The COVID-19 Series: Interview with Janice Pariat

What can the literature of lands, territories, nations or zones do in the midst of a pandemic that has made our borders and outlines seem more containing while a virus, invisible to the naked eye, journeys and shape-shifts across them and renders them porous? How do we restore and reconcile with this new, mutating politics of spaces?

Janice Pariat is a writer who comes to mind. In this interview with our poetry editor, Smriti Verma, Pariat answers questions about the landscape of Indian literature and the space of the north-east in it as well as her ‘Where We Write’ series on Instagram.

Smriti Verma: How would you situate the contemporary Indian literary landscape, and the forms of writing emerging in the same? Do you believe there’s a certain characteristic “Indianness” – an aspect singular and definite – or multiple strands of thought?

Janice Pariat: I would say that the “Indian literary landscape” exists in great multiplicity. There is writing in English of course, and a tremendously vibrant scene of literature in many other languages–Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu, Assamese, Manipuri to name just a few. At the same time, there are regions with incredible oral storytelling traditions–like Meghalaya where I come from–and these too must be acknowledged as “literary”. I would hesitate then to “situate” a monolithic Indian literary landscape when in truth it thrives in plurality. There is no such thing as “Indianness”–I think at a time of rising sentiments of Indian exclusionism, it’s more important than ever to remember and honour this. There is no such thing as Indianness in literary character or otherwise–we are diverse and gloriously multiple. 

SV: To delve into something clichéd, could you tell us a little about your sources of inspirations – places, moments, events, writers – which solidified your relationship with writing and subsequently, your work?

JP: I grew up in Shillong amidst oral storytellers, and they form my first and most important “literary” inspirations. To be a good writer, you must be a good listener, and this is what being immersed in oral storytelling taught, and continues to teach me. There is music and rhythm in language, which comes originally from breath, not text, and this serves as the foundation  of all my writing. To hear it always, to speak it out loud, to align the rhythms of the writing with the rhythms of breath.  

SV: What place do you think writing holds, and may hold, in the increasingly politicised landscape which we find ourselves by the minute in India? How would you place the experiences of the North-East within the same?

JP: We are always political–even when we’re taking a so-called apolitical stance, and it’s exactly the same with writing. But in all honesty, the important issue for me at this time, is who is telling the stories–are communities that usually don’t have a voice being able to find space to voice themselves, are they being listened to? Or are others still writing their stories for them? Are we listening to other people’s stories? Are we trying to work towards building a space–literary or otherwise–where people feel safe telling their stories. I think with things like the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re finally being forced to view our histories through a different lens, through the lens of the ones who suffered, who bore the brunt and weight of discrimination, and acknowledge their version. It would be the same with the “Northeast”–a woefully inadequate blanket term for a geographical region that’s one of the most ethnically diverse on earth. Are we seeing more “Northeast” stories being told by people from there? Is there thoughtful nuanced representation growing from there in the rest of India? Writing helps provide a way for people to tell their stories, of course, but the structures around writing must also change.    

SV: To elaborate on the earlier question, do you think a writer has a certain responsibility towards speaking the social and political truths of their society?

JP: A certain responsibility to whom? To their community? To the world? The nation? To themselves? The pressure to do so probably exists on all these fronts, but a writer must be free to follow the stories they wish to. Art is meant to offer that kind of liberating space–and who knows, within it, the writer might find that the story that resonates most with them also happens to be one that shines a light on their communities.     

SV: I quite fell in love with the Instagram series you started called “Where We Write.” I felt it was quite a lovely way of contextualising the lives of writers during the pandemic. It’d be great if you could talk a little about the same – the inspiration, the impact, what you felt got created in the process.

JP: When the lockdown was announced, I found I was spending extended hours at my writing table, more so than on normal days. My workspace is so much of myself, I realized, and what I find inspiring. It is projection, curation, comfort, motivation all at once. This got me thinking—and curious. I put a post up on Instagram. “What’s your work space like? Do share, send pictures, show.” And slowly the photos poured in, from across the country and across the world. The call had struck a chord perhaps, given that most of the planet was in lockdown ‘work from home’ mode. People were now forced to reassess the spaces they inhabited, for the majority what was personal and work wasn’t as neatly demarcated anymore. Many had to conjure a work space (dining table!) where their homes had none. What I found most moving was that each picture offered a tender glimpse into someone’s life—who they are, what they hold dear and important, the small things they’ve collected on their journeys, and choose to place around them. Each, in their own way, tell a story. The series has become, for me and some others, more than merely a fun thing for our quiet lockdown days. Here is where we learn to adjust, to think things through these unsettling times, to acknowledge our immense privilege to be able to retreat to a work place at all. Where we write is where we are most ourselves, where we are most vulnerable, comforted, most alive.  

Devanshi Khetarpal: Many writers have had their writing practices have changed through this time. Some of us liked to write in public places– in parks, cafes, restaurants, eavesdropping and observing– and some of us are experiencing new sensory limitations since we’re not able to experience the full spectrum of sights, sounds, touch etc. Are you relying more on sensory memory to write? Or have you changed or had to change your writing practices, rituals, habits during this time at all?

JP: In all honesty, lockdown time is just a slightly more exaggerated writerly situation for me, and I say this with the acknowledgement of how incredibly privileged I am–that I have a house, a job, food, a roof over my head–given that too too many don’t and how terrible it has been for them. I don’t ever write fiction in public spaces; I can only edit or read through a draft in a cafe. Writing fiction happens for me in a space of absolute solitude. So in a way I’m always relying on memory. Having said that though, the novel I’m working on now demanded a research trip to the West Khasi Hills in Meghalaya, and of course I haven’t been able to travel. While I’m hoping to be there at a safer time, I’ve had to rely on memory, other people’s reportage accounts, and my imagination to write this particular narrative down. 

DK: Has truth or some truth shifted for you during this time? I mean, are you being re-introduced in a radically different way to truths you already knew about yourself as a writer and the world, or is the familiar slipping out and taking the shape of the strange?

JP: I think what’s been most striking for me at this time is how my cycle of consumption has broken. That I often indulged in mindless “because I can” consumption, rather than because there really was a need to. I’m going to try and take this forward with me even when we come out of this. I’ve also had to reassess my “travelling often” lifestyle. The planet cannot bear the weight of our wanderings, and I’d like to travel more responsibly from now on, or not at all. As a writer I’ve been thinking about what kind of stories will come out of this time, what is the language we’ll need to invent to capture these experiences…I’m not quite sure yet, but it’s worth thinking about, how our art will be transformed…

JANICE PARIAT is the author of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories and Seahorse: A Novel. She was awarded the Young Writer Award from the Sahitya Akademi and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction in 2013.

She studied English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Her work—including art reviews, book reviews, fiction and poetry—has featured in a wide selection of national magazines and newspapers.  In 2014, she was the Charles Wallace Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Kent, UK.

Her novella The Nine Chambered-Heart is out with HarperCollins India (November 2017) and HarperCollins UK (May 2018), and is being translated for publication into nine languages including Italian, Spanish, French, and German.

Currently, she lives in New Delhi with a cat of many names.

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