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.
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.
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.
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.
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.