A Versatile Pen: Anjum Hasan

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She ‘lives in a house with a yellow door’. She also flexes her pen to  gentle verse as well as lyrical prose and handles the short and the long forms of fiction with equal deftness. 

Meet  Anjum Hasan, writer.

Anjum’s critically acclaimed poetry collection Street on the Hill in 2006 was closely followed by the publication of two novels. The first one titled Lunatic in my Head was published in 2007 and was referred to as a confident debut and short listed for the Crossword Fiction Award 2007. It went on to do an Australian edition in 2010. Her next fiction book ‘Neti, Neti’, was not only appreciated but also was nominated to awards like the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010 and the Man Asian Literary Prize. This book went on to be published in both Australia and Sweden. Anjum’s short story collection ‘Difficult Pleasures’ came out in 2012 April from Penguin and in the same month went on to be long-listed for the 2012 Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award.

I had met Anjum in person at Bangalore in Nov 2011 as a part of a writer’s workshop, and went on to interview her in March 2012 for a print magazine, viz. MediaVoiceMag.

Anjum, how do you keep up being so prolific? Writer’s discipline?

I don’t think I’m particularly prolific. My first couple of books were published in quick succession because I’d been writing them for a long time before that. But, yes, writer’s discipline is crucial, of course. Even more fundamental is simply wanting to write. I reduced my full-time job to part-time and took a salary cut because I felt I’d go crazy if I didn’t make more time to write.

How is a typical day for you as a writer?

Writing for a few hours in the morning as soon as I wake up. A couple of hours break for yoga, bath and breakfast. Answering emails and working on my job as Books Editor at The Caravan. Lunch is usually a snack eaten at my desk. Then a couple more hours of writing. I don’t work too much after dark – then it’s usually reading, cooking dinner, shopping, going for a walk.

The new book, why did you come to the short format now especially when anthologies are not a publisher’s favourite?

On the contrary, it’s actually the growth of interest in the short story in India that led to my becoming fascinated in the form and trying my hand at short fiction. In 2007, the publishers Zubaan sent out a call for short stories for an anthology of women’s fiction (21 Under 40) and practically the first short story I ever wrote appeared there. Before Independence Day 2008, the supplement Mint Lounge commissioned me to write a short story on the theme of ‘freedom’ for their August 15th special. I’d been toying with a story idea at that point but would probably have forgotten it unless this opportunity came along. The same thing happened towards the end of that year when Tehelka invited me to write for their themed annual fiction issue – I had the fragments of an idea but wasn’t doing much with it and it fitted neatly into the theme for that year which was ‘excess’. All of these opportunities culminated in my starting to write short fiction seriously.

Your first fiction is a Shillong novel, set in your old home and the second one is set in Bangalore your current home. What’s a connection here between your homes and writing?

Both Shillong and Bangalore fascinate me because both are colonial-era cities with mixed populations and cosmopolitan elements, yet they are also very different places – one with a sense of itself as small, insulated, outside the Indian mainstream, the other a dynamic and hectic place, that very much embodies the idea of a booming Indian city. But I also think I’m the kind of person who would write about whichever place she lived in. If I lived on the moon, I would write about the scene there, such as it is!

How involved are you now in poetry?

At the moment I am writing a series of prose poems for a production by French choreographer pair Nicole and Norbert Corsino that will be part of the Bonjour India Festival 2012-13.

What sort of writing is work for you?

All writing is work for me! I make a living as a writer and editor. But I’m lucky to be able to say that all of it is also pleasurable.

Could you talk about your current work that brought you to Bangalore?

I moved to Bangalore to work in India Foundation for the Arts, which supports arts projects of different kinds. I worked there in different capacities and learnt a whole lot about the Indian arts, got a chance to travel all over the country, and understood the pros and cons of an office job. I currently work as Books Editor for the narrative journalism magazine, The Caravan.

They call you an important voice  that gives an ‘insider’s’ peek into the North-East that we don’t know about. How do you relate to the North East region as a writer who grew up here? 

My parents are not from the North-east ethnically. They moved to Shillong before I was born. I grew up in Shillong and went to school, college and university there. I relate to the North-east as an insider-outsider. Someone who knows it well but also cannot help looking at it with the distance of a fascinated observer.

What’s your take on lit fests and the writer argument that’s on now?

I think lit fests and all kinds of events to do with the spread and sharing of literature and discussion on it are vital for a healthy literary life. But we need to be able to make a distinction between a worthwhile discussion and a wasted one – between those writers who expand our worlds when they speak to us from public stages and those who don’t. Also, if writers today actually answered to every call and impulse to be in the public eye they would, quite simply, have no time or mental space left for the introspection that writing requires. So the question is how one balances the two things.

Do you think a writer needs to be highly visible on social networking radars?

Visibility in general influences people’s perceptions about books. Some readers may seek out writers that absolutely no one is talking about but for the most part readers are drawn to what is ‘visible’ or being discussed – through whatever channel. Of course, the reverse may also hold true. More discerning readers might be put off by books around which there is a lot of ‘noise’. But even this only goes to show that ‘visibility’ is an influential factor.

The Indian Publishing scene is said to be exploding, what do you think is in there for the Indian English writer brigade?

Books in all genres and of all qualities are now being published. For a writer it can be a time of great opportunity and excitement. And yet, alongside, the struggle to be heard in the clamour intensifies!

 

This article appeared in MediaVoiceMag issue of April 2012. Anjum’s photo is by Madhu Kapparath and taken from her website. 

 

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