“Janice Pariat is a writer who shatters the mould of orthodox thinking, with a deftly handled and well-aimed spear of originality. Her work - primarily fiction and poetry - deals with the fundamental intricacies and thought processes of individuals. Her characters, and the narratives they inhabit, resist categorization. There is a yearning to be free of restrictive boxes and accepted norms. Infusing her writing with the surreal atmosphere of the hills she grew up in, Pariat weds the fantastic with the everyday. Her writing straddles genre lines and unabashedly embraces a refreshing sort of mystical realism. Fusing real life with mythic folklore, magic with mundane, she weaves breathtaking stories full of grace and elegance. Her writing is lush and evocative, bringing to mind the inherent beauty of classical lyricism. She is adept at turning the gaze, inverting the lens, while she re-orients and re-visions old subjects in new ways, entrancing the prospective reader completely and leaving her/him spellbound.”
Do you feel the place they grow up in plays a fundamental role in a writer’s life? Having been born and brought up in Assam and Meghalaya, how has conflict and unrest, both past and present, moulded you as a writer and influenced your work through the years?
I’d ask how could it not? Even if it means for a writer to sometimes reject where they come from, or to feel stifled by it. The places where one grows up, the people they’re surrounded by in those years, are foundational, I would think. They shape your initial understanding of the world, your loyalties, your compassions, your prejudices—and inevitably, directly or not, this will permeate into their writing. It is after all who you are. How a writer chooses to treat “place”, however, and their relationship with it, is what makes for good literature.
I hope that growing up in pockets of Assam and Meghalaya, during the “trouble” years would help shape me into a person who is not quick to judge. When there’s conflict, people usually take sides, and it can become terrifyingly black or white, but in these particular places in the Northeast, inhabited by smaller, more vulnerable tribal communities, usually imposed upon by a draconian centre, marginalized within the structure of the nation—you begin to see grey, to understand fears over loss of identity, language, culture. I’ve learned that “militancy” is a word used by those who are privileged in terms of geography and proximity to the capital, bolstered by the safety in numbers of their own community. I hope some of that nuance seeps into my writing—it’s very much what shaped the stories of my first book, Boats on Land.
Do you feel the dominance of one language over the other by creating false hierarchies between them is detrimental to writing? In what ways, according to you, does it impact writers and the stories they (choose to) tell?
I’m assuming you mean English in relation to “regional languages” (not my favourite term, admittedly)? For me this has been the experience, growing up in Shillong, attending for a few foundational years a convent school run by missionary Irish Catholic nuns. This is where I lost Khasi - the language I’d learnt to first speak in, for with colonization came the division between the Christian and the unconverted, the light and the dark, the civilized and the barbaric. Everything Khasi needed to be shunned - stories, songs, music, traditional instruments, faith and beliefs. It was terribly cruel. Then the process of neocolonialism, where at the altar of “nation-building” our history books carried every detail of the Indian Independence Movement except our own - not a line on Tirot Singh, a Khasi freedom fighter in the early 1800s. The Mughals and Cholas, and every single Anglo-whoever battle since the beginning of colonization, but not the varied histories of the states in the northeast. The impact of this is loss. A loss of immense proportions. We learned the sonnets of Shakespeare, the couplets of Kabir, and not a single poem by So So Tham. The tragedy is that those stories do not even become options for some of us because they cease to exist. They’re gone. I don’t know if they can be recovered - or if they should be, and by whom. (This is the problematic nature of documenting.) The novel I’m working on at the moment has this experience of indigeneity at its heart. I would even add that the hierarchy of the textual over the oral leads to this kind of tremendous loss, which is what happened in the case of Khasi, a language passed on, and kept alive, through word.
You have mentioned how you consider translated works as something totally new. Why do you feel so? We live in a time that is troubled by a lack of knowledge about different cultures, ethnicities and religions. Do you believe that translations into and from regional languages would pave the way for a more considerate and compassionate world?
Language is not merely a collection of grammar rules and vocabulary - it is a way of looking at the world. Hence a book that’s translated becomes a way of seeing that’s different to what the original may have intended. Something new becomes possible. A work in translation - at least of my own books - is also suddenly inaccessible to me (sadly, I’m no polyglot), and for me that’s actually thrilling. It belongs, in a way, to someone else, and I’m very happy to share this space. Translation is hope. It gestures to the fact that we aren’t confined to our own sliver of the world, that we aren’t caught in the grip of only our reality. Translations allow for the existence of multiplicity, to acknowledge our incredible interconnectedness, rather than stewing in the comfort, and confinement, of our tiny worlds.
You have talked about your childhood being filled with various folk tales from the Khasi community, and how their belief in superstition lies very comfortably with the truth. In Boats on Land, you introduce the supernatural into stories revolving around social strife and identity struggle. How permeable is the boundary between fact and folklore for you?
In my first book, Boats on Land, a collection of short stories set in Shillong, Cherrapunjee, various pockets of Assam, I employed certain magic realist techniques, the presence of the so-called “supernatural”, for example, and, more pertinently, the juxtaposing of the marvellous and the mundane. This was to illustrate how reality could be as fantastical as so-called magic. That the terrible things we do to each other in the name of nation, religion, identity, etc are often as hard to believe and as extraordinary as the stories we hear of the supernatural, the magical, the uncanny.
Seahorse, a contemporary retelling of a Greek myth about Poseidon and Pelops set in Delhi and London, was your debut novel after a collection of short stories. Why did you feel the need to change forms for this particular narrative? Do you undergo any sort of mental shift when switching forms?
The shift was not so much in me - as much as in the story I’m trying to tell. In fact, Seahorse began as a novella. A ménage à trois in a campus! But I found as I wrote it that it was growing beyond the canvas I’d initially planned for it, and I allowed it to grow. Having said that, there is usually pressure on the part of the publisher on a writer who debuts with short stories to eventually “make the switch” to long-form fiction. At least this is how it used to be - short stories were sometimes not even considered worthy for “serious” publishing. All ridiculous of course, these hierarchies. What matters is craft, rigour, style, voice - not the form.
In The Nine-Chambered Heart, you maintained a sense of anonymity by not giving names either to the characters or the cities. You have talked about how important it was for you to write a “context-less book” as you don’t see the world in neatly labelled boxes. Could you elaborate on why you find it limiting?
Place, for me, can also be a weight. To be labelled a writer from the “Northeast”, and expected (by publishers, readers even) to always write certain kinds of books set in certain places. While I do return over and again to the landscapes of my childhood, I would hope also for the freedom to travel, to follow stories where they lead me. The Nine-Chambered Heart, with its “placelessness” and lack of geographical markers was an experiment in this, to find a (universal?) story, and a way of telling it that might float lightly across borders.
Your current project is an ambitiously expansive historical fiction exploring taxonomy and what drives compartmentalization. Is it informed by the same urge to dismantle rigid categories like your previous work? Where do you think the innate desire to classify things comes from and why is it such an important facet of modern society?
My writing, and especially this current project in particular, has been informed by a disquiet I’ve felt all my life: Who am I? I come from a family of immensely mixed heritages. My maternal Jaintia grandmother married a Portuguese man, my paternal Khasi grandfather had an English grandfather. I look neither Indian nor “Northeastern” nor White. It’s a question I’m constantly asked - where are you from? And I feel myself explaining over and over again, how I don’t fit these ethnic categories generally constructed for people. It took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t the problem, but that the categories themselves were too narrow. And this, at the heart of it, is the problem with categories. Something or someone will always be left out. I refuse to check the “other” box on a checklist on ethnicity. If you don’t have a category for me, it’s not my problem, I don’t care. In fact, categories say more about the person prescribing them than the one they allegedly apply to. This is a matter extremely close to my heart. Categories stop us, confine us, turn vibrant, complex narratives into frozen, monolithic ones - dead, and museumized behind lights and glass. The world is gloriously non-classifiable, and I hope the novel I’m working on will reflect that.
Has teaching creative writing over the last few years brought you any revelations about your own creative process and/or affected the way you perceive the craft? Lastly, any word - of advice, caution or general note - for young writers?
Only that everyone has their own creative process - and it’s tremendously important not to foist your own onto students. Writing is not just about putting the right words in the right order on a page, it’s also about the journey made between those words and you. About discovering the kind of writer you are - and acknowledging that this is an ever-ongoing process. Teaching has made me realize, more than ever, how crucial structure is - that what might be more important than story is how you tell the story. That the way you reveal information to the reader determines this and it largely shapes their reading experience.
Taking a creative writing course - and this is something we discuss in class - doesn’t make you a writer. Nothing of its own, will. Becoming a writer is a lifelong journey, made up of slivers of experiences, of which taking a creative writing class might be one.
I know that mostly young writers are told to “read like a writer” and to read books in order to write them—and while I agree, I would also add, learn to listen like a writer. To be a good writer, you must be a good listener, for if you have no space for other people’s stories and the way they tell them, there will be very little room in your own writing to imagine other lives.
Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories and Seahorse: A Novel. Her recent novella, The Nine-Chambered Heart, is being translated for publication into ten languages. She was awarded the Young Writer Award from the Sahitya Akademi and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction in 2013. Her work - including art reviews, book reviews, fiction and poetry - has featured in a wide selection of national magazines and newspapers. She was the Charles Wallace Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Kent, UK in 2014. She currently lives in New Delhi with a cat of many names.