Book Box | Meet V.V (Sugi) Ganeshananthan, this year's Women's Prize for Fiction winner - Hindustan Times
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Book Box | Meet V.V (Sugi) Ganeshananthan, this year's Women's Prize for Fiction winner

Jun 17, 2024 06:31 PM IST

Ganeshananthan, the writer of a novel set during the Sri Lankan civil war, talks about the term ‘terrorist’, feminist reading groups and the craft of writing

Dear Reader,

V.V (Sugi) Ganeshananthan and Brotherless Night(Women’s Prize) PREMIUM
V.V (Sugi) Ganeshananthan and Brotherless Night(Women’s Prize)

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with Brotherless Night, rooting for this novel to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Which it did! In celebration, here is a conversation with author V.V (Sugi) Ganeshananthan.

It is a Friday evening for book club readers in the East: Mumbai, Manali, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Singapore, and a Friday morning for readers in the West: Canada and the US, where Sugi lives as well. She is joining us from her home office in Minneapolis, which used to be a walk-in closet. Here is where she records the Fiction Non-Fiction podcast she co-hosts. She doesn’t really write in here. The closet vibe hasn't worked for that purpose, she says.

We talk about the term ‘terrorist’, about feminist reading groups, the craft of writing and dogs, among other things. So, this is a long conversation, but I promise it will be worth your while and give you many things to think about, even if you haven’t yet read Brotherless Night and also if you have. We talk a lot about this prizewinning book, which has been my favourite read of the year so far, but no spoilers here. So, Reader, you may plunge right into these edited excerpts of our conversation.

What was your childhood reading like?

I was born in New England but moved soon after to Maryland, where I grew up. In kindergarten, I became reading buddies with a girl called Rebecca Shapiro. Her mother was a librarian, and we were often going to the library together and loaning books to each other. Afterwards, Rebecca became an editor at Random House and acquired my first novel and a lot of people were like, it's a very bad idea for close friends to work together. We were like, we'll be fine. And I think that was, in large part, because we had read so many things together.

I remember being forbidden to read Stephen King, my parents thought he would be too scary and I was too little. And of course, promptly, when they left the house, I would sneak to this Stephen King bookshelf and read it. They were right. He was terrifying, but I read all of it anyway. I would really read anything. I read all of Anne of Green Gables, but I also read the Babysitter's Club.

I grew up reading The Washington Post every day. Right after school, I would just read the whole newspaper, even things I didn't understand well, like the horse racing column. I still can't tell you what happens in horse racing! But I have a high tolerance for reading things where I don't necessarily understand everything that's going on, which has, by and large, served me usefully in terms of patience with research and things like that. So yeah, just as much as I was influenced by fiction, I think I'm influenced by newspapers and nonfiction and was engaged in that genre in a fairly intense way from a young age.

As a journalist, you're trained in writing reality, and as a fiction writer, you can take liberties with imagination. And, in Brotherless Night, you meld the two- describing events like the burning of the Jaffna library and real people like Rajani Thiranagama. Was it tough to develop a voice which brings these two antithetical impulses together?

It was tough. But I think when you're deeply interested in something, that makes it all the more doable.

The best journalism engages in questions of how people feel. The rollback of reproductive rights in the United States actually hurts people's feelings. It means that there are some individuals right now in South Dakota who want to get an abortion. And, you know, where are they going to travel to do it? How will people in a certain state treat, say, undocumented immigrants in the United States? So, I mean, all of these are things that people have feelings about and it shouldn't be exclusively the terrain of fiction to talk about. But sometimes the framework of journalism doesn’t allow for the inclusion of that material. Maybe there are space constraints, maybe an audience simply wasn't prepared for that, or maybe I wasn't thoughtful enough about putting those things in.

Tell us about your interviews – was it difficult to get people to talk about such traumatic times?

A lot of the people I spoke to were women who are not super used to being asked about their thoughts, because their opinions and feelings are not valued in the same way. And so, it was great to talk to those people who, in some cases, had a lot of pent-up thoughts and feelings about the history of the Jaffna Public Library. When the library caught fire in 1981, it was described as about 90,000 single-copy ola (palm) leaf manuscripts perishing in the fire and irreplaceable and unbelievably valuable historical artefacts destroyed. And that's true. When I was a kid and went to the public library, it was a community gathering space. In the case of the library that space was gone as well, so that was a different angle to have on it, that people weren't necessarily talking about. So that is very rich material.

Did you ever consider writing these conversations as a chronicle of interviews?

I'm sure that a Studs Terkel (kind of) book of interviews about 1980s Sri Lanka would be really interesting. But on some level, it's already happened. Books like The Broken Palmyra, and The Seasons of Trouble written by my friend Rohini Mohan, there are the UTHRJ materials (University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna) and works by several Indian journalists too. And these were some of the materials I was drawing on. And then also to draw out the people who hadn't participated in these, or who weren't as represented in the dominant narratives.

There's a certain way that fiction provides a level of anonymity, an aggregation, a thin veil. It made it more approachable for people who might have felt more tentative or scared to speak. Also, it made it more possible for me to go into the story in a way that would protect them while still making it possible to tell the actual story of what occurred. The psychological interiority too works differently. There are some places where the information wasn't available. From a work perspective doing interviews when you're going to publish them as nonfiction is ethically different. In fiction, you can contract and expand time more easily. Also frankly, fiction is just the genre that I'm more comfortable in.

Writing this compelling mix of fact and fiction in the first person leads a lot of readers to assume that you as the author were in a lot of situations you write about. Like in your first novel Love Marriage, the protagonist has an uncle who is a founding member of the Tamil Tigers and everyone assumed this was your uncle. Has that led to readers asking questions about your life?

Some people think that's a socially awkward question, so they actually won't ask it. They'll just assume. And then I'll be kind of halfway into a conversation, and I'll realise that that's what they think, and then I get to debunk it, which is fun and awkward. I don't mind saying my uncles were not founding members of the Tamil Tigers. I think there's probably a set of people who don't believe me, and that's their prerogative, I suppose.

What’s been the most intrusive question you’ve had to face?

I think that when you come from any kind of marginalised population, like whether it's being a woman or what we would call BIPOC, Indigenous or a person of colour if you come from like a colonised population if you're disabled, neuro-divergent, whatever it is if you're from a non-dominant identity, people seem to assume more frequently that your fiction is autobiographical, which is interesting because it's a little bit about like what they think the parameters of your imagination is like.

And of course, a fair amount of fiction is autobiographical, but not necessarily in the ways that people would think. And the example I like to give is, in Love Marriage, there's a cadaver scene in a Sri Lankan medical school. And people are always like, did you go to medical school? I didn't, but I remember seeing a cadaver when I was 17 in high school science class, and every cadaver I ever put in a novel is that cadaver. It's always that guy. So it is autobiographical, but it's transformed and shaped differently and put through the lens of a different perspective.

Oh yeah, medical school! Doctors are so much at the centre of things in both of your novels. I know you are a professor of creative writing, but after reading your books, I'm convinced your dad is a doctor. Can you talk a little about the kind of thinking that made you choose this profession for both novels?

Well, I don't mind saying my dad is a retired physician. When he became a doctor, a lot of immigrants from Sri Lanka went to other countries on professional visas. Canada took refugees. The United States did not. And so, a disproportionate number of Sri Lankan immigrants who came over in the 70s and early 80s would have been doctors and engineers.

Some people were medics, who were entirely trained by the Tigers. Some people had partial formal medical education and partly were trained by the Tigers. I became interested in the veneration and valorisation of physicians in the community, it's been both valuable and correct and also really problematic. Also, the ways that people in that profession have faced unique conundrums in different nationalist and conflict contexts, like the kind of field medicine that Sashi practices. I've had a lot of access to people who are willing to talk about what medical training in Sri Lanka is like, and also what it was like to practice during the war. There's also a fair amount of writing about that, and so I was also able to interview people about that and think about the interrupted education that took place in that period. I think I had someone tell me they took, maybe eight or nine years to finish medical school because it was interrupted so many times by the closing of the university or various other reasons for, like shelling, and other reasons for displacement. So how much time patience and persistence would take in comparison to regular medical school, which is, from what I understand, no piece of cake. I'm interested in doctors. I wasn't interested enough to become one, but I love talking to them. An interviewer put a question to me about the way that the work of doctors and reporters is similar, which I thought was a useful observation for me. Doctors take histories, like what is the story of the body, in a way that I take stories too.

Brotherless Night has a powerful beginning, in the first chapter about ‘the nearly invisible scar’ and ‘the boy with the Jaffna eyes’. It's just so beautifully crafted. Where did the idea for this come to you, the incident of putting eggs on burns?

I knew a person who had been burned and had eggs put on their burns. And it's interesting also because sometimes I'll see a stray reader commenting that this is completely unbelievable. And real life is frequently completely unbelievable. And so actually, sometimes, when you put it into fiction, people are like, you're really stretching the bounds of plausibility. This was a story right at the edge. I found it compelling for that reason, all of the objects in it are ordinary, like the kettle. These ordinary objects are turned in the way that trauma and field medicine turn every object that is handy to its best immediate use. It sort of foreshadows the things that they do later, and it also inverts the power dynamic (between Sashi and K).

The other scene that stood out was the book club scene - the choice of the book they were reading and also the dynamics of the group itself. It's such a gorgeous scene, and it's so powerful and resonant

It's always fun to discuss this. There are a couple of feminist book clubs in Sri Lanka that are reading Brotherless Night, and I am like they're going to talk about the scene, aren't they?

I wanted to write about really smart women. Because when I’d speak to women who are involved in kind of progressive activism and feminism, I’d find they’re all so well read. I’d ask what were you reading? And would it be believable if there were a feminist book club? And they were like, oh yeah. I asked if they’d read Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. It’s been a book a lot of scholar friends had directed me to at various points. There were a couple of different editions around that time, the author Kumari Jayawardena is now in her 90s, and she lives in Colombo. When you hear the title, there's a certain set of people who might think that sounds like a very dry text. But it's full of argument and liveliness, and it insists on a broader view than the simple view of the nation, actually putting on the page conversations that occur all the time, but are not always on the page, at least in English like that.

And because the women that I knew who were talking to me about this period of time, whether they were formally educated or not, were all incredibly smart, and also a little bit relentless, I wanted to put that in the scene. And it was really fun to write, especially because I teach at a university and it felt like the moment to represent certain kinds of classroom dynamics, like the good student, the congenial disagreer, the person who's hell-bent on participating, although they have not read the material. It's quite dark, but I think of it as one of the funnier moments, especially the part where they put the note in the book and I was like, Who among us has not passed a note in class? Maybe some of you are better behaved than me, but I certainly did it.

Tell us about your dogs Kunju and Kumo, in what ways are your dogs part of your creative process? Were they the inspiration for Henry the Dog in Brotherless Night?

I like to write on the couch, and my preferred situation while I was writing this book was to have Kunju beside me (we didn't have Kumo yet) I wrote Henry before I had a dog because I knew a lot of people in Jaffna who had dogs. But, yeah, Henry became more and more Kunju-like, I will say.

Your novel is full of books and gifts of books. These seem a counterpoint to all the tormenting violence, little beacons, that are helping people communicate, and even getting them to act

I travelled into so many texts that politicised and radicalised me in different ways. Like you read Emergency 58 and emerge from that experience, extraordinarily angry. And The Broken Palmyra.

The family in Brotherless Night are all reading, and so when they can't talk about stuff, they talk about stuff through the books. Sometimes those conversations fail, like, I'm here to hand you a book, but you're already gone, like you vanished into the shadows to sleep in the cemetery, wherever it is that you're going that I can't follow. But the thing I could hand you that you could take with you would maybe be the book.

I've had a lot of friends send me books over the period that I wrote this book. They'll send me stuff that I didn't even know I needed, and it'll appear in the mail. And I think that just, yeah, the culture of gift giving of books, is such extraordinary generosity.

You've used many Tamil words in the writing in the book.

My brain works a lot in Tamil because I grew up hearing it. It's a Tamil that transitions between English and Tamil, it's an imperfect Tamil. I can't always do simple past tense, but I can always tell you how to brush your teeth. I studied Tamil formally in classrooms in graduate school, and I will sometimes get on Zoom and read with my dad, which is fun, so I can read and write a little bit. Doing that also helped me to understand the ways that the Tamil speakers I know were translating their Tamil into English as they would say something, and then at the end of a question, ask, isn't it right? Like, it's literally illya, um, right? And as a little kid, my brother and I would sort of be like, isn't it, like, what does that even mean? But in Tamil, it makes perfect sense.

In Brotherless Night, the word chumma comes in, which is kind of like a because ness, just because, for no reason, because I wanted to. And it's an expression of weird, intimate, like yearning. And you will only know that it's chumma if you speak Tamil. If you don't speak Tamil, best wishes, you'll have to Google it or look it up or whatever. There were ways that I wanted to put in the Easter eggs of all of my inside jokes with my cousins, my parents or what have you. Like the colloquialisms, right?

The stories behind the Indian Peace Keeping Force, especially for us as readers in India, felt so shocking.

I specifically wanted to put the IPKF on the page. I grew up on stories of them committing atrocities. And then as I did research, I heard people talk about Sri Lanka as India's Vietnam. I grew up in a generation where we knew that, and were even taught that in school. And I felt it really had not been put on the page.

Were you looking at a particular audience when you were writing the book, or did you need to write it for yourself?

I think that the first audience for any writer has to just be themselves because otherwise, they'll get bored and not finish.

I remember being in India and someone casually referring to Sri Lankan Tamils as terrorists. I had recently seen a lot of displaced Sri Lankan Tamils and was so angry at this comment that I had to leave the room. I think it's a very common perception, so I wanted to address this head-on, and to give myself some space to be irritated about it.

There are some ways in which the engagement with the audience in this book is a reflection of the ways in which it sometimes felt to talk about my first book. What does the teller assume about the audience, and what does the audience assume about the teller? At the start, the early direct address in the book seems to be addressing a white, Anglophone reader, and then later on, the narrator is sort of like, Wait, am I right about that?

This is also a reflection of times that I was in an audience, and maybe there was a South Asian artist who was addressing the Anglophone audience, but not me, like I was not part of their imagined audience, and that also made me mad. So, the narrator Sashi has to criticise herself about that as well. She's like, Oh, I’m wrong, I shouldn't be assuming that this particular audience doesn’t understand what I went through, because maybe you too actually had your library burned.

Your book is so rooted in Sri Lanka and it is also so universal. At times it felt like we could be reading the story of Kashmir as well

I have several Kashmiri friends, and yes we do have lots in common. The obvious example that has come up repeatedly since October 7 is Gaza. This is a book in which civilians take the brunt of force through no particular fault of their own, and in which they live in proximity to militancy, to different kinds of nationalism and to different imperial and colonial histories.

It’s like any occupied territory. Of course, the northern and eastern provinces are part of the country of Sri Lanka, and so there's an automatic counterargument that it's not occupied territory. However, these are historically minority communities living in certain areas of the country. Like there are so many historically black neighbourhoods in every city in the United States, this country is built on enslaved African labour. And then you have these white police forces, white institutions. Occupation can take on many faces.

Are we going to see Brotherless Night on film?

Oh, goodness, I don't know, that would be fascinating and probably also a little bit challenging. There are aspects of it that would be hard to translate to the screen, but I'm crossing my fingers that someday it happens.

In other book news for the week, the very first edition of the Women’s Non-fiction Prize that has been won by the very deserving Doppelganger by Naomi Klein, more on this book soon.

For Father’s Day, here are the best and worst fathers in fiction and also five gripping sagas spotlighting fathers. And if you’d like a bookish dive into Pride month, here are some fabulous books to choose from.

Until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

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