I like to slip into a story, when I read it. I want the edges to be blurry and smooth, the ones between the physical world and the one in ink, so that transition between the two is effortless, uncontrived. Of course, you can’t generalise a purpose for something like reading. Why do we do it? Why do we let our fingers trail through the spines of crisp, hungry books kneeling on their shelves and decide to free them, one at a time, into the world of our minds? At a guess, I think, it’s because we seek escape in literature – a momentary excursus from the immediateness and mundaneness of our own lives. I’ve always tried to deconstruct this, the facility of good writing to allow this kind of escape.
Heard, but not seen
As I say, a good story is one that offers an escape. But it’s not escape if the story resists your inhabiting it, if you can’t slip into it, if the edges are rough-hewn and you feel the contours between the real world and the fictional. Simply put, for me, a good story is one that you forget is a story, made up by a faceless person somewhere out there, who presumed to bring a series of events and a congress of characters together, using one clean, white sentence after the other. If you remember this about a story as you read it, chances are very low that you will become immersed in it. The moment you are reminded that it is all a contraption, a contrivance, is the moment you resist the immersion.
As a writer, this thought has proved instructive for me: I mustn’t make my presence felt, as the creator, in something I’ve written. I must be heard, but remain disembodied and unnoticed. Because my presence in the story is the ultimate reminder of what a contraption the story is. The story must not, therefore, be narrated. We mustn’t tell it, word for word, event by event, reason by reason … I’ve always seen the omniscient, third-person narrator as the big elephant in the novel that nobody knows anything about. The voice of someone who insists on, not only telling a story, but also dictating it, as a know-it-all. But if you ask it a name, it has no answer to give. In this sense, the omniscient voice is an intruder: it has no place in the story, it has no right to be there.
As someone writing in Sri Lanka, it is all the more easy to become this insistent, presumptuous narrator: it is easy because there’s so much you instinctively try to explain of this country that only very few people have been to, that only its inhabitants know and understand intimately.
I’ve found it curious, this compulsion to be a tour guide, explaining even the most banal things, when you’re writing from Sri Lanka. Chimamanda Adichie, in what is now a celebrated speech titled The Danger of the Single Story, talks about the effect of growing up with foreign literature: how you miss the possibility of existing in literature as ‘native’, how the world most familiar to you is unfamiliar in the world of the written. For her, until she learned otherwise, this initially meant that only blue-eyed, white children who ate apples could exist in literature. I would, for myself, add something more here: as a starting point, just like the characters have always to be foreign, so do the readers. In other words, not only do we hesitate to believe that we can exist in literature, but even when we do, we are infinitely aware of our foreignness. It’s as if we’re interlopers, we’re surprised to find ourselves in this new dimension, self-conscious of sharing the space with others who have always been here. And the constant explanation is as if, with it, we are trying to negotiate away our queerness, trying to transform ‘foreign’ into ‘understandable’ and, in that, even ‘interesting’.
A Sri Lankan novel I read recently, attempts at one point an explanation of the most commonly known ironies of the Sri Lankan practice of match-making – it was listless reading, seeing common knowledge trying to assume the guise of literary curio. Of course, to someone unfamiliar with the issue, it probably was exactly that: a literary curio. But, to me (and perhaps any other Sri Lankan reader), it was alienating to read those pages. I felt resisted – it was difficult to inhabit a story that didn’t seem to have anticipated my reading it; as if the story wasn’t written for me, to begin with; as if I was only there by chance, an uninvited (but tolerated) guest at someone else’s party.
I don’t mean to be judgmental, here. Or acrimonious. I am trying to discover, by speaking them out loud, whether these thoughts about writing and literature would resonate with anyone else. For me, these thoughts provide guidance. Especially since this foreignness is ingrained and automatic even in my own writing. For instance, nobody taught me to italicise words like machan and pol sambol – but I did, when I first wrote Sarong Man. And, when I noticed it, I was confused. Why? Did I think that, if I didn’t mark them as emphatically extraneous to the common language, some readers would be confused? That they would riffle through English dictionaries looking for these words they’ve never heard of?
Yet, there’s an even greater danger in attempting these explanations of the ‘foreign’. Literary worlds, as miscellaneous as they are, are also complex and intriguing. An explanation of one, although possibly sufficient to a newcomer, might be uncomfortably (and even offensively) reductionist for someone already intimately familiar with it. This is also true when we fall into the trap of exoticism. One Sri Lankan novel I read recently constantly resorted to the smell of spices: a gruelling evocation of chilli, curry, saffron, cinnamon. It felt tedious. Feeble, even. Reductionist in the way that most Ministry of Tourism advertisements feel.
I follow this rule of thumb: writing a story must feel like talking about the inside of your house. You don’t dig deep when you do it with a stranger; you just show them around, and you have to spend a lot of effort showing them the most uninteresting things: where the bathroom is, how to get upstairs, where you keep the crockery. Conversely, if you are in a discussion about the inside of your house with someone who is as intimate with it as you are, someone with whom you share it, for instance, you talk about the nicks on the walls, the scars on the furniture, the different feelings that each room engulfs you with when you walk into them. Someone who knows the house already knows the stories and histories indicated by these things. And, so, the conversations about them become more intimate. They can only yield something fresh, rarely something banal.
Of course, I don’t suppose an explanation is a terrible sin – especially if, even through oversimplification, we make our writing more accessible to more people. It’s easy to assume that these explanations are given only for the benefit of the white, blue-eyed, apple-eating reader. But literature, today more than ever before, is truly international – we can reach many more unseen corners of Asia, Africa, Oceania and the rest of the world than was once thought possible. And this reading world is riotously multicultural; maybe their reading material should be, too. Still, going with the analogy of the house-dwellers, I am inclined to think that someone new to the house would learn something infinitely more interesting if she were to overhear the deep-digging conversations between the people already living in the house. If nothing else, those overheard words would at least be more interesting compared to the direct, simplified information she would have received directly.
I might be contradicting myself, here. Because I criticise the possibility of alienating our readers, yet I propose that a majority of those who read our work (assuming we manage to find ourselves before an international audience) can justifiably be treated as strangers, as people “new to the house”. My only answer is that I would rather assume the reader’s familiarity with the milieu in which I write than assume their unfamiliarity with it: since doing so would allow me closer to the depth I’ve tried to describe above as essential to good writing. Besides, it should be less jarring to find yourself a foreigner in an unfamiliar place than to find yourself an uninvited stranger in a place you call home.
In conclusion, a disclaimer: I don’t suggest that we should never provide explanations in our stories. There would be little left of the stories we usually tell if we removed all the explanations we found in them. Particularly because not all explanations in literature, not all narrations even, appear as such overtly. This is exactly the point: become less obviously present as the writer; make the narrative only subtly a narration; make the explanation only incidentally an explanation.
Still on the disclaimer, I am also not suggesting that the above is the only way to write a good story. Going with the exact opposite of what I suggest could also yield a truly riveting read. ‘Foreignness’ as an element could be beautiful and awe-inspiring, especially if the house-dwellers decided to abandon this intimately familiar house and explored a new, unknown place together. What would their conversations be? How would they make new discoveries? How would they describe new discoveries? And what would these descriptions reveal about them, as characters, as people?
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