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WOMAN OF WORDS & SILENCES
After completing her degree in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design she returned to Kathmandu in 1989 only to find herself in the midst of political confusion in the country. But this confusion however took her into a direction which she had never thought about before. While working for an NGO in the remote regions of the country, Manjushree discovered the hardships and societal differences she had never witnessed growing up.
While her love for literature led her to writing, her experiences led into writing about reality. In an effort to make sense of the tragedies she had witnessed she turned to writing and started with short stories which she later published in a collection called The Tilled Earth. Her first book came in 1992 called Mustang Bhot in Fragments, and in 2001 her novel The Tutor of History was published. Her most popular book Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy (2005) followed in 2005 and was shortlisted for the Lettre Ulysses Award in 2006.
Thapa finds carving out time to write the hardest part about being a writer. She paints vivid portraits of Nepali society with her intricately woven tales of love, life and challenges. Her books bear the uniqueness of classic Nepali village life. Her latest offering All of Us in Our Own Lives, dwells into the complexities of Nepali life.
Manjushree Thapa spoke to WOW about her work, life and beliefs. Excerpts:
Where is home?
I think you know I would say it’s in a couple of places. I think because everything I write about is Nepal, it’s not a conscious decision but a rather subconscious one, and this is where my heart is. So, the place I really feel at home is Nepal but I have moved throughout my life, and for now its Toronto, though it’s not under my skin the way Kathmandu is. This is my home town so it really gets under my skin. This is the place the whole of Nepal comes to realize its dreams. Even if their dream means coming here and making a house, setting up a family or moving abroad from here, this is kind of where all of Nepal’s making of dreams end up. So for me even though I don’t actually physically live here, Kathmandu is very much home to me.
Are you a spiritual person?
I actually did convert to Buddhism many years ago and it is something that I am very, very interested in. Buddhist philosophy is something I follow rather closely. This novel too is also an investigation into the second noble truth – that we all come about through a sort of interconnection between each other. But I am also an atheist, so I am more into the philosophical tradition of Buddhism. Buddha was atheist which is easy to forget.
What does happiness mean to you?
This is a tough one. I mean there is the basic material need and if you don’t meet that that too gets into the way of happiness. I feel that we have such little time on this earth and people use that time so badly, so for me it really about being able to use your freedom. No matter what situation we are in we do have the freedom to do things differently, to be able to find a way to really use your time on this earth well, seems to me as fulfilling. I don’t know if that is happiness but that is fulfillment.
Oh no, I would say, this is strangely tough… I am introverted, quiet and flexible.
I have come across a lot of writers and authors who describe themselves as introverted, is this what really makes you write well?
When you are writing you spend a lot of time by yourself right, so I think though there is this glamorous image of what a writer does, it actually is a lot of time spent by yourself in a room with a computer. So, I feel if you don’t like the company of yourself and if you don’t like to delve into your own world it would be pretty hard to be a writer. I think people who are introverted and find it difficult to be in a crowd, like yesterday during the book launch it was real pain being in the middle of a crowd, I do it with a lot of help from friends. But, I try to do as much as I can to stay away from crowds and just be with a couple of good friends and so, I think introverted people are more drawn towards writing and towards the arts.
Do any of your characters depict a part of you?
Yeah I would say that to write any character you have to get into that character. As a writer you really have to get into the skin of the character and draw it out of yourself. So, I think a lot of my characters have a refracted version of me; it’s not a direct similarity but a more refracted similarity.
Who is your favourite author?
I would say when I first began to write the authors who really inspired me and really shaped me would include J.M Coetzee, Mahasweta Devi who is a Bengali writer. Among Nepali writers – Parijat, Indra Badhur Rai.
You have given voice to over 49 Nepali writers as a translator making their work accessible to English readers. How different is translating from writing? Is your own creative process influenced by others’ voices?
I began to read Nepali literature and translated it as I began to write, so the two kind of went hand in hand, and for me it was important to start translating because I sort of learned what is out there, you know who is right in what, I feel like it really grounded me in Nepali literacy and makes me feel like a Nepali writer even if I write in English. So, that was really important. Also, when it comes to technique in writing, the thing that happens is if you are writing in English, you are basically translating the Nepali world into English, so in terms of writing and how I wanted to write about Nepal, it was largely helpful.
They are two different projects and about them being similar or not, no they are not as translation doesn’t involve imagination that you put in your writing work. For me translating is so much fun, it’s like solving a puzzle… because you know they say this thing about translating: you are always going to lose something in translation and you also gain things in translation. There is always going to be something lost, there is always going to be some mistake you are going to make because if you bring in the literal meaning, you may lose the rhythm, the sound… or the stylistic appearance you know is in the original work… so it really becomes the choice of which mistake can you absolutely not make, where can you compromise, when do you compromise, where is your loyalty to the traditional text. So, it is a really, really fun process
From photography to writing, when did you decide to become a writer?
It took me a longtime. After I studied art and photography, I came to Nepal and I just couldn’t find my way back into the world of art. There weren’t many galleries here, there were artists, but it was a very, very small scene and I just couldn’t do it. For some reason, it took me almost six or seven years. I wrote a book but I still did not feel like a writer. I wrote a book and I was doing other NGO work, so it took me almost six or seven years, to realise that this is what I wanted to do, particularly with fiction, because I was writing nonfiction.
Writing fiction was a strange process. I woke up one day and said, ‘you know I already wrote a book, I really like writing, I always loved literature and read a lot and it just was clear to me one day that this is what I should be doing’… so yeah it took me a long time. I was 26 at that time.
JK Rowing in one of her interviews said that it’s easy to publish your first book; the pressure builds on when you publish your next book because the expectation from the readers is higher. How do you feel about every book that you publish?
I think there is this entire syndrome called the second book syndrome. I think I have been able to avoid that. I was just sort of trying to plough through my second novel. With this third novel, I felt there was this need to sort of shut off the public voice. So the syndrome does exist. Once you are established as a writer you feel that expectation… and it is so important to turn it off. It is a struggle in your own mind really. You have to learn how to shut out any expectation, and just listen to what you want to do.
How have you evolved creatively?
In ‘Tilled Earth’, the short story collection, I wrote them over a span of ten years… and so I know the stories I wrote in the beginning are quite different from the stories I wrote at the end. I noticed in myself a shift especially with the later parts I feel like I found my voice. Somewhere there in Tilled Earth it’s a boisterous voice or stories. There was this story called The Girl Of No Age, and in that story I think I followed a quiet voice and after that I think I have mostly followed a quiet voice, a more sort of internal voice than the experimental loud playful voice which I had earlier on.
Give us an insight into your favourite main character from your latest book. What does s/he do that is so special?
Well there are four main protagonists, I am attached to all of them. The main vehicle for the story is Avaa who is adopted from Nepal and comes back here. She leaves a law firm, corporate law and comes to Nepal to join the aid work. She is confused by the place, she is confused by the aid world. She has a hard time figuring out what she is doing in her own work, and her own relation to the country. She will be the character I feel the closest too, maybe because you know I have also been raised outside so much that I always felt unauthentically Nepali. Because of this she is the closest to me.
Where do your ideas come from, especially when you are writing fiction?
I tend to hold on to ideas for many years. I had the idea for this novel from the beginning of my writing career about 15 years ago. Not entirely in this plot. I wanted to write about aid work. But I just did not have the time to get to it. I just hold on to the ideas this way.
Do you ever get writer’s Block?
I did experience it with this novel, had not really experienced it before. You just force yourself to go on and keep writing and keep writing and just ignore it, if you can’t ignore it too you just have to continue writing.
Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your book Season’s of Flight?
Nandita Das, well I love her work and her politics, she sort of has the brains I admire and she is also a great actress.
What has been the hardest thing about writing, for you?
I think it’s organising your life as a writer. There is this activity of writing that you need to do but to do it there are a lot of things you need to work out, like the financial stability, the solitude… there are so many things that are required to go into writing. The most difficult part is just carving out time for yourself for the next six months is very difficult and you have to work out a lot of things. When I was a younger writer it felt easier to me to crave all that time out, but now I find it a little more difficult. When I plunge myself into a book I know it’s going to take me approximately four years, so it gets really difficult to crave out that time.