The Power of Narrative: An Interview with Abha Iyengar

Abha IyengarAbha Iyengar is an award-winning, internationally published poet, author, essayist and British-Council-certified creative-writing mentor.

Her books include “Yearnings,” “Shrayan,” “Flash Bites,” “Many Fish to Fry,” and “The Gourd Seller and Other Stories.” She has co-edited an anthology of 33 short stories, titled ‘The Other’ (Storymirror, India, 2018). Her work has also appeared in Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, Cha-An Asian Literary Journal, Arabesques Review, Litro India and others.

Her story “The High Stool” was nominated for the Story South Million Writers Award. She is a Kota Press Poetry Anthology contest winner, was featured Poet at Poetry with Prakriti, 2010, and received the Lavanya Sankaran Writing Fellowship for 2009-2010. She was a finalist at Flash Mob 2013, an international event. Her short story “The Marshlands” was shortlisted in the DNA-Out of Print contest 2016, and her story “A Different Kind of Burning” was shortlisted for the Strands International Short Story Competition 2017. Her short stories are selected to appear in ‘The Best Asian Speculative Fiction’ and the ‘Best Asian Crime Fiction’ anthologies. Her poem-film, “Parwaaz” (Flight), won a Special Jury prize in Patras, Greece.
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Jordan Hartt: You’ve traveled all over the world, in a number of different capacities–as a writer, as an educator, as a social activist. Thinking also of your poem “Strange Lands,” in which the narrator in the poem talks about that which is similar across borders, and that which is “strange,” what are your overall thoughts on the state of contemporary literatures, globally? What do you see contemporary writers as doing well? What are we not writing about that we should be? 

Abha Iyengar: We often find friends in strangers who understand us, and it may happen that we fail to find meaning in accepted relationships. What is similar across borders and in any inter-personal relationships is that we want to be treated with respect, love and understanding.

We are getting increasingly polarized. Instead of coming together and creating understanding, we wish to retain what belongs to us (did it ever belong to us?) and keep everyone else out. Most recently, if you see the Rohingya crisis, it has been created because of a wish to keep a country for a particular people alone, it is a form of ethnic cleansing. How can we then claim today’s world to be any different from the days of fascism? When Margaret Atwood writes of a dystopian world in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, that kind of future world does not seem impossible. We are regressing in many ways. We are advancing technologically but the social fabric is being torn. There is an underlying hatred, and loneliness in a globalized world.

We are creating devastation in other ways, and we are not writing about it enough, the denuding of our forests, the killing of our wild, the plastic invasion of our world. How many children go out to embrace nature today? What is available to them in the form of parks and playgrounds in the urban jungles we have created? Our children are either studying or playing games on the laptop.

Again, there is so much that has to be done for women and those of us who are marginalized due to our gender, sexual orientation, colour, race or economic background.

As writers we must show the state of the world, and through our writing bring about awareness and change. The state of the world can be disheartening, but we have to work to preserve its beauty and the beauty of us as human beings. Contemporary writers are dealing with these issues and exposing the dirty underbelly of what seems to be perfect on top, but we need to do it more. Clinging to old ways of life is not possible, but the new ways must be liberal, authentic and healthy.

JH: Among contemporary writers you mention as doing good work include Khalid Hosseini and Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz. What is it about these writers that attracts you? What kinds of essential work are they doing? 

AI: Khalid Hosseini’s novel, ‘The Kite Runner’, throws light on Afghanistan and how the Taliban did immense and irreparable harm politically, culturally and socially through the reign of terror it unleashed on the people. And within that framework is the effect this changing, unhealthy climate has on a particular family, told through Amir, the protagonist. What really drew me in was the friendship between the two boys Amir and Hassan and how it plays itself out in the novel. It tells us what character is and that birth has really nothing to do with it. It is about growing up and about betrayal and disillusionment. The novel also reveals what it is to be a refugee. Amir’s father who is a respected member of the Afghan community finds himself an unwelcome nonentity in America, and has to come to terms with this. I feel I could relate a great deal with what Hosseini writes about because Indian society is quite like Afghan society, with its patriarchal mindset, ideas of family honour and the caste and class-consciousness that plays itself out in subtle ways. Regarding his style, if you read his work, there is a cinematic quality to his writing, so that the scenes appear before one’s eyes. Many readers say that my stories have a visual quality and I want that, I want to have that present in my work.

I love writing and reading flash fiction and the brevity and exactness of expression it calls for. Gwendolyn writes short stories and very short stories, managing to pack a punch in a fistful of words. Her stories focus on family and relationships; often adult-child relationships. Several of her stories bring out how the family imposes itself on the vulnerabilities of a woman or a child. She also talks of poverty and how it destroys; of compromise and survival. Her stories are full of heartbreak and very real. Her writing is nuanced and you only get hints of the menace that lies underneath the lives her protagonists lead. Flash is ‘deceptively complex’ and she writes it well.

JH: Moving a little more historically, will you talk a little bit about the work of Munshi Premchand and Pearl S. Buck, and how it has influenced your work? 

AI: The novels and short stories of Munshi Premchand deal with basic human nature, exposing its weakness and also its resilience. His writings focused on the village. He exposed the plight of the poor farmers at the mercy of rich landlords and moneylenders. The farmers would get entrenched in debts that would hold them to slavery for generations to come. Of all his short stories, the one I have loved since childhood is ‘Panch Parmeshwar’ (when the arbitrator represents God) of two friends Jumman Sheik and Algu Chaudhary. When Jumman’s aunt asks the village assembly for justice against her nephew Jumman, who has forcibly taken her land and mistreats her, Algu, a member of the village assembly, finds himself in a fix. His final decision is a revelation. Premchand’s stories are very simply written, yet they can move you to tears.

In Pearl S. Buck’s ‘The Good Earth’ I was overcome by her understanding of rural China of the 1900’s, the poverty and peasant life. Pearl S. Buck also shows us how the woman, O-Lan suffers discrimination and repression. Despite it, she is the family’s backbone, finding solutions for the problems it faces time and again.

These authors deal with a time and place I do not inhabit but am transported to through their storytelling. Their writing has withstood the test of time, being relevant even today. The language is simple and easily understood, highlighting the complexities of human nature. That is the power of their writing.

JH: In your poem “A Woman’s Cry,” you have the great lines in which the narrator states,  “…you are making the world a saner place/for the daughters that follow.” This poem is deeply meaningful to me not least because as the parent of a four-year-old daughter, I’m constantly asking what kind of world I’m working to leave her with. Will you talk a little bit about the art, and the world, that we hand from generation to generation?  

AI: The world we live in and we hand down from generation to generation changes. My experiences as a child, adolescent and a grown woman are very different from that of my mother’s or my daughter’s. My mother married the day she turned 18 (my father, older by 13 years, waited for her to attain the legal age of marriage, for she was below that age when he chose her as his bride-to-be). I was married at 21, for my father believed there is a certain age for girls to get married, despite the modern education and upbringing I received. My daughter is 30, and her focus is on her career as a journalist. Marriage will happen when she decides. My maternal grandmother never stepped out of the home after marriage, while my daughter travels alone or with friends all over the world. So society has changed. Yet, even today, the choking grip of patriarchy is very strong everywhere. It is to do with education and upbringing, what are we teaching our children? What are our children seeing and reading and understanding?

One of the ways for us women to gain empowerment and create a ‘saner’ world for ourselves, and our daughters, is by speaking up and sharing with the world through art and writing. My poem, ‘A Woman’s Cry’ reinforces this.

JH: You write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, winning awards in all genres. You also write about love, about health, about sexuality, about spirituality. How do you move across genre and format? How do you know what kind of form a particular work of art wants to take?

AI: Poetry is spontaneous for me. It comes unannounced. My poems appear out of the blue for me and if I don’t catch them, I never get those words back, not the way they sounded and felt when I first heard them in my head. So I have to immediately write them down. Poetry is magical for it immediately stirs your emotions. When we talk of all the areas I cover, it is because they have to do with writing and expression and I delight in exploring unknown turfs. I began as a poet, then went on to write short stories, creative non-fiction, articles and essays, flash fiction, and speculative fiction. It is a fact that each genre and format has a different requirement and method to it, but luckily for me, it has always been worth the experiment and the struggle. Films, plays, editing, whatever comes along, I give it a shot.

I always know what particular form the work of art will be because I often work with themes and prompts. I write articles and essays on my experiences, on issues that nag me that I feel require a hearing, or areas of contemporary debate. Apart from that, ideas are all over the place, someone I see, something I hear, a setting I want to use. Sometimes, it is a half-dream that I flesh out. I have a very fertile and imaginative mind and I have learnt to appreciate this. I am thankful to the Universe for my creative spirit.

JH: You have an honours degree in economics, you worked as an interior designer before turning to writing full-time, and you’ve written scholarly articles on population, on urban development, on security, and on ecology. How did you originally turn to writing? Is it something that you always wanted to do, or did it come later? What has your writing journey been like? 

AI: I love language and the expression of it. I have been a voracious reader. There was always a desire within me to express myself through words and be recognized for it, but I ignored the feeling. I had filed it away in my subconscious while I pursued more socially acceptable degrees like Economics. The Internet is responsible for the emergence of my writer-hood. You can be a star but you can only shine if the night sky is there for you. With the coming of the Internet I began to explore online submissions. I sent out a few submissions to magazines/contests outside India, (non-fiction, poetry, and fiction) and each submission was accepted, so the path opened up, and I walked. The journey has not been easy, but I have finally acknowledged myself as a writer. It took a long time coming.

JH: Returning to more historical and contemporary writers, because I’m obsessed with talking about writing and writers–you’ve also mentioned T.S. Eliot and Maya Angelou as influences. What about their work influences you? 

AI: Of all the poets I read as a child, and because of a convent education I was exposed first to poets writing in English, I remember I felt a sudden connect with Eliot and his “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes…” It’s imagery that appeals to me the most, and I could really picture this scene. His poetry denoted a certain degree of melancholy that appealed to my adolescent self. His writing was city based so I could understand it and he wrote free verse, which I preferred to rhymes. It could be that I also read a lot of Sherlock Holmes and the English cityscape had a kind of familiarity to it. The smog and fog of London, though quite different from the atmosphere of an Indian city, did have the same sense of dejection and romance. The American poet, Robert Frost, also influenced me with “something there is that doesn’t love a wall”. What is given to us in the formative years will stay with us.

Maya Angelou was all about being a woman with pride and assertiveness. Her frankness hit me in the face. Here was a woman who could write, “Does my sexiness upset you/ Does it come as a surprise/ That I dance like I’ve diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs?” She is full of poetic joy. Kamala Das, whom I admire for revolutionalising the voice of the Indian woman poet, was also very forthright, but there is a suffering inherent to her writings, whereas Maya Angelou ‘celebrates’ womanhood.

JH: In terms of novels, you’ve mentioned Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” stands alongside Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Leon Uris’s “Exodus.” I’m very curious about your thoughts on Rand’s work, particularly on her stance on individuality and maybe even what I might call the capitalist spirit. 

AI: Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ appealed to me at a personal level. She talked of being selfish, putting the individual self first and having faith in your ideas. As a girl, brought up to put everybody else’s interest before mine and glorify in that, in the service of family, and not put my views forward before anyone, it is amazing the amount of ‘compliance’ one can grow up believing in. Indian women are brought up to always think of others first and sacrifice for the greater good (the family etc.). It’s an erasure of the individual/self. So Ayn Rand’s work showed me that being selfish is good, and I still work at this, trying to do way with years of conditioning. I needed to believe in this for establishing my own worth, to draw some lines. Regarding what you call the ‘capitalist spirit’, it is human nature to have it. Money speaks and is respected, and people work for it. Yet, it must not become our master or the only driving force of our existence. Compassion/empathy and capitalism are not mutually exclusive for me.

Leon Uris’ ‘Exodus’ is just one of his books, I read them all at a certain teenage period. Of course, he wrote about the victimization of the Jews and how they had to fight for their land and we can say it is a one-sided viewpoint, but the characters were all strong and exciting. Again, the fact that in Israel women stood side by side with men and drove trucks and carried guns, fought battles and built homes, was something I marvelled at. It spoke of a kind of gender equality I find missing in my country.

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ has been by far my favourite book. The more I think of it, the more I understand that the books that appeal to me a lot are coming of age stories, of a loss of innocence, of understanding how tough it is to live up to concepts of justice and humanity and see them through, and yet we must strive to do so. I read it at thirteen as part of my school curriculum, and it has stayed with me.

JH: In addition to your work as a writer, you work in various fields of social activism. Will you talk about the relationship of the art of writing to the art of being in the world? 

AI: The power of the narrative to forge communication and understanding is of grave importance. Writing creates awareness. For example, my daughter is presently writing an article on health related issues of the LGBTQ community, and it should be an eye-opener about what is supposed to be available and what is really available as preventive health care for them in our country.

We are very powerful as writers but we also need to know our responsibility: we cannot talk nonsense and get away with it. A writer will be socially engaged. When I write of the situations where women, the poor and the marginalized are the ones who are scorned and mistreated, obviously I am making a social commentary. For example, domestic violence forms a part of many women’s lives and the sickness in society pertaining to women is very present. This mistreatment is meted out to other vulnerable sections of society as well: labourers, farmers, the lower castes, the uneducated and the poor. Writers must write about society, what shapes it, what ails it, and thus initiate change. People have set views on so many things and accept everything as given and change as being not worthy of effort. To fight an existing worldview requires one to be constantly in a state of agitation. It’s a tough thing to do.
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