Tuesday, 6 November 2018
Today I’d like to welcome to my blog, Susmita Bhattacharya whose debut short story collection, Table Manners has just been published by Dahlia Books.
Susmita, the themes that immediately stood out in your collection were those of homesickness, longing and alienation. Were you aware of these themes when you were writing?
Thank you for having me, Jo. I started writing these stories from as far back as 2006. I had moved to the UK in the autumn of 2004 – my husband had received a scholarship to do his PhD at Cardiff university. When I first arrived, it was dark, it was cold and I didn’t know anyone in Cardiff. I enrolled in an evening creative writing course at the university, just to meet people and have something constructive to do. The pieces I wrote here were mostly filled with nostalgia and homesickness. I missed Mumbai and I wrote about my city to overcome that loss. So a few of the stories come directly from that time – Dusk Over Atlantic Wharf – which is directly a product of my missing home. I started teaching English in a language school for migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees. There I encountered another form of displacement. Sometimes, leaving home was a good thing. A safer option. Then there were the PhD students – my husband’s friends. They were all international students and they had different stories. Different life goals. Different histories. I found all of this very interesting – we all lived in the same city yet we all had different backgrounds and different futures. We all had different definitions of ‘home’. So this idea of home became a natural theme for my stories, this was what I was observing and feeling at the time. Then I progressed to other themes. I began exploring alienation in my own country. Growing up in a Christian family in India, I was in a minority group, and was often subjected to discrimination. So alienation doesn’t just come from being a different colour, or in a different country. I found that these divisions and discriminations are very much present and just as hurtful in one’s own country. Homesickness also presents itself when one has lost one’s good health to illness. Grieving for what has been lost. Longing for those days when one’s health was not a matter of concern. There are many ways to look at homesickness, loneliness and alienation, and I hoped to capture these in my stories.
The stories in Table Manners exude a warmth and immediately arouse the senses. Was this a conscious thing?
No, it wasn’t conscious at all. I suppose the subject matter naturally alluded to these elements. The themes in this collection look at relationships – with other people, places and with oneself. This exploration of family life, love and hope lend themselves naturally to the warmth and richness in the senses, I feel.
You’ve obviously been writing short stories for a long time now. Is there still an aspect to the short story form that you find difficult?
I love writing short stories and love the challenge to express something through layers of showing in very limited word count. What I find difficult sometimes is to write dialogue that fits into the social fabric that I’m writing about. I find myself in a strange place – I didn’t grow up in this country, so I don’t have that history behind me to write about even Asian subjects in this country. And I’ve been away from India for so long, I feel worried I may not be able to give the Indian protagonist an authentic voice and may resort to nostalgia. Sometimes I lack confidence in myself – questioning if I have an authentic voice. But I do work through several drafts of my more complex stories. I keep going back to them, reading them out loud to check I’m getting the nuances right. Hopefully, it works out in the end.
Your first novel, The Normal State of Mind was published in 2015. How did the experience of writing it compare to writing short stories?
I started writing The Normal State of Mind in 2006 as part of my Masters in Creative Writing dissertation. I had no idea what I was doing, or where the story would lead to. I was pregnant and in the period of writing the novel and getting it published, I had two babies, moved several times between three cities in the UK, got diagnosed with cancer and then the treatment and all the rest of it. So really, I’m not sure how I even managed to complete the book and get it published! The short stories were my constant companions as I always managed to pen something down in between writing my novel. The difference in both these processes I think was in the linearity of the writing. For the novel, it was more of a jigsaw puzzle. I wrote scenes from various parts of the timeline, and then put them together at the very end. I wrote the first chapter last. With a short story, I always begin at the beginning, and sometimes I don’t know where it will end.
One thing that came across in Table Manners is your love of food. You must be a great cook! Do you consider yourself a ‘foodie’? What is your favourite meal?
Ah yes! Food is definitely important in my life. I’m not really a foodie, nor a great cook. I do like to experiment with cooking new recipes etc and try new cuisines. I love photographing food and watching cooking shows! When I was sailing with my husband, I had the opportunity to visit many countries and try out different cuisines. It didn’t help that I had turned vegetarian for that period and so only tasted veggie dishes – that doesn’t really say much about tasting food in places like Brazil and Argentina where the main and sometimes the only food was meat! I love food cooked by my mother, and mum-in-law. They are the best cooks! And I can’t wait to visit them because they like to stuff me with all my favourites. I miss the authentic Indian home-cooked food, and so I think I like to replicate them in my writing. My favourite meal – okay, that would be plain rice, my mother-in-law’s steamed prawns (particular ones from the rivers of Kolkata, nothing can touch those in taste) in a mustard sauce. Mashed potatoes, the Bengali style. Fried fish, or a daal cooked with fish head – that is a delicacy and it’s too good to be true! Puris and potatoes. Fried fish roe, fried aubergine. My mum’s stuffed roast chicken. Rice pudding. The list goes on!
What sort of books do you normally read for pleasure and who are your favourite authors?
My favourite author has got to be Alexander McCall Smith because I just love the No.1 Ladies Detective series. I also admire his versatility in writing about so many different characters in different sbettings. I can lose myself in his stories, so yes definitely one for reading for pleasure. I also love Shashi Tharoor and Manju Kapur. Another favourite of mine is Shashi Deshpande. Chitra Banerjee, Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri. I absolutely adore John Irving. The first book I read of his- Hotel New Hampshire – I had borrowed from a photographer I was working with just after my graduation (in Mumbai). The book was signed by John Irving himself, and it turned out he was actually my boss’s friend. They had met in Mumbai when Irving was writing, Son of the Circus. It was the first time I actually held a book signed by the author, and it made the author a living, breathing human being to me. I’ll never forget that. I also love Alice Munro and the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore.
Have you ever written for or considered writing fiction for the women’s magazines? If not, why not?
I have written and submitted to women’s magazines, but I was never successful in getting any acceptances. Then I wondered if my name was a deterrent as back then I hadn’t really seen any names from diverse backgrounds nor stories about people of colour. I even considered writing under an anglicized name but then decided against it. I concluded my stories did not match the requirements of the women’s magazines and I couldn’t write about the white middle-class experience because I wasn’t one. So I just stopped and did not try again. I’ve stopped reading them as well as they did not reflect people from my background. Have they opened up for a more diverse market? Let me know!
Do you write Flash Fiction?
Yes, I do! And I love writing flash fiction. It has a completely different process, and what I love even more is this burgeoning of this genre, especially through the huge support it gets through Twitter. Writing can be a very lonely experience, but I’ve found the flash fiction writing community incredibly inclusive and fun to hang out with (online! I’ve met only a few offline).
What’s next? Another novel or another short story collection?
I’m working on another novel. Still working on it! And no, I’m not doing NanoWriMo this year even though that was what started off this current novel two years ago. Everything’s changed though in the storyline, and I can’t wait to get properly started!
Thank you, Jo, for all your interesting questions. It’s been a real pleasure to answer them, but now I’m really craving for those amazing dishes I’ve had to think about and I can’t eat them until I visit India in December!
You're welcome, Susmita! Thank you for answering my questions so comprehensively. Some fascinating answers.
Posted by Jo at 09:36