I Would Go Insane If I Didn’t Write

Indian-American author Abha Dawesar is a driven writer. Writing is a mental necessity for her, a constant wrestle with words and meanings to keep her daemons from running away with her sanity. “If I didn’t write, I would go insane,” says Dawesar, the author of That Summer in Paris and Babyji.

Always itching to map new horizons of consciousness through her gift of fictive imagination, Dawesar’s next novel will explore the world through the eyes of a boy – an age at which one can see the corruptions of the world more starkly, without the lens of explanation.

In this conversation with www.indiawrites.org, the young petite author speaks about her thematic obsessions with love and death; her experience as an Indian in New York and the new eyes with which the Americans see India; her love of philosophy; and her radiant faith in the future of the novel in a world cluttered with multi-media distractions.

Writing, in the end, is ultimately about freedom. “You are free in a fundamental sense in which you have never been before,” says Dawesar about how the act of imagining world through words liberates her. “You are free. You are able to celebrate life,” says she.

Q) What’s your next novel about?

A) It’s about child; it’s not about grown-ups. It’s about the world through the eyes of this boy who is less than ten. He is exposed to everything around him, say in a big city like Delhi.

Q) Is it a Delhi novel?

A) Yes, but it could be set anywhere in the world.

It’s about a boy whose world is not tinted by experience and explanation yet. It’s really about his relationship with the adult world.

Q) Are you trying to set up a contrast between innocence and experience in this novel?

A) At a certain age, you are able to see the corruptions of the world in a very different way. In some ways, you see it starkly. He is a very peculiar child. At a certain age, you are also able to look at the world through less than corrupt eyes.

Q) In your last novel That Summer in Paris, you explore the theme of a young woman falling in love with an old man. Now this theme has figured in many celebrated novels like Lolita. In choosing this particular theme, what was your creative provocation?

A) It was not the main theme. It was just incidental. The novel is essentially about the nature of writing.

Q) Where does this impulse to write originate? What’s the linkage between writing and eros?

A) All creativity comes from the same space eros originates from. It’s a very profound drive to life.

Q) In the course of writing that novel, what new insights did you gain into the nature of writing?

A) It shed a new light on how all-consuming writing could be. It’s a parallel world. It’s a very high price to pay and at the same time…..It’s because you have this compulsion that you are a writer.

Q) Does inhabiting an imaginary world, the world of the novel, create a disconnect with reality? Or, does writing/imagination enhances reality and the world around us?

A) Both at the same time. There is a disconnect in the sense that you are looking at the world through the prism of your characters. It’s a lens you are wearing all the time. As a result, you are not experiencing things directly and personally as you normally would. However, in another sense, in perhaps a deeper sense, you experience them as profoundly as you possibly can because you are using them for your art. They are much richer and much more enlarged.

Q) You studied philosophy at the Harvard University. How does the study of philosophy as an academic discipline influence your writing? Do you think more in terms of concepts and ideas when you write?

A) It’s probably related to who I am as a person. But it doesn’t affect my writing in an overt way. I would love to be able to write one day a novel that would somehow bring those two worlds together. It’s very difficult to write that kind of novel. That kind of novel, often, lacks the kind of drama the novels need to have. I think I need maybe another forty years to write it.

As for thinking in terms of ideas, I try not to. Because when I do that, I tend to over-intellectualise. In fact, one of my long-term projects I have is the book I have been carrying around with me for a long time. I have hundreds of pages with me already. But I need some more time to seriously start writing and finish it. I’ve tried to put everything I know in it and it hasn’t worked for precisely that reason. It’s too cerebral.

Q) When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? That you are going to be a writer…

A) When I was very young. I probably discovered that I was going to be a writer when I started writing as a teen. I wrote a novella at the age of 14. I remember writing for school magazines. But even in those essay-like articles, I was trying to put in some weird stuff, some surreal element that decidedly belonged to the world of fiction.

I always knew that I would write. Whether I would be a writer or whether there will be books, I didn’t know at the time. I was more engaged with the process of writing.

Q) In your first experiments with writing without knowing what it was all about, what was your motivation? Was it just a desire to express yourself or was it a desire for fame?

A) It was necessary. I really thought that I would go insane if I didn’t write. I would write just about everything. I think I was writing just to express myself.

Q) What’s your relationship with writing now?

A) It’s different and more nuanced now. Writing a novel is a different experience than writing an essay.

Writing fiction is exhausting work. It takes a certain kind of energy and it really leeches your spirit. So you give it everything you have. And then you are empty till you start writing again. It isn’t like what happens in a poem which is less free in terms of technique. Poetry is very rigorous but at the same time writing a poem is liberating in the sense that it’s spontaneous.

Q) Do you write poetry as well?

A) Not much. But when it comes, I enjoy it.

Q) Every writer has certain themes that are obsession with him/her that keep recurring in their writings. What are those themes for you?

A) Life and death. And what makes us live. It’s partly because of my training in philosophy that constantly provokes me to think about makes us live and how to live.

Q) Who are your favourite philosophers?

A) Socrates and Nietzsche. I wrote my thesis in college on Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. What’s common to the writing of both Nietzsche and Plato is that they don’t hesitate from using drama. I don’t want to call it fiction. The Socratic dialogues are very dramatic. Nietzsche’s own writing is very poetic. And that is what gives them their power in a way which is very different from other philosophy which is mostly cut and dry. That’s not Kant’s writing style, for instance.

Q) In your novel Babyji, you explore the theme of teenage sexuality and all that goes with it. In writing about such themes, did you suffer from inhibitions or self-censorship?

A) I think if one is writing novels, it’s not possible to suffer from that. Unless you write honestly, what’s the point of writing? By writing honestly, I mean writing without self-censorship, keeping in mind only the integrity of the novel and the integrity of characters you create. Once I have written it, I become a human being, a different kind of human being. I am no longer a writer. Than I have the same kind of concerns which anybody else might have. I may worry about what others think about it. I don’t want certain people to read my books because they are not going to separate the writer from me.

Q) Did you face any criticism or disapproving glances from people you know because of your writing?

A) I have been lucky in that respect. I haven’t faced anything like that from people who are close.

Q) There is a lot of talk about the Indian writing in English? Is this buzz media-driven or is there is a genuine interest in it?

A) I don’t think it’s media-driven. And yes, there is genuine interest. But this genuine interest is not towards the specific idea of Indian Writing in English. I think it’s more an openness to writers from other cultures. Indian writers have been writing in English for quite some time and they write very well. Some of them are fantastic writers. So the audience is willing to try more Indian writers.

Also, I think the West is becoming more and more aware of India as an important player in the world. Everything that has happened in software technology in India has put India within the framework of people’s awareness. Now you call your banker in New York, or your cellphone provider, the call goes to India. So people are aware of India in a direct sense in which they were not before. The knowledge that India exists and is becoming a more and more important player in the world is leading to a general interest in things Indian, including writing.

Q) Talking about your experience as a New Yorker, do you think there is a touch of exoticism in the way the Indian community is perceived there?

A) Not in New York. If I was living in Dakota, the situation might have been different. In New York, the Indian community is very visible. The thelawalla (vendor) who sells you fruits is an Indian, the guy who is selling you magazines is an Indian, the guy who is probably investing for you in some mutual fund is an Indian. It’s a very visible community. It’s not at all exoticised. There are too many of us there to be exotic.

Q) Did you experience racism in the US?

A) I have not encountered anything like that personally. Post 9/11, there were some stray incidents. Racism is a fact of life, but I don’t think it’s everywhere or it’s there all the time. The Indian community is subject to far less racism than other minority groups in general. I would say that one is more harassed and hassled as a woman than as a member of a particular ethnic community.

Q) There is something called the anxiety of influence some writers grapple with. Any literary figure, past or present, that haunts you when you write?

A) I am usually haunted for short bursts of time by a particular writer. But there is no one figure that shadows over me. However, I remember once, probably when I was writing Babyji, I was reading Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray for the first time. I was paralysed. I was completely paralysed when I was reading it. Wilde is both delicate as well as witty. I really couldn’t understand the purpose of anyone continuing to write anything after that book. Now, looking back at it, I wouldn’t say it’s the best book in the world. I don’t think there is one single book I would call the best book. I remember Notes from the Underground had a similar effect on me.

Q) At this stage in your evolution as a writer, what do you see as your creative challenge?

A) The challenges are always organic to a particular project. For instance, one of the books I am working on is in a very different style than my other writing. It’s not as lyrical as That Summer in Paris. It’s very pared down so it has to be a lot more rigorous. This is primarily a technical challenge. It’s also a challenge because I have a certain approach to it. I want to keep that simplicity of approach. It’s very ambitious in scope because I decided not to use a lot of easy tools accessible to a writer like colour. It’s a novel in black and white and gray. This kind of novel is very difficult to write for me at this stage.

Q) Are you obsessed with any particular theme you would like to explore in your future novel?

A) There is this long-term book I have been working on. I am trying to understand internal experience and consciousness in this novel. It engages a lot with neuroscience. It’s really exploring consciousness given what we know about it and about how our consciousness and our subconscious works. This is one of the themes I am currently obsessed with.

Q) Are you also exploring themes of spirituality and mysticism in it?

A) I think it’s completely linked to spirituality and mysticism. Because I am dealing with the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious within experience. All spirituality and mysticism are also forms of internal experience.

Q) In the age of multi-media world, do you worry about the future of the novel?

A) The multi-media world allows for a different kind of novel. It is also encouraging a shorter attention span that is not conducive to the novel. In the end, the novel will pull through because I think we want stories and we need stories in order to survive.

Q) How does the process of writing transform you?

A) You are free. You are able to celebrate life. By that I mean your instinct to live though the creative act. You are free in a fundamental sense in which you have never been before. At times when you don’t have fresh ideas, it’s incredibly exhausting. And at times when your writing works and you are able to find your way it’s absolutely great.


Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.