V.V. Ganeshananthan

 

The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC) presents its Fifth Annual Asian Literary Festival. Titled “Electric Ladyland,” the two-day event featured a series of readings, panels, and workshops at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and the New School for Social Research. Photo by Preston Merchant.

Interviewed by Seema Amin

“We must go on struggling to be human

though monsters of abstraction

police and threaten us.     

~   Robert Hayden

V.V. Ganeshananthan is a novelist, short story and non-fiction writer, as well as a journalist and poet. Her debut novel, Love Marriage (Random House, 2008), received widespread acclaim; it was named one of Washington Post World’s Best of 2008 and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and was also longlisted for the Orange Prize. Spanning the fraught margins of war, diaspora, ethnicity, identity, nation and geopolitics, her work has been distinguished as passionate, and continues to be unrelenting, lucid, and fierce. Tracing the political and personal genealogy of a Sri Lankan Tamil American girl called Yalini, whose immigrant family’s move from the US to Toronto acts as a catalyst for the unravelling of secrets, both familial and national, personal and transpersonal as Yalini grapples with an ex-militant uncle, a link to the 25 year war still raging (at the time) in Sri Lanka, Love Marriage is the seemingly innocuous title of a courageous debut novel that had its origins as a series of vignettes composed while Ganeshananthan was still a student finishing her Bachelor thesis at Harvard in 2002.  In the years between, Ganeshananthan had established herself as a journalist and non-fiction writer.

Since then, she has continued writing across genres, though themes and areas of interest, whether intellectual, personal, aesthetic or regional, certainly overlap and reinforce each other.  Formerly Vice President of SAJA (South Asian Journalists’ Association), her articles, reviews and essays have regularly appeared in The New York TimesThe Atlantic MonthlyThe Washington PostColumbia Journalism ReviewThe San Francisco ChronicleHimal Southasian, and The American Prospect, among others. Her short stories have appeared in Granta, Ploughshares and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014.  She has served on the board of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and is presently part of the graduate board of The Harvard Crimsonas well as a contributing editor for Copper Nickel. A graduate of Harvard College, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Bollinger Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she was Delbanco Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Helen Zell Writers Program at University of Michigan from 2009 to 2014 and has been teaching at University of Minnesota since 2015, with a stint as visiting assistant professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fall of 2016 as well. Earlier, she was awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, Philips Exeter Academy, Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She is a founding member of Lanka Solidarity and serves on the board of the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies.

How has your sense of place and childhood (where you grew up) and school experiences influenced your decision to pursue journalism, write novels? I know you later worked with Jamaica Kincaid in Harvard, who supervised your thesis, what was that like?


I grew up outside Washington, D.C., in Bethesda, Maryland, and my friends and I talked about politics all the time. We read the newspaper voraciously and liked to dissect things going in the White House and on Capitol Hill. It makes some sense to me now that this might have contributed to my political interests in storytelling. I always thought and was taught that life and politics were intertwined. And I saw people tell stories to gain political power, or to take it from others. 

Jamaica Kincaid was a generous editor and teacher; she used to have me read my work aloud to myself, and then she would help me edit as I was reading. Being her student was a transformative experience.

In your non-fiction, and more recently, in your poetry, you have written about the politics of grief and subtly, about a country of grief. It suggests a zone that is almost beyond language or where language does not suffice, a zone where numbers certainly do not suffice and yet are desperately craved, by the uncounted. It was only a year after your debut novel came out that the 2009 surrender of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) to government forces created its own country of grief, one where the number of dead or missing remained uncounted. You wrote poignantly in the 2011 issue of Granta on how a commitment to grieving is a commitment to truthfulness: My words must re-enact and contain not only the deaths and my grief, but also their negation.” The complexity of negotiating literary truth in a world where fact itself is a kind of fiction comes to mind. In your work, one senses the inadequacy of memory even as it attempts to witness, remember, or account for, as in your poem, Condolences (2011).  How much is the search for language a part of your motivation and vision as a writer? 

Thanks for your kind attention to my work! I appreciate the thoughtful reading. I do hope my work illuminates, humanizes, and complicates the histories it addresses. Certainly, the policing of mourning is an issue for communities and especially minority communities in Sri Lanka. I am writing for these communities—not on their behalf, I want to say, but in solidarity with them, as much as I can. I also want to remain open to any critique, and especially from them.

I have also come to realize that my desire to complicate history and binary political narratives manifests sometimes in a complication of form. You refer to “We Regret To Inform You That Your Condolences Cannot Be Accepted At This Time” as a poem; I wrote it thinking of it as a short story; others read it as an essay, although I had hoped to mark it clearly as having a fictional we. What does it mean to mark something through genre? Is it important? This is connected to claims on grief. I am interested in inverting and subverting bureaucratic and inhuman forms, I suppose, to make room for what is human and messy.

Your work has been conscious of the violence of Orwellian language, the constant barrage of tongue twisters, whether it be the language of international institutions, disaster management, tourism, terrorism or “peace” (camouflaged in nationalist or religious doublespeak). Your 2014 poem, Tongue Twisters, is an incredibly powerful example, where you look at the intersections of tourism, environmental damage and the humiliation of a surrendered population, at the complicities and immunities that render the latter invisible and more completely subjugated. As a diasporic writer, do you feel you are able to overcome the alienating effects of your positionality vis-à-vis such a population, whether it be the institutions or languages associated with that position?

The writing has to stand for itself. When people read me, hopefully they see me operating in good faith and being attentive and open. I don’t think there’s much more that I can do about that, other than to be as precise and honest as possible. I have very limited control over anything else.

I do have complicated feelings about institutions and language; for me, English is a Tamil language, and my personal English is heavily influenced by Tamil. I have also followed the politicised history of language in Sri Lanka. I have been excited to see some translations of my work floating around, and that recently prompted me to apply to my own institution, the University of Minnesota, for support to translate some writing into Sinhala and Tamil. I’d like to be in dialogue with more people. I do not write in Tamil, but I do study it, and can read a little bit. I’ll keep working on this.

Are you hopeful about forging lines of flight between binaries, and/or homogenizing tendencies in the region? Your focus on Sri Lanka and South Asia has been unwavering (you were vice president of SAJA). How has your commitment to Sri Lanka shaped or transformed your commitment to the region as a diasporic, political writer and do you feel that regional literary solidarities/networks/happenings have a significant role in overcoming homogenous identities, or do you feel they tend to superimpose power structures over the ground, replicating without allowing new forces/voices/generations to come to the surface? In other words, are these creative or reproductive?

I’m still figuring out what I think about this, but South Asia as a term has been helpful to me. It makes me feel in community with more people, and undermines majoritarian thinking in some aspects. It runs counter to many forms of nationalism, too. Of course, it’s not a problem-free term, but for me it’s a beginning. It has also brought me into conversation with writers and reading I might not otherwise have found, and which have been important to me. I have a hard time with the dominance of the nation-state as a lens for literature, perhaps because I have become somewhat transnational in my interests. And maybe that’s connected to my place in a really scattered diaspora. The Sri Lankans I love are in Sri Lanka, the United States, Canada, England, France, India, Australia, Germany, and other places, and their communities are wonderfully different from each other.

This question is somewhat connected to the previous one. It has become apparent to me that many people assume someone from a diasporic position cannot or will not extend themselves to understand those living in Lanka. While of course I don’t think my understanding can be perfect, it does seem to me that I can substantially expand it by doing certain kinds of work. I’d like to see how far I can take that. I like a good dare.

I am curious about how events have pushed your language, style and voice to come into sharper focus, or not. I see your writing crossing and cross-fertilizing between genre/s, but also worlds—one where   the “you” of the text has become less diffuse even as the “we” has come into sharper focus. For example, in the more recent writing, in the poem Regulations for your Rage ( 2014), you have quite powerfully used the poetic form ( not your “native” genre) to articulate beyond a politics of grief, to what one might call a poetics or anti-poetics of rage.  If you would discuss the journey you have travelled from Love Marriage to the present moment in these terms, or, how your writing style has morphed or not…

To be honest, I don’t think about this much, at least not consciously; I suspect doing so might prevent me from actually doing it. But I would be remiss if I did not say that I have been aided at various points by timely solicitations from editor friends, including, notably, Sanjana Hattotuwa of Groundviews, as well as the editors of Granta. And when I am working to meet deadlines of that kind, I often turn to the news—even the very recent news—for ideas. The effect of the news on my novel is probably less obvious. But in my poetry and shorter fiction it’s fairly plain.

That said, I have always written shorter work of this kind, even when I wasn’t publishing it, so what may appear to be a new interest isn’t, exactly. But Twitter and other online publications have definitely provided welcome outlets. And the real-time feel of responses gives me a different kind of energy.

To continue with Love Marriage, then, what kind of research did you have to do in order to write about a Canadian-Tamil family, especially a Canadian one?

Regarding Canada—I went there frequently as a child and loved it. I will note that although I did do research to write about Sri Lankan Tamils in Canada, the family I write about in Love Marriage is a family of Americans who travel to Canada—they are not themselves Canadian. So I felt like I was doing a reasonable job of portraying them, given a combination of what I knew from experience and what I was able to find through research. Fortunately, research *is* my comfort zone! I love doing it.

Are you envisioning a book of poetry, more fiction, something altogether new and hybrid, or are there other projects you are envisioning? I know you have continued to freelance. If this is not something you want to share now—then, which writers inform your work these days, and has it changed in this last decade?

I’m at work on a second novel, and do hope to assemble some poetry, nonfiction, and shorter fiction sometime. Though I had no idea when I was writing those things that they might comprise another book.


Seema Amin is a poet and writer, working on her MFA thesis on a hybrid novel and a collection of poetry at UBC. Her two books of verse were published by UPL (Dhaka); apart from poetry published in literary journals (Fulcrum, Cambridge, MA, and Six Seasons, Dhaka), she has published numerous articles on art, culture and politics as Senior Feature Writer of Depart, an art magazine, and as a columnist for the New Age and other dailies. She has worked in environmental and labour rights organisations, as well as taught, in Thailand, Bangladesh, Switzerland and England. Her undergraduate studies culminated with a Liberal Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York and Paris. She was born in Manitoba, grew up in Bangkok and is Bangladeshi by the ties that bind.

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