NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS’ CHOICE – Novel ‘Brotherless Night’ which was released this January is written by VV Ganeshananthan.
‘Brotherless Night’ Can be purchased at –
Set during the early years of Sri Lanka’s three-decade civil war, Brotherless Night is a heartrending portrait of one woman’s moral journey and a testament to both the enduring impact of war and the bonds of home.
The Author of the ‘Brotherless Night’ – V.V. Ganeshananthan, is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first novel ‘Love Marriage’ was Published in the year 2008 and was long-listed for the Orange Prize.
Her work has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Columbia Journalism Review among others. A former vice president of the South Asian Journalists Association, she has also served on the board of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She is a member of the board of directors of the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies.
During the conversation with Harshaneeyam, she spoke about her literary career and the way she went about writing the novel among other things.
Harshaneeyam: Welcome to our podcast, Professor Ganeshananthan! nice to have you on our show.
Dr.Ganeshananthan: Thank you so much for inviting me.
H: So to begin with, can you tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a published author?
G: Sure, even as a small child, really loved to read books and had parents who encouraged me and my desire to write them, which was very lucky for me. And I pursued writing creatively through my whole childhood, through high school. And I also started to do journalism and into college where I was both working as a journalist and writing fiction.
And then after college, I worked at a magazine briefly, and then I went on to get a master’s in Fine Arts at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where I had a draft of my first novel, Love Marriage, which came out in 2008. I also started working on Brotherless night, my second novel, which came out in the United States in January and in South Asia somewhat later. So I was working on both of those books at that time, and then I happened to finish the other one first. As sometimes happens, I moved to. I finished my degree at Iowa. I did a fellowship for one year, a creative writing fellowship. And then I moved to New York City to go to journalism school. An arts and culture journalism. And part way through my time in journalism school, I sold my first novel.
And yeah, I was fortunate kind of before that point to have access to a lot of great teachers and also very helpful peers and also just a lot of encouragement, which I think isn’t always the case for people pursuing the arts and I was yeah, I just benefited from, from all of that support and from being in places with great libraries and great schools. So I had a lot of people cheering for me. And so my first novel came out in 2008 and then sort of more or less since then, I haven’t been teaching creative writing at the university level.
H: And you were also into journalism?
G: Yeah. So I worked at the Atlantic Monthly briefly after college. I was one of the first people in its Washington, D.C. office before it had moved from Boston, where it was then to D.C. and I had grown up in the D.C. area. So it was a natural place for me to be. But I found that I also wanted to write creatively, and that wasn’t a place where I could. I couldn’t manage to do both while working at the magazine, and I’m sure some other people would have been able to, but I could not. So I went to get my master’s in fine arts, kind of as a way to have more time to write creatively, and that was really helpful. I’m lucky to have extraordinary teachers in college. My primary creative writing teacher was Jamaica Kincaid, and she was a very powerful influence on me. She is, of course, is an extraordinary writer and also an amazing editor, and she would have us read our work aloud to her and then she would edit us verbally while we were reading the sentences. So she taught us how to, I think, tune our ears to what sounded to us to the correct words so you could hear if you were reading a sentence aloud that you had chosen the wrong adjective, or that the sentence was shaped wrong. Yeah, it was an invaluable lesson. And she paid a lot of attention to our sentences, which was a huge privilege. I have also, yeah, just been lucky at the Irish Writers Workshop. Also, I worked with Z.Z Packer, Chris Offutt, Ethan Canin, Jim Haynes, Elizabeth McCracken, and Frank Conroy. So Jim McPherson, just really everyone who is on the faculty there. I tried to take classes with as many different people as I could and they were all I just yeah, I learned a lot doing that and was also lucky to develop a community of peer writers, some of whom are still people who are readers and friends of mine. So that was also a huge benefit.
H: So when and how did the idea for writing Brotherless Night come to your mind?
G: Sure. I started writing Brotherless night when I was doing research for my first novel, which is called Love Marriage, which is set mostly it’s quite a bit of it is set in the diaspora, although it travels to Sri Lanka in some flashbacks. So, Brotherless night emerged from a little bit of research that I found that was interesting to me. That was from a period in the 1980s and I found that research so fascinating, but I knew I couldn’t put it in my first book because it just didn’t belong there. So I started writing something else, and at the time I was a student at the University of Iowa and I wanted to get into a class on the novella. So what I did was I used that piece of research to write a very long short story to kind of argue my way into the class, which I wasn’t enrolled in. I wasn’t enrolled in it, and I really wanted to be in it.
So I kind of used the story as a bargaining chip. I said I’ll go first if you let me in the class, I’ll submit my work first. And everyone wanted more time to write their stories. I wanted more time to write my story, frankly. And then later I took it. I took 18 years, so I had plenty of time later. So yeah, the first pages of it were written kind of in great haste and Ethan Canin, who was the instructor of that class, encouraged me to continue. And he was one of many people who encouraged me to continue. And yeah, and it wasn’t a novella. So that was also, yeah, a good way to learn that…
H: In addition to being a novelist, you’re also an accomplished journalist and an Essayist. How has your experience as a journalist helped you while writing Brotherless Night?
G: As a journalist, I spent a lot of time interviewing people and that gave me a lot of comfort with talking to different people, formulating questions, being curious about other people in different ways, learning when to listen, and also tuning my ear to when someone was not perhaps telling me a complete story. So as I did my research for Brotherless Night, I did interview a lot of people and I knew how to ask for those interviews I think had the training to kind of lay those interviews next to published histories and to think about them critically in relation to each other. And also, I think to divest myself of authority rather than thinking that I knew everything, which I very clearly did not. I think that journalism gave me a sense of humility that I should ask other people a lot of questions. Yeah, and maybe a little bit of the courage to go and ask those go and ask those questions. Sometimes, people who didn’t know me, I would sort of show up and be like, Here I am working on a project and will you help me? And a lot of people did, and I was very lucky to have a lot of other people invest a lot of time and expertise into helping me understand the issues of the era that I wrote about.
H: The novel touches upon the devastating results of the conflict in Sri Lanka in the years between 1981 to 2009 and all the way through it all, the Sri Lankan army, various Tamil militant groups, Indian peacekeeping force, and of course the ethnic Tamil minorities, you know, the common people. You touched upon various incidents, greatly publicized – the 83 riots in Colombo, the hunger strike and Mullavaikkal massacre, and the involvement of IPKF. What was your methodology in choosing the correct Version? Because when it gets widely publicized, they already have different versions. Right. How did you get to that?
G: Well, I think that’s a great question. The book does cover a lot of history. It covers in addition to covering instances. So in addition to addressing a lot of private history and imagined private history, it addresses a lot of public history and it addresses specifically contested public history. So by writing the book, I was in some sense also very intentionally entering some arguments, which I was aware of, and I had grown up with versions of some of those stories that I knew did not match the public versions.
I went a little bit maybe jonesing for a fight or at least expecting one. So, for example, very close to the beginning of the book, which is the book begins in 1980, and it’s told from a first-person retrospective voice in 2009, the year that the war ends. A woman, Sashi, is recalling her teenage years in 1980s Sri Lanka when she was trying to enter medical school. And so the book begins in 1981, which is the year that the Jaffna public library was burned by state-aligned mobs. And I mean, even that you can find people who will kind of contest the version of this incident that’s in the book. If you want, you can find someone to contest basically every fact that is in the book. And I think long before a kind of fake news was a thing and that was dominating, say, U.S. discourse, Fake news was very popular. And at least in Sri Lanka, maybe in other parts of South Asia as well. But right news that emits huge and obvious facts, right? Like no one knows who assassinated this person, for example. You know, everyone knows actually, everyone knows. And so I got really fed up with some of those things. And I also knew that I should not rely on a single source for any one of the versions that I was putting forward.
And so, for example, I have a commemorative book that is like a commemorative book about the burning of the Jaffna public library. I also read a number of published histories. I asked people who were in Jaffna at that time, about their memories, their kind of sense, memories of what that was like. Like how big was that fire? Could you smell it from far away? Like, how did you come to learn about it? Right. There are so many different histories and then to think about which parts of those were important to me, which parts of those did people not really talk about? Why do people think about that as the library burning, Other things also burned. So that was something to put in. And then also to kind of note the complicity of the state and of representatives of the state, which many representatives of the state and just many supporters of the state have in the past denied. There are others who have also acknowledged it in the years since. And so to kind of cram all of that in, because it’s something that certainly like that was a story I was raised with, the story of the burning of the library. And it also appears in love marriage, actually. So that’s an example of the 1983 riots, which in my first book appear from a distance, people in the diaspora essentially watching them on television, and in Brotherless Night, they appear. Right. And there are things that the characters are experiencing. And so to think about, there are so many different stories of what happened to people during those riots.
And to this day, there’s like quite a bit of stuff that isn’t in the official histories. There’s a lot of kind of blame that gets thrown around like, oh, then you know, the riots happened, but the soldiers were killed and the soldiers were killed because of the ambush. And the ambush happened because of and then you kind of go backward and backward and backward. And so I was also interested in thinking about how the story move forwards, how those things connected to each other and led to each other, how, I don’t know. A kid who worked at the library might end up in a militant group how someone from Jaffna might end up in Colombo during the riots. So to compare all of those different histories and look at the places like the little fractures where people were having arguments and to sometimes choose sides and sometimes simply make space in the narrative to acknowledge the arguments, there’s a kind of knowingness that I think fiction has the capacity to contain what I would refer to as maybe community knowledge that sometimes journalism maybe doesn’t like it might be hard for someone, for example, to speak on the record about something that happened to them that was traumatic. And on the other hand, if I go to go to someone, say, I’m working on a novel and I’m wondering what this experience was like for you, they can also tell me the story knowing that it won’t be exactly reflected, that I will turn it in a different way than a journalist would.
So I think that also maybe gave people some comfort and probably gave me some comfort to know that I would be able to reshape things. So, for example, the family in the book does experience the 1983 riots in a very specific way, and I had to decide what would happen to the characters in the riots in which many people died. Many people suffered life-altering injuries or losses of homes and property and businesses that were life-changing. Many people emigrated after those riots. So I had to decide, do my characters live? Do they die? If they live, how do they live? If they die? How do they die? And I think I could have chosen other paths than the ones that I did. I came to realize that if I knew the outlines of public history and felt confident in them, then I was also able to imagine the lives of individual characters within those frameworks. And I also, I think going back to your previous question as a journalist, I think I was aware that not everyone would agree with me with the various choices that I had made, and I was prepared for that, that I might be representing histories that other people would prefer not be there, and that as long as I felt that I had made an informed choice with as much information as I could gather, that it would be better to make a choice rather than to have those events not represented on the page ever, or not represented or represented in ways that I thought were incomplete or wrong.
H: You mentioned burning up the Jaffna library, and the narrator laments that they’re destroying our past as well as the future. Right. I read one more book ‘Books on Fire’ by Polestron, I think, a couple of years ago. Interesting. He talks about the various cases in human history where invading armies and oppressors across different centuries and cultures take up the burning of libraries as their top priority, to begin with.
G: I haven’t read the book that you’ve read, but I can’t contest that argument. I think that I mean, even right now in the United States, you can see a kind of. Right. A creep towards fascism that’s very interested in banning books, very interested in policing language. And I do think I have the story of the job in a public library told to me as the destruction of history, which it absolutely is. But it also was very much a place of the present. It was a place where friends gathered. It was a place where they studied. It was a place where, yeah, like young people were young people together as a community center as well. And so I wanted to reflect that it wasn’t just sort of the common statement as like a 90,000 single copy. All the leaf manuscripts were destroyed. Right. And that’s again, that’s absolutely true.
But what would it mean to a kid who like, was inside the building every day, which is a different a little bit of a different story. And I do think that that’s right. This is what aggressors of the kind you’re describing are looking to do, not only to erase history but to erase the opportunity to write. There’s a kind of forgetting that is very convenient for or for fascism, for authoritarianism, and it’s also eliminating opportunities for advancement. So it’s sort of a path on the road to, you know, eroding the judiciary to, you know, thinking about the safety of elected officials, etc., etc.. So all of which we’re seeing play out in the United States right now, and which I think we’re also, fortunately seeing civil society learning how to muster resistance.
H: And interestingly, the character Dayalan is a very studious guy, not an aggressive type. So after that, even he gets into militancy after the incident. And the way they walk with their sister and friends to the library. That’s nicely written. And I like that passage.
G: Thank you.
H: So there is also a character based on real life, Rajani Thiragama. It was almost like she’s the heroine in the novel and like the author of this novel she’s also a professor and a journalist too.
G: That’s, you know, it was funny until you were, of course, emailing me before this interview. And when you made that observation, somehow that had actually never occurred to me. I don’t really think of myself as similar to her at all. And I think it’s I don’t know, like she is the heroine of the novel, but I think, of course, the main heroine is the narrator. But in certain ways, there are versions of each other as well. Right. The narrator of the novel, Sashi is a very young woman who’s a student. And Anjali Ramachandran, the character you’re referring to in the novel, who is based on Rajani is her teacher, and she loves her teacher, as many of us do, and also considers her like a friend, an older sister, a mentor or a role model, and looks to her for guidance on how she might lead her life and what she should do.
At moments when choices seem to her very difficult. So, Rajni, The one I got was from one of the authors of a non-fiction book called ‘The Broken Palmyra’, which was a very influential book for me that I was reading at about the same time that I found that research that wouldn’t fit in the book and that wouldn’t fit in love marriage. And I was struck by I had grown up on kind of stories of the IPKF, the Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka, which for people I knew had been like a catastrophic event, had involved atrocity and militarization of society, a real lack of safety for specifically women and girls, but also not just women and girls like I knew a lot of stories about that period of time, all of which were pretty unhappy. And so to think about the stories that I had heard and then to read that book and kind of again, see those two things together, I could see that the book was interested in a kind of even-handedness because it was critical of the Indian peacekeeping forces. It was critical of the Sri Lankan state. It was critical of the Tamil Tigers and other militant and other Tamil militant groups. I could see that there was a gesture there to something bigger than allegiance to any one of those groups, but maybe just an allegiance to ordinary people. And that struck me as incredibly unusual. The book is also very beautifully written and full of small individual stories, which accumulated in a way that was extremely powerful. And of course, she died for that book. She was assassinated over a copy of that book over her participation in its writing and was not the only person so in peril. The Tigers, of course, killed other people who were critical of them.
And so I think, like for people who are interested in politics of minorities in Sri Lanka and people who are interested in human rights and specifically human rights in Asia and human rights in South Asia, she is an iconic figure. I was also grateful that in my conversations with people who had known her, a couple of people emphasized to me, you know, she was also an ordinary person and there were others like her. She was not alone. And other people were also doing this work. And she was if she was extraordinary, she should not be considered extraordinary because she was killed. But she should be considered extraordinary because of how she lived and considered, I don’t know, but also considered ordinary in a beautiful way and in a way that a lot of people in that time were. Yeah. So I think like she is definitely like her voice is very influential for the book. She is one of the epigraphs, two of the epigraphs. Actually, in the book, there are three. As I was writing, I was always reading her, which was, which was very helpful, since I never had the opportunity to meet her.
H: Now it’s very moving to know that her daughter has done the audio version of the book for Audible.
G: That’s actually it’s actually her sister.
H: Yeah. Yeah,
G: it’s her sister, Nirmala Rajasingham who did do. Yeah, she did the audiobook, which I was incredibly honored by. And also, as you can hear from my voice, the character grows up in Sri Lanka and does not sound like me. And so for me to have done the audiobook would have been horrifying. So, okay. And Nirmala also has a very unusual and beautiful voice. Yeah. So I hope that if someone is interested in an audiobook, it’s. I think it’s a good one to pick up.
H: Yeah, I heard the version that you tweeted. It’s really nice. It’s. It’s really well-made.
G: Thank you.
H:I think the Hindu, newspaper is the one which used to cover at that time. I read about it briefly. it’s mostly on this side of the story. You know, IPKF and how people were killed and how many of them lost their lives. And the other side of this story, we never knew actually. Really, in your opinion, what went wrong with the intervention of IPKF. do you think it’s a terrible idea even to begin with?
G: That’s a great question. I mean, there’s so much about that time that I’m sure I still don’t know. I did read a number of memoirs by people who had been, say, for example, officers in the Indian army. But of course, I was exposed to a lot of civilian narratives about atrocities committed by the IAF, which included all sorts of violence, massacres of civilians, sexual violence, etc.. There’s a lot of complexity to what you’re asking, some of which has to do with the different languages spoken by people who came from India to be in the Indian peacekeeping forces, some of whom were Tamil speakers and could communicate with people in Sri Lanka and others of whom were not.
And so I think there is a difficulty in communication. Then also a different it seemed like a gap in expectation right. Some people in the Indian army who had come from places in India that were not doing that well and arrived in Sri Lanka to sort of think here we are to help these people. They don’t seem like they’re. It’s unclear to us what the problem is. And so I think right, like the complexity of the situation on the ground, it didn’t seem like from what I have read, it doesn’t seem like that was something that your average Indian army, your Indian peacekeeping force person would necessarily have understood and a deep sense, I don’t know when is militarisation ever the right answer? Like when are peacekeepers good? it’s a messy business. And this is hardly the only peacekeeping force one can think of where things went wrong. Right. The common analogy is that this was India’s Vietnam.
So now when you hear about the Vietnam War in the United States, even now, Right. The narrative, the narrative that I personally as an American I’m more familiar with is one of the Vietnam veterans, none of someone who was a civilian in Vietnam. Right. And that’s on me. Like, that’s something where I should go and do my homework and think about how am I as an American, complicit in imperialism. I think that because of India. Right. Was part of the British Empire and of course, suffered tremendously under colonialism, it’s easy for India. I don’t know to like what does it mean to be sort of at the nexus of history where you were both a colonized nation and now you’re a superpower? Like who else is in that pocket? It’s small it’s a small Venn diagram right there. So it’s like a unique it’s a unique position. And I can understand why. I can see why, right? If it’s not good for a neighboring nation to be destabilized. Yet at the same time, like right, India was involved in arming and training double militant groups, and there is an enormous amount of sympathy for them on nationalism and for the Tigers, specifically in Tamil Nadu. There are historical and also linguistic reasons for that. So, I mean, what went wrong? I think like so much of the time, communication is an issue.
And then I think also, as always, like the rights and safety of women and girls insufficiently considered, insufficiently protected. And that is something that like that area, there’s still people who say the IP case was way worse than the state in certain places and in the peninsula, people will still say that. So it did seem to me, you know, that I would often, I don’t know, kind of meet people of Indian origin who had no idea that this had occurred. So it was definitely something that I wanted to put in the book. It is also true, and you can find this in the documents written by the University Teachers of Human Rights, which originates around a guy that was a member. You can also find stories of IPKF’s decency and bravery. Yeah, I don’t think that that that was something that was I didn’t want to sort of portray it as a monolith because clearly, you know, it’s not like you want to dam every individual person who was in it. I think that there were people also clearly who went there with good intentions, people who. Right. And so there are scenes in the book that also try to represent that.
H: Yes. Yes. There is one particular incident.
G: Yes, you’re right. I think even in even in such instances now, you see the moment where there are two police officers in the United States and they go into a house that they shouldn’t be in. And you hear later the argument between the two. Right. And so the question of how should this be handled? What should I do? The one who has more training, the one who is scared, the one who has less training, the one who is not sure why they’re there. And so, yeah, I’m not going to say my goal was to do the I think half because it wasn’t particularly but I also wasn’t trying to make it kind of one blob.
H: Interestingly, this novel was in the making for almost two decades. So you must have changed as a person. And what kind of writing, rewriting, and editing process did it go through?
G: Well, it was first, that very long short story. It was really probably three or four short stories that I didn’t quite realize belonged together. And then I saw that sort of lines between them and did put them all together. So that was kind of the beginning of it. And then I started writing it in 2004, and the war actually ended in 2009. And then there was a while there, I think, where I wasn’t sure what shape the book would take. It had some long sections in New York that were horrible. And so after a couple of years of wondering if they were horrible or not, I decided that they were. And then I cut them. Yeah, I think it took me a while. It took me a while to figure out what the shape of the story was, to understand that certain things didn’t have to be in there, and to even accept my own, my own interest in. Right.
I lived in New York for part of the time that I wrote this. I thought, Oh, it would be so interesting to write work where I am currently. AM No, no, it was not. And so very little of the book ended up being in New York and the parts that are in there, of course, are the parts I cared about most. But a lot of it was writing pages that didn’t end up in the book. Yeah, so there’s like two or two or three other books on my hard drive that are really bad that no one will see.
H: Are they going to come out?
G: No, definitely not. No one will see them. They will be dragged to the trash right after this interview. I was lucky to have a lot of different people reading it. So probably I mean, at least I mean, I’m making this number up because I’ve never counted, but I would guess that maybe 30 different people, 35 different people read drafts of it. But it was I took so long that it was never really more than two or three people at the same time. So I was never overwhelmed with feedback and I had a lot of different readers. Some were experts in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan history. Others were fiction writers. Very occasionally there would be someone who was both. I have a friend who’s a really good reader who is a lawyer, so just people with common sense who I trusted. I would give it to those people and yeah, that was tremendously helpful to have all of those different voices. But not 30 at once.
H: But these are all neutral readers, right? They don’t belong to Sri Lanka.
G: The people who read the book, some of them some of them were connected to Sri Lanka. Yeah, some of them were connected to Sri Lanka and in very specific ways. Some of them were people who researched Sri Lanka, whose academic work is connected to Sri Lanka. Some of them were people who were. Yeah, I mean some of the most important readers were people who were connected to Sri Lanka because for me that was the first audience, the first audience that I cared about was the people who had lived through that time period. That was the set of people I wanted to be accountable to. So, for example, I have a friend who lived through a lot of that time period, and there was a part where I was writing the book over again, and I started kind of from the beginning, so I would send her a chapter every day and at the end of the day she would call me and tell me what I had done wrong. And she would also ask me the kind of Where’s when are you sending me the next chapter? Which was great because I knew that someone wanted to read it and who had been through that time period and that she thought I was getting it right enough that she would read on. But she also liked if I made a mistake, she had zero patience for it, which I really I appreciated her bluntness with both the moments when I got things correct where she would cheer and say, like, this part’s really interesting. And then she’d be like, But this part’s absolutely wack. Like, this is not that’s not at all how it happens like that. People will laugh at you if you put that part in, and then I’ll be like, Oh God. But so I never sort of. So at least on that draft, I never was really the mistake could not stay for very long because she was reading practically as I wrote.
H: So what impact do you hope that this book will have?
G: I’m sure it will have impacts that I don’t know and I’m sure will have impacts that I can’t imagine. And that’s exciting. But I think specifically, I wanted this piece of history to be represented and I wanted kind of the lesser known histories of specific minorities, specifically, Thelma women and specifically civilian Thelma women to be on a page somewhere that they could see it and that I could see it, and that then people could read it and know it and kind of hear this version, which, of course, has to stand in relation other versions. And I think also the book directly addresses readers at various points, and I hope that people think about what they expect themselves as readers, what they expect of the person telling the story. How much explanation do people expect and what kind of privilege is associated with that, people will also start to imagine different kinds of readers. A reader who might be you or me, who might actually know the story and be there because they know the story rather than because they don’t. So the kind of you, then you as it is in in the book, she does directly address the reader and sometimes she’s mad and at other times she sort of has sympathy for them and then says, you know, maybe you know exactly what I’m talking about. So she is also interrogating herself. So I hope it’s an opportunity for people to think about that, too.
H: Teaching creative writing at the university level in India is an alien concept, actually. Can you briefly tell us what is methodology there in the USA?
G: Sure. I mean, the methodology varies and has been a subject, the subject of a lot of debate and discourse in the past several years. But the original methodology at the university level originated at the University of Iowa, where people use something called a workshop model, where the writer submits work in progress for discussion by their peers. The most traditional models. The original model has it so that the writer doesn’t speak during that conversation. I think in the past several years, many if not all of us have moved away from that model,
and that conversation often has a very specific structure. Lots of people have also been moving away from that in recent years in allowing the writer to ask questions of the reader.
So I think workshop these days often takes the shape of the writer kind of coming to the session and saying, this is the tradition in which I’m writing, these are the things I’m hoping to accomplish. These are questions I have for you. I’m open to X, Y, and Z kinds of feedback. So that’s one way of doing it, I guess. I as a creative writing student, I liked those workshops, but they were not the center of my creative world. I really enjoyed one on one conversations with my teachers and my peers, and I found the back-and-forths that were possible in those kinds of conferences to be just as valuable in driving my work forward. I would say a combination of those two things the workshops and the conferences are probably the main versions of creative writing teaching in the United States, and that’s of course, past the introductory level where often someone is being given a prompt, right? Like when I teach undergraduate creative writing, I ask my undergraduate creative writing students to write. That’s the first thing I asked them to do. So sometimes we’re giving our students prompts or constraints, like write a story in the first person from the point of view of a dog, you know, retell, retell a classic fable, but switch the genders around, something like that.
H: I believe it’s a very challenging task. You know, writing a novel based on recent history, which is fresh in many people’s minds and where there are various versions floating around, all that it can get into, you know, a lot of controversy, and many people may challenge it and all that. So what advice do you give to your students or aspiring writers when they want to take up fiction based on recent history?
G: There are a fair number of novels that are recent history that do delve into things that are controversial. So I guess I would first say tell them to look for other examples that they admire and to think about why they admire them. I’m thinking of, for example, Rebecca McCarthy’s novel, The Great Believers, about sort of the period of time in which AIDS is a significant issue and kind of like in the rearview mirror, we can see like the AIDS epidemic was horribly handled by the United States government. So to think about, like, what is it that your story provides that straightforward history does not like? Is there an aesthetic or form? Right. Are you going to write history ala Midnight’s Children with like a very strong voice and a sense of humor? Or like in my case, right. Like realism is I consider realism in this regard to be like a political stance because there were so many people who were interested in and racing facts. So I was interested in presenting as many factual things as I could, the factual things that I thought were important. So what is your relationship to facts? And then also because if the history is so recent, you can go and get a lot of the documents, you can interview the people, what are the different angles by which you can acquire that information?
H: Are there any particular art books that have influenced you deeply as a person?
G: So many. I really love Sonny Boy by Salvadore. I think for me that will always be a book I look back on as if I found it at the moment that it was great for me to read it. And I think it’s such an important and beautiful book. I remember also a beloved teacher of mine giving me a volume of Collected on the AC, which included the English patient and also a lot of poetry and also running in the family. So that was also a very influential book for me. Jamaica Kincaid’s work, of course, I love it. Speaking of recent history, there is a novel that won the Pulitzer, The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier in Clay, by Michael Chabon, which is about two cousins who work in comics. And it’s an amazing novel. I could reread it forever. So those are just a few examples.
H: So what are you currently reading and what’s next for you in terms of writing fiction?
G: I’m not sure what’s next for me in terms of writing fiction. I’m sticking my toes in a few different swimming pools, and I’m currently reading Helen Kabila’s Travelers, which is very beautiful. And also I also just finished reading a novel called The Society of Shame by Jane Roper, who is a writer from Boston, which is about a fictional scandal and how the heroine deals with it. It’s about a politician’s wife who gets kind of caught up in a media situation created by her husband and kind of becomes unwillingly the center of attention. I am often reading books for the podcast. I co-host.
H: Okay, Prof.Ganeshananthan, thank you. Thank you very much. And I believe the book is getting released in the UK in the month of June. Will you be there in the UK at the time?
G: I won’t be in England on the release date. I will be in England a little bit earlier, so we’ll see if I end up doing any events or anything like that. But I am excited for the book to come out in the UK and former British Commonwealth territories where it hasn’t appeared yet. So then the hardcover will be available and I hope that you will pick it up. Thank you so much for having me on this show. I really appreciate it. Your careful reading and questions.
H: Thank you and wish you great success personally and for the book.
G: Thank you
Following are the real-life incidents ( Backdrop for major incidents in the Novel)
1.Burning of Jaffna Library –
2.Black July 1983 Riots in Colombo –
3.Role of IPKF –
4.MulliVaikkal Massacre –
5.About Rajani Thiranagama, one of the central characters in the book –
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