In Conversation with Anjum Hasan, writer of Lunatic in my Head, Neti Neti and Difficult Pleasures
Anjum Hasan has been quietly building a up a formidable body of work as a writer. Her first novel Lunatic in my Head (shortlisted for the Crossword Fiction Award 2007), was a perfect telling of both small town claustrophobia and nostalgia, while her second Neti Neti (shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize 2009 and longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008), is our absolute favourite book about modern day Bangalore. Anjum ‘s latest work is a book of short stories called Difficult Pleasures (you can buy it here). She is also a poet, and the current Books Editor of Caravan Magazine.
We spoke to Anjum about her work and inspirations earlier this month, and here’s what she had to say.
MBRB :Anjum, you’ve written poetry, novels and short stories. Which of these forms would you say you enjoy the most?
I guess I enjoy whichever form I’m working in at a given point. Writing is a self-driven activity so there wouldn’t be much reason to try my hand at any of these forms unless I really wanted to, unless I thought I could derive some enjoyment from each of them.
MBRB: 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? Do you do any of your writing in longhand still, or is it all on the computer now?
I try to write regularly, about a page every morning, directly on the computer. I am at a point where writing has become daily work – an ongoing process rather than something driven by sudden illumination. So the mindset no longer matters, really. Whatever the mindset, it ought to feed into the writing.
MBRB: The traditional assumption about great writing is that it emerges in solitude- and literatures feeds you these visions of consumptive geniuses typing away furiously in isolated cottages. What are your opinions on the public part of being an author in a time where writers often have to be their own champions in social media and attend literary festivals and talk? What part of this do you enjoy and what do you detest?
I’ve learnt to enjoy meeting readers and talking about my work but it can be draining and it’s difficult to do too much of it. What worries me a little is how the spirit of the festival can make an anodyne celebration out of literature. It becomes a big party and everyone’s invited, which is great except that this then is not the ideal space for conducting debate or paying attention to nuance. That can only happen in and through writing, which is why, for the health of literature, engaged criticism in writing is much more important than literary festivals, even though the latter can sometimes, and often by accident, throw up great food for thought.
MBRB: I am sure I am not the first reader who’s told you that they see so much of Sophie in themselves- from her small town origins to her first taste of independence working in Bangalore. Do you have any plans to revisit Sophie again in your future works?
I have no specific plans to but I wouldn’t write off the possibility. It could be interesting to see how she might change as an older woman, just as the eight-year-old Sophie in my first novel, Lunatic in my Head, and the twenty-five year old Sophie in Neti, Neti are the same person and yet, because of their circumstances, because of the way the culture around them has changed, so remote from each other.
MBRB: Anjum. 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 haven’t watched television for fifteen years but I enjoy watching movies. I often watch them without any prior knowledge of what they’re about so it can feel a little surreal but I think movies themselves are becoming surreal in their heightened focus on the disconnected, alienated individual and their love of surface textures, of effect. Among recent films I’ve seen in this random way are David Cronenburg’s Cosmopolis, the Malayalam movie 22 Female Kottayam, Disconnect which is about people who spend too much time online, and Krish 3. I don’t read much on the net but do like some literary and cultural journals such as Kafila, Five Dials, n +1, Almost Island and the New Yorker.
MBRB: Do you still have roots in Shillong? I greatly enjoyed some of your old writings in the Outlook Traveler and even your fiction has such a strong sense of atmosphere and place. What is your favourite city in India and in the world?
My parents live in Shillong and I visit every year. Even though I’ve written about the city, I don’t think I’ve exhausted my curiosity about it and its people. Bangalore fascinates me too, I’m trying to write about it in the novel I’m currently working on. There is such an all-consuming newness to Bangalore that it’s worth trying to imagine what it might be like for time to pass slowly in the city, for people living in it to have a sense of the past.
We have several marvellous young writers. I’m especially a fan of the writings of Altaf Tyrewalla, Samanth Subramaniam, Sonia Faleiro, and Rahul Mehta.
MBRB: A lot of successful authors in the West, especially in the US, have honed their craft at writing school – but Indian authors appear to set store by talent rather than method. How important is collaboration and feedback from peers to your writing process? What are your opinions about formal creative writing courses and what advice would you give to aspiring Indian authors?
Feedback on a manuscript is unquestionably useful – whether this comes from an editor or a colleague in the business or a classmate in a creative writing workshop. I’m less sure about whether all writers need to study writing as an academic subject. To me the labour of writing is the best learning and that’s the advice I usually give to aspiring writers – to be open to the process and patient with it.
MBRB: Lastly Anjum, there’s one question we like to ask of all our interviewees. If you could go back in time and choose to have dinner with one person who would it be and why?
It would have to be EM Forster, the 20th century’s funniest and wisest writer in my book!
Photo by Zac O’Yeah from AnjumHasan.com