This piece is featured from this year’s Worlds festival. Also on site, from the provocations we have: James Scudamore’s ‘The Ecstasy of Impossibility’, and Denise Riley’s ‘Is Nostalgia a Bromide?’. In addition, we have Sharlene Teo’s reflection on the event, ‘Nostalgia and its Discontents’. Finally, as a special treat, we have Bae Su-Ah’s meditation on the experience of translating W. G. Sebald into Korean, ‘After Sebald – A Tribute’.
A woman whom I had loved very much emailed and asked to see me. This is a woman towards whom I had behaved very badly. I had not seen her for ten years and I had behaved so badly that I had deliberately not chosen to call and apologize because I had felt that this would be harmful to her. (The woman had been married and I had not.)
I met the woman at a train station and we went for a long walk. As we walked I apologized. I thought I was going to apologize for one thing – that I was going to say some vague pretty thing like I had not been as good to her as I should have been. As we walked and talked she reminded me of the many awful things I had done. I apologized for these too. I told her that I would do whatever she wanted. The woman appeared more baffled than angry. At some point she said, “Why did you do it, Akhil? I loved you. The sun rose and set on you.” I didn’t know how to answer this other than to apologize some more.
After I dropped the woman off at the train station, I went home and felt sad at having hurt someone who had loved me so much. I felt sad that day and I felt sad the next and I felt sad the day after that. On the third day, I began wondering what was going on, why was I still sad? Then I suddenly realized that I like to feel sad. When I am sad, the world feels contained. The danger of loss is less, since things are to some extent already ruined. Being sad, being slightly miserable makes me feel contained, soothed, almost like I am being held.
I know that one of the reasons I like books is that mostly they are in the past tense and this creates the sense that all the details in the book have been selected and so there is a comforting sense that everything is in its right place. I know that I write for a similar reason. I like to be inside my head where I can manipulate the world and move things and events so that I have a sense of control. Even if the story I read or write creates hurt, that hurt doesn’t contain the buzzing confusion and awful helplessness that creeps up on me when I walk down the street, when I am trying to live my ordinary life.
When I first started writing, however, I wrote in the first person present tense. This is because writing in first person present tense felt easier. The experience of doing so felt like I was wearing a neck brace. I could only look in one direction. I only had space for a limited amount of detail if I wanted the story to have momentum. Whenever I tried to write in the past tense I felt overwhelmed by all the choices I had. Whatever details I picked felt false and fictional and I would ask myself why this detail and not another? Each detail pulled the story further towards the fictional and away from the ‘true’. To me, I came to understand, there is a basic lie to stories in the past tense. The past tense in stories implies that things are settled. In reality this is not the case. As we move forward into the future our view of our past keeps changing. It is like when we were children and would sit on our knees in our parents’ cars and look backwards, our understanding of what we were seeing altering with our constantly moving perspective.
I tried to move from present tense stories to past tense ones because I found that the present tense stories felt thin. The constant moving forward robbed them of the fact that, at every moment in our life, we are the creation of all the moments that have gone before.
The first few past tense stories I wrote were steeped in nostalgia. These stories were soaked in beautiful language, because nostalgia to some extent involves a fetishization of details. So I had images like “heavy hearted tulips” or lines such as, “The uneven moon was like a yellowing piece of old newspaper”. The reason there was this nostalgia, this fondling of details, was because writing in this way appeared to solve the question of why any particular detail was included. By making all the details important and beautiful, I could avoid the challenge of including more and less important details next to each other in the way that they exist in real life. It also solved a second challenge. I am Indian and I write about Indians. My audience, however, is not. To some extent I have to explain very basic things to my audience. Nostalgia can justify the slower pace that can accommodate such explanations.
The stories I wrote were OK. They were published in major magazines and won awards. The reason the stories were OK, instead of being crushed by the explanations and the fetishized details, was because they were very heavily structured. I would begin a story by announcing its end: “Late one June afternoon I woke from a short deep sleep in love with my husband”. And then the narrator announced that this was the only day that she ever really loved her husband in the entirety of her life. By making the story very specifically about one thing and letting the reader know what the ending would be I could then hop from one plot point to another and so there was always forward movement. Again, I want to say this is a strong story. In making my point, in using words like “hop”, I am being condescending in a way that the story does not deserve.
After I became a little bit more experienced with writing in the past tense, what I term nostalgia became closer to what I think of as exoticism. As an immigrant writer I had always used an element of exoticism to engage the reader’s attention. The distinction for me between nostalgia and exoticism is that the former appears to contain some element of beauty or desirability. The stories that relied on exoticism did not seek to create a pretty world. The world I created was brutal: two men in a village get drunk, tie the tails of two cats together, and hang them over a tree branch to see which one kills the other first. Details such as this shock to compel. In some ways, of course, shocking details are common in the work of Cormac McCarthy and other wonderful writers and so I was trading in exoticism in the same way that these other writers do.
The change that went with this movement from nostalgia to exoticism was that the reader was no longer as willing to remain in the story as he was in a world that was pretty, or which was kinder. This meant that I had to learn how to start using plot; that is, start using causation and continuous dramatized reality to keep the reader from turning away.
At a certain point I had to leave this behind too. After all, if I wanted to write about ordinary people living ordinary lives (the thing that fascinates me most), I needed to tamp down on the things that compel the reader through difference. It has been hard to learn how to do this. I find that the best way to do so is to begin by locating the reader inside a character’s emotions. I begin a story with a line like “We didn’t like him,” or a novel with, “I needed to force money from Father Joseph and it was making me nervous.” The fact that emotions are both compelling and ordinary hold the reader inside the narrative and, since everybody dislikes and everybody feels anxiety, the emotions keep the narrative from becoming about something that is alien to the reader.
Because I was asked to place the idea of nostalgia within the context of immigrant fiction or international fiction, I will say a little about this. I am not a scholar. I can only tell you about how I view other writers tilling the same field in which I am working.
When I read other immigrant writers, I am very conscious of whether they are trading in nostalgia or exoticism. I am alert in this way because I am always looking to find fault with other Indian writers. I think this is because I feel that I am worthwhile only because of my subject, and so, if I and another writer share the same subject, I am at risk of being diminished. I know that this is not the case, that there is no actual reason to do this, but it is hard not to think that since most readers only read for content, there is not much difference between Indian writers.
With the caveat that I am biased in this way as a reader, my feeling is that immigrant writers do lean on nostalgia and exoticism. I could give a list of names, but I choose not to because: (one) why make enemies? and (two) mostly even bad writers are writing the best they can.
There are certain challenges to being an immigrant writer which leads one towards exoticism or nostalgia. The most basic of these is that the world that immigrants live in is different from the world of many of our readers. If I read Indian writers who live in India, their novels tend to use much less visual description than Indian writers writing in America. This makes sense because Indian writers in India don’t need to establish their physical world for their audience.
Ordinary things are, by their very nature, less interesting than extraordinary things. Also, what is ordinary for me- my parents’ arranged marriage – might be extraordinary for someone else. We immigrant writers cannot therefore avoid writing about the exotic. The key is not to fetishize it. Instead we need to show these things from the inside out. We need to make the extraordinary ordinary, accepting all the while that we can never truly escape the alienness in our subject matter. While many of us Indian writers will get lumped together, a Rohinton Mistry getting conflated with an Amitava Ghosh, we are fortunate in that at least we start with something that separates us from the bulk of writers. This is a very valuable thing.
Whenever I meet an immigrant writer complaining of being judged as an immigrant writer instead of as just a writer I am reminded of a joke from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story. In the novel, a bookstore owner explains why she doesn’t lock her store at night. She says that her fear is not being robbed, but that some writer will come into her store and leave copies of his new novel.