Interview, David Davidar, publisher Aleph, editor, A Case of Indian Marvels - “These stories will stand the test of time.”

Published on Oct 07, 2022 05:07 PM IST

In your introduction, you mention that the sole criterion for including stories was “literary excellence”

David Davidar (Rachna Singh)
David Davidar (Rachna Singh)
ByChintan Girish Modi

In your introduction, you mention that the sole criterion for including stories was “literary excellence”. What are the key components of literary excellence?

At the very minimum, for a story to be included, the writing needed to be excellent; stylistically, all these stories are superb. I was also looking for originality, vivid characterisation, and arresting insights into whatever theme the writer of the story was tackling. Readability was a crucial factor. I personally prefer stories that are political in nature, so there are quite a few of them in the book because we are a deeply dysfunctional society. There’s a lot of material for talented, politically aware writers to explore. I am not referring here to fiction that deals with electoral politics alone but that which delves into the politics of a variety of issues and subjects. Finally, there is most certainly a subjective element to this selection. These are the stories I deemed worthy of inclusion in the anthology. Some other editor might have chosen differently.

What struck you about these millennial and Gen-Z writers in terms of subject and style?

The writing throughout the book is outstanding but I would expect that from any writer I publish not just writers belonging to these generations. However, in terms of subject matter, I was pleased to see that many of these writers were freer than many authors belonging to generations that preceded them in the way that they tackled subjects like sex, sexuality, LGBTQ concerns, and so on. There were quite a few stories, especially on the longlist, that dealt with dystopian, futuristic scenarios, which I came across less frequently in the work of earlier generations. It was good to find that a significant proportion of the stories were not limited to the major metros.

408pp, ₹999; Aleph
408pp, ₹999; Aleph

What kind of target audience did you have in mind while putting together this book?

What was most stimulating about putting together an anthology of this kind was that it had never been done before, to my knowledge; it was why I decided to do it in the first place. As the book began to take shape, and all these brilliant stories came together, it was exciting to have a panoramic view of a brand new literary landscape. No fan of literature is immune to the thrill of discovering fresh, original voices, and that’s what I hope every reader will get from the book. I remember feeling a similar sort of excitement many years ago when one of our literary icons, Adil Jussawalla, put together a pioneering anthology devoted to new writing in India. It was an eye-opener if ever there was one to me as a reader. This book is aimed squarely at the general reader of literary fiction. I hope it will find favour with a wide readership. The stories are certainly good enough to satisfy the most discerning literary enthusiast. It would be a bonus if it were taught in literature courses or recommended to students.

Which of these stories would you be most excited to see as a short film or web series?

Hard to tell. However, as there are so many genres that are now being explored on OTT platforms and the like, many of these stories would work nicely as a limited series or as short films. I do hope scouts and producers and directors pick up this anthology. There is a wealth of riches to be discovered here.

Most of these stories have been published in literary magazines, journals or anthologies. What made you use these stories instead of putting out a call for fresh submissions or commissioning new work?

It was a very deliberate decision to go with previously published stories. The basic premise of the anthology was that it would be a selection of the best stories by the very best writers to be found of the millennial generation and Generation Z. To my mind, if a story had been selected for publication by an experienced editor – whether of an anthology, online journal, or magazine – or won a credible literary prize, it already had a certain worth. A second filter was applied by the various people who recommended stories for the longlist. The third test was my own final selection, in which stories on the longlist were whittled down to the final 40 that made the cut. Purely in terms of excellence, I would therefore like to think that these stories have been triple distilled like a fine Goan feni or high-end Irish whisky. They were then further revised. Editorial suggestions were made to many of the writers, so they could be polished to a high gloss finish. The result is a bunch of outstanding stories. I don’t think we would have necessarily received many works of this quality if we had simply commissioned a new bunch of stories. These stories will stand the test of time. Many of them have already done so.

The critical reception of anthologies is often shaped by concerns about representation. Did you make an effort to look for stories by Dalit, Muslim, Adivasi, LGBTQ, disabled and neurodivergent writers, and writers from minority religions?

I absolutely did not go about selecting these stories on the basis of any sort of quota system. My underlying and overarching concerns were one and the same: literary excellence. This is a book that is meant to showcase exceptional writing. It is not a political statement.

You write about “the disproportionate amount of attention and resources” given to Indian writing in English. As a publisher and editor, what are you doing to change this?

Wherever I have worked, I have tried to devote a certain percentage of the publishing programme to translations. Aleph is a medium-sized firm, publishing about 50 books a year. Of the fiction we publish, at least a third is translated from the various Indian languages, so we are doing our bit.

Can translation from other languages into English be seen as a form of reparation?

I’m not sure that the average Indian publisher in English is seeking to make reparation for some perceived past injustice done to writers in other Indian languages who haven’t been translated into English. If anyone needs to be doing that sort of thing surely it should be a cultural agency of the government! I think more translations are being published today because most major publishers are discovering that there is remarkable fiction being written in many languages which could appeal to readers if it travels well and is translated well.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist and educator who tweets @chintanwriting

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