Her new collection of short stories, Difficult Pleasures, is about the urban experiences of solitary characters, says Anjum Hasan. Excerpts from an exclusive interview.
Her first two novels, Lunatic in My Head and Neti Neti, won her several accolades. Anjum Hasan has firmly established herself as a chronicler of her times, and now, she is back with her new book, Difficult Pleasures. A collection of short stories that pick out the mundane and infuse it with a sort of wry, surreal quality that is all at once surprising, tender and lyrical, Difficult Pleasures pieces together a world that you already know, but probably haven't seen in quite this way.
What brought about Difficult Pleasures?
My discovery of the pleasures of the short story — its delicacy and brevity. And my attempt to use this form to explore the many different kinds of urban lives that I'm curious about. Most of my stories are driven by individual, even solitary characters — they are not about big families or community lives. The short story became for me the perfect vehicle to describe specific urban experiences — love and loneliness, ambivalent feelings between parents and children or among siblings, minor dents in marital relationships that can suddenly deepen, where and how artists find inspiration, what a life of travel might do to a person, and so on.
The process of writing short stories must be very different from that of writing a novel. Can you give us a little insight into that? How was it for you, personally?
Novel-writing is a more rigorous, more sustained process. Short stories are easier in some ways but harder in others — you have the luxury of variety, of trying out so many different garbs and voices, but at the same time you have to try and achieve perfection in a very short space. Yet, at a fundamental level, both forms are the same for me — both allow me to daydream about other people's lives!
The fact that with each story, you're entering a different world, a different realm altogether, is that a difficult thing to do, this switch between the different plots?
I wrote these stories at different times over the last five or six years. The idea of putting them together in a collection came later. I see each story as a very specific invention, rather than a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. And I find that liberating each time — to get outside myself and slip into a unique character's head, find a new language in which to tell their story, invent a plot and a psychology for them. That's where all the difficult pleasure is!
Was any story in this collection a particularly challenging one?
I like peaceful endings, if not happily-ever-after endings! But in some of these stories, characters end up unhappier than when they started. The stories push towards some final misery and it seems challenging but necessary to write it out that way.
How much of your work is autobiographical? The locations you've chosen, your characters, the plots; does a little bit of you creep into them, consciously or subconsciously?
Difficult Pleasures is not about my life. There is, of course, a little bit of me in some of the stories — I studied philosophy at university so I was going back to some feeling from those years in my story “Immanuel Kant in Shillong”. I have travelled to Sweden several times, so in the story “Banerjee and Banerjee”, I'm writing from experience when I describe mushroom picking in the Swedish countryside. Similarly with Goa in “Eye in the Sky” — I've created that beach tourism setting because I know it well and its tawdriness fascinates me. But in the end, writing each story was like composing a piece of music. It's the harmony between the elements that counts most, not the facts. And you wouldn't ask a composer if their compositions were autobiographical. In some sense they are, but at the same time, living life and creating art are difficult to speak of in the same terms.
Are there any short stories, or authors of short stories, that you are particularly inspired by, or just really like?
I love Raymond Carver's stories. I think it was his fiction that first opened out to me the possibility of writing about everyday situations in ordinary lives. I like short fiction that is soaked in a specific milieu, such as Qurratulain Hyder's wonderful stories about pre-Partition North Indian aristocratic culture. The modernist writers — Djuna Barnes is a favourite — are inspiring for their fascination with nuances of feeling.
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