“If you’re going to write something and you know it completely – don’t bother.” This forceful sentence from Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie (a British national, born in 1973 in Karachi) from a class at the Royal Society of Literature runs counter to most pieces of advice on creative writing that we hear today. (Watch this short video from June 2015 below for more information).
“Write what you know”, “Don’t write what you don’t know” – I have encountered several accomplished (and admirable) authors who have instructed the same. One can understand the rationale behind the recommendations and injunctions. Keep to your own life experience, your gender, your age, your culture, your occupation, your race, your era, your country, bla bla bla…so that you do not sound inauthentic or plain foolish. Practical enough. And yet, I, somewhat like Kamila Shamsie, feel this is just bad advice – if not for all – for plenty of aspiring and budding writers. Some people are indeed endowed with powerful imaginative faculties and can successfully outdo such myopic theories of art-making. They can think themselves into a variety of characters, no matter how distant and foreign. They can confront the demands of research and deliver elegant results. If they were to only stick to their immediate intersection of space and time, they would be terribly underestimating and underusing their talents.
One young author whom I think has taken the risk (albeit a cautious and calculated one) of leaping into the unknown and the unfamiliar is Kanishk Tharoor (@). Tharoor, whose mentors and teachers include figures like Zadie Smith and Amitav Ghosh, holds a BA in History and Literature from Yale University and is currently a fellow at New York University. He writes for the Indian newspaper Hindustan Times and presents the Museum of Lost Objects on BBC Radio 4. His literary debut Swimmer Among the Stars (2016, Aleph Book Company; to be published in the US and the UK in 2017) is a delightful cosmopolitan collection of twelve stories, refreshing in its boldness and freedom and ambition. “My stories don’t necessarily privilege anybody from any particular country, any particular region,” Tharoor has said. “I guess I am trying to engender a slightly global style of storytelling.”
Tharoor’s confident, inventive and beautifully crafted tales have been compared in style and content to the Arabian Nights, the Kathasaritsagara, the works of Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter – and other ancient and modern masters of “fabulist, surrealist and magical short stories.” The stories span various geographies and periods. An Anglo-Saxon poet walks alone through the remains of a fallen Roman city in the same book that contains emails and Skype calls. Here is how the publisher describes the collection:
An interview with the last speaker of a language. A chronicle of the final seven days of a town that is about to be razed to the ground by an invading army. The lonely voyage of an elephant from Kerala to a princess’s palace in Morocco. A fabled cook who flavours his food with precious stones. A coterie of international diplomats trapped in near-earth orbit.
Some places are clear – Morocco, the Antarctic; others are suggested – a former Central Asian city, Scandinavia. Old romances and narratives are repurposed – of the Phoenicians, of Alexander the Great, among others. Many characters are travellers crossing borders, encountering new cultures, making new friends. References to diplomacy are evident (here the writer, whose father has been a renowned diplomat, draws significantly from his background). How did the stories grow? And how were they planned? Kanishk Tharoor has explained in an interview, “The stories have quite separate points of origin. Some…sprang from a real life story told to me when I was younger. Others were sparked by observations, an experience, sometimes just a line or an image. The work of the story would become justifying that line or image. I begin with an image or idea or adventurous premise. I rarely plan — you can get away with that in short stories more easily than you can in a novel. I find that I do my best thinking as I write, so the story takes shape in the midst of its writing.”
I want to share excerpts from two stories I particularly liked – “Tale of the Teahouse” (wherein the tea drinkers of a town that is about to be razed by a ‘Khan’s’ advancing army converge and discuss all manner of things) and “A United Nations in Space” (wherein diplomats from all over the world meet in a space station when the earth has been hit by a catastrophe).
In “Tale of the Teahouse”, a woman delivers a sermon on the necessity (or lack thereof) of vocation:
…we are city-dwellers and not nomads, for we have in our ranks people who can be described as tailors and cooks, while the nomads do not. But the question can be asked: Are there not some who raid villages, some who tend the fires, some who make the bows and fletch the arrows, some who draw milk from the mares, some who beat filigree from gold, some who stitch their leather clothes, some who tell stories, some who whisper prophecies? The real differences between the nomad and us has little to do with these men of action; it is precisely because a city like ours has a teahouse, keeps its men of inaction – who produce nothing, whose only responsibility is to the leisure of thought – that the society of the city is different from that of the wild. And so, I submit to you, my colleagues, that we have no reason to feel shame for our work. It is we who give this city meaning.
In “A United Nations in Space”, diplomats look down at earth and talk to each other:
Astana has been bombed, Luxembourg tells Mexico in the cafeteria as he squeezes extra mustard in his hamburger. Another month, another bombing. Poor Kazakhstan… who would have done it? I don’t know, these bloody non-state actors are impossible to understand. It makes you wonder what the point is. Atrocity for the sake of atrocity, that kind of logic is always inscrutable. No, I mean, what the point is of grief. Of grief? If everybody is grieving, then grief loses its distinction, it just becomes a shared, permanent state. I suppose. So why do it? Because grieving is helpless, because how else do you respond to loss? I don’t see Kiribati grieving. Kiribati is going insane. No, I disagree… his country literally no longer exists so it makes sense that all he can do is look at the stars, the planets, the depths of space. You think that’s healthy? I’d rather explore the cosmos than feel sorry for myself. There are other things we can do to hide from our losses.
I look forward to Kanishk Tharoor’s next book!