Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Voice From Malaysia

An edited e-mail interview with Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening Is The Whole Day, portions of which appear in a piece in the latest TimeOut Mumbai. Though I had some reservations about the book -- chiefly pertaining to the sprawls and shifts alluded to below -- it's certainly a striking debut. Samarasan, who moved from Malaysia to attend high school in the United States, is a sometime student of musicology who's attended the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan.

You were studying for a doctorate in musicology before you switched to writing. What made this happen? In this context, did your interest in folk music influence the structure of Evening is the Whole Day, in terms of circularity and harmony?

It wasn't so much a switch as a gradual decision -- I had always been writing, but I ended up in graduate school in musicology due to a confluence of random circumstances and the idea that I should have a slightly more stable career in academia. I'd been raised to think that writing as a career was more or less a pipe dream except for people in faraway countries like America and England. I took a long time to realise that sometimes it's worth taking big risks to do the thing you love.

As far as the influence of my study of music: it's a nice idea, and I wish I could say it's accurate, but I really don't think there was any such influence. My interest in musicology was always more anthropological than theoretical -- that is to say, I was always more interested in the issues surrounding music, the historical and anthropological context, than in the structure of music itself. In fact the abstract/theoretical/structural study of music was quite difficult for me, and this was another reason I began to doubt the wisdom of a career as musicologist.

Was the novel initially conceived as a series of interconnected short stories which was then made into a larger whole? This would explain the shifts and subplots in which it abounds.

No, it started and evolved as a novel. I knew it was a novel from the moment the first image of the wrongly accused servant girl came to me. The shifts and subplots are there because the novels I love best and am most influenced by are vast in scope, rambling, and intentionally messy: Bleak House, Midnight's Children, Waterland, Oscar and Lucinda, to name just a few.

To me, one of the striking features of the novel was the extremely well-crafted and resonant sentences. Is this something that required many rewrites? Or, like Arundhati Roy, do you think rewriting is like "breathing the same breath twice"?

I rewrote the novel about five times. In the beginning, I was still learning a huge amount about writing, and my learning curve was so steep that each time I got to the middle of the novel, I would hate every sentence I had written and have to begin again. So no, I wish I could say that I wrote exactly the novel I wanted to write on the first try, but that is nowhere near the truth. I rewrite each sentence dozens of times while I am working on anything -- whether it's a short story, an essay, or a novel -- and then when I'm done I revise the whole thing several times. It makes the whole process very slow, but I can't do it any other way.

When asked whether universities stifled writers, Flannery O'Connor famously remarked, "My view is that they don't stifle enough of them". How helpful was your experience at the creative writing program at Michigan University in terms of your development as a novelist?

First of all, I think creative writing programs have changed radically since Flannery O'Connor made that statement in the 1950s. The programs I know about do not even try to “teach” people how to write; they select students who already can write, who have strong, distinct voices and a demonstrated commitment to their art. They merely help you do the best writing you want to do, as you define it, and they do this primarily by asking questions and getting you to think deeply about your own writing. Getting my MFA was immensely helpful in three ways: 1) it gave me the time and money to concentrate on my writing for two years, and this, when you think about it, is a pretty substantial statement of validation for an emerging writer: We think you’re good enough to make it, so we’re going to pay you to come here and write for two years; 2) It introduced me to some amazing, generous mentors who had been writing for longer than I had, and who therefore gave me lots of new ways to think about writing and the writing life; 3) It introduced me to some truly gifted writers of my own generation. The connections I made in the MFA program will last my whole life; we still read each other’s drafts, discuss what we’re reading, and encourage each other. This kind of community of writers is possible to forge outside an MFA program, of course, but it’s more difficult.

I do love the Flannery O'Connor quote, though, because I think it's a clever, endearingly curmudgeonly way of saying something that is still true: that it's important for writers (for artists in any field, really) and for their mentors to have a realistic idea of their talents. Not everyone who tries hard is going to make it.

Clearly, the Malaysia of your novel is a world apart from that of earlier writers such as Anthony Burgess and Somerset Maugham. Have you read their Malaysian fictions, and was there, at the back of your mind, any intention of "writing back" to them?

I read Maugham a long time ago, and hadn't read the Burgess until this year, after my novel came out (I think the Burgess, in particular is magnificent in its insight and honesty -- not at all a blinkered colonialist rendition of the country). So neither one was really present in my mind as I wrote this novel; I know that postcolonial writers often talk about their mission to tell their country's own story, finally, after decades or even centuries of that story being told by outsiders, but because of Malaysia's particular circumstances, I think my intentions have more to do with "writing back" to those who have written Malaysia's history for the past 50 years since independence -- those who have drawn the lines of race and racial identity in ways that continue to destroy the nation and its people. In this novel and in everything I write, I think about telling the many national stories that have been suppressed, twisted, or simply erased. As John Berger famously said: Never again will a single story be told as if it's the only one.

Would the book have been different had you stayed on in Malaysia instead of spending years overseas? How important is the perspective provided by distance? (Come to think of it, even other novels in English set in Malaysia -- such as those by Tash Aw and Rani Manicka -- have been written by those who've been out of the country for years.)

The easy answer would be: Of course, of course one has to leave to be a writer, of course people who never leave don’t see the same things about their country. But I actually believe the reality is slightly different. I think writers are people who identify as outsiders whether or not they have the opportunity to leave physically. Frequently, they identify as outsiders from childhood, though they are not always sure why -- sometimes it’s simply a matter of temperament. Perhaps those who feel they’re outsiders are more likely to leave, and that’s why so many writers -- not just Malaysian writers -- have been expatriates at some point. But they don’t have to leave to feel like outsiders. Conversely, plenty of people leave but never give up their unquestioning patriotism.

I think I would have still written, and I think I would have made many of the same observations about Malaysia if I hadn’t left. But one thing would probably been different: I don’t think I would’ve been brave enough to say these things as loudly as I’m saying them now. Like most Malaysians, I had lots of unexamined fears when I lived in the country. Fears of the government, fears of What People Will Think -- between those two, it’s hard to say which is the greater set of fears! I think of my expatriate status as a luxury that allows me to say what I want without these fears. At the same time, I think it's important for me to maintain my connection with the country; I go back at least once a year for at least a month at a time.

Would you agree that the book shows the influence of two very disparate authors, Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie? Were you conscious of this stylistic blend?

It would be disingenuous and ungrateful for any postcolonial writer worth his or her salt to deny Rushdie’s influence. Rushdie gave us the permission to speak (though he would probably not phrase it that way himself: I suppose you could say he showed us that we could give ourselves permission to speak), and he gave us the language with which to speak. His impact on postcolonial writing in English is immense. I’ve been inspired by him on many levels: by the energy of his language, by his elevation of Indian English into poetry, by his use of magical realism to depict events and emotions too large for conventional Western realism. I think of Arundhati Roy as someone who inherited these ideas and made them her own instead of simply imitating Rushdie, and I tried my best to do the same: to absorb their influence, digest it, and come up with something entirely my own. Other major influences of which I was very conscious while working on this novel: Waterland by Graham Swift (from which I took one of the novel’s epigraphs); Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I do think it's important to point out, though, that I don't consciously imitate other writers; neither do I consciously seek to erase their influence. Art -- every single field of it, from music to the visual arts to writing -- has always been about absorbing and digesting influence.

The novel's obviously informed by your own childhood days in Malaysia. Now that you've lived in the US and in France for many years, would later works be set against different backgrounds? In other words, do you think you've "used up" your Malaysian material, and how strong is your connection with the country of your birth now?

I grew up in Malaysia as part of an ethnic Indian family. Childhood and adolescence are the most influential parts of many writers' lives; for whatever reason, those experiences really stay with us, especially if they've generated intense emotions. In my case, my anger and frustration with the Malaysian political system is by no means a thing of the past; it will probably fuel the rest of my career as a writer. Malaysia is my country, and its stories -- particularly the stories of its ethnic Indian community -- are the stories I want to tell. There's no question of "using up" material; I get new material every time I talk to my parents or extended family, who still live in Malaysia; every time I read the Malaysian news (which I do every day); every time I read an e-mail from a friend in Malaysia; and of course every time I go back. To some extent, Malaysia is still home; I'm in the process of buying a house there at the moment and would ideally like to divide my time between Malaysia and elsewhere. As long as the political system continues to be a prettified version of apartheid, I cannot see myself living there full-time, but a country and a government are not the same thing; I love the country in ways I will never love any other place.

An inevitable, final question: Were the experiences you portray based on the lives of the members of your own family, or were they entirely "fictional"?

The novel is not based on my life or the lives of my family members. There is a lot of emotional truth in it, as there is in all novels; I relate to each of the characters on some level, most of all with Aasha, the youngest daughter. Some of the minor characters are amalgamations or modifications of people I've encountered in real life, and Malaysian readers will recognise some of the details of the murder trials in the book. But the main plot is not at all autobiographical; our family had a lot less money than the family in the book, and a completely different lifestyle. We had no servants; I had two brothers and a warm, normal relationship with both of them.

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