Under my byline

Fishing in troubled waters

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 5 August 2007

An interview with sociologist and three-time novelist Susan Visvanathan

Phosphorus and Stone: A Novel
Penguin India
pp 148

The Seine at Noon
IndiaInk
pp 144

Susan Visvanathan is a professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and also a novelist, having published three novels and one collection of short stories. Two of her novels, Phosphorus and Stone (Zubaan/Penguin) and The Seine at Noon (IndiaInk), are out this year. The first is set in Kerala, in a fishing community of the kind in which Visvanathan carried out research work. She has written previously in support of their cause, against the commercial trawlers and middlemen who squeeze their livelihood. Her PhD work was on Kerala Christians. The second is set in Paris.

You have two books out in one year — how did that happen?

It’s a coincidence. Phosphorus and Stone was written in 2001. My publisher at that time said that he would not be able to find a market for a very technical book such as that. Later I gave it to Urvashi Butalia [of Zubaan]; since she is a feminist publisher she felt it would be all right. The Seine at Noon went to press at around the same time, 2005.

Do you think the market has changed since then?

Since 2004 there is a spectacular change in how one looks at writing which is politically balanced one way or the other. [The two books] really look at questions which secularism raises very sharply. Secularism is able to look at religious discourse in terms of not partisanship but open negotiation. My protagonist in The Seine at Noon is a Jew, in Phosphorus and Stone, she’s Latin Christian.

Neither of them seems to be comfortable with their religion. They’re religious but apparently amoral in some ways, and also unorthodox. Why is that?

I don’t see them as amoral or immoral, I see them as occupying free spaces which are about the emotional distress that they feel at given points in their lives. When one looks at religion as providing dogmas where everybody fits into exactly the spots where they are told they must — I don’t think that’s the way the world lives. Tradition and modernity are not oppositions, they’re constantly negotiating with one another.

Why then do these characters come across as so untypical, so unusual?

But that’s the function of literature, isn’t it? We’re not talking of everyday lives lived at random. Negotiating with the persona of [these characters] brings into sharp contrast the everydayness of other people’s lives.

What brought you to these particular characters? Is there in them some element of your own relationship with religion?

All writers draw from everyday life. The fact that readers would believe it possible that such people exist must make the novelist comfortable with such characters. And yet, in the normal run of things we must conform — conformity is what takes danger away. But that danger of questioning is a danger of stepping out of line. That is also what modernism provides as a space of freedom.

Why do parents loom so large in both novels? They are absent, and yet have an unsettling influence on the protagonists.

I think parents never go away, whatever the disjunctions or the problems. The absence is really the way in which the parents’ presence continues.

It seems to be something that holds the characters back, prevents them from letting go and being themselves in some way. Is that true?

It’s part of the sociological problem, it’s quite different from the psychoanalytical one, which communicates that the father’s voice, if you like, is what controls social actions. But to say the father alone would be problematic, because there are so many societies where the mother is equally dominant. Psychologists in India have argued that the mother’s presence is always there. The parents do have this significant space, and whether they’re there or not, fiction communicates that presence as a significant one.

But they’re always bad parents, failed parents…

Surely Magda and Yesu [in Phosphorus and Stone] are good parents? I don’t think parenting is communicated as something that is good or bad, these are specific characters. I would hate my novels to be read as [if] I’m trying to communicate a social norm, that some character is worthy of following, because many of them are in fact negative cases. The good parent, good mother, good father, all these I think are invented by society; parents are what they are in relationship to their children. Failure to provide for parents or for children is the subtext of a lot of fiction.

We assume that if there’s no war then we are all at peace. But what my work is trying to handle is that the psyche is disturbed and everyone is looking for resolution. The manner of that resolution differs. Community and society might not give a framework within which individuals can fit. So I’m describing what Durkheim calls normlessness, that if you’re faced with an [atomised] society, then how in fact does human survival take place?

I’m saying it takes place because people have friends, family, trust one another, the spaces in which they are able to express their agony is given to them. Even though [these characters] may have awful relatives, no one is disowning those relatives, and that’s interesting for me.

How much of yourself do you put into these characters?

All the characters an author invents are biographical, if not autobiographical, because everything happens in the author’s head. The writer has to have courage, because if there is embarrassment or shame in negotiating dark spaces, then we don’t have an identity. So it’s autobiographical to the extent that I own up to all these characters.

What is your process of writing — how much of it is mapped out in your mind, how much happens on the page?

I would say that [it starts when] there is a problem I want to handle. In 2001 [for Phosphorus and Stone] it was that the fisherpeople’s struggle had blocked itself off because they imitated the trawlers, and as a result there was a closure in terms of their optimism about survival itself. For The Seine at Noon, it was that there’s another text about Paris. What we hear about Paris is sophisticated houses, fashion — but there is everyday life, that’s what I wanted to talk about.

Does your fiction influence your academic writing?

Yes, the fiction is definitely representative of my academic writing.

But does it go the other way as well?

[Given future academic commitments] I don’t know if I can put myself in that empty space which fiction demands. To reach that space, one must be protected even more than one is as an academic. One must be able to write in spite of what people think of one’s work, despite the fact that it may not sell. At any given point one is in doubt whether one can walk that tightrope again, because it is a dangerous tightrope, politically and in terms of conventions, because if the conventions go completely askew, then one’s classified as bohemian and one must keep company with other bohemians.

At the point where you leave the characters at the end of each novel, the possibility of great change is over; they are settled, yet their story is not over.

Well, if you look at Bianca [daughter of a protagonist of The Seine at Noon ], the story ends at one point but then you find that it picks up again where she’s so much older, blowsier, worse off, and yet much better off, so you have a complete transformation which could have been the subject of another work.

There are no definitive endings, then.

That’s because there’s an interlocking; each novel actually opens up the possibility of another novel.

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