Interview: Jeet Thayil, author, Names of the Women
What was the driving force behind Names of the Women?
I’ve been reading the Bible since my early teens, mainly as a literary text, and I’ve always wanted to write a work of fiction that would centre on that well-known story, but in a little-known way.
How did your own relationship with faith as part of a Syrian Christian family as well as your Jesuit schooling inform the text?
It left me extremely familiar with the foundational text, the Gospels. So once I knew what my novel was going to be about, I knew how to go about the research. I went to Jesuit schools in Bombay, Hong Kong and New York, and discovered they had certain things in common – most often a kind of gritty inclusivity. The Jesuits were inveterate travellers. They had itchy feet. The very last thing they wanted to do was stay home. And they depend upon a whole other kind of scholarship than the purely religious. There’s something about that kind of training when you’re young that pretty much informs the rest of your life. Faith for the Jesuits is intellect-based rather than a matter of blind devotion. They understand doubt, they’ve most likely been through it themselves, and so they encourage independent, even dangerous or radical thinking.
There is a multiplicity of perspectives offered up by your retelling of the Biblical narratives. Was that a part of your overall narrative design: to point to the malleability of orally-transmitted stories?
That was certainly part of it, which is why the same incident, for example the beheading of John the Baptist, is described in different ways in Names of the Women, depending on whose point of view you are reading, whether Herodias or Salomé or Joanna, the wife of Chuza.
Do you feel that the ossification of marginalised narratives through the lens of those in power is an ongoing method of suppression particularly in today’s digitally driven world where privileged access to certain spaces prevents true representation?
It’s always been a method of suppression and it always will be, whatever kind of world we live in, digital or analogue. The marginalized are always left out of the story because the story is usually told by majoritarian storytellers, and in the case of the New Testament, the majority was the men who came to own the Gospels. The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary should be considered equally important but they do not have the authority of the four traditional gospels. I believe this is because in the so-called apocryphal gospels the marginalized, and by this I mean women and a female way of looking, are not excluded but at the centre.
How did you go about settling on these 15 women?
I reread the New Testament looking for the women in the story, and I noticed how the book was informed by their absence, or by the appearance of a woman in cameo, even if she performs a crucial role, for example the widow who puts her two mites on Christ’s blanket, or the woman who is to be stoned for adultery. They are central to the story but they disappear in the space of a single stanza. I wanted to know more about them. What made them do what they did?
Was the structure of the novel, as it works backwards in time with most chapters ending with the names of the women they introduce, something that developed organically or was it consciously executed?
The idea of ending each chapter with the name of the woman featured in it developed about half way through, organically, but once I decided to write it that way it was entirely conscious. The backwards structure, beginning with the crucifixion and ending with the birth, was in my mind before I began.
Throughout the different narratives and Christ’s own interventions, the violence of intention and words is more visceral than the actual physical violence accompanying the crucifixion. Was that something you had wished to highlight?
In fact, I wanted not to turn away from the violence in these stories. They are violent always, bloodthirsty even, to the extent that they seem to revel in gore. I think you get a sense of that in some of the scenes in Names, in particular Christ’s disintegration on the cross and the beheading of the Baptist.
There have been other works that have aimed at reclaiming the narratives of women in Christianity and spoken of their erasure from the New Testament. How does Names of the Women set itself apart from these?
I have no idea, because I haven’t read the works you are talking about. I think you should tell me if my book sets itself apart, and if so in what way. It really isn’t my place to do that, don’t you think?
What are you working on next?
A novel that plays with the idea of fiction versus non-fiction, or autobiography versus invention, or journalism versus fantasy, or travel writing versus armchair journalism. I want to cause the bookstore owner a tiny bit of trouble. I want them to wonder where to place the book, and to eventually give up and put it up front near the cash counter, where I hope you will buy it on a calculated whim.
Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.