by Rumjhum Biswas
Dipika Mukherjee, the author of the Man Asia longlisted (2009) novel Thunder Demons, is a writer and world traveler. Her book, which is set in Malaysia and deals with issues of race and identity was published by Gyaana Books in India in July this year. She also won the Platform Flash Fiction competition in April 2009. Her first book of poetry–The Palimsest of Exile–was published by Rubicom Press (Canada) in the same year.
In May, 2010 her poem “Shanghai Shorts” was a Fish Poetry Prize finalist in Ireland and she has performed her work at Out Loud! in Shanghai, China; Huis van de Poëzie in Utrecht, Netherlands; The Seksan Reading Series in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Hideout in Austin, Texas; The Sugar Factory, in Amsterdam, Netherlands; and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, among other places.
Her second Novel Finding Piya is set in India. She has been published in journals like the Asia Literary Review (Hong Kong), The South Asia Review (USA), Flashquake (USA), Freefall (Canada), Del Sol (USA), Pilot Pocket Books (Canada), Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore (Singapore) New Writing Dundee (UK), Asiatic (Malaysia) and Muse India (India). And, has edited two anthologies of short stories: Silverfish New Writing 6 (Silverfish, 2006) and The Merlion and Hibiscus (Penguin, 2002). Dipika has a doctorate in English (Sociolinguistics) from Texas A&M University; her research focuses on the language patterns of Diaspora communities.
Right now she shuttles between Holland and the US. Until early this year she was living in Shanghai, where she is (still) Professor 211 Linguistic Studies at the Shanghai International Studies University. She is also a Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden, Netherlands, where she investigated Negotiating Languages and Forging Identities: Surinamese-Indian Women in the Netherlands. She has taught language and linguistic courses in the Netherlands, United States, Malaysia, and Singapore for the past eighteen years. Dipika leads a nomadic life, but still finds space and time to devote to her passion for creative writing. In this interview she shares her experiences with novel writing as well as the role of Flash Fiction in her writing life.
Rumjhum Biswas: We know you’re an author, poet, sociolinguist and nomad, and teacher, apart from being mom, wife, friend and soon….How do you fit in all these roles in your nomadic life?
Dipika Mukherjee: I like to say that I play all my roles equally badly! Seriously though, I have always had a very nomadic life as my father’s career was with the Indian Foreign Service. I feel lucky, now, to have in a sense lived so many lives in one lifetime. Going to a new place necessitates a shedding of old expectations and ways of being; I strongly believe that the key to fitting into a new environment is losing the certainties of the old. Then, as I talk about a lot in my poetry book The Palimpsest of Exile (Rubicon, 2009), life becomes like a layered manuscript, where the old indentations are still visible under the new.
Sociolinguistics has also been my lifeline–it pays bills, and in my twenties, when I was having children while finishing a PhD at Texas at the same time, the interest in the research did not allow me to consider giving it up, no matter how crazy life became. But writing–prose and poetry both–is an addiction. I become grumpy and surly and downright nasty if I don’t get my fix. I often think about giving up academics for the writing, but life hasn’t forced me into that choice yet, so I’m pottering about, adulterous in my two worlds.
RB: Tell us a bit about your nomadic life.
DM: My father was a career diplomat, so I grew up around the world as the globally promiscuous child –belonging to many places and none. We would live in a foreign country for three years and then return to India for two years of de-programming; I would go from wild International schools to vernacular schools in India with drab uniforms and the national anthem sung every morning. It was bizarre! But I think all this mixed-upness has, even as an adult, made me able to get into a country and start fitting in quickly.
As a child I lived in Delhi, Geneva, Jakarta, Wellington and Kuala Lumpur with my dad; as an adult I have worked in Texas, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Ohio, Amsterdam and Shanghai. Love it, although now the urge to settle in Asia is getting really strong, especially now that my 17 and 19-year-old sons are in US universities, so there is no tension about their education.
RB: Writing needs quietude. How do you manage it with your hectic schedule?
DM: I try to go away for writing retreats. Formally, I have been on Centrum residencies in the USA twice, and informally, I try to schedule a quiet week or two when ever I can, at a conference or something away from the daily grind and I can just write. My academic work, both in Amsterdam
and Shanghai, has been research-intensive, so I have planned my schedule so that I write for three hours, then research for three, and alternate my day like that–it helps me deal with my boredom with anything when I do it for too long!
But for writing, when I am on a roll, I can stay up nights, go without food, etc in order to finish what I am writing. It makes me jump out of bed every morning,
even on the bad days when the editing (yucks!) isn’t going so well. Writers have to be, I think, intrinsically selfish, about needing the time and space to write. Nothing else in my life demands such total slavishness or gets it, and my family, by now, is generally ok with that. Not all the time, but mostly.
RB: Do you remember the first bit of creative writing that you did, as a child or teen? What inspired it, tell us a bit about that first experience?
DM: I really feel that my life in Wellington, New Zealand, between the ages of 10-14, helped shape me as a writer. NZ, even though it’s a tiny country, has an amazing reading program that gets kids reading very young. I first published a poem in a newspaper in Wellington when I was 10 years old; it was one of those children’s pages, and I had sent in my poem secretly.
When it was published, just seeing my poem in print was so wonderful that it had me hooked for life. Of course, that people read it and praised it didn’t hurt either! But it was a terrible poem, really bad, full of clichés about how I couldn’t write a poem but at the end of it wow, a poem on the page! My English teachers at school encouraged me to write all the time and I did a home-made novel and all sorts of cringe-worthy efforts that now live inside a leather suitcase in my parents’ home in Delhi.
RB: What writers did you love as a child and now?
DM: I started off with studying English Literature in Delhi Univ – and got a BA and an MA in the field – where I met interesting authors, like Amitav Ghosh, who were just beginning their careers. I went to Texas A&M with the intention to study British modern fiction but quickly realized that I was tiring of a field that seemed so subjective in its analysis of writing. I stopped reading canonical “great books” for a while and started to read more widely.
I have been reading a lot of Pakistani fiction lately–enjoyed Naqvi,Shamshie, Mueenuddin, Aslam–the list goes on. In Shanghai, I read all the Chinese authors I could get my hands on, especially Su Tong, who’s a favourite. I like the present sprout of Malaysian authors: Brian Gomez has a wicked sense of humor. I love AS Byatt’s literary fiction.
RB: Tell us a bit about the inspiration, research and writing process/experience for your just published book Thunder Demons.
DM: I remember that I had a thought about a woman drowning while her infant daughter watched the scene. In 2002, I used to go for long walks and Agni, the protagonist of Thunder Demons, started to talk in my head then. At that time, I was also co-editing “The Merlion and the Hibiscus” for Penguin India, and I think that editing this collection made me think that I should write.
In my twenties, with the kids and the dissertation, I stopped writing prose –I felt I could only do poetry, and that too in short bursts. I had no time for the sustained focus that writing creative prose required. Thunder Demons went through various name changes and I showed an earlier version to my editor in Penguin India who was very encouraging, but the story took a long long time to achieve any coherence –first novels are hard! I wrote my second novel in five months–really–and have been editing it for three years now, but Thunder Demons has been a nine-year process.
Thunder Demons has been challenging to market –it is such a niche book, and my American agents & publishers would say that there is very little interest in Malaysian politics out of Malaysia. Although I have a British agent based in London now, she is concentrating on my second book, which is about international adoptions fuelling child trafficking in India, as that has more “international appeal”. But I kept working on Thunder Demons–as a Malaysian permanent resident with a son and a husband who hold Malaysian citizenship, the inequities of Malaysia are something I wanted to address. My academic research is also in the field of Malaysian language planning and policy (my co-edited book, Language Shifts Among Malaysian Minorities as Effects Of National Language Planning: speaking in Many Tongues was published by the Amsterdam University Press in April 2011), so I know Malaysia very well. Then Thunder Demons, as an unpublished novel, was longlisted for the Man Asia Lit Prize in 2009.
Before this, I was getting published in magazines like the Asia Literary review and all that, but suddenly, WOW, I was in a list with Su Tong, whose novel “Rice” I first read as a teenager! I am such a fan of Su Tong and just being in the same longlist as him felt like winning. As soon as I read his excerpt I knew that no one else on that list had a chance, but it didn’t matter. The Man Asia listing gave me a lot of confidence and an agent. I found Gyaana Books as a friend, Anu Kumar, had recently published with them, and the rest is history.
RB: Thunder Demons has a number of chapters that fit flash fiction length. Is this something that the story demanded? Or do you personally enjoy writing flash sized chapters?
DM: I think, subconsciously, I do write flash fiction length. Last night I finished a story I had been struggling with and I realised that it was flash fiction length when I stopped writing. Some stories need a longer treatment so I go back and write in the details but as a first draft, I think I do write about a 1000 words and then evaluate whether I like the story arc or not. I was told during a panel discussion on Thunder Demons that when the action speeds up my sentences become shorter and the writing fast-paced with short chapters. I really did this subconsciously, and was not even aware of this effect until others pointed it out. So much of writing, as seasoned writers keep repeating, happens almost as if you are a conduit for the story and not its deliberate maker.
RB: Can a whole novel be written in coherent flash pieces, what do you think?
DM: In my experience, No. In one of my critique groups, there was a talented young lady who was writing her memoir as a collection of flash pieces. She had lived a very interesting life and had a lot remarkable stories, but as a book-length piece it had the effect of a strobe-light that flashed so fast that it became uncomfortable to read after a while. Flash pieces are usually intense, whereas novels allow for some description, some flashbacks, a slowing-down of the narrative that allows the reader to weave together the disparate threads. A collection of flash pieces doesn’t allow for such necessary downtime, in my opinion.
RB: You have also written a number of flash fiction pieces. What is your take regarding flash fiction versus longer stories? How stylistically apart are the two forms, or is it just a question of length?
DM: I think it is a question of topic. I wrote “The Roof, The Sky” which won the Platform prize in 2009 based on a single powerful line actually uttered by an Indian painter who was a path-breaker in every way. The line stuck in my head and I wanted to highlight that line, not her life, or anything else in the narrative.
Flash is good for such things, as is poetry. Sometimes it is a question of whether to write a poem vs flash fiction, but never flash fiction vs a longer short story. When I wrote “Titli” about the Mumbai terrorism, that couldn’t have been a flash piece, although some of the separate parts in that story can stand alone. So the length is really decided by the topic, or rather, what should be fore-fronted in a story.
Flash fiction is really like taking a picture. When I wrote “Fuzzy Liberty” which was published by Del Sol Review, it was after I saw a picture of a Fuzzy lady Liberty. Then the story just came to me, including the last line, which I heard in Kolkata years ago.
RB: You’ve undertaken creative writing workshops and also teach. What are the issues students face when writing specifically flash fiction?
DM: I think there is still a certain distrust of flash fiction, almost as if it’s a disease of our modern society which can’t handle anything longer than a soundbite. But of course, flash has been around in Chinese literature for a long time. It is slowly gaining popularity among writers, and online magazines are mushrooming with flash fiction because it IS easier to read something shorter online than a story of five thousand words. Some students who come to a Creative Writing class like flash fiction as warm-up exercises; I have found that the brevity of the medium is less daunting than asking them to, say, start writing the prologue of their Big Novel. Students do eventually enjoy writing Flash Fiction, but essentially, a short story of 3000-5000 words is still generally considered a tougher thing to write and flash easier.
RB: What according to you spoils a piece of flash fiction that was otherwise progressing nicely?
DM: I think a good flash fiction needs to have the impact of an epiphany–not in the religious sense but in the way it hits you. Something commonplace made uncommon. One can’t dither about or meander on a separate trail when writing flash–it has to be tight with a punch. Like other genres, bad flash fiction also ends with a whimper.
RB: What draws you to a piece of flash? Which are your favourite flash fiction stories? Any writers of this form that you’d recommend we read?
DM: As I said above, a good flash has to hit me with some force. I haven’t been reading flash fiction at all lately as I have been busy with my book, but I have enjoyed reading the flash fiction in the Fish anthology out of Ireland. The prizewinners there are very very good, and some of the stories are incredibly short and powerful. I have enjoyed Flashquake & Smokelong too. I also liked some of the Flash stories in the contest organized by Caferati a year ago –nice twists on our Indian myths.
RB: What is next in your plate, apart from Finding Piya, the first chapter of which has won second prize in the Short Story Radio First Chapter Competition 2010?
DM: I am also working on a collection of short stories. I have had various short stories placed in publications around the world, so I think it’s time I did a collection.
RB: As a writer when something catches your eye as a potential poem or story, do you let it stew inside your head or jot it down somewhere, since you are always travelling.
DM: I always try to jot it down. I have a moleskin notebook that goes everywhere –I don’t have the time to power up a laptop or a device, I jot and scrawl my way though an inspiration.
RB: Where do you enjoy writing most, any favourite spot?
DM: I write best with some noise. A cafe is excellent and Shanghai, especially, was full of atmospheric cafes with coffee and good food. I enjoy nibbling while writing, which accounts for a lot, in every sense of that word!
RB: One last question before we go, do you have any words of advice to budding Indian writers writing in English?
DM: I think I would say just keep writing A LOT. You have to get a lot of rubbish-writing out of you before the good starts appearing. It’s hard work and you should only do it because you can’t imagine a life without writing, or if you don’t write for a few days you get crabby and miserable. It has to feel like an addiction and not a job. Get a writing group or form one; you are NOT your best critic, and other good readers and writers can help your writing take form. Live a full life so that you have something to write about.
Rumjhum Biswas lives her writing life at the edge of the sun toasted city of Chennai, in a corner where migratory birds cruise the sky above the din of a burgeoning IT hub and an ancient temple dips its toes into a not so ancient pond. You can also find her at Writers & Writerisms and the Polyphagous Poltergeist, the latter more occasionally.