Photo: Ruvin De Silva. Courtesy of Hogarth Books.
It is no exaggeration to call Anuk Arudpragasam’s first novel absolutely devastating. The Story of a Brief Marriage depicts Dinesh, a sixteen-year-old Tamil man—and yes, at sixteen Dinesh is in many ways a man, forced into a premature adulthood—in a refugee camp toward the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. Though Arudpragasam’s second book is more removed from the bodily experience of violence as portrayed in his first, the war still hangs heavy over the scope of the new novel. A Passage North, an excerpt from which appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of this magazine, follows Krishan, a Tamil man who grew up outside of the war zone, as he makes his way north from Colombo to attend the funeral of his grandmother’s caretaker. It is an incredibly introspective work. Through the particularities of Krishan’s experience and inner life, Arudpragasam seamlessly unfurls ruminations on intimacy, trauma, and the passage of time.
The contemplative nature of A Passage North makes sense—Arudpragasam wrote the novel while studying for a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia University. While the war and its legacy are central to his work—they are “an obsession,” he says, and he looks forward to the day that he can write about something else—so, too, are the realms of literature and ideas. This came through in our lengthy conversation, which lasted nearly two hours. Arudpragasam jumps from novels to the politics of caste to philosophy to Sanskrit poetry to Tamil-language writing and back again with ease, drawing on stories, texts, and cultural history to illustrate his thinking.
There are currently about three million Sri Lankan Tamils, Arudpragasam told me, nearly half of whom live outside of the country. Arudpragasam is part of this diaspora. When we spoke over Zoom in early May, he was in Paris, where he is working on his third novel during a yearlong fellowship with the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination. At the time of our conversation, the anniversary of the end of the war—a day that Arudpragasam, along with the rest of the Tamil community, commemorates each year—was fast approaching. Although he claims to be an impatient reader and writer both, Arudpragasam strikes me as patient, generous, and, above all, thoughtful, choosing his words carefully and often taking time to cultivate an idea. What resulted was the following much-abridged conversation, in which we discuss his work, influences, and process.
What was your entry into writing fiction?
I didn’t come from a book-reading household, so my entry into books was arbitrary. It happened to be through philosophy books that I found at a bookshop close to my house. The first book I read was Plato’s Republic. Then it was Descartes’s Meditations and a book of lecture notes of Wittgenstein’s called The Blue Book. I tried to read Aristotle’s Ethics, but I stopped that after a while. I read a lot of philosophy when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, before I went to university. That was my entry into literature—I only really started reading fiction when I was in college. There was one book in particular, The Man without Qualities, by Robert Musil—he actually had a Ph.D. in philosophy. He has these long, digressive, essayistic sections in his book, which I haven’t read since I was twenty, so I don’t know how I’d feel about it now. At the time I was very moved by the way he places philosophical questioning and response in a kind of living, bodily situation. Philosophical problems arise in lived context, in response to real situations, and in philosophy, academically, you don’t really ask or answer questions in that way. But I read that book, and it showed me that there was a place in fiction and novels for a lot of what interested me about philosophy. Actually placing these things in their lived context charges philosophy in a way that simply discussing them abstractly does not. So I read that book, and I decided that I would like to write fiction, that I wanted to be the kind of person who could write a book like that.
I definitely see that in both your books, but particularly in the new one, A Passage North—Krishan’s very particular lived experience leads to these larger contemplations. Was that the intent?
Yeah, but it’s not like I thought to myself, I’m going to fill this book with philosophical discussions. It’s just what I wrote, because it’s what I’m interested in. And because I came to fiction writing in this way, there are certain aspects of novel writing that I don’t pay as much attention to, or give as much time to.
What are some aspects of novel writing that you don’t pay as much attention to?
Story. Creating a well-rounded character. Setting. Dialogue. Historical context. I try to pay attention to these things—I do try—but they’re always afterthoughts. A lot of these other things accumulate, they find their place through a process of accretion, and they’re deposited in different waves each time I go through the text. Sometimes things occur to me, and I’m like, Oh, I can just add this. I write over drafts. There’s no first draft—I have a little center here or a little center there, and then I just go over it, and each time I do, more material accumulates until I find a way to connect those islands into something. I have in my mind that the reader expects the character to be believable or the story to be interesting. I have this little voice in my head that says I need to try—but those elements of novel writing are not what I am interested in.
I had a really great professor who said first draft is intuition, second is intellect. So on your intuitive draft, those elements don’t necessarily come through, but on your intellectual rewriting, they start to come about. Why do you go back and add in those elements, if they don’t interest you?
There’s this Buddhist poet, a Sanskrit poet, from, like, the first century. I think his name is Ashvaghosha. In relation to his work, I heard this idea that poetry is supposed to be beautiful, and it’s supposed to be pleasant to hear, because of its aural qualities, and actually, in this sense, poetry is dealing with illusory matters. In a way, it’s appealing to things that distract from what for Buddhists would be the bitter truth of life. And so these poets were called upon to justify why they use poetry—which is, in a way, antithetical to the Buddhist idea that life is suffering—to convey the truth of the Buddha. And the justification that was given was that these poems about the Buddha’s life or about episodes from his life should be understood like pills, like the sugarcoating on the top of a bitter pill, that allows something to be taken in. That feels very simplistic, in some sense, but—
I don’t think so.
I know that people want to read certain things. One has unbearable reading experiences, right? I remember reading my favorite text of Robert Musil’s, a short novella called The Perfect Thing of Love. It’s forty pages, but it’s extremely dense. It’s a nightmare to read, actually—I start with this reverence, every time, and then slowly it becomes unbearable. I’ve read it a couple of times, but I’ve also failed to finish it multiple times. For somebody who I know is a wise person from whom I have something to learn, I’m willing to read an unbearable text. But we don’t live in a literary context, a literary culture, where unbearable reading, or reading that one has to struggle through, is tolerated. Have you read this book by Thomas Bernhard, Extinction?
This is another unbearable book. The outside world in Extinction is like scenery, it’s like a backdrop in the theater, where it’s so obvious that you’re not supposed to pay attention to it—it’s really just there so that what is happening in the foreground can happen. I wanted to write a book like that, one that involved sustained engagement with a single consciousness at a kind of intense level. I tried very hard, and I couldn’t do it in a way that anybody who wanted to read my writing or any friends of mine were willing to tolerate. In fact, I couldn’t do it in a way that I could tolerate. I had difficulty following this ideal, and slowly, over the course of years, the world began to seep more into the novel.
I was struck by the referential nature of this book, and the role that other texts play. Krishan finds a great deal of affective and emotional resonances in texts that are, at first glance, unrelated to the events of his life. I was wondering if that’s similar at all to your reading experience.
I think a lot through texts. I often refer to a line or a passage or a moment as a way to explain to somebody how I’m feeling or to refer to something I want to communicate. These moments expand my memory of life. They’re like faint memories that I can always use to compare to my present experience.
This insertion of other texts is so well done. The digressions always make their way around to these very cohesive moments of understanding—it said a lot to me about Krishan, and his reading life.
I’m glad you said that, that you feel they were incorporated well—this was a big struggle. Although I do feel a little bit more lukewarm about it now, I did learn a lot about incorporating other materials into my texts through this process. I was interested in the question of tradition, like literary heritage and canonicity. And as an English-language writer, I was trying to think of other canons with which I might align myself. But the truth is that reading in South Asia is a highly elite activity. Most people have historically been prevented from learning how to read, learning how to write, as part of the caste system—something that continues to this day. Our literary tradition—especially in Sanskrit—is intimately tied to the caste system, and therefore it’s not a tradition that anybody who has been oppressed by the caste system or anybody who doesn’t identify with it can easily affiliate themselves with. As I understood more—this comes from a period of time when I was trying to learn about non-Western traditions that I might lay claim to—it turned out that I don’t want to lay claim to these texts, because of the way in which they’re located in caste. If I was now interested in canonicity, it would have less to do with a South Asian canon than specifically a Tamil canon.
There’s no dialogue in this new book. Did that come about organically? Or was it a conscious craft choice from the start?
I was aware from the start that the text was not going to have dialogue. There are two things I could give you as an explanation for that. One is that the question of why I am writing in English is always there for me. Rather, I mean that the issue of my not writing in Tamil is always present, and I think that makes especially salient the absurdity of putting English words into Tamil mouths. All the conversations in A Passage North are in Tamil—except for the ones that Anjum has with Krishan, every other relationship occurs in Tamil. What I simply chose to do is no dialogue, or to report the dialogue. So one thing I could say is that I avoid doing it because I don’t want to be engaging in ventriloquism. The other reason I might give, or I might have given at some point in the past, has to do with simply not being interested in what people say to each other. I no longer believe that, though. There are moments of conversation in which people reveal themselves, and they’re often moments that have a kind of confessional quality, in which a truth is spoken. It’s not so much about a truth being spoken but about a conversation that takes place in the mode of speaking the truth. That occurs very rarely between people, and often requires different kinds of conditions, a different kind of extremity. So much of conversation is about eliding certain things, posturing in certain ways, concealing various things, manipulating another person a certain way, angling of certain kinds. And I don’t have the patience as a writer to look for the truth of a person in the silences or the gaps or the contradictions. That requires a lot of patience that, unfortunately, I don’t have.
You’re an impatient writer, you would say?
How so? Aside from not writing dialogue.
See, I read for very specific reasons—I read to know how things are, like in the way that one would read the Bible. It’s as if I view books as spaces in which only certain kinds of moods are to be inhabited. I am very petty, for example—I can be very small-minded, and I have small-minded and petty friends as well. It’s not that I avoid pettiness, or judge people for pettiness, but it’s something that I will not accept in a book. Maybe it has to do with coming from a context in which books are not readily available and when you see a book, you believe it’s something that has to be valued. And, therefore, if somebody’s an author, they cannot be lighthearted or flippant people, they cannot be petty. For whatever reason, the object of a book is very important to me, and for me it’s not a place to be lighthearted. I’m very impatient about any book I read or any book I write getting to the question of what life is like and not tarrying on more frivolous matters.
Does that make you an impatient reader or an impatient writer?
Both, I would say.
I want to ask about the notion of different worlds in your work. The idea comes up in a variety of ways—politically, with Anjum, the activist, and with the Tamil Tigers and their vision for an independent state. Intimately within the bounds of Anjum and Krishan’s relationship. Even in terms of the self, with Rani’s grief and the worlds that we create within the self to tolerate the unbearable present. And then your story in the Summer issue is called “So Many Different Worlds.”
There’s a sort of centrality in your work, this idea of different worlds. Would you say that’s true?
Yeah. Totally … Your question made me a little sad.
Because it’s true. The present is, in some way, lacking for all of these characters. There’s this absence in the present and this kind of yearning for something. One way to put this interest in other worlds is in terms of a desire to be elsewhere. Because when you talk about an interest in other worlds, you’re not talking about an interest in something specifically. We’re not talking about something we necessarily know exists out there, but rather something that is missing from where one is, something that leads one to feel that maybe somewhere else would be better, even if we don’t know what it is. This desire to be elsewhere has to do with the sense that the present moment is unsatisfying, that there’s something missing from the present—which we are always actually in, we never are able to leave it. Of course there are moments in which the present does seem sufficient, a precious few moments. When does the present seem sufficient? When you’re really tired and you get to rest. When you’re listening to music. When you are feeling joyful. But these are exceptional moments, I think, and I always wonder what would make the present more inhabitable, other than the prospect of something in the future. I mean, with Krishan—there’s this thing at the end where he’s always staying up late, because he feels that something should come.
Which Dinesh did as well, right, in The Story of a Brief Marriage?
Yeah, definitely. When I wrote that in my first novel, I was like, This is not Dinesh. Dinesh doesn’t give a fuck about staying up late—he has other problems! What I usually do when I see this kind of infelicity is that I simply delete it. But there are always certain little signatures that are not visible to anybody except me, generally. I just know that this is me putting something from my bourgeois life into the text, and it doesn’t matter because other people won’t realize it. Sometimes I might even make a historical inaccuracy—I might describe the sound of a bomb in one way, and I might learn over the course of writing subsequently that that bomb actually sounds different. I won’t make the correction, because I want there to be some kind of mark that I, in my subject position, wrote this book. These are the psychological and the class conditions that make it the case that it’s impossible to hold me to a high level of truth or accuracy. So let there be error, and let the error also be subtle enough that nobody complains when they read. This was one of those points, but I kept it, and then when I wrote this book, the same line came, and I knew that it was in the previous book as well—but I was like, Nobody is going to read these like that! And if they do, let them realize! That’s what I did—I used the exact same thing.
Dinesh’s immediate experience of war is the core of your first book, whereas in A Passage North, the story is more removed from that firsthand experience. What brought about this shift?
For Tamils, specifically Sri Lankan Tamils in my generation, the end of the war is a watershed event. It’s something that is branded into our consciousness. And many Tamils, especially young Tamils outside the war zone, obsessed over what happened. My obsession expressed itself in the form of a book. Somebody else’s obsession manifested in the form of setting themselves on fire in front of the UN building. For a lot of people, this obsession is obviously not such a healthy obsession. None of us will ever be able to forget the war, it will shape and mark us for the rest of our lives, but it has been important for me to move away from its immediacy, to move away from imagining it, from confronting this violence so directly. And this is what I try to do. I look forward to the day when I will be able to write about something else, but it wasn’t the case with my first novel, and it certainly wasn’t the case with this novel—even though I didn’t mean for A Passage North to be about the genocide. The subject came up in small moments over the course of writing an entirely different novel, almost like Freudian slips. I realized that there were so many of these kinds of slips taking place that I clearly hadn’t left the matter behind, although one thing I was very clear to do was to describe no violence in this book. I’ve been trying to move away from it, and this third book that I’m writing takes place in Toronto and New York and Paris among the diaspora, so it will be even more removed from the subject of violence.
Are you ready to say anything else about your new book yet?
I look at every novel I write as a kind of apprenticeship, and I have told myself that there are certain things or gaps in my ability that I need to fill. I have tried to make changes with regard to what we were talking about, where I describe the external world as a kind of scenery in my second novel. This has to do with having characters in a world that is active, and that is teeming and in which things are happening, and above all in which interaction between different people is occurring. In my first two novels, I had this conviction that if you want to know the truth of a person, you must see them when they are alone—that in these moments of solitude, when they’re uninterrupted from outside impositions, a person lets out their real face. Therefore, to capture the truth of a person, and their stance toward the world, you have to write about them when they are alone. In this new novel I’m writing, I’m more interested in the truth or the revelation that is made possible in the presence of others. It sees the possibility of truth in relationships, and it focuses more on the individual in communication or in communion of some kind with others, rather than with the individual in solitude.
Mira Braneck is a writer from New Jersey.
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