Filling up the horror vacui

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Janice Pariat, whose book Seahorse was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2015, talks about her obsession with loss, her penchant for Japanese terms, and knitting.

TD: Which human emotion obsesses you the most as a writer? What is it about this particular state of being that keeps you up at night or makes you waste reams of paper on it? And because I know you to be musically inclined, is there a song that best exemplifies this state for you?


JP: Is loss an emotion? I think it very well could be. People may argue, I suppose, that loss is an event, or a happening, that incites a complex conglomerate of things — grief, anger, fear. Yet loss stands on its own too. Apart from these. It’s an awareness. Of slow silent erosion. It’s also profoundly physical. Like when you feel your chest has fallen out. And your breath stops at your throat. I’m consumed by it. Love as loss. Life as loss. The beautiful complexity of absence and all that. It’s what propels the literature we love, no? Its content and production. From the epic — Menelaus losing Helen. To the excruciatingly personal — Sharon Olds' wondrous Stag’s Leap, for example. I waste reams of paper on it because, in a way, writing keeps it from happening. Does that make sense? No. That’s not entirely true. I think it was Hanif Kureishi who said that, paradoxically, putting things down on a page also entails leaving things out. Well then, it keeps me up at night, writing, because writing is both. It staves the loss and impels it too. Don’t you love these contradictions?

And that’s the curious sorrowful absurdity of loss, isn’t it? You cannot suffer it if once you did not have what is now gone. It’s not all doom and gloom though. The Japanese have a term for it: “ mono no aware”. The pathos of things. To be aware of ephemerality is to appreciate greatly, to love deeper, bolder, to travel farther. A musical exemplification would frequently change, I think. The other evening, I was walking back with bags of groceries through my neighbourhood park, and the winter sun had turned gold through the trees. For that instant, everything — the children’s swings, the grass, the dusty air — was still. As I walked on, a song played on my iPod. David Bowie’s ‘Where Are We Nowʼ. So that’s the one for now.

TD: The Japanese and Hanif Kureishi are very good at the contradictory. I agree. Did you know that variations of the word “empty” appear 43 times in Seahorse. Talk me through that, and through horror vacui and kintsukuroi ...

JP: Seahorse begins with a big fat absence. On the very first page, Nicholas is missing, and the novel swirls around this event like a whirlpool. So “empty” and its locutionary variations spring from here — and my (slightly worrying?) obsession with loss. The characters in my book are art historians, art writers, artists, and so they tend to draw on terms from visual art. Hence, horror vacui and kintsukuroi. The first is drawn from the Greek for “fear of the empty,” and refers to filling an entire canvas/space of an artwork with detail, which is something my protagonist Nem is inclined to do as well in his narration. He uses the term though in relation to the fear of loss — mainly of other people in our lives. And how we try and fill those spaces because we find that absence difficult to bear. Life piles on life, really. Constantly refilling, with things, other loves, other distractions. ‘Kintsukuroi’, on the other hand, is a Japanese term (I seem to have a penchant for Japanese terms, I now realise) for the art of repairing pottery with melted gold or silver, and believing that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. It’s a lovely idea, of course, but more pertinently it also touches upon a detail of the Greek myth that Seahorse retells. That of Pelops being “shattered" (or less euphemistically, diced up by his dad), and being put back together and brought to new life. Which is when Poseidon sees him and falls in love with him. Something metaphorically similar happens to Nem.

TD: I realise I have led you astray down the path of books but I'm very interested in the idea of loss and how art acts as a way of transforming loss into something more acceptable — beautiful, even. I heard recently that you're a fan of knitting. I know most writers engage in an activity separate from their writing that acts as a kind of meditation — running, carpentry, swimming… Is knitting that other thing for you? Could you talk about when you first started knitting and why and what is the most impressive thing you've ever knitted?


JP: But books and knitting are intricately linked. They're both all about patterns, and patience. And knowing when you've slipped up, lost a stitch. Or run out of material. I learnt how to knit because my grandmother taught me. She was of the generation that believed girls needed to be skilled at certain crafts — embroidery, knitting, crochet. I grumbled, of course, and knitted terribly. And put the craft away for many years. Oddly enough I only started knitting again when I “became” a writer, or rather when I was in the midst of working on Boats on Land. I found it, as you pointed out, meditative. The utter engrossment of the repetition of things. How it repeats until the end. I find it soothing (which is why I stick to knitting simple patterns, simple garments like scarves and mufflers and snoods). I also found that I was aching to create with my hands rather than my head. To see something tangible at the end of some effort (so unlike writing). So I bake too. And enjoy paper craft. And acrylic painting. It's a different process of creativity; an employment of an alternative part of your mind that relishes a long focus on something other than words. Yet I find that while knitting I think a lot about my manuscript. About plot. And character. Working out niggles in the story. It's a quiet meditative space that allows for this, and I enjoy it immensely. To knit, to purl, to knit again.

TD: You grew up on tea estates around India surrounded by ducks and goats and other animals in what sounds like an idyllic childhood. You’ve also spent time in the UK and Italy but currently live in Delhi. Could you say something about how your personality accommodates all these different landscapes?

JP: Not only have I lived in all these places you mention, but I’ve also inherited a mongrel ethnicity — my mother’s father was Portuguese, my father had a British grandfather, while my grandmothers were Jaintia and Khasi (communities in Meghalaya). In a way, my itinerant life reflects my mixed bloodline. I don’t look like I come from any particular place. People find it hard to pinpoint my ethnicity. And I think I’ve internalised that. I’m not deeply attached to anywhere, yet I’m deeply attached to everywhere. I’m hesitant to answer the question “where are you from?” (Which is difficult because that’s often what someone asks when they meet you for the first time.) So in my head runs a loop of answers. Which place do I pick? Do I give them the short answer (“Shillong”) or the long version? Because of this I am profoundly mistrustful of labels — of all kinds. Gender, ethnicity, identity. I tend to see these as fluid, shape shifting entities rather than monolithic specifications that are birthed and frozen. I run away from belonging. I constantly search for belonging. I’ve learned to plan my life more around the here and now. Which may extend to a month, a year, or five. It keeps the path open, unknown, exciting. And, sometimes, utterly frightening too.

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