Anosh Irani was born and brought up in Bombay, India and moved to Vancouver in 1998. He is the author of the acclaimed novels The Cripple and His Talismans and The Song of Kahunsha, which was a finalist for CBC Radio’s Canada Reads and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, was published in thirteen countries, and was a bestseller in Canada, China, and Italy. His play Bombay Black was a Dora Award winner for Outstanding New Play. Irani was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Drama for his anthology The Bombay Plays: The Matka King & Bombay Black. His latest novel Dahanu Road was longlisted for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize. He is currently working on a film for director Irena Salina (Flow) and producer Leslie Holleran (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules).
I sat down with Irani in a bagel café to talk about books and Bombay. Over the course of an hour, we talked about what one needs to be a writer, what Bombay means to Irani, immigrant woes, and how important alcohol is in making someone a writer.
How does a story come to you?
Most stories start in the form of an image. With my first novel, The Cripple and His Talismans, it was an image of amputated limbs hanging from the ceiling in a very dark, dungeon-esque sort of place. You realize that the image doesn’t leave, and you’re compelled to explore it. When that happens, it’s both a curse and a blessing because the more you try to shake it off the deeper you end up going into it. Every story has a different starting point—some have images, some have stories that have been told to me by my family, so when I began my novel Dahanu Road, it was based on my great-grandfather digging holes in the ground on his farm to hide whiskey bottles: it was Prohibition in India at that time. So the beginnings are different, but in the end we always end up exploring character, that becomes your centre, especially in fiction.
Did you start writing because there were these images that just needed to be put on paper?
I didn’t want to become a writer till I was about 23, 24. I loved storytelling, I loved comic books, I loved film, but I hadn’t consciously thought of becoming a writer. The need to write is hard to pinpoint. I don’t go into that too much, because I feel certain things you should not analyze. It just keeps coming and keeps going, and then you reach the end of your life and then there’s no need to analyze it anymore. [laughs]
Do random people you meet end up in your books?
That’s a tricky question because sometimes you may take one characteristic of a particular person. Someone may be a prankster and you may take that one element and put it in a character, or sometimes someone says one line to you in a conversation that you think defines that person or defines that particular character, and you just go with that.
What do you need in order to write?
Not much really. For me research is very important. I don’t start writing until I’m ready. So you have to ingest every single thing that there is, and the first draft almost writes itself, because it’s just putting everything on the page to see what you’re thinking. The first draft is about discovery and trying to find out what it is that you’re writing about. If you ask me what I really need, I really need time to do the research and be ready. You have to reach a boiling point, and then start writing. If you write too soon, you run out of steam, at least I run out of steam mid-way so I know I have not done enough research.
How do you know when a book is finished?
You always start a book with some vision of what you want to accomplish, and the end result always falls short of that, no matter what it is. But if you come close or if the writing takes you by surprise, then I know it’s ready. Sometimes I’ll reach the end of a novel, and that ending takes me by surprise, and that’s the time I leave that story. Of course you have to pay attention to craft and consistency and all of that; that’s different. But I don’t leave the story until the main character has depth.
So where are you in your books?
I don’t like writing about myself but I think that as a writer I’m present in the themes that I’m exploring. So if it’s forgiveness, if it’s betrayal, what I’ve realized is that I’m interested in exploring these parts of human beings, That’s where I’m present.
What drives you to write?
You don’t choose writing. It’s in your blood. You write out of a state of uneasiness. I wouldn’t call it anxiety, because that’s something different, but there’s a disturbance within you that makes you want to explore human nature or the world that you’re living in and it’s that internal unrest and of course just the need to tell stories. I love storytelling, I’ve grown up loving storytellers, so it’s a combination of both.
How conducive is Bombay to writing?
Bombay is essential because it’s almost like a treasure chest for stories. Bombay in a way tells me what I want to write next but I don’t think it gives me the canvas. Canada is the canvas, Bombay is the muse. Both places are essential for me.
What brought you to Canada?
Studying creative writing. I needed some sort of formal training. All I had was a desire to write, I had no clue how to go about it. And I needed to create a completely different space to be able to read, to reflect, to write, to see whether I could do it or not. I could not do that in Bombay, I had too much of a life there, it was too full, too chaotic, so I had to get away. You can’t write when things are too safe, you need to be on the edge of something. And I’m not someone who ever did drugs. I find alcohol and drugs very boring, it’s pointless for me. You need a good imagination, you need to be a good observer of your surroundings, of place, of human beings and you need to understand human nature. You need life experience. These are things you need—alcohol and drugs don’t fit into it anywhere. In fact the saner your mind is, the calmer your mind is, the more depth you will find in the writing.
So the edge is the fact that you’re going into the unknown. That is the scary part. You have to dive into the unknown in order to come out with something worthwhile, at least a perspective that is fresh or new or disturbing.
Why come halfway around the world to Canada for the unknown?
New York was too expensive. [laughs]
There was something about coming to Canada that was important to me. I didn’t know much about Canada but there are certain decisions you make in your life that are instinct, intuition basically. They’re not logical, you may not be able to explain why you made those choices, but there was a feeling that I had to come to Canada and I think I made the right choice about being here.
Did you have any immigrant woes when you first came here? What did that look like?
There’s a constant sense of loss, and you can’t understand what it is. Now I know that I kept looking at, for example, the life I could have had there. You always second guess, “Did I make the right move?” You don’t have a sense of home anymore, you feel uprooted, isolated, lonely, no money, but all of that makes you find some sort of rooting through the work. You earth yourself through the work. That’s what I was saying earlier, you find home through the work, because it’s definitely not present in the landscape for me, and I don’t think I’m ever going to find it in the landscape either and I’m okay with that. But there is a fierce need to find home when you’ve catapulted yourself so far away from home, so you find it through your work.
Did you ever feel like “Man, I just want to pack my bags up and go back home”?
Every alternate day. But that’s when you pick your pen up and that’s when you write and you realize that this is my purpose, not just for coming here, but existing. And when you find a purpose, everything else comes second. You can manage the stuff that displaces you.
There are many other South Asian writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni who write about their own immigration experiences by fictionalizing them. Why has that not been something you’ve adapted into your work?
It hasn’t interested me. Because my woes don’t interest me to that extent, and I don’t think they will interest anybody else. Again, will I ever write an immigrant story? Sure, if you think about it, Dahanu Road is an immigrant story because the grandfather came from Iran to Bombay and then settled in Dahanu and it’s about how the Zoroastrians were chased out of Iran by the Muslims, but… otherwise it just doesn’t interest me. Maybe I’ll write a short story. Or perhaps, years from now, a memoir about my move here.
Who most influences or inspires your writing style?
The style I would like to say is my own. But I do get inspired by a lot of writers, whether they are playwrights, novelists, poets. There are certain books that I read in my early twenties that definitely had an impact: The Stranger by Camus, Hunger by Hamsun, Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski, Lolita, A Fine Balance, these were books that had an impact.
As writers, you have to keep reading and finding your own inspiration, and that’s something I don’t think enough young people are doing right now because we live in an age of television—somewhere that mad love affair with books is not as passionate as it should be for people who want to write.
Stephen King once said, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader.” Your books are sometimes quite visceral and grisly. Do you want to terrorize the reader too?
Stephen King writes in that genre so I understand what he’s saying. I wouldn’t use terror as the correct word for me but, yes, I understand. You try to just find the truth in a story. Tennessee Williams, one of my favourite playwrights, said “The truth is shocking.” You don’t try to shock people, you don’t want to, you just go for the truth and the truth is shocking. You keep digging and digging, trying to find that one insight into that world that will bring about some shift in people, and some level of consciousness. I’m not talking about changing people because I have no interest in that but I think as a writer the work needs to make someone uneasy. It needs to create some sort of conflict or disturbance so that person goes and starts searching on his or her own.
I’ve noticed that your work looks a lot at race relations and inequality. You also just said that you see a lot of yourself in the themes of your work. So what makes you want to explore these themes of inequality and race time and again?
Bombay is a city of huge contradictions and inequalities, right? It’s in your face every single day and I experienced that when I was a kid. I became aware of it very quickly because I had a privileged life. We were never rich, but privilege doesn’t only mean money, it means a certain level of safety, the ability to retain your innocence as a child—that is also privilege.
I remember, my mum and dad and I were travelling by car in Bombay and there was this little kid who was selling books at traffic lights. This was in the ‘80s, when it was very rare for kids to do that, and my dad told the kid to get into the backseat with me and he would drop him at the next traffic light. I was suddenly very aware that this kid was sitting in the backseat with me. When he was looking through the window it hadn’t made much impact but when suddenly he was sitting next to me, I became very aware of him and I realized something. Of course now I can look back and see what I realized, but I was very young. So I’ve been aware of these things from a very young age, and what you take in in childhood, you end up exploring much later.
While we’re growing up, from the books we read to the movies we watch, be it the Bible or Harry Potter, most materials perpetuate the dichotomy of good versus evil. Your books combine that in one person or individuals’ lives where it becomes very complicated and that duality is always present. Why do you choose to use that as a theme?
Every human being has a dark side. And even the most corrupt or horrifying individuals who commit the most corrupt or horrifying acts, somewhere I like to think that there’s just a small spark of good within them. Sometimes it’s impossible to believe that, and the evidence is obviously suggesting that there is nothing good about them, but in fiction you want to have that complexity. You want that in a novel.
Have you ever received flak from other Parsis about how you represent them in the books, especially Dahanu Road, where you painted a very grisly image of the zamindars [landowners]?
Of course, but that’s part of the joy of writing. The truth does upset people, because if you’ve not written anything truthful, everyone will be happy with your book. [In order to deal with the backlash] you don’t engage with it for too long. You just say “Okay, if you feel so passionately that what I’ve done is so wrong, write your own book”.
And at the same time the support you get from so many people for telling that story inspires you to continue.
How do your books do so well with readers who are white, and have only watched Slumdog Millionaire and don’t really have a personal connection to a story about a boy in Bombay during the ’93 riots?
Because readers are intelligent. If you write for a reader who is not intelligent your book will reach that reader. If you have a desire to find the truth, then there are enough readers out there who want the truth. They want to discover something no matter how much it displaces or disturbs them. They’re willing to go on that journey with you. There are very few of them unfortunately but they are there. It also depends on what you want out of your work. Honestly if I knew how to write a commercial novel I would. I just don’t know how, so I do the only thing that I know.
Do you feel that you’re obliged to talk about and create a Bombay that may be in your readers’ minds or a colonial Bombay?
No, because I don’t think they have a Bombay in their minds, and if they do, it’s at a very basic level. I actually never think of a reader when I’m writing. Even when I write a play or a novel, I don’t think of the reader or audience at all. They only come in much later during later drafts, for one reason only—clarity; how much is being covered or hidden, how much do I need to reveal to them. Even that is a balance, because if it’s too clear there’s no point. You want the reader to wrestle with a story, that’s the whole point of literary fiction. You want the reader to engage and struggle a little bit, not too much because they might give up, so there’s a balance there.
How important is depression and rejection in the making of a writer?
You have to be able to handle both. Depression as a genetic thing is something different, but I’m saying from a writer’s point of view, they go hand in hand. You may get great critical success but not enough financial success and that may lead to some sort of depression. You may feel your work deserves more recognition than you have actually received, and that gives you some sort of anxiety. Tennessee Williams called them the “blue devils,” but in his case it was also his family life, it was genetic. But writers at every level have to be able to handle rejection. It is part of our job. We also have to understand that even after many many years of writing, we may not achieve the level of success that we had hoped. So people my age in other professions may be making tons of money, but I may not. I have to be okay with that, so that’s tough.
So how do you deal with that?
You just keep writing, that’s what you do. You think about it, you talk about it to people that you trust, but in the end, you just have to keep moving. You just keep writing.
What’s your most favourite word?
A: Absurd. I like what it means, it’s this gap between what you think will happen and what actually happens, a huge gap which the human mind cannot understand. It suddenly becomes absurd.
Can writing well be taught?
You can’t teach anyone how to write, but you can train someone. So for example, Mike Tyson had a trainer who taught him how to box—he was this raw kid with immense power and skill but he needed someone experienced to channel that, he needed someone to guide him, so you need a guide. Which is why I also teach creative writing, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Can you teach someone how to write? No way. You either have the talent or you don’t, but as a teacher you expose your students to novels that have inspired you, to things that you’ve learned on your own that have not been taught to you in a creative writing course. That’s what you to bring to a class. You just share stories, you share experiences, and in some small way you end up shining a light through that forest that is literature. If they pick something up, if that lights something up for them, it helps.
Abeer Yusuf is not a cool person, though that’s desperately what she wants to be. From everywhere and nowhere, she attaches herself to a third culture identity—you can watch her talk about it at TED here. She likes books, balloons and sounding smart in real life. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Journalism with a focus on social justice and identity. One day she will be well-loved by everybody and have a dog. Follow her on Twitter @aboutabeer.