“Sumana Roy’s writing brims with rare originality, avoiding the clutches of genre and refusing to adhere to any sort of thematic restrictions. She elicits fascination at the most mundane of objects, managing to explore the wondrous life of trees in one work and the complexity of human relationships in another with equal skill and deftness of language. She flits from form to form with boundless ease, reflecting her keenness for new experiences. In the last few years, Roy has published a non-fiction genre-bending exploration of the natural world and how we fit in it; a literary fiction novel taut with tension which examines a modern marriage; a uniquely structured collection of evocative poems about love, identiy and belonging; and most recently, an edited anthology of the finest literature about animals from the subcontinent. Needless to say, Roy tries her hand at many things and enriches whatever she deems fit.”
You’ve mentioned in various interviews how being from Siliguri and its non-recognition in your childhood impacted you. Do you think that was one of the driving forces behind your desire to live in tree time after getting tired of speed, and simply focus on what you want to convey to the world?
One can never be sure why we come to be who we are and also how we come to be these people. I mean – my 18-year-old self wouldn’t be able to recognise the person I am today. My present self would be a stranger to all the other selves I’ve inhabited before. The Siliguri I grew up in is not the Siliguri I live in either – they are, like my selves, unrecognisable to each other. I cannot say – at least not now, for it’s far too close in time to be conscious of these things – whether my desire to become a tree and live to tree time came to me from living in a place like Siliguri. I am tired of the speed of our lives, of travel, real and virtual, how emails demand immediate replies, how almost every task moves to the knell of that atrocious word ‘deadline’. I think – though again, I can’t be sure – my desire to become a tree is a spiritual desire, and it might have been triggered as much by the physical world as my own emotional life.
Recent years have seen an explosion of eco-literature, be it fiction or non-fiction. Proulx’s Barkskins, Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, and Powers’ The Overstory immediately come to mind. What led to your initial decision to write about trees and devise a whole new outlook on human-flora interaction?
I read The Hidden Life of Trees last year, I think, a couple of years after the publication of How I Became a Tree. It wasn’t a conscious decision at all – I like books to reach me by accident. I have managed to avoid the corporatisation of my reading habit, about bestselling lists and prize-nominated books turning into must-reads, a strange phrase that is the bibliographic equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses. I haven’t read the other two books you mention, though I’ve ordered a copy of The Overstory. What brought me to plant life were not other books but life itself. It was the desire to escape from the emotional economy of human life, groping for a way of being that was seemingly outside the code of reciprocity. It was an emotional need that later turned into an intellectual quest – to look for people like myself, who’d exhibited the desire to become a tree.
How I Became a Tree was your debut, but you’ve mentioned that you began to write Missing: A Novel (2018) in 2012. What influence, if any, has your study on the connection between forest-life and creativity in those middle-years had on the writing of Missing?
I began writing Missing (I didn’t have a title then) as events that occur in the book were happening around me. I stopped working on the novel as I often stop working on various things. I’m not very disciplined in that sense. I write down the first line of a poem and it lies like that for years until I meet it accidentally and some kind of conversation starts again. It is for others to say whether there is any relation between How I Became a Tree and Missing. The only similarity that I can think of – and this came to me from the critic Amrita Dutta, who made this remark during an interview with The Indian Express – is that Missing is perhaps written to ‘tree time’.
In Literature we see two different ways of writing, simultaneously: one, like you said, is about making the experience of reading a book as close to the experience of real life, but the other is all about pushing boundaries of what people can think and feel which can be especially seen in speculative fiction. How is this dichotomy, in terms of what people like to read, explained in your opinion?
It would be easy to say that this is a matter of taste, but it might be slightly deeper than that. It owes to the people we are, and the forces that have formed us. I see no real dichotomy – to write about the present, of one’s own experience, needs as much imagination as writing about the future or the past. That is because we’re not writing business reports of the present but looking at the moment imaginatively. The experience of every genre is different, and that owes as much to form as the imagination.
You have written in formats ranging from non-fiction to fiction to poetry. Was there a particular reason why you chose to work with such diverse formats and has it affected your overall growth as a writer? Is there a mental shift, in your case, that you have to undergo when you switch mediums?
It’s not a question of choice, at least not a conscious choice. An image or an idea or a phrase comes to you and it seeks a home – depending on how you’re feeling at that moment, and depending on the tone and character of that image or idea itself, you try to give it a room in your house. Sometimes it becomes a poem, sometimes an essay, sometimes a short story, sometimes something else. It’s like having rice with you – the character of the rice and your taste and appetite will decide whether you want to cook risotto, khichuri, fried rice or biryani. Having said that, I truly believe in the fluidity between genres – I think it’s limiting to read a poem only as a poem and not an essay or a story, or a short story only as that and not an essay or a poem.
You have mentioned that you hated working as a teacher in Bengal and education was becoming more about the degree than actual knowledge. Seeing as you will be joining the Creative Writing Department of Ashoka University, what has changed? Would you consider creative writing different from what you have taught before?
The character of higher education in Bengal – and indeed in India – has made teaching redundant. Only marks and grades seem to matter. I had no say in what I could teach, because I had to teach a syllabus that had been decided centrally by the university to which the college was affiliated. It was difficult to bring a life of research into the classroom given the structure of the semester and so on. It was a government job, and a transferable one – I was often posted to places that affected my health. I’ve taught at Ashoka University before. I’ve enjoyed teaching poetry there because I didn’t have the opportunity to bring the self of a practitioner into the classroom before. I have discovered so much about sounds and rhythms while teaching the poetry workshop. There is great joy when a student writes a beautiful ghazal or villanelle, from techniques that we discuss in class – the joy is greater because I’ve never dared to attempt these forms.
Your first poetry collection, Out of Syllabus, was published in March. As a poet, how important is the form of poetry for you? Is it something that you keep in mind while writing a poem, or do the words and emotions take an upper hand in the process?
I have no consciousness of form when I’m writing anything, whether poem or essay or a story. For me it is a bit like the air I breathe – I know it is there, because it is keeping me alive, and yet I’m not conscious of it. As a teacher I do discuss various forms and genres with students, but the self that writes isn’t aware of that knowledge in any conscious way. The words move like water – depending on the gradient of the floor. That direction it takes gives it its form, at least for me.
Your most recent literary output has been the editing of Animalia Indica, an anthology of stories about animals written by Indians in the last hundred years. How did you get involved with this project and do you have any memorable details of your first stint as an editor? Are you working on something new to further expand your corpus? Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writers from the subcontinent?
The anthology was David Davidar’s idea – he asked me to edit it. He and Aienla helped me with getting access to the stories. This is not really my first stint as an editor – I’ve been editing Antiserious for a few years now (I set it up with Manjiri Indurkar and Debojit Dutta), and the North-East Review before that. I’ve also edited special issues of journals. This is the first time I’ve edited a book – I enjoyed reading many, many stories that I might not have had the chance to read had I not set out to do this. My favourite memories involve discussing this book with my seven-year-old nephew.
I’m working on a book of stories at the moment.
I have no advice for anyone, not just writers. I could do with some advice myself. As a reader, however, I will say this – that I like writing that is honest, irrespective of genre, writing that does not come from the stock-market value of genres and subjects but from a self that is alive to the impress of life on it.
Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree, a work of non-fiction, Missing: A Novel, and Out of Syllabus: Poems. She has also recently edited Animalia Indica: The Finest Animal Stories in Indian Literature.