Raised in Shillong and based in Bangalore now, writer and poet Anjum Hasan has a Madurai connection. This was the city which first accepted and published her poem 17 years ago at a time when she was collecting rejection slips from several journals. “Kavya Bharati”, a journal of The American College’s Study Centre for Indian Literature and Translation gave her space.“That reaffirmation was needed,” she says, “even though rejection is necessary for a writer. The excitement of sending an article followed by the disappointment of rejection helps you to judge yourself. “I started out writing bad…bad poetry first but that garbage is important to clear all misgivings that you may hold about yourself as a writer,” she says. Having become a writer by choice, Anjum wishes there will always be enough readers. Excerpts from an interview…
Since your literary debut in 2006 with “A Street on the Hills” you have been read and admired by readers and were also shortlisted four times for three different awards. But the final prize eluded you, is that rejection?
It would be false modesty to say I do not want to win! Thousands of novels get published every year and if you are picked out of an ocean of writings, it is an honour. Competing with the best writers helps you to understand what makes good writing and you automatically try to improve.
What is your next work in progress?
Writing a book is an intense experience. Each time I decide to write, I should be able to convey something meaningful. Books give meaning to our life. My stint with the Arts Foundation in Bangalore gave me an insight into the world of arts and the issues in there. In my next novel, I am trying to work on my characters who will tell what and how do artists think about their work and that of the other’s.
As ‘The Caravan’s Books Editor, you read and recommend different genres of writing. Which genre appeals to you the most?
Having authored poems, essays, novels and short stories, I think it is always about feeling right about writing something at that moment that appears intelligible to the readers. I do not believe in abstract and high-flowing style of writing. It should be read for clarity and simplicity and to stimulate the imagination of the readers.
What has contributed to the surge of Indian authors writing in English?
Lot of things have changed in India in the last two decades with liberalisation as the crude benchmark. The entertainment industry has changed, Indian arts has grown, film making has developed, there is more money in publishing houses, literary festivals are happening events and much attention is on the commercial side of writing. Today’s writers are confident of using English in their native way and marketing has become very important in the world of books.
Do you agree modern writers are also more people-savvy and draw their stories from ordinary lives?
Yes, people no longer just want to read a book, they also want to connect with the writer and feel familiar. To start as a writer, it is important to remain connected with your roots. Childhood is the most important and permanent source of inspiration.
How have you grown as a writer?
The perspective changes. I grew up in Shillong and always felt detached from the rest of the country. I was both an insider and an outsider but it helped me to become the city’s best observer. Even Madurai appeared enormous to me then but today when I am in this Temple Town, I find it to be like my home town. That is because I live in Bangalore now whose sheer size and population is overwhelming and has transformed my imagination of cities. When you self-discover and undergo multi-faceted experiences, it generates a sense of freedom strong enough to help you evolve and mature.
You grew up in a literary household. Did that shape your creative pursuits?
Both my parents are teachers and our house in Shillong was a hub for writers, poets, novelists and storytellers. I fed myself on Anglo-American literature and always wondered what I write how does it become literature?
It put me in the habit of reading a lot and also rewriting. Everything that you write needs several drafts and lot of time. My first anthology of poems was published after 10 years of writing poetry. I took four years to compile 13 short stories. It is your final instinct that tells you yes, you have delivered. My husband, Zac O’Yeah, who has recently published ‘Mr.Majestic – The Tout of Bengaluru’ is my best critic. He is a disciplined writer and stylistically very different from me. That helps me tremendously.
Is there a thematic track in your literary journey so far?
I feel all my characters are restless and I am interested in exploring feeling out of place as a condition. I am able to day dream about other people’s life. There is escapism, conflict, open-mindedness, confidence, fantasy…I use the city I have lived or live in to enable its inhabitants to live there imaginatively.
You are inspiring a generation of writers. But who inspires you?
I keep returning to books by Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Desai…
Anjum Hasan’s debut novel “Lunatic in my Head” was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award 2007.
Her second novel “Neti, Neti” was longlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and shortlisted for The Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010.
Her collection of short stories “Difficult Pleasures”, too made it to the shortlist for The Hindu Literary Prize 2012.