& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, August 27, 2018

Interview with Veena Gokhale, author

Q: Your novel Land for Fatimah has excellent reviews, and reviewers have focused upon is your ability to turn issues that everyone is tired with and wary about – underdevelopment, dispossession, poverty – into an incredibly interesting story.  How did you weave such an intricate story from a subject that is so dry and academic? 

A: I didn’t even realize these were subjects that people found unappealing! Ah well. I have always had great respect for subsistence farmers, who have fed the world, often working against odds, even great odds, since humans took to agriculture. Commercial, large-scale farming is relatively new if you take the long view of human history. So when Fatimah, the subsistence farmer who has been thrown off her fertile land and forced to leave the little village of Ferun, along with members of her ethnic group called the Aanke, visited me from Storyland, I was delighted!

At the start of the novel all the Aanke relocate to different parts of Kamorga, an imaginary, east-African country that the story is set in. It is a heartbreaking process and Fatimah is determined to find new land so that her community can be united and farm together again. So there you have “the quest,” so fundamental to story building, and the stakes are high. 

Migration, forced or otherwise, is something everyone gets, especially nowadays. That is one of the key themes in the novel. On the one hand, readers want to know what will happen to Fatimah and her people. On the other, we have another person out of her comfort zone. Anjali, the heroine, is an Indo-Canadian, international development worker who is posted in Kamorga from Toronto. She represents the urban, professional expat, and though she has moved of her own volition, she too faces challenges. For one thing, she has dragged her 10-year-old son along, and he is not happy about the change.

Because of certain events in Anjali’s past, events that affected her powerfully, Anjali also identifies with Fatimah’s quest and now there are these two women, in an unusual friendship, on this quest together. So, we are into some familiar tropes, aren’t we? Anjali, though an outsider in Kamorga, knows the world of international development and grant writing and is a good ally for Fatimah. So they have this quest, but soon their quest is threatened, of course!

And there’s the villain or vamp, an interesting and complex one, in the form of Grace, Chair of the Board at Anjali’s NGO, who opposes Anjali. They have a tense relationship. And Anjali has a maid called Mary, a very sympathetic character, who has a challenge as well, a big one. The dilemmas of these characters, the revelation of their inner selves, as well as their joys, keep readers involved.

The landscape of fiction is so rich, lush and evocative, where you can show the complexity and the contradictions between characters, situations, systems. And motivations. Human motivations are always so fascinating, don’t you think? While at the same time there is play and humour and dream sequences. If you find your subject interesting you can make it interesting for the readers.

Q: It’s also obvious that your own experience of working as a journalist in Bombay and then working as a developmental worker in Tanzania has had a deep impact on you and it has transformed the novel; how much of is derived from your life, if at all.
A: I was passionate about my work in journalism and then my work with NGOs and I’d say the broad socio-political themes that the novel tackles come from real life. My frustration and anger at all the injustice, land grab, systemic inequality, greed, corruption, fuelled the narrative. You used to live in Bombay and will remember well the era of slum demolitions. The prologue of the novel, in fact, starts with the demolition of a slum in Bombay, the city where Anjali was born.
There’s an authorial voice coming through at the beginning of the novel which says: Some stories cannot be contained. They refuse to remain confined to a particular place, whispered by a select group of people. These stories must get out and wander, make themselves known, grab this ear and that. Such was the story of Fatima and the Aanke from Ferun.

Did I ever meet a Fatimah, a resilient, subsistence farmer who practices a made-up form of Sufism and lives in a compound with her many relatives? No. For that matter, I never witnessed a slum demolition either, though I read about them. My work in international development in Tanzania helped me portray the expat. milieu for sure, but my own NGO and its work was very different. I did have a nice maid called Mary, but the fictional Mary is way larger than life and ninety per cent made-up. And her intriguing son Gabriel is 100 per cent made up!

I also have this big question about what is the best way to bring about social change. Welfare state and policy change and slow evolution or a people’s revolution? Anjali is essentially liberal and represents the former view, while Hassan, the Marxist academic is for revolution. They argue, and they are also drawn to each other.

Q: Your short story collection Bombay Wali & Other Stories is about a Bombay that only lives in the memories. Would it be difficult for you to describe contemporary Bombay in a work of fiction because you don’t live there anymore?
A: I don’t actually agree that the Bombay evoked in Bombay Wali is so passé. Since the stories are either character driven or try to dive into the depths of a character, even if the plot is important, I feel there is a universal and timeless aspect. Also, there’s the cliché about India living in several eras at the same time, how the past is never quite erased and yet every new global trend gets reflected very quickly. I think it’s rather true.
Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, mostly set in a peak drug and prostitution area of Bombay, in the 1970s, got nominated for a Booker and Hilary Mantel won two Bookers for her literary works set in historical periods in Britan. I believe fiction can remain relevant for reasons quite different from non-fiction.
But to come to your question, I would not set a novel in Bombay/Mumbai or India now. A short story maybe. That ship has sailed and may even land in North America next!
Q: In both Land for Fatimah and Bombay Wali, what stands out is the remarkable finesse with which you develop characters. Grace in Fatimah and Feroza Billimoria in Bombay Wali stay etched in readers’ mind because of the way their character is developed. How do you do it?
A: Feroza in Bombay Wali was a popular character, going by what readers said. She came to me from Storyland, as did Grace; the literary gods are benevolent. At the same time, both are also inspired by real life. Many of us know a Feroza, in that she is the ageing sibling who is left behind to look after even more ageing parents while the brothers and sisters have gone off and made a life more centered on themselves elsewhere. So it’s quite a generic character, universal, but then Feroza is also very much a particular person with her professorial love for history and the fact that she takes a chance on real love, that of a professorial man. She goes to a jazz concert when a friend asks her, even though it’s not really her milieu.
I don’t know how I do it exactly as these folks appear and take hold of me and I do some reflection, sometimes a lot of it, and write a backstory sometimes and take character notes, at least I did for Grace as she was going to be with me through an entire novel. Often the characters arrive as “whole” people and all of them become “real” for me. Maybe it comes from observing life and people acutely and asking that question about motivation.
Grace has been remarked upon too, maybe because she is not one-dimensional, as villains can sometimes be. People working in NGOs, particularly leaders, tend to be idealistic, dedicated, opinionated, passionate about a cause. Grace is all that, but she also has her biases and blind spots. That makes her compellingly human.
Q: The writing process is obviously important to you because you are a painstaking author. Describe the process of constructing both a novel and a short story collection.
A: Wow! That’s a BIG question and I don’t know if I can do justice to it. I started writing the stories that made up Bombay Wali, which incidentally means a woman from Bombay, in the early 1990s. I had just come to Canada for the second and much longer time, to do a Masters. You know what a compelling city it is, and this may have been a way of reliving the experience and re-imagining it and also of letting go. I wrote my first story around age 8, so writing fiction has always been with me, sometimes in the background and sometimes in the foreground.
I keep rewriting, the most important part of being a writer, and then those rough edges smoothed out and the at times chaotic narrative acquires a flow and it all slowly comes together. Some stories come in flash and don’t change much, others evolve over time. And there’s always that obsession with words/language!
By the way, there was a novel in my 20s set in Bombay that I did not pull off and a second in my 30s set in a haunted house near Bombay that I did not pull off either!
I have belonged to writers’ groups and taken a course or two. I own and read books about the craft of fiction writing and it’s all helped, including being a journalist and writing to a deadline and to word count and getting edited and editing other people myself. For the novel, I got good, in-depth feedback from 4 people about the whole narrative and a couple of others on particular chapters. It was a complex plot indeed and required moving the sections and chapters around and of course a lot of editing. The plot itself came to me towards the end of 2016 (I was in Tanzania from 2015-2017) and though it was just a skeleton and it took a hell of a lot of work over three years to flesh out, it did not change in essence.

I am also very stubborn, and you need that. Writing fiction gives me a lot of pleasure. I would not do it otherwise as the rewards are not exactly worldly and it’s a strange life for sure!

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