Category Archives: Book Talk

The Chennai Lit for Life Festival

Lit for Life logoThis weekend, Chennai welcomed authors from all over India and beyond for a three day literature festival. Free and open to the public, Lit for Life was a fantastic opportunity to sit in on some fascinating conversations between authors and to celebrate a shared love for literature.

The White TigerThe festival kicked off with a chat between Aravind Adiga, Booker Prize winning author of The White Tiger, and his agent, David Godwin. Adiga shared the inspiration for The White Tiger, recalling the time he went to visit a friend in Delhi and saw the friend’s driver sitting nearby reading a magazine entitled “Murder” in Hindi. He asked the driver about the magazine and learned that it was very popular among drivers, and that it contained stories about drivers who murder their employers. In the stories, the murderous drivers are always caught; Adiga was intrigued by the idea that these tales offered some form of catharsis, and he wondered what social mechanisms prevented this type of crime from actually happening, and under what circumstances those mechanisms would fail.

HitchedEqually interesting for completely different reasons was a panel entitled “Rough Passage: The Coming of Age of the New Indian Woman.” The five female authors in discussion seemed to agree that women had come a long way in India, but they also acknowledged that their experiences differed significantly from those of many women here, who don’t often have the educational and career prospects the panelists enjoyed.

losing-my-virginity-and-other-dumb-ideasAfter the panel was over, I stopped by the festival’s book stall and picked up a few titles by these authors. Two might best be described as chick lit: Losing My Virginity and Other Mistakes by Madhuri Banerjee and What Would You Do to Save the World? by Ira Trivedi. The third, Hitched: the Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage by Nandini Krishnan, is a non-fiction book based on interviews with young Indians about arranged marriage. I haven’t cracked them open yet, but based on the panel discussion, I suspect these books will offer some interesting insights into how the “modern woman” in India views her role and her world.

Another standout panel included popular authors Ashwin Sanghi (The Krishna Key) and Ravi Subramaniam (The Bankster) and critically acclaimed author Anita Nair (Ladies’ Coupe) in an often funny and sometimes contentious discussion about the merits of self-promotion and the novel as product. The two commercial authors talked about the ways that they market their novels and engage with their readership, while Anita Nair focuses on the creative act of writing and leaves the rest to her publisher. The quick thinking moderator, Naresh Fernandes, got some of the biggest applause lines of the talk. When an audience member asked “What is the point of this discussion? Anita Nair and those two are clearly on parallel tracks and will never meet,” Fernandes replied that train tracks are also two parallel tracks that never meet, and yet they get you somewhere. When another audience member asked for advice on how to “make waves as an author,” referring to the title of the panel, Fernandes said to “write the damn thing.” Truer words.

HarvestA particular highlight of the festival was hearing Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone) chat with Jim Crace (Quarantine, Harvest) about the art of the literary novel. Their temperaments, philosophies and approaches to writing are clearly quite different, but they expressed mutual admiration and offered some insights into what constitutes a literary novel. Crace posited that a literary novel raises questions but refuses to deliver easy answers. Verghese suggested that a literary novel requires equal participation, and effort, from the reader; the author provides the words, and the reader provides the imagination.

The Bone SeasonI was also delighted to hear Samantha Shannon talk about her book The Bone Season as part of a panel on “Tall Tales: Fantastical Stories from the East and West,” along with Ashwin Singhi. I knew she was young, but wow, is she young! I finished reading her novel over the weekend. It was definitely a darkly entertaining read, the kind of world that hooks you in and leaves you feeling let down when you remember the book is over and you can’t return to it until there’s a sequel.

To a Mountain in TibetThe most powerful and affecting presentation of the festival, at least for me, was given by travel writer Colin Thubron. He spoke about the journey to Tibet that resulted in his most recent, and most personal, book, To a Mountain in Tibet. Following the death of his mother, his last living family member, Thubron felt the need to undertake a “bleak pilgramage” to Mount Kailash, a stark and isolated peak near the Himalayas that is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus. His description of this trip was exquisitely lyrical, and I immediately added his book to my to-be-read list.

This weekend was such an extraordinary treat for me as a reader and would-be writer. Although not on the same grand scale as the Jaipur Literature Festival, which I was lucky enough to attend last year, Lit for Life is a gift to the residents of Chennai, and judging by the turnout, one they clearly appreciate.

Next stop: the National Book Festival in Washington, DC in August!

Book Talk: David Szalay and Nadifa Mohamed at the British Council

Spring by David SzalayLast night I had the opportunity to attend a roundtable discussion with authors David Szalay and Nadifa Mohamed at the British Council here in Chennai. They were touring India as part of a series featuring authors from Granta’s list of best young British novelists under 40, and had already visited Ahmedabad, Pune and Mumbai.

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa MohamedAs the moderator, artist Parvathi Nayar, pointed out, the two authors are completely different in terms of background, influences and writing style. Nadifa Mohamed was born in Somalia and immigrated to the United Kingdom as a small child. Her first novel, Black Mamba Boy, is a fictionalized account of her father’s nomadic journey across multiple countries in search of his own unknown father. David Szalay, born in Canada, also moved to the U.K. when he was very young, but there the similarities end. His third novel, Spring, focuses on the relationships between a man, a woman, and her ex-husband in modern day London.

It was fascinating to hear the two of them describe how they work and what they hope to do with their writing. Mohamed’s novel originally began as a straightforward documentation of her father’s amazing experiences and evolved into a novel, resulting in a blend of fiction and biography, fact and elaboration, grounded by the reality of history. Szalay described the influence of memory and the powerful role that London plays in his fiction, while noting that he did much of his writing about the city while residing elsewhere, in Brussels and later Hungary.

Each author also did a brief reading, sharing an excerpt from their books. While my friend enjoyed the Black Mamba Boy passages the best, I was intrigued by Spring and wanted to find out what happens next. I downloaded it today, feeling simultaneously irritated by my poor impulse control and happy to support an up-and-coming author. Ultimately, happy won.

It was sobering, though, to think that here were two clearly talented, award-winning authors, one with multiple published books, and I had never previously heard of either of them. It was dismaying as a (somewhat) aspiring author myself (i.e., even if you get published you won’t necessarily be known), and it was dispiriting as a reader (because even if you read as fast as you can you will miss out on many brilliant books you never even knew existed.)

Still, I now have one of their books securely contained within my Kindle, and read it I will. I fully intend to make a new year’s resolution not to buy any physical books in 2014, because we are moving (destination as yet unknown) and my books are a significant part of our allotted shipping weight. I virtuously donated a big box of books to a charity sale and it barely made a dent. What’s worse, my subconscious, aware that this no-book-buying resolution will be kicking in soon, has been sneakily tossing books into my shopping basket while I’m looking elsewhere. How else to explain the presence of The Luminaries now leaning on the bookshelf next to a sparkling new copy of Bring Up the Bodies? At least they’re both in paperback.

I will definitely have to make an exception for any author that makes the effort to come to Chennai, though–in the future, I will buy their actual, tangible books, assuming I can find them.

Category: Book Talk