Interview – Annie Zaidi, by Huda Merchant

5.TBR- Adv_Annie

  1. You’ve written for different genres and mediums; Plays, Poetry, Essays and Fiction. Which out of them all you feel is the most challenging to write and why?

A – I don’t think there is much point comparing the difficulties of one genre over the other. Besides, each work poses a challenge, line upon line. A single poem can leave you stranded for two whole years while a novella might come to you as a first draft in just a few weeks. But then, you might be told there is something missing and you may have to wait another couple of years before you can find the fix. A good, long essay can take months. And there are sub-sub-sub genres too. An essay, for instance, can be quite close to vanilla reportage or it can be in the traditions of literary narrative reportage or a slice of history or it can be a memoir or a mixture of the above. Similarly, fiction and poetry. Take Karthika Nair’s ‘Until The Lions’ – Is it poetry? It is. Is it fiction? It is. Is it social and mythological commentary? It is. Genre is fluid.

  1. Your book, Unbound: 2000 Years of Women Writing is an anthology that covers writings from Indian women through many years in history. As the editor of the book, could you tell us which are you comfortable with – writing or editing?

A – I think I am more in my element as a writer. Editing too can be of different sorts. The anthology I edited has selections and extracts from existing work rather than commissioned work. That meant being able to look at literature as a whole landscape, as a community effort, and picking out certain highlights. I was paying close attention to how one writer’s work sits next to another’s and how a particular theme can be illustrated through multiple perspectives. There were restrictions on what is available in translation and who allows you to re-publish what work. A lot of this work is solicitous and some of it is administrative. I enjoyed and gained from the reading part of it. I cannot say I enjoy paperwork.

  1. Recently, at our Indo-Pak Event in Mumbai, you were part of the panel discussion on South Asian Writing and The Global Audience. You spoke about how there have always been good books, literature has always been rich in our subcontinent and there has just been a recent emergence/growing of the publishing industry, making literature more accessible . Could you tell us more about how changes in the publishing sphere has helped literature grow in context with South Asian Literature.

A – I cannot comment on what things were like before the 1980s but I have seen quite a dramatic change in recent years. Even at the end of the 1990s, there were just a couple of publishing houses who published books in English by contemporary writers. There was a publishing scene in Hindi and Urdu and the other languages of the subcontinent but there was very little overlap. Translations were rare and rarely good. I remember reading some older translations commissioned by the Sahitya Akademi and while the original books were modern classics, the translations made them sound terrible, or just mediocre. This is a huge pity because almost every other person in the subcontinent is bilingual. Things are further complicated by script. Most Hindi readers would find modern Urdu literature quite accessible and vice versa. But the scripts are quite different and require a certain investment in publishing infrastructure and software to enable diverse publishing. As a result, we found ourselves confined to a fairly narrow reading list and were quite ignorant of the marvelous literature that was being produced in the next state, or even down the next lane. Now, publishers are getting better translations done and some have even produced bilingual books for bilingual readers. Also, English has become the force that crosses borders, enabling us in India to read writers in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh – not only in translation but also those who write in English as a primary language.

  1. When it comes to poetry, the country is seeing a sudden surge in spoken word poetry in cafes and bookstores. Do you believe that spoken word poetry has become much too casual and the classic nature of a good poem read in a magazine/book is becoming less prominent? Also considering the fact that spoken word poetry videos can trend on social media, and become famous, while collections of poetry are seldom bought by publishers, unless it is a Vikram Seth or a Jeet Thayil.

A – I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘casual’ poem. There is either a good poem or a bad one. However, I do think that certain kinds of poems work better as a performance than on the page. Rhythm and a clear style of delivery counts for a lot. Jeet Thayil is a great performer of his own work. But not all poets are performers. The difference between ‘spoken word’ and poetry on the page is exacerbated in free verse. However, the tradition of poetry has always been an oral one. All the ancient texts were meant to be performed poems, as song or as ballads, or drama in verse. Until recent decades, mushairas and kavi sammelans were popular forms of entertainment. The ‘spoken word’ trend is new to a generation in India that grew up on almost exclusively English literature and who had no access to kavi sammelans etc.

  1. In your book, Love Stories #1 to #14, all the stories take a different route, yet none end in a happily ever after. Did you decide to write them in such a way to reflect most realities and what is it that inspired you to write all these different stories?

A – I don’t think there is any such thing as an ‘ever after’ – happy or not. We are mortal. In #1, for instance, a happy love story is thrown into disrepair because of our mortality. People go through happy or hopeful phases viz love. But it is true that I am drawn to write about complicated phases. If people are happy, then what is there to say, except – A and B were happy together and they stayed happy together for x number of years. It’s like that little ditty we used to hear as kids: Ek tha raja, ek thi rani; dono mar gaye, khatam kahani.

  1. Most authors believe anthologies and short stories don’t work as much as a novel. But, most of your works are inclined towards that medium. What are your views on the two, what should aspiring writers aim for?

A – Aspiring writers should aim to tell the story they want to tell without thinking too much about what ‘works’ in the market. That’s my view anyway.

  1. Lastly, what do you think of The Bombay Review? Any feedback, comments or advice for us?

A –It is a welcome addition to the literary landscape. I like the artwork too and the attention to design elements. It seems like an ambitious endeavour and I hope it will publish high quality work across all genres.