The ‘un-mappable’ author

Janice Pariat | Updated on November 21, 2019

Change is the only constant: ‘We are not the people we were yesterday. We are definitely not the writers who wrote our first books’   -  ISTOCK.COM

It might be immensely fulfilling for writers to revisit literary landscapes and themes. Some, however, find the safety of such familiarity uninspiring

At the opening of an art exhibition earlier this month, a woman and I, jostling at the bar for a drink, fell into conversation. She was an academic, she said, who worked on literature from the “northeast” and had referred to my book Boats on Land in her thesis. I was thrilled of course — and then she added, “I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but I think that’s your most significant work.” At another bar later in the month, also jostling, a friend and reader told me something similar in all earnestness. “Anyone can write about love,” she said, referring to my new book The Nine-Chambered Heart, “but not everyone can write about the places and people in Boats on Land.” I do understand that all this is shared with honesty and genuine affection for the stories in my first book; I’m grateful people resonate this way with anything I’ve written, and that they’ve taken the trouble to read what’s come next, and after, but to hear this was, I admit, a bit deflating — will I never write anything of significance again?

Lately, though, these instances have made me think about the expectation — from readers, publishers — for fiction writers to quarry their books from the same pit. To return over and again to a particular literary landscape (usually the Places Where They Are From), to similar themes, contexts, settings. Many writers, at least so far, choose to do this: Jhumpa Lahiri, Akhil Sharma, Mohsin Ahmed, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Elena Ferrante, Murakami and so on. And there are others who don’t: Parvati Sharma, Jeet Thayil, Amitava Kumar, Allan Sealy, David Mitchell. At a residency in South Korea this September, I met Spanish author Alberto Blandina, author of six novels, one young adult novel, and a book of poems. He is also part of a writer’s collective, Hotel Postmoderno, who’ve collaborated on, and published, three novels. “I am a nightmare for my publisher and my agent,” he told me, on one of our peaceful countryside walks. “They don’t know how to market me, how to sell my books to the same readers, because each one is not like the last.” In some ways I felt I’d found a kindred spirit. We had many animated discussions about this: That while it’s perfectly valid for an author to return repeatedly, if they so choose, to familiar terrain, we were not such writers. We were easily bored. “For me every book must be new,” I told him, and he agreed. It was important for him to feel challenged in different ways by each literary project, to be pushed into unfamiliar territory, to experiment with form and structure — so that never would he feel “comfortable”. “When we as writers are comfortable,” he ended dramatically, “we are dead”.

All this is not for the mere sake of novelty and newness, of course. A writer’s life — any life — is marked by change and movement, by the discarding of ideas, and their absorption, and the tussle and pain of daily loving and living. For some, perhaps, this presses into their fiction to a greater degree. We are not the people we were yesterday. We are definitely not the writers who wrote our first books, or even the ones most recently published. For Blandina, there are several reasons why this expectation — sometimes even demand — exists on the part of publishers and agents (both of whom, touch wood, I’ve been tremendously lucky with). It is for them to be able to craft a neat, easily aligned narrative out of his body of work — so that, as a writer, he is “mappable”. This helps when it comes to publicity and marketing, for instance, and — both of us winced a little — “building a brand”. On the part of some readers, ourselves included, we thought it wasn’t so much a failure of the imagination, but the safety of familiarity — to not be surprised by the unexpected, to always, in a way, be apprised of the meal that lies beneath the cloche. This expectation exists for reasons of practicality too. How many of us have read a book we loved and then rushed to buy everything else by that author? “If a reader did that with my books and they liked one, they might not so much enjoy the rest,” Blandina mused.

It might be similar for me — with Boats on Land, Seahorse, The Nine-Chambered Heart and possibly every book I hope to publish after.

Yet I’m deflated no longer. What I hold on to for now is what I mustered up the courage to tell the academic that evening. After we picked up our glasses of wine, I smiled saying that it was quite all right — I didn’t mind her preferring my first book. That all my books spoke to different readers. What mattered was that I felt I was growing as a writer and pushing myself with each one, so each book for me was significant. We parted most amiably, though I will be staying away from bars for a while.


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart;

Twitter: @janicepariat

Published on November 21, 2019

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