Sunday, May 04, 2008

Mapping New Landscapes


In an interview Hirsh Sawhney, India editor of Wasafiri, world’s leading literary journal, talks about his life with literature


How important is it for you to know your audience/reader?

Writers and editors certainly need to keep their audiences and readers in mind. Writing a short story or article for an Indian audience, for example, has a slightly different set of rules and requirements from writing an article on a similar subject for a British or North American audience. The same applies to fiction OR POETRY. That being said, the US-based Indian author Manil Suri, for example, seems to write with his US and UK audiences in mind, and his fiction suffers because of this. The (deceased) Spanish-language author Roberto Bolano seems to have written his fiction without worrying about what Anglophone readers might think. Yet his work is brilliant and has received acclaim in countless English-speaking countries. It really comes down in the end to the quality of the work

In regions like South Asia, social reality takes a primary role over art, many say. How do you perceive this issue? Are the roles of a novelist different in our part of the world where an artist has to deal with 'basic issues' like women's rights or freedom of speech?

The role of a novelist in any part of the world is to critically reflect upon his or her society and the individuals who inhabit it--to empathize with and understand social structures and people and also to highlight their flaws. Every nation or region has a different set of socio-economic realities, and WRITING from different countries will inevitably reflect these differences. But increasingly, the world is becoming a similar place--with similar disparities and fascistic tendencies, injustices and evolutions. Perhaps international writing will reflect this tendency--perhaps it already does. Is Chinua Achebe's African fiction that different from the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi's? Hanif Kureishi's from Philip Roth's? In any case it is not so much a question of which local issues are dealt with, though that is certainly important, but more a question of practice, of how the writer communicates and how well. If the writing in good he or she will be able to communicate with a wide variety of audiences whatever the details of the subject matter. This accounts for the large number of works in translation surely?


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


The writing I like best is by individuals who write about people and situations that seem very close to their hearts and lives--I'm talking about people like Hanif Kureishi, or a Finnish novelist I recently read named Elina Hirvonen. Then again, Kazuo Ishiguro has created brilliant characters and mesmerizing novels that seem very far from his existence--take the butler in The Remains of the Day. Chang-Rae Lee, a Korean-American author, wrote an incredibly moving novel called Aloft about a third generation Italian-American immigrant.

While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a write-up?

Writers who have something new to say and who have painstakingly worked on their WRITING and are willing to keep on doing so. It does not matter whether they are already famous or unknown.


A language has its own history, a past of its own. In South Asia English is given 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?

It's difficult for me to speak of a South Asian reality, the only South Asian country I'm somewhat familiar with is India. In India, class boundaries continue to be a burden of unfathomable dimensions. In his novel Moth Smoke, Mohsin Hamid suggested, somewhat playfully, that Pakistani society was divided into those who have air-conditioners and those who do not. Along the same lines, urban India is partitioned by linguistic boundaries--into the Hindi medium people (in the north that is) and English-medium people. In terms of literature, there are and have been countless writers in South Asia who've written in languages besides English. My favorites are Manto and Quaratalun Hyder. I've enjoyed the short fiction of a present-day Pakistani writer named Mazhar ul Islam, and his contemporary across the border in India Uday Prakash. Of course Bengali writers and the Bengal Renaissance have played an invaluable role in the shaping of modern South Asian intellectualism, literature and government. This renaissance, ironically enough, was a product of Bengal's interaction with European ideals and the English language.