Saturday, October 20, 2007

Padma's World

[Padma Viswanathan is a fiction writer, playwright and journalist from Edmonton, Alberta. Her writing awards include residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Banff Playwrights’ Colony, and first place in the 2006 Boston Review Short Story Contest. She received her Creative Writing MA from Johns Hopkins and her MFA from the University of Arizona, and lives with her family in Fayetteville, Arkansas.] Author bio: Random House Canada.

Ahmede: What is your earliest childhood memory? How important is your childhood to you?

Padma: My childhood is or was very important to me, but not more so than any other phase of my life.

Do you think the way in which diasporic writers interpret South Asian reality differs from the way non-diasporic authors do?

I think every writer interprets reality differently from every other writer, so I’m not sure there is a useful binary here. Also, I am not positive whether you are distinguishing writers living in S. Asia from those settled elsewhere, or writers of S. Asian descent from those not of S. Asian descent.

Ahmede: Why do you think religious intolerance is on the rise across South Asia?

I’m not convinced it is on the rise and not just taking new forms.

Ahmede: VS Naipaul has talked about separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How is it like that for you?

Padma: I understand Naipaul to have been talking about a desired reconciliation between the writer’s personal history and his preoccupations or voice on the page. I think my generation of S. Asian writers has less of a feeling of shame or apology for our experiences and origins. We owe a debt of gratitude to older S. Asian writers, who found an audience for their voices and experiences and so gave us the feeling that we could do the same. My primary inspiration in this regard was Salman Rushdie, but there were others before him and a deluge since, giving us the feeling that it is not just a narrow strip of experience that can bear literary fruit: not just British, not just upper-crust. I grew up in Canada, where a generation of writers earlier in this century went through a similar process of valuing their own experiences and modes of expression, distinct from their colonial forebears, so I am a double inheritor of these ideas.

I have always had the sense that, even while I’m attracted to centers—of geography, economy, society, even, perhaps, psychology—most interesting stories come from the margins. Embracing our marginal origins, however we define these, means reconciling the writer with the person.

Ahmede: A language has its own history, a past of its own. In South Asia English is given to us (or imposed) during the Raj, and for a good many years it has remained the language of a particular class… How important do you think class is to South Asian reality?

Padma: Class is of the utmost importance to S. Asians, as it is, I think, in any society with such enormous disparities as we see in S. Asia. It determines everything: access to resources, to expression, to the fulfilment of dreams, to health and life itself.

Ahmede: Do you think every novelist, in a way, writes history, both at a personal and social level?

Padma: Definitely: I don’t think there’s any way to avoid it, even in highly allegorical or non-realist writing. All fiction emerges from a historical moment, and carries the stamp of the period from which it has emerged, in its use of language, its social understandings, its structure and form. Having said that, it’s always fascinating to examine works that seem “before their time,” in whatever sense—those books that seem out of step with the literary mainstream, especially if they endure. I’m not only talking about “futuristic” books, but ones that are either groundbreaking or rejected in their times—because, in general, these, too, come out of traditions we can detect, and sometimes name, in retrospect. Sometimes they are traditions that have fallen out of fashion; sometimes they are traditions from places other than that in which the writer is writing.

Neither can any writer escape her personal history: even when writing something that appears completely devoid of autobiography, the writer is drawing on everything she has ever known, seen, heard, read, experienced in any way, and her novel is the result of how and what she has lived.