Category Archives: Literary Fiction Reading Project 2017

Interview with Chhimi Tenduf-La: Author of “Loyal Stalkers”.

So I had just finished reading “Loyal Stalkers” and had a few questions in my mind for the author. I was lucky enough to have been in touch with him on mail, so I could conduct this interview through the web. Chhimi Tenduf-La is a world citizen in the true sense. His stories are of ordinary people and yet seem so extraordinary that they cut across territories of geography, mind and emotions. A collection that I loved reading and truly cherished.

final cover

Here is a short interview:

What made you write a collection of short-stories, after two novels?

I started a couple of stories in Loyal Stalkers as novels, but I felt they were better left with some things unsaid, whereas if I fleshed them out they would have lost their subtlety. When I found I could connect them I knew I could advance an over-riding story through a number of different characters and plots. This was enormously enjoyable and allowed for much more freedom. When writing a novel I may think of a character I want to write about but cannot fit him into the plot. With a collection I could just write a new story for him.

Your characters aren’t redeemed easily. Why so? Why is there a constancy in not letting them see the light of day?

I guess I had not thought about this much, until you asked this excellent question, but one of my pet hates is people acting with impunity because they know they will not be punished whatever they do. Here in Sri Lanka money and connections can get you off most things and that annoys me. As you point out, all my characters, although they have redeeming features, pay for the crimes they commit.

Chhimi book 3

I am intrigued by the title. How did you choose that for the story (a little obvious, yes) but then why stick to this for the entire collection?

I feel this whole book could have been written by a nosey aunty obsessed with what her neighbours are doing. I think it is indicative of society here that people are more concerned with other people’s lives than their own. Most of the stories have some stalking theme; the maid obsessed with her boss, the abusive relationship, the loyal dog following his special needs friend. I wanted the title to be creepy, but also reflect Colombo society in some ways; everyone is invested in each other’s lives, they can be a little annoying, but yet there is that closeness and that feeling that there is always someone nearby to help you when in need.

You’ve been a citizen of the world and yet this collection restricts itself to Sri Lanka. Why so? Why not give the characters space to see the world?

As I found my feet as an author I felt safest writing about what I know best. I have been here so long I have forgotten what it is like to live elsewhere. Yet now you have said it I do want to explore what some of my characters would be like living in another country. How much would it change them? Thanks for the idea!

Your top 5 favourite books and why?

I have limited this to books I have read recently.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared 
by Jonas Jonasson 

Comedy in literature is hard to balance. Endearingly silly, or annoyingly farcical. Jonasson gets it just right in this inspiring tale about Allan Karlson who goes on the run to avoid celebrating his 100th birthday. As he does so, we travel back through a hilarious twentieth century history lesson, in which Karlson mingles with great leaders and tyrants; at one point he convinces Stalin to shave off his moustache, and he regularly has a young Kim Jong Il sitting on his lap. Genius.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Great movie, greater book. The prose, slick and punchy, suck you in, slap you back and forth and churn you out. With great twists, cool dialog, and an abundance of quotable lines, Palahniuk tells an extraordinarily original story with awesome ease.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilika

It is more than a novel about cricket; it is Sri Lankan modern history through the eyes of an alcoholic. It is recognition of the tragedies, often self-inflicted, that tore at Sri Lanka’s core. It is a detective story, a mystery, a thriller, the search for a genius Tamil cricketer whose name and records have all but been wiped out of Sri Lankan history.

The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War 
by Rohini Mohan

A 368 page lesson about Sri Lanka’s civil war. In fact, this is the definitive lesson about any war; about child soldiers, mistrust, disappearances and lies. This book reads like a novel, whereas it is fact. Rohini Mohan messes with your emotions; she humanises people we thought were monsters. She makes you root for them, understand them, believe them.

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

I had to pluck up the courage to read this a second time because it is an incredibly disturbing book for a parent to read – but it was all worth it. Munaweera’s writing is brilliantly fluid, emotive and captivating and personally I felt this was an even better book that her prize-winning Island of a Thousand Mirrors.

Chhimi 9

Was writing “Loyal Stalkers” a cathartic experience? Did you live some of these stories yourself or through someone else?

I find all writing to be cathartic and relaxing. But yes, Loyal Stalkers touched on a number of issues that all of us in Sri Lanka should be more aware of. Since writing it I have become more sensitive to others affected by these issues, be it a friend battling homophobia or a maid not getting enough credit for the work she does.

Chhimi as a writer…

I write purely for enjoyment at the moment. I have never felt pressured into it or had writer’s block; maybe I require both to improve as a writer. I have a fairly wild imagination so this is an outlet for it. I write two hours a day, but nothing on weekends and I read back my work hundreds of times to try to see if it flows. Once it is printed I hate looking at my writing because it is too late to change anything I don’t like. I try to be snappy, hip, humorous and sensitive as a writer but probably fail in all regards. My story-telling is more inspired by movies than by books, for some reason, maybe because I don’t want to write like anyone else (not that I could).

How important do you think it is for the short-story form to be recognized in India and why do people prefer the novel over the story?

I was told by a UK based publisher that the issue they have with short story collections is that it is very hard to get the leading lit critics to review them, unless the writer is very well known. If a book does not get reviewed, book shops are reluctant to sell it. Maybe the problem with short stories is that readers may love one, but lose momentum if they don’t quite dig the next one. It is a lot of stopping and starting I guess, whereas with a novel you have invested in the characters already and so each time you pick up the book you’re not taking a blind leap of faith. This is why I have tried to link the stories in Loyal Stalkers, and have the characters popping in and out of each other’s lives. I love reading short stories myself because they are standalones; I can read one each night and if I don’t like one I have not wasted too much time on it. In some ways short stories are more accessible to people who aren’t necessarily bookworms and thus they are important to India if they can get more people to read. They can also get more people to write; almost anyone can sit down and write a short story, whereas a novel requires a different level of commitment and craft. With such rich culture and tradition, as well as the complexities of class I am sure there are hundreds of thousands of people in India who could write an important short story.

Chhimi 4

Your 5 favourite short-story writers

I’m inspired by R K Nayaran,  Alejandro Zambra and Raymond Carver. To understand how to appeal to a large audience, Jeffrey Archer. Of current South Asian writers Prajwal Parajuly, Sandip Roy and Ashok Ferrey. (I know this is 8 and not 5, sorry).

What are you working on next?

I have taken a break because I am not entirely sure in what direction I want to go. A novel, a collection, a movie? Maybe I will focus on writing more articles for a while. I have had many false starts with writing because I jump into new projects too fast, so now I am trying to be patient and I hope a killer idea for a novel will start growing on me.

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The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

The Book of Memory Title: The Book of Memory
Author: Petina Gappah
Publisher: Picador
ISBN:9781250117922
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source:Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“The Book of Memory” is the kind of book that creates ripples in your heart and you will not be able to control how you feel. I think that happens to me the most when I read books that have unreliable narrators. There is this sense of thrill and caution and at the same time, a strange sense of empathy that emerges for such characters. I like books that the central character is so strong and yet doesn’t overpower the entire book. This one is that sort of a read.

Memory is an albino woman who is in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe. She has been convicted of murder and as a part of her appeal, she has to write exactly what happened. And this is where the unreliable narrator angle begins (coupled with the wordplay on the name Memory, which as one goes along in the book means and stands for so much more). She has been convicted of murdering her adopted father, Lloyd Hendricks. Why did she kill him? Did she kill him at all? What exactly happened?

Gappah creates a book that might seem repetitive in terms of plot but isn’t when it comes to her writing for sure. And then again, once you are about half-way into the book, the plot also doesn’t seem repetitive or something you have read before. The characters are strongly etched and to me beside all this, it was only the writing that took the cake and more. What is also strange according to me is that Memory’s parents send her away when she is eight years old and that is not brought up again in the entire book. I thought it was oddly weird.

Having said that, “The Book of Memory” sometimes reads like a thriller and sometimes just a literary fiction book which has so much to give. The mutable nature of memory is there throughout the book – that is what makes it so unique and mysterious at the same time. All in all, this one was a hugely satisfying read.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Universal Harvester Title: Universal Harvester
Author: John Darnielle
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374282103
Genre: Literary Fiction, Literary Thriller
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3 Stars

I did not read his first novel “Wolf in White Van” but I will most certainly read it, because I absolutely loved “Universal Harvester”. The book is not only unusual in terms of its plot but also kind of edgy that it stays with you – and the horrific bits do. The book starts off normally – very usual plot of a small town and its people till it becomes something else mid-way and you are astounded at the turn of events.

It is the late 90s and something sinister is brewing in Nevada, Iowa. It creeps up on you suddenly as you are enjoying or doing something else. You are watching something on your VHS player (yes there is a rental store that rents out VHS tapes and I loved the time it is set it) and suddenly there is heaving breathing in the dark coming from it, as your movie gets interrupted. There are clips and more clips in different tapes that surface and for some reason Jeremy cannot help but watch. He works at the store and wants to get to the bottom of this mystery.

The book reminded me of House of Leaves to some extent – ust the setting and the atmosphere surrounding it, and due to this, I was even spooked out easy, I suppose. Darnielle’s form of writing is easy. It doesn’t make you think so much while reading the book as it does after. At the same time, I thought it was a bit too detailed even though I am a sucker for them. It just got a lot to take in by the time I reached the end. Jeremy’s character is brilliantly etched. You can sense the darkness looming and yet don’t want him getting to that side.

“Universal Harvester” is eerie, and yet hopeful. I just wish it wasn’t so rough at the edges and a bit clean with the details and other miniscule characters and emotions.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 Title: Reservoir 13
Author: Jon McGregor
Publisher: Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-0008257729
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Reservoir 13 is one of those books that miss and go. No one pays attention to them. No one talks about them. At the same time, I am only too happy that it was featured in the long-list this year for the Booker Prize. Owing to this, I hope a lot of people sat up and took notice of it. I remember reading “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” way back in 2000 and being astounded by the writing. McGregor sure knows how to make great use of a phrase, an emotion that is homeless and at the same time he does all of this with a lot of grace. Yes his books are difficult to get into (but they are delightful and once you get into them, it is very difficult to not turn the pages), but extremely satisfying.

“Reservoir 13” is long-listed for Booker 2017 (just as “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” was) and while it may not win, I was mesmerized by the writing. It is the story of lives – many lives in fact haunted by one family’s loss. A teenage girl goes missing in the hills at the heart of England. The villagers are called on to search. The search continues and daily lives are led – as they would be. Life goes on. And yet amidst all this, the missing teenager’s life hangs in the balance – through memories, secrets that tumble (also of the inhabitants of the village)and how small kindnesses and grace plays such a major role in the book.

McGregor knows how to write. In fact, he is brilliant at it. The book unfolds over thirteen years and yet the tragedy refuses to die. It is in the taking the novel from one point to another, is McGregor’s single-most talent – and that too convincingly and with a lot of heart. Just as his previous books, even in this one, nothing happens and everything happens. The technique of writing is simple (I love that about almost all long-listed titles this year) and the narrative takes its own course. There is no major psychological revelation and yet there are a series of small moments that move you. “Reservoir 13” is one of those books that might be a miss when it comes to most people’s reading list, but shouldn’t be, for sure.

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Chemistry Title: Chemistry
Author: Weike Wang
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524731748
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

September 2017 is going to be a good month of books read. The next that I read this month was “Chemistry” by Weike Wang. Chemistry is the kind of read that takes time for you to suck yourself into. I don’t mean that it is a slow read, but it is the kind of book which will have you ruminate over what is going on and go back to the pages you just read, so to make sense of what is going on as well. Wang’s craft is that of talking about various things at one time and might I add that she is brilliant at that.

For a debut novel, “Chemistry” took me by surprise. It would have also taken me by surprise had it not been a debut novel, don’t get me wrong but just the sheer force with which it is written (and it isn’t even a long read) makes you want to sit up and take notice. I was also asked by someone on Facebook if chemistry is an integral part of the book – as in does it change the life of the characters or not, to which I would say: No. While it does form a background to the book, I didn’t think it was life-altering in any way.

So what is the book about? The story follows a Chinese-American scientist (she is unnamed which is more or less like the challenges she faces in life) as she is three years into her graduate studies at quite a demanding Boston university. Amidst this there is the pressure from her parents to excel. Her love for chemistry is slowly dying. Her boyfriend wants to marry her and she has no response yet for him. She is lost just like anyone else and to find herself she has to give up everything and leave behind what she loves. This is the crux of the plot, as she gives up two years to discover herself and realizes that formulas or equations may not always have all answers as she thought they would.

The plot may not sound interesting initially but once you start reading Wang’s writing – you are just transported to her world. It is almost semi-autobiographical in nature and you can sense the confusion of her narrator and some sense of knowing in the second part (I loved the second part of the book a lot more). The writing is crisp, wry and overwhelming in a lot of places. The narrator and her relationships shine throughout but the relationship with herself is what I loved the most (as cliché as that might sound). “Chemistry” is a book of a scattered mind and a scattered soul that learns to piece itself day by day.