not going to say they were easy, but easier, as they were places I had lived, worked and spent a lot of time in. I’ve really soaked in their atmosphere. The third section of the book is set in the British countryside and that was most difficult because it’s a tricky part in the plot where a lot of strange things happen. It’s also a lot of landscape I’m not too familiar with. I’ve spent time in Somerset and Devon but I’ve never lived there and I was worried I’d get the names of flowers wrong. I actually got my old English teacher, who’s British and lives in Devon to read it.”

On a character from Seahorse that stayed with her after the book
“More than all the characters, it would be Myra. I really do love her and I think she’s strong and brave and tragic and talented and I just feel that she captures all the potential that she could have been and all these things that have conspired against her almost, to put her in the place she is in. Nehemiah constantly goes on about the fact that he’s been left by Nicholas but she has been abandoned and then more.”

On reading and contemporary authors she likes
“Admittedly, I now have an e-book reader because I really can’t carry everything. I’m reading Samanth Subramaniam’s This Divided Island, which is quite a departure for me because I’m not a big non-fiction reader but I’m loving his work. Then there’s Mira Jacob, who I’ve just read, Damon Galgut, who I love and I’m such a fan of.”

On expectations after winning the Sahitya Akademi Award
“I think it’s pointless to divide your life before Sahitya Akademi and after Sahitya Akademi. It’s wonderful, and I’m really honoured that people felt that I was good enough to be nominated. It’s such a special feeling. What really worries me most, more than the prizes I have won and I have to now win, is that people expect more of the same from me.”

Advice for aspiring writers
“What’s most important, beyond all the clamour of tips and ‘ten ways to be a better writer’ is that no one can tell the story that you have to tell, and you have to remember that.”

On the Zee JLF
“I landed here and I was a bit shell-shocked because this is enormous! How do things work? You suddenly find that there are pockets where things are happening, literature is being talked about and loved and discussed and read. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on stage where there are panels and speakers but even in little corners and that’s what I love. I love that people are going to the bookshop and getting things signed and there’s a little group of students who came and said ‘Please sign. One day if you’re famous, we’ll get a million dollars for this!’ And I told them they were absolutely right and this was the smartest thing to do!”

Exclusive fiction for Verve, Venus by Janice Pariat here.

Previous interaction with Janice Pariat: “All Labels Bother Me”.

 Read Verve‘s review of Janice Pariat’s Seahorse here.

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