February 04, 2013
Conversations with Nicholas Hogg and Chandrahas Choudhury at the Jaipur Literature Festival
by Hannah Green
The Jaipur Literature Festival runs off the momentum of globalization and the Internet. Authors and attendees come from around the world. Multi-national corporations sponsor the event. The polite Australian woman in Indian clothing who was in charge of one of the venues (The Google Mughal tent) repeatedly told the audience where to hashtag if they were tweeting. After Sebastian Faulks read a segment of his novel on stage, Supriya Nair, who was also part of that session, said that she couldn’t wait until the talk was over that she could tweet about it.
At the same time, some of the writers lamented the state of literature in the world in light of the web’s rising power. People read less, they said, are less able to concentrate, less able to distinguish between good writing and bad, good information and bad.
To get an inside perspective, I caught up with two young writers at the Jaipur Literature Festival who are relatively new to the literary scene: Chandrahas Choudhury and Nicholas Hogg. Both of their careers have risen in sync with the growth of the Internet. (Another sign of the many options we must choose from in our complex times: I spoke to Choudhury in person and conducted my interview with Hogg over e-mail.) Choudhury’s first novel, Arzee the Dwarf was published in 2009. He told me that he started working on this novel around the same time he got into blogging. During this time, he also worked writing book reviews and as the poetry and fiction editor of The Caravan magazine. Hogg’s first novel Show me the Sky was published in 2008. Before and after the publication of his novel, he wrote short stories that explore different cultural landscapes.
On how twitter and other forms of modern communication have changed language:
Language is liquid. How we communicate – speak, write, play music or make films etc – is forever evolving. From Gutenberg’s press to twitter and texting, it undoubtedly changes literature. For good or bad is subjective. Writers reflect the world they live in, whether it be Shakespeare of the 1500s or Faulkner's divided Deep South, and so their prose rhythms beat to the time.
Even on twitter it’s possible to tell the good and the bad writers apart. You need to learn to use the form not by always using abbreviations but by writing more briefly and concisely... People now on Twitter have developed the super short story. And actually one of the greatest super short stories in the history of literature is too small even for twitter-Hemingway’s six word short story: “For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.” Which is maybe like forty or fifty characters.* There’s no reason that good writing is incompatible with twitter. But I think the most real pleasure of literature is the pleasure of seeing the mind unfolding. And that’s hard to do on twitter. That requires contrast. With a novel you can change the rhythm of a sentence, so you go from very long to very short. So to me that is the highest pleasure.
* It’s 28.
On blogs vs. books:
There’s nothing like a book. Because a book is durable, it lasts across space, across time. Someone might read it in the future and it might mean something to them.
With my blog I send things out and people receive them. A book has a life of its own. I don’t think you can even say that really about a blog. You have to continuously update it to have people come back to it. But a book sort of goes out and has its own legs.
Seeing a reader with a hard copy of my book in their hand is still the biggest thrill. True, e-readers have pushed my work out to a larger audience, but because I – the Luddite that I am – buy paper novels with tactile covers and pages, this is the literature experience that I value most. A beaten up paperback relives where and when the book was read. My copy of Paul Auster has just traveled with me across time zones and cities, from the humid Mumbai streets to the Rajasthan desert, and will live on my shelf as a souvenir of my trip to the Jaipur Festival.
On representations of global cultures through literature:
I have traveled extensively – 60 odd countries and counting – and so my novels and stories document those experiences, that 'contact between different cultures.' I haven't set out an agenda to write about colonialism and imperialism, rather my journeys have introduced me to the subject. After teaching in Fiji I wanted to explore how the British evangelized and imposed their own cultural values on a people the other side of the globe. My first novel, Show Me the Sky, followed a young Fijian returning to his islands after being kidnapped and 'educated' by the British. Once he realises that one teacher – a culture, a country – has no more authority than another, he has an identity crisis. I often baffle at the certainty in which one nation can moralise to another when values, like language, are malleable ideas that are constantly in flux.
There is a kind of Indian novel that does very well in the West because in the West people like to read about flowers, partition, democracy and secularism. There are no Indian novels in the West about Hinduism. They’re all about the new secular India. And the main character in Indian politics has always been Nehru. So in the short term, they are the books that represent India in the world.
[When I asked Chandrahas to tell me which novels he was talking about, he said “Well, if you read my reviews of Indian fiction on my website, you’ll find out what they are. That saves me the trouble of having to rename them and having me quoted in the present tense as saying these are liable Indian writers, and you can say whatever you like because I’ve already published the posts. There’s no way I can rescind them now. “Find out which novels Chandrahas thinks are liable on his own website here this Foreign Policy article and this Wall Street Journal article.]
On now the Internet has affected our ability to concentrate:
It’s even harder for young people today to attain the stillness of mind and the concentration to enjoy the syntax and the complications of language. Even of spoken language. You have to make space for yourself. And sometimes even the most committed of us don’t. Sometimes I don’t read ten pages of a novel, even though I really want to...
Before everyone had a kindle, and now everyone has an i pad and now besides reading you can do lots of other things. You can keep flipping from a novel into something else, like seeing a film. And to me that’s going off in a completely different direction from what e books were meant to be. Basically it’s very enabling.
Ha. Perhaps this interview is the perfect example of Chandrahas Choudhury's point – I was working on my latest novel, Tokyo, when I clicked over to my inbox and read your mail. So, yes. He's right. Look at the growing abundance of writers' retreats. Modern life is distracting, and therefore the modern author must find his garret to focus. Don Delillo has a quote that writing is a deeper form of concentration, a necessary obsession for the novelist at work. Time to get back to the page...
On being a writer now:
Personally I feel enormously lucky to be living in the age I am. And I own books from around the world which I have access through the new technologies and times that we live in, so there’s no reason to say that it’s all negative.
There are many wonderful things about capitalism, there’s something very liberating about capitalism, and also something very cynical about it. And I think everyone has to see the two sides, the dark and the bright side of the moon.
Hannah Green is a writer and student living in Lucknow, India studying Urdu and Hindi. She received her BA from Northwestern University in 2012. Her work has appeared on the blogs, Chapati Mystery, Racialicious, and ThinkProgress as well as on 3 Quarks Daily. As she waits in suspense to find out what will happen after this language program, she likes to do things like listen to podcasts about Pakistan and find pictures of graffiti in Iran. Follow her on twitter: http://www.twitter.com/green_ji
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