“From the first glance itself, Shubhangi Swarup’s writing in her debut novel, Latitudes of Longing asserts its lyrical intensity. Calling upon “our unassuming planet” as her creative muse, she merges geology and geography with a split narrative structure divided into four separate sections which come together as a whole; the first connected to the last completes the circle. The book is populated by a varied cast of characters whose lives are influenced by the diverse landscapes they occupy and inhabit. Shubhangi Swarup further explores the various ways in which nature affects us daily. The book becomes a nuanced meditation on the intricate relationship between the two as the narrative moves across faultlines, both physical and psychological, beginning from the Andaman Islands to Rangoon to Thamel and finally ending among the Karakorams. Human emotion is mapped on to geographical realities, constructing a modern form of eco-aware storytelling. Latitudes of Longing is a bold, experimental foray into literary fiction in the Indian subcontinent.”
1. To start off, can you begin by pointing to a moment in your life when you fell in love with writing and considered it as a career? How did you reconcile that with the general conception of a career wherein other, more mechanical ways of earning money are believed in?
Writing has always felt like a challenge at best, struggle at worst, to me. Initially I wrote on the sidelines of my education. Later, I assumed that one had to love literature to write (and I didn’t enjoy my literature degree), so I opted for other careers. However, I would still write. I fell in love with it the day I realized that this isn’t easy, it’s probably one of the toughest things I do, but also the most honest and fulfilling. I write so that I can be honest with myself, my voice and my vision.
You don’t reconcile. You question. You struggle. You fail. You succeed. Eventually, you find your own little place in the eco-system. As a writer, you thrive through it all.
2. How would you characterize the contemporary Indian literary landscape? What does it mean for you, as an emerging writer, to occupy a significant position within it?
I am more intrigued by the readers in the contemporary literary landscape than the writing. Global in their reading choices, diverse in their locations. Quick to post their views and share it with others. Creative in their right too. I was consistently told by publishers that the Indian market isn’t high on literary-fiction, especially the experimental kind. This was also why they give prominence to non-fiction over fiction. However, my experience challenges a lot of these suppositions, and that is the special place I occupy. My novel is challenging the old notions and old ways.
3. You travelled and researched for years for your debut novel, showing the determination and trust you had in your work. Were there any challenges you faced in your process of artistic composition? How did you seek to overcome them?
Oh, these are so many. The challenges were of all kinds - technical, creative, physical, financial and emotional. I am only speaking about a few of the creative challenges as the list is huge. I have so many stories and characters, it was an editorial challenge to retain the movement of the novel, and I don’t know if we have succeeded in this.
Being honest to each character is more challenging than I thought. Like an immature parent, I tried to impose my stories and views onto characters, and it failed. There is a difference between writing honest stories, and well-crafted stories that fit into the plot, where each character does that part well. I had to learn. It took me a long time, and perhaps this is where most of my years went, in understanding the characters as independent beings, with their stories and destiny within those stories.
Writing about nature, and infusing the novel with narratives of nature wasn’t such a challenge actually. To me, it was a simple shift in the brain (literally like shifting the focus of the camera). I didn’t question it. I find constant doubts and despair quite draining, so even though I feel it, I ignore it. I just focus on the page. Writing is difficult enough, I can do without personal drama.
4. We feel all writers evolve and grow with time, as their artistic input increases. What are some of these sources of inspiration - writers, books, events, places - which defined your writing career, and subsequently, your debut novel?
I read a lot of writing in translations (more global than regional). I also consume films, performances and other forms of art, and the inspiration has been hybrid, in that sense. I am definitely inspired by nature and the people I meet. I consider each person to have a unique tone and narrative, and treat humans like books, when it comes to learning from them. I listen. I observe right from the sea to the clouds to people and insects. I also observe myself. What happens within me, how do I experience life’s moments? What do I feel and how do I experience those emotions?
5. Latitudes of Longing relies heavily on geography as its foundation, and uses it to create an interweaving of stories. As you have said before, the geological faultline forms the inspiration. This is certainly a source of inspiration that many of us haven’t heard of before. Can you comment further on this? What made you merge geographical landscapes in your narrative and was the process an easy one?
I love to travel, and I am a curious person. Through my travels, I have come across details in nature that left me in disbelief. How are the Andamans connected to the Himalayas and was Ladakh and Nepal really all sea, once upon a time? I believe all sorts of details and subjects can make us curious and inspire us, but due to pressures of conformity, as writers we stick to the usual. Somewhere inside us, we know what society expects from us and our writing, and we try to deliver it. The process of merging geology and geography with the narrative wasn’t easy, but it was honest. I mean, how can the land I walk on, the forces of nature that have shaped the evolution of life, (let alone one measly human), not shape the stories? I find realism and its severe disconnection from nature quite artificial, hence exhausting.
6. How did your work as a journalist help you in your research for Latitudes of Longing, as well as your writing process? You have told in multiple other interviews that it took you seven years to finish the book. How do you think such a long amount of time affect the final version of the novel? Finally, are you working on something new right now and what does the future hold as far as your writing is concerned?
My training as a journalist helped me organize my travels and research, and most importantly, respect deadlines. It gave me a discipline and structure that I could situate my creativity in.
I took seven years to write, because I took up a full-time job once, and part-time jobs throughout, which made it physically exhausting. Over the years, I have also evolved as a writer. Sometimes, all you need is good old time to bring in some good old maturity. The years gave me enough time to read, travel, reflect and re-write, as I was in no hurry.
I want to start working on something new as soon as I can. I also want to learn new skills, like diving, pick up a musical instrument or paint, maybe write in different genres to expand my creativity and learn from other fields. My future as a writer holds many more adventures, challenges and perpetual, inexhaustible learning.
Shubhangi Swarup is a journalist and an educationist. Latitudes of Longing, her debut novel, was on bestseller lists soon after its Indian release. It won the Tata LitLive prize for debut fiction, and was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature. She was awarded the Charles Pick Fellowship for Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and has also won awards for gender sensitivity as a journalist.