Q&A with Nila Gupta

How does a young writer such as yourself come to have the perception and inner resources necessary to create a collection so mature and complex in range and depth?

I didn’t set out to write an inter-related short story collection about war in Kashmir. I had lived in India for the first six years of my childhood and had only been back once in my early 20’s. The only time I thought about my early home was when my father received letters from our relatives in Jammu or when the “trouble” in the region made front-page news. My parents rarely talked about our time in India, either. They were busy with the usual challenges of immigration, and in my mother’s case, migration from Quebec to Ontario, the learning of new languages, the settling of four children in a new country, the racism that was endemic in the 70’s, the struggle with loneliness and feelings of dislocation. Nobody was more shocked than me that when the stories in this collection first made their way from my mind to the page, they were largely about the region.

How long a creative period did it take before this collection took definitive shape in your mind?

The title story, “The Sherpa,” started as a character description exercise in a short story class I took at a community college. My instructor suggested that I put more of myself in the story. I didn’t find myself that interesting, so I invented a fictional self for the “I” voice and the story grew from there. The second story I wrote was “Honeymoon in Kashmir,” and I almost tossed it away when a classmate suggested (erroneously!) that my writing resembled V.S. Naipaul’s. I wanted my writing to reflect my own voice, not that of an established author. It was only after I wrote another story set in Kashmir, “The Boy He Left Behind,” that I started to clue in to the fact that the region was operating as a powerful, though unconscious, muse and instead of resisting, I could choose to embrace her. It took me two years to write the stories in this collection, and another two years to polish and hone them.

There is a beautifully engaging poetic sensibility in your writing. Who are some of your favourite poets? Do they influence your work?

I fell in love with poetry after reading T. S. Eliot’s the Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock in high school. Poetry had always seemed to be such a serious and sombre affair, but Prufrock was different, a hilarious and salacious read -- a story about a man trying to get up his courage to enter a brothel. The fact that I, a young girl of colour, could in some way relate to his struggle, his indecision, showed me that poetry does not operate on the level of words or images alone, that there is something more mysterious at play. To me the best writing is writing that does not explain itself, and I think Prufrock is a poem that does not explain itself.

Eliot’s famous lines, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas…” also taught me about the power of words to create memorable images, and I have been experimenting with that same self-consciously ironical voice ever since,.

Other poets I have loved? Too many to name and I might get into trouble!

You seem to have great insight into the experiences and dilemmas of growing up between two cultures. Could you tell us a little about how you derived such insight?

When I list my occupation on my tax form, I should check off “translator”! In the 60’s and 70’s inter-racial marriage was rare. My father was an Indian foreign student when he met and married my mother, a French-Canadian philosophy student. They decided to settle in Jammu, but the war over Kashmir pushed my family from India to Montreal and then to various parts of Toronto. In each place, I spent a great deal of time trying to translate one parent to the other or the outside world to the both of them, or myself to the outside world. I certainly felt that at times I was seen as, like my character May in “Only Child,” the Frankenstein heir of a praying mantis mating with a butterfly. I can’t tell you how many times in childhood my family and I have been the victims of, at its most benign, the “double take” — I remember someone actually running into pole while turning to look at us. Thankfully, living in cosmopolitan Toronto I no longer experience this level of curiosity.

In fact, our cities have always been filled with people like me, people with stories of migrating between two or more cultures — from town to city or one country to another, from straight to gay communities, from a tightly knit religious environment to a secular urban one. We are all travellers trying to find a welcoming home somewhere.

The stories in this collection are filled with a broad range of memorable characters; did people from your own life influence the creation of these fictitious characters?

Everything and everyone influences the development of characters in my writing, but I am fascinated by people who are struggling with powerful demons, perhaps because I feel myself inhabited by ghosts, devils, and mischievous gods. Struggle is what makes one human being in one part of the world able to empathize with another human being in a totally different part of the world, a Sherpa with no scrub for her sheep and goats to eat understandable to a single mom with no money for groceries.

My characters are invented or composite characters, but if you go digging you might be able to make a claim that parts of a character resemble someone I have known or met in my life. You might even claim to find a piece of me in this collection. Would you be right in this claim? If truth is stranger than fiction, then fiction can often be much more evocative of real life. I hope that in my fictions, readers find truth and aspects of themselves in my characters, and that is what they fall in love with.

Which stories are you most ‘attached’ to? Did some feel more natural to write? Others more challenging?

I feel most attached to the first and last story and then every story in between. Though each story is discrete and can be read as a complete story on its own, if you read it again you will start to notice that there is an overall story that arcs it way through the collection. Characters in the first story might reappear in other stories, so that readers will be able to follow the life of a character past the individual story in which they first appeared. In a way, you get two books for the price of one, each story adding other layers of both mystery and meaning to the collection. I think writing in this way made it easier for me to get over my grief at leaving a character when I dotted the last period of a story, because I got to journey with them for a little while longer.

Although I love all of my characters, I have a special tenderness for outsider characters, characters such as the chemist in “The Boy He Left Behind,” who simply for being gay is shunned by his father. Or “bad” boys and girls, such as Mandir in "Honeymoon in Kashmir" who schemes not only to arrange a marriage with the daughter of the sweetshop owner next door but also to take over her business. Although I have never schemed to arrange a marriage or take over someone’s business, I certainly understand what drives Mandir — his loneliness, his ambition to correct what he perceives as a historical wrong, and his hunger for companionship. Most of all, I love characters who are not always conscious of what drives them, for example, the free-spirited but emotionally neglected Sadia who longs for the approval of her aunt in "The Mouser," and goes about getting it in all the wrong ways.

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