Easy to write about a country from the outside: Dipika Mukherjee

Her debut novel is just out in India, and both the author and her book cut a tangent from the usual Diaspora writer’s track. Dipika Mukherjee‘s ‘Thunder Demons‘ is based in contemporary Malaysia and address the issues of a multi-cultural scenario in Asia. Dipika is from the brood of an diplomat and has lived under many flags. An academic by profession, she has edited two short story anthologies and published poetry and fiction in respected literary journals like Asia Literary Review among others as also won prizes for her writing. Dipika is currently faculty at the Institute of Linguistic Studies, Shanghai.

Suneetha Balakrishnan spoke to Dipika Mukherjee about her writing and writing life. Here is an extract from the conversation.

Suneetha: Your novel travels a different road from the Diaspora writing currently in vogue. Why have you opted for a non-West perspective for a premise for your debut novel, in spite of the fact that you have a solid experience of globe trotting?
Easy to write about a country from the outside: Dipika Mukherjee

Dipika: I was getting tired of American novels that present migration as an answer to the world’s problems – ‘The Kite Runner’ and books by Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee and Bharati Mukherjee’s ‘Jasmine’ come to mind. I also feel very strongly about the sociopolitical issues in Malaysia and I wanted to write about something that I feel strongly about. I have lived in too many countries and am too globally promiscuous for the flag-waving nationalism of new migrants. I love Malaysia deeply, warts and all, and wanted to write a love letter, no matter how grim it became.

Suneetha: Could you talk about your experience while writing the book, research and other aspects as well as the process of publishing?

Dipika: The topic of my doctoral dissertation in Sociolinguistics from Texas in 1995 was language change in a Malaysian community; earlier this year, in April 2011, my co-edited book, Language Shifts among Malaysian Minorities as Effects of National Language Planning: speaking in Many Tongues was published by the Amsterdam University Press. My academic work for almost the past two decades has touched on Malaysia, and I am aware of Malaysian history and socio-politics as an academic as well as a resident. During the initial stages of writing this book I was living in Singapore and I researched life and times of Malaya as well as accounts of life during the Japanese occupation. I was also constantly reading the newspapers and blog posts online, and have continued to do so, no matter what part of the world I am in. I have worked in the Malaysian media for some time and continue to have friends who send articles written in the Malaysian media. Because of the censorship and sedition laws in Malaysia, some works are easier to access when outside the country than from the inside. However, although I acknowledge the debt to other researchers, writers and social commentators at the end of the book, I must also stress that this is a work of fiction, and should be read in that spirit.

Publishing the book has been challenging too – when I first started to approach US agents, I was told the book was ‘too political’ but I think Malaysia is just not an area of interest to most Americans in the way the Middle East or Bali or Italy is. The book was considered too controversial for Singaporean and Malaysian publishers because of its fictional description of real events. Finally, a few Indian publishers showed strong interest but I sold it to Gyaana as I knew they would handle the book well.

Suneetha: ‘Thunder Demons’ does not show the government of Malaysia in a very kindly light. How has been the response to the book in Malaysia at various levels?

Dipika: This book is being published by a Malaysian publisher in December; we’ll know what the response is like then! In a recent Bersih protest in Malaysia in July 2011, the 76-year old National Laureate of Malaysia, A Samad Said, was investigated for sedition for reading out a poem and being part of what the government termed an illegal assembly. Although Malaysian writers, artists and political activists immediately banded together to condemn the police harassment, this incident clearly illustrated the applicability of draconian sedition laws to words

It is easier for someone like me, living outside, to write about the country than for someone from the inside. The Internal Security Act is still being used in Malaysia to detain dissenters indefinitely without a trial, and although there is talk about repealing this law as well as the one that muffles the media by requiring publications to renew their printing licenses annually, there is some skepticism about how real the changes will actually be. I was on a Writers Unlimited tour in Malaysia in June 2011, along with Malaysian, Dutch, Ethiopian, Egyptian and Turkish writers – it was a fabulous experience. My book is explosive – it opens with an explosive prologue! – but in general, I got a lot of support from other Malaysian authors who supported the fact that I was writing on edgy themes which should be discussed. However, there was a review in the Star newspaper that inexplicably went on about how wonderful this festival was and then the writer complained for three paragraphs how I shouldn’t be writing what I was writing -all this based on hearing the prologue and not having read the book! I am ready for the criticism after this book appears on Malaysian bookshelves (if it doesn’t get banned!) but there is also an amazing sense of community among Malaysian writers and they are incredibly supportive.

Suneetha: Do you think the literary agent is a necessity these days? What’s your experience? What’s your advice to the unpublished writer on this count?

Dipika: I think that a literary agent gives a writer a certain validity, but it is still not necessary, especially in India. I signed on with my present agent in London after the Man Asia long list for ‘Thunder Demons’ in 2009, but she did not sell ‘Thunder Demons’ for me as she thought it was too much of a niche book to launch internationally. So I sold ‘Thunder Demons’ to Gyaana Books on my own, did all the publicity etc without my agent getting involved. In India, the good thing is that most publishers read unsolicited manuscripts; this is getting very rare in Western markets. If a writer wants to be launched in the US/UK market, an agent is essential, otherwise not so much. My second book will be sold by my agent internationally.

Suneetha: What role does a residency play in a writer’s life? Can you detail this with reference to your own experience?

Dipika: Residencies have been very important in my own writing life – with a full-time academic career and two young boys at home, it was hard to find the time to write with all the demands on my time. I have found it important to get away and write during the conception stage and the finishing stage – it’s important for me to be able to write all day, sometimes all night, when a book idea is taking root, and similarly, when the loose ends are being tied up. I have gone away twice for a formal writer’s residency at Centrum Foundation in Washington State in the US, but I have also done my own self-funded writer’s retreat at Port Dickson in Malaysia to work on a book. Not all writers have a chaotic daily life like mine, and some writers achieve amazing work without getting away from their daily lives, but for me, residencies have been crucial to my work.

Suneetha: What have been your responses to ‘Thunder Demons’ from Reader/Fellow-writer/ Publishers? How has your book launches worked for you as a writer?

Dipika: I just got a note from an acquisitions editor of major publisher in India, asking whether I’d be interested in publishing a novel with them, so I guess the response from publishers is good! I have been getting some really nice press reviews too, as well as some fan mail, so I think the response has been overwhelming. Fellow writers on my panels at Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkota and Delhi have been fabulous; I keep saying that the book has been living only in my computer for so long that I am always amazed that other writers have read my work and respond to it with such specific details about a motif/character/scene that they particularly like.

Suneetha: What’s your opinion of the MFA School of writers? Also what do you think is the role of an award/book prize in the life of the writer in India?

Dipika: I did not go through an MFA program, so I find such programs unnecessary in my own writing life. I am sure that someone who goes through an MFA program finds it useful, and I have no doubt that it is so. I personally think the success rate of MFA grads needs to be better established before such a heavy investment in both time and money can be justified and I know too many MFA grads who seem to have more degrees in writing than substantial published pieces. Of course, no degree can guarantee success in any field – for example an MBA or a law degree does not make such promises either – but an MFA seems to come with bigger dreams and less job security than others. Asian writers, whether in India or China or Malaysia, seem to be managing fine without such guilds being created to manage the writing fraternity although MFA programs are gaining in popularity, even in Asia.

Suneetha: Who are your favourite writers?

Dipika: I read everything I can get my hands on. I have been reading Chinese authors lately, love Su Tong for his Zola-like darkness. Enjoy the new voices of Malaysian authors, loved Brian Gomez. Like the Pakistani authors – Kamila Shamshie, Nadeem Aslam. Love Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra’s ‘Love and Longing in Bombay’ remains a favourite short story collection. Like Barbara Kingsolver & A.S Byatt’s work.

Suneetha: How about poetry? Which is your favourite Muse, poesy or fiction?

Dipika: Haven’t read too much poetry lately but thoroughly enjoyed a compilation of Tang and Sun Dynasty poetry compiled in Shanghai and beautifully illustrated -can’t remember the publisher, but I have the book in Chicago. Also W.S Merwin’s translated ancient poetry published by Copper Canyon Press. I think I like old poetry more than the new, although Pablo Neruda and Naomi Shihab Nye are favourites too. I have a deep appreciation for Bengali poetry now, although I barely read it while growing up, finding it too sentimental.

About a favourite Muse -well poetry comes more easily to me although I can’t explain why. Fiction is hard and laborious.

Suneetha: You have a second novel coming up soon. Can you talk about this new venture and how is it connected/different from the debut novel.

Dipika: ‘Finding Piya’ is my next novel, the first chapter of which won second prize in the Short Story Radio First Chapter Competition 2010 in the UK. I wrote it in five months as opposed to the eight years it took to finish ‘Thunder Demons’. Finding Piya is about an NRI woman landing in India, getting off a train and getting lost, and getting entangled in a child-trafficking/adoption ring. I like to say that this is my ‘Indian’ novel after my ‘Malaysian’ debut!

Suneetha: What is your dream book about?

Dipika: I don’t think I’ve written it yet!

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