with RK Biswas
When I first met Nabina Das, at the Prakriti Foundation’s Poetry Festival in Chennai in December 2009, where she was an invited participant, her debut novel Footprints in the Bajra (2010) had just been published. The next year her book was long listed in The Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2011. That evening, she gifted me a signed book, and it was only much later that I realised she’d given me a pre publication copy, a collector’s item!
A serious novel dealing with the unpalatable issue of child mercenaries lured into the so called revolutionary war of Maoists/Naxals, Footprints in the Bajra fleshes out the harsh realities of marginalised lives betrayed by society through Muskaan’s story. The book has an unsettling effect, despite the lyricism of many of the passages. Being lyrical is a natural part of Das’s repertoire, since she is a poet. And to my mind she is a poet first and foremost. One whose work demands attentive readers, willing to imbibe a viewpoint, even another viewpoint in time and history.
Since that balmy evening of poetry and later poetic camaraderie over hot food and chilled beer, Das has published two volumes of poetry – Into the Migrant City (Writers’ Workshop, Kolkata) and Blue Vessel, her debut poetry collection (Les Editions du Zaporogue, Denmark) which was nominated as one of the best of 2012. And now a volume of short fiction – The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and Unmapped (Lifi Publications, New Delhi, 2014). Prior to these books though, Das was already widely published, with her prose and poetry appearing in both Indian and international journals and anthologies, the latest being The Yellow Nib: Modern English Poetry by Indians, Queens University, Belfast. A contributor to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Prairie Schooner literary journal blog, Das is the winner of the 2012 Charles Wallace Fellowship in Creative Writing, University of Stirling, UK, and the 2012 Sangam House Lavanya Sankaran Fiction Fellowship besides other prizes in major national poetry contests. She holds an MFA from Rutgers University, USA, and an MA from JNU, New Delhi. With a background in journalism and media, Nabina is trained in Indian classical music. She teaches Creative Writing in classrooms and workshops, and occasionally blogs at nabinadas13.wordpress.com.
In this emailed interview, Das gives us insights into her creativity and writing life.
RK Biswas: Tell us something about your latest book, your collection of short fiction. (For impatient readers, here are two stories excerpted from the collection: The House of Childhood; Singapore Girl)
Nabina Das: The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped is a book about women and girls mostly, about coming of age in their body and politics, about finding a “house” outside just the brick and mortar structure… in fact, any normative structure. History and contemporary affairs in these stories – ranging from the Partition, the Assam students’ agitation, 9/11 and its fallout in the subcontinent to a neo-liberal India, non-resident joys and fears, etc. – act as the template for probing ordinary lives.
RKB: Where are the stories from? Any experiences you’d like to share that compelled a story/stories?
NDP: The stories are from everywhere. From many places. Geographically speaking, my stories are situated in my home state Assam that I really love and miss these days; in Bihar, Kerala and Bengal where I have no home but only footprints; in my second home Meghalaya; in that un-home Delhi where I found another home, and finally, in my home away from home — the USA. The “house” in the title of the book caters to the feeling of home in the sense of belonging as well as to the need for anchoring. From the point of view of the unmapped, the stories and their protagonists seek a territory of the possible.
One of the titles in the book, “A New House for Mr. Abbas”, took shape following an interesting story narrated by my parents. Our neighbour living close to our former Guwahati home had suddenly decided to paint his garage wall depicting a verse from the Holy Quran. While most neighbours saw this as an eccentric and somewhat aggressively sectarian act, what most people overlooked is how this act itself is generated by a sectarian environment that was considered the norm. I thought the story was hilarious in some ways. My Mr. Abbas is a regular human being. Not someone with vitriol at all.
RKB: Your first book was a novel and the second a book of poetry and now the third a short story collection. How do you navigate these very different literary forms? Do you tackle them all together? Or finish one and then move onto the next?
ND: Usually, I write whatever I feel like writing at any point of time. Poetry and prose simply alternate or even happen together. Therefore, navigation is not too much of an issue. It’s quite funny that I find myself writing poetry and suddenly moving to fiction because something that I wrote resonated with an idea I’d been nurturing in my prose piece. And vice versa of course. I think it helps me to shunt in and out of the different forms. That way, I gain time away from what I write fresh, and allow myself that critical eye.
RKB: What were your experience like and the inspiration behind your novel, Footprints in the Bajra?
ND: Inspiration is an ambiguous word for me. Although I understand what it indicates. I felt compelled to write Footprints in the Bajra following a discussion by a US editor and agent on my short story of the same title. She pointed out the inherent drama and overlapping action points in the story and how the characters demanded a greater span in the narrative. And the novel emerged. It was nothing to do with the so-called Western critique of conflict and plot. Rather, a rounded guidance to help the story unfold. Well, strictly speaking, the inspiration behind the book was incubating for about 10 years or so. The events described in the book pertain to the Maoist insurgency in Bihar and the lives of individuals in the crossfire. I had a peek into some of that on my brief trip to southern Bihar as a student. I won’t call it “witnessing”, but as a theatre activist roaming the so-called badlands, I came tantalizingly close to incidents we normally read and see in daily newspapers and TV scoops. My take in the book is less on the political angle but more on the human story.
The book, published in 2010, was long listed in the 2011 Vodafone Crossword Book Award, and has got good reviews in newspapers, journals and zines. Indian Literature, the flagship journal of Sahitya Akademi mentioned the book as first of its kind in Indian English fiction. Poet and columnist K Satchidanandan also recently mentioned the book in his Frontline column as one “that presents an incisive analysis of the social divide in Bihar in telling the story of the Maoist rebel Muskaan and her city friend Nora”.
RKB: How and where were the poems in Blue Vessel born? What inspired them?
ND: Blue Vessel (2012) is a mix of current poems and those written four to five years ago. The title itself is an offshoot of my impressions of Neruda’s “Isla Negra” that I read years ago, as a teenager. In this collection, I move back and forth in form and time. Water and light form the core aspects of these poems. I’m particularly grateful to American poet Peg Boyers who saw them over finally and endorsed them for my debut collection. Writer Seb Doubinsky deserves a shout out for publishing the book from his unique bilingual small press Les Edition du Zaporogue. I’m really happy that Sudeep Sen nominated BV as one of the best poetry books of 2012 in New Indian Express.
RKB: When did you first see yourself as a writer? And who were your first influences?
ND: I wrote my first poem at age seven and since then, I kept writing. As a writer, I recognized myself much later. After my Masters in JNU, when I took up full time journalism as career, it pleased me that I could also sometimes write essays, stories and poetry. I like to believe I’m first and foremost a poet. Having written earlier in Assamese and Bengali, the transition to English happened in a fluid manner. My early influences are the canonical writers of English literature. Tagore looms in a massive way over my senses, later on to be overshadowed by Jibanananda Das. Nirmal Prabha Bordoloi, Nabakanta Barua and Hiren Bhattacharyya are my staple inspirations in Assamese. Growing up as a bilingual in Guwahati, Assam, I’ve learnt to enjoy and embrace multiple literary traditions. My latest poetry collection Into the Migrant City (Writers Workshop, 2013) tries to revel in this many-ness.
RKB: What are the issues that disturb you and seep into your writing?
ND: Someone once told me my poetry has an agenda, despite its lyrical strength: the downtrodden, questions of identity, left wing beliefs, feminism, and all that. So be it! Personally, I’m conscious of the human condition in my microcosm. It is imperative that issues pertaining to women, Dalits, Tribals, minorities, and the environment, among other issues, capture my attention. Naturally, some of the concerns will reflect in my writing. But when I write, I don’t write within a pre-decided framework. That, I believe, would be giving in to easy and mundane expectations. I’d like to surprise myself in order to surprise my readers.
RKB: Are you working on your next book? If yes, is it poetry, short fiction or another novel?
ND: I have a poetry manuscript called Narrative Limits that’s actually been around for some time now. I deleted a good portion of it and began adding fresh writing to it. Hopefully, this one will be ready in 2014. Can’t put a date and day on it though. Side by side, I’m working on a novel tentatively titled Malena of the Spices. It’s a story spanning continents and involving an Indian and a Mexican immigrant in the US, their search for a better life, and moreover, for full dignity. All along, the book aspires to be an account of, again, “belonging”. Careful not to stereotype my characters, I’d still like to examine how stereotyping of working class Chicanos and Indians flourish till date. Early chapters are written and have received some critical feedback. I need more time to plunge myself into it.
RKB: As a creative writing instructor what mistakes do you find your students making? What advice would you give to new writers?
ND: We all make mistakes even as we publish and make a place for ourselves in the world of writing. As students, it’s easier to commit those mistakes because often there’s no peer group for discussion and support. It’s the reticence to scathing but constructive feedback that’s the problem. And aversion to revision or rewrite is another common drawback among new writers. My advice is to keep writing. Which also means: revise, rewrite and discuss with an empathetic peer group alongside focused reading.
RKB: Finally, in writing, how far can one go in exploring the subject? For you is it always write what you know, or beyond? Is the familiar the safe fodder, as many MFA courses would have us believe? Are you apprehensive about being an outsider to a topic at any point?
ND: We’re often told by writing mentors: Write what you know best! But somehow, my practice differs, as does my conviction. In MFAs and writing workshops, the tendency, usually, might be to goad the student/participant to express what she knows best for the sake of a sense of achievement or to cultivate the comfort zone. Then, that’s not how Rutgers-Camden, where I went for an MFA, guided us. Most instructors there believe in pushing the capacity of the writers. As a result, among my colleagues we’ve had writers and poets attempting fantasy narratives, writing about other cultural backdrops, and crafting poetry that challenged fact and lore both. Nothing is safe in writing. And for us writers, peeping into that rabbit hole ought to be a big adventure till the time we continue writing. What we store as the familiar doesn’t leave us any way. It’s there to buffer our wild treks into unknown ideas. And wouldn’t you agree that the binary of “outsider-insider” is a rather grand one, tipping the scale always in favour of some imagined majority? An artist or a writer forever steps in and out of a topic, however “foreign” it is. It’s the courage that matters. And an ability to see issues in a balanced light. Authors and poets such as Nam Le, Junot Diaz, K Satchidanandan and Adil Jussawalla are just a few names that bolster my conviction in this regard.