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MBRB Conversations: Chhimi Tenduf-La, Author of Panther

Chhimi Tenduf-la on his favourite reads, and an outsider's view into Sri Lanka

In conversation with Chhimi Tenduf- la, writer of Panther, one of MBRB’s favourite reads this summer

In my book review a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned just how much I enjoyed Panther. The eminently readable book is in parts horrifying and hilarious, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Friends have got back to me saying how much they enjoyed it, and I have found myself reading more about Sri Lanka and its Civil War in the days since I’ve finished the book.

I also had the chance to exchange mails with Chhimi Tenduf-la the writer during the past few weeks, and to find out more about his process, his views on some of the questions that the book raised, and about what’s on his I Pod. Read on!

Did you at any time struggle with incorporating some of Sri Lanka’s very real scars from the civil war in your story? What kind of responsibility as a writer do you feel towards representing real life events in a way that is truthful and respectful, especially in the case of Sri Lanka where there are as many versions as there are people? 

This is a fantastic question because this issue haunted me a little. I didn’t want to be insensitive or to take sides. It’s too easy to criticise the actions of others without understanding why they ended up where they were. Would I, myself, act rationally if my children were in danger? How much do you get overpowered by a sense of needing revenge? I don’t know. I didn’t want to be preachy, or be arrogant enough to say that I understood the war or what people went through. What I wanted to get at was the idea of trying to overcome these horrific scars.

There are too many different versions for me to pretend I know the real one. Maybe that is for a more factual book. I hope that Panther hints at the horror inflicted by war and also the efforts some people are making to promote reconciliation between the factions in Sri Lanka.

I am a foreigner in Sri Lanka and I want to be sure I never behave like those who have been here a year or two and think they understand what happened and preach about it. I have been here for most of my life, but still, there are ten year olds in the North who know more about the reality of war than I do. However, living here you do hear stories about the war, some interesting, some terrifying and shocking, all important.

I’ve always bemoaned the absence of really good “cricket” novels, and loved how you weaved in the sport in your narrative. What is some of your  other favourite cricket writing, or even sport writing on the whole?

Chinaman ( Ed’s Notes: Also one of our favourite sporty reads!)ticks a lot of boxes for me. It’s about Sri Lanka, it’s about cricket, it’s a mystery and it’s funny. This makes it one of my all time favourite books and the author has given me some tips here and there for my own writing. You’re right though, I cannot think of many other sports novels and certainly not about cricket. I would have liked to put a great deal more cricket into Panther but feared that it could alienate some readers so I limited it. One day I might have the guts to write a full-on cricket novel. To help sales, I think it would be best if it is about the Indian team and they would have to win the World Cup.

Could you tell us a little bit about your creative process- do you write regularly or in spurts? Do you need to be in a kind of mindset to write?

I find writing to be pretty easy and enjoyable. This is not to say I write anything good, but I have no difficulty sitting down every day and hammering out 2000 – 3000 words. I guess the standards I set myself are lower than other authors. I write every weekday and take the weekend off. I do not need to be in any particular mood but, sometimes, if I really have my mojo I will write much more. I read back what I have written every evening and sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it. I get into a zone where I don’t think that much and words just come out. Even if I trash what I write, I think it is good practice just to write and write. I think, with age and experience, I might slow down a little so that my writing improves.

Could you walk us through the kind of pop culture you consume on an average day- everything from your favourite internet reading to music to books to the television shows you enjoy?

I only get to listen to non-baby music at the gym; thus I need something with a beat and have been tucking into the Chemical Brothers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prince, and a Tribe Called Quest. It’s important that I carry my Ipod with me as there is an Eastern European couple who get to the gym before me and put on David Hasselhoff and prance around like chickens.

With TV, I need to watch one of 4 things. Sport (cricket, rugby, football mainly), news, comedy or crime. I love mysteries. Oh and I do watch some reality trash. And game shows….okay I watch just about anything.

I read two types of books – those I can learn from to make me a better writer, which I don’t always like, and those that I read on the weekend to really enjoy, usually crime thrillers, mysteries and so on.

I spend too much time on Facebook and Twitter. For the latter I have a number of parody accounts for fun and research. I am often on Cricinfo and other sports sites, and now I have started tucking into more Indian news sites, initially looking for myself but ending up reading about interesting people instead.

How do you like the process of marketing a book in today’s age? Could you tell us a little bit about the challenges you’ve faced in the process with your first two books

When I see my books in Sri Lankan bookshops, I am confident because there is more word of mouth I can create here and often the books are in prime spots -sometimes on the checkout counter and so on. When I saw my book in Indian shops, I was less confident. My first book was on the same shelves as famous authors so I wondered why anyone would take a chance on me. So I feel I have to create awareness. I have been getting very good reviews in the press but have been advised that I need to build up support from bloggers which I am doing, and enjoying. Yet still, this is just a drop in the ocean for such a big country. I am not there so I have no idea if many people even know about my books. In Colombo everyone knows everyone so word spreads fast. In an ideal world I would like more press and social media coverage in India, but I guess it is my job to give people something interesting to cover. I’m learning all the time and am always open to suggestions. For me, book sales are not about money because I get very little per book, but more about making sure that I have not let my publisher down.

Finally, what’s on your reading shelf right now, and what’s next for you as a writer?

I was recently interviewed by an excellent books editor for a leading daily who has been giving me fantastic recommendations. I was struggling to find new authors to read so she pointed me in the direction of foreign language authors. First I read a collection of short stories called My Documents by Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra. Then I read Alex by French writer Pierre Lemaitre. It is a quite brilliant crime thriller. Currently, I am reading the next part of the trilogy called Camille.

I took a break from writing as I am a little impatient normally and felt that I would benefit from mapping out a story in my head first. I may get back to it in a few days – I started a story a while back. It is about a Sri Lankan put up for adoption returning as an adult to meet his slightly odd birth mother.  In turn, he has to identify and track down his father, who was also his mother’s rapist. In the process he uncovers some dark family secrets. This will also be my first attempt at a whodunit type story. I love mysteries.

However, we are expecting our second child in December so I am not sure if I will be awake at the right times to write after that. I am not in a great rush since I have two books that came out this year. I also want to make my third the best thing I can possibly write rather than just making sure I have a constant supply of new books on the shelves.

Thanks for talking to us Chhimi, and can’t wait to read your whodunit, or whatever you write next (may we suggest a couple of kids books during this downtime between your adult stories?)

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