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‘History helps us re-imagine the past’

  • Published at 05:01 pm February 27th, 2019
Jaishree Misra
Jaishree Misra | Photo: Dhaka Tribune

Interview

Jaishree Misra is one of the prominent voices in Indian women’s writing. Her debut novel Ancient Promises was a major bestseller in India and is taught widely at university level English Literature courses.  In addition to her enthralling Secrets tetralogy, she’s also written Rani, Afterwards, A Love Story for My Sister, Accidents like Love and Marriage. In this interview, she talks about her only work of nonfiction, A House for Mr. Misra, as well as about her inspiration to write and her experience with historical fiction.

Your Wikipedia page has a bit of a quirky comment that you are a “literary festival enthusiast”. So, how do you find Dhaka Lit Fest in comparison to some others you have attended? 

I actually am a huge enthusiast, but I always hesitate before going to a literary festival, especially somewhere far away. However, one look at a festival and I know I’m going to enjoy it. I was a little uncertain about the Dhaka Lit Fest, partially because it’s so far from England. However, from the moment I’ve landed, and I’m not saying this to flatter you, it’s really been an absolutely enchanting experience. I’ve probably caught this fest in the best stage of its development. In the early years they would have had their own struggles in learning how to organize something like this. They have obviously gotten over all of those initial hurdles. It is really very well organized, still really homely and intimate; they have dedicated volunteers and great security. Larger scale festivals are rather rushed and not as relaxed. At the moment it’s delightful.

As you have said in your panel, there are some people who are a bit irked about history being handled by those who are ‘not proper historians’. Have you had to justify yourself a lot regarding your treatment of history in your novels? 

Good point, because the historians get particularly annoyed when a non-historian comes up and starts writing history, whether they are writing historical fiction, narrative non-fiction or just non-fiction. I can see where their frustration lies because they are restricted by their own discipline. But, if we are all left at the mercy of historians to transfer the knowledge of history to us, I think we would be very poorly off. The thing that they have to do is to impress each other, write the history in a certain way that is appealing to fellow historians, and what gets left out is the normal reader. This is where I found I was until I discovered very good historical fiction writers in England, and there it’s a very popular genre. In India it was still in its infancy when I wrote Rani, now we have more writers exploring the genre. But even now, Indian writers seem to prefer mythological fiction, that’s a big, growing market and that’s what the publishers are also chasing after. At the moment there is a huge inordinate focus on where we came from, what is our collective history, mythology; the ‘Hinduisation’ of stories, this is where India is at the moment. I hope that changes soon. There’s so much more to focus on.

When I first heard of your book A House for Mr. Misra, it reminded me of Naipaul's title, A House for Mr. Biswas

Nothing like that!

So who are some of your influences, who would you fangirl over at a literary festival?

Without a doubt not Naipaul. His writing has not been very supportive towards women, and I was disenchanted with him pretty quickly. I just stole the title because I felt like stealing it! A House for Mr. Misra is a book about real events; this is my first nonfiction book. My biggest literary hero is without a doubt, Vikram Seth, because of the variety of books he comes out with. He can do anything- children’s books, family sagas, epic poetry, you name it! I try and copy him sometimes, but nobody can get to those giddy heights.

Speaking of versatility, as you were saying that Vikram Seth can do anything, have you attempted to branch into other forms of literature, or say other eccentric genres like say sci-fantasy or dystopia? 

I don’t think I’d be very good at it. I was thinking about the kind of genres women typically write, in preparation for today’s session. Samia (the moderator of her panel) was talking about gender issues in writing and publishing. Sci-fi fantasy, dystopia etc. are genres where women’s presence has been particularly poor. Of course, there is Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin, they are the pioneers. Thinking of the Indian scenario, in general, there are fewer women doing it. As female characters in dystopian settings have been traditionally written by men, there is no mention of problems that are peculiarly female. A male writer isn’t even going to think about these problems. They are just going to plant a woman in a dystopian scenario and say ‘get on with it’. Only a female writer might at least give some thought to those problems. For that reason alone, I think I would try my hand at dystopian fiction sometime in future.

What would be your advice to young writers who want to write historical fiction? 

My advice—don’t. With the current political scenario in the subcontinent, it is very difficult to really exercise creative freedom. My book got banned, that created a lot of hue and cry in Uttar Pradesh, and it is easy to accuse a writer of historical fiction of distorting history. However, if one really does set their heart to this pursuit, I would suggest solid research, taking a detour from history sometimes and imagining the characters in their various roles. Rani Laxmi Bai, in my book, was portrayed as not only a statesman or a military figure, she was also a young girl, a young bride and a widow. She was just as human as anyone else. Historical fiction serves not the purpose of teaching history; rather, it helps us re-imagine the past.

This interview was taken at the Dhaka Lit Fest 2018