Writing helps me bring unveil silent voices that have gone unheard: Author Manjushree Thapa Tells The Oslo Times
By Prabalta Rijal
June 10, Kathmandu:Author Manjushree Thapa who has been known to have lived her life in a complete instability moving between places most of her life, today too, finds herself globe-hopping between Kathmandu and Toronto every six months.
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 sheer political confusion. This confusion, however, took her into a direction which she had never thought of before. Her fondness for literature led her into writing and as she worked for an NGO in the remote regions of the country, Thapa discovered the hardships and societal differences she had never witnessed growing up even in Kathmandu. A very vocal womens right activist Thapa has also raised her voice against the gender-based discrimination in the country.
These experiences led her into writing non-fiction, through which she stood up against the atrocities faced by the rural people. In an effort to make sense of the tragedies she had witnessed she turned to fiction. The Fulbright scholarship student started off with short stories which she would later publish in her collection of short stories the Tilled Earth. Her first book was Mustang Bhot in Fragments (1992), and in 2001 her novel The Tutor of History, was published but her most popular book Forget Kathmandu: an Elegy for Democracy (2005), only came in 2005 and was shortlisted for the Lettre Ulysses Award in 2006. Following this, her short story collection hit the stands.
Thapa who finds carving out a time to write the hardest part about being a writer, paints a portrait of the Nepali society with her intricately woven tales of love, life and challenges, the books bear the uniqueness of the classic Nepali villages.
While in Kathmandu to launch her book, 'All of Us in Our Own Lives', she spoke to The Oslo Times Chief International Correspondent Prabalta Rijal about her work, life and beliefs.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Oh no, I would say, this is strangely tough, I am introverted, quite and flexible.
You just said introverted, 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 and 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. So, 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.
Have any of your characters depicted 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 favorite author/s?
So, ummm, 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. In Nepali writers Parijat, Indra Badhur Rai, you know those are the greats saying like they are the Shakespeare. But they did really inspire me.
You have given voice to over forty-nine Nepali writers as a translator, making their work accessible to English readers! How different is your translating life from your own writing? Is your own creative process influenced by others' voices?
For me you know 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 kind of start translating because, one I sort of learned what is out there, you know who is right in what, I feel like it really grounded me in the 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 t technique in writing the thing that happens is if you are writing in English, you are basically translating the Nepali world into English, so I feel like just in terms of writing and how I wanted to write about Nepal it was largely helpful.
They are two different projects, so in terms of are they similar or not, no they are not, as there isn’t the imaginative work, that you have to put in when you are writing. So, for me translating is so much fun, it 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, so 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, you know the other stylistic appearance as to you know is 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.
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 that you all have . 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.
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 realize 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 oh 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 yeah there is this entire syndrome called the second novel syndrome, I think I have been able to avoid that I was just sort of trying to plow 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 it is so important to turn it off. So, it is a struggle between your own minds really.
You have to learn how to shut out any expectation, and just listen to what you want to do and it is a real thing. It does happen, yeah.
I remember reading in one of your interviews, that most of your creative work happens in Kathmandu, why is that?
In Kathmandu, what you get is the daily inspiration, my subject matter is everywhere around me so, if I am stuck in my writing or anything like that than all I need to do is spend another day and all I have to do is look round.
How do you think you’ve 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. So, I noticed in myself a shift, especially with the later parts I feel like I found my voice, somewhere there so in Tilled Earth it’s a more 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,'All of us in Our Own Lives'. What does he/she 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. So, because f this she is the closest to.
Were those the same problems you faced while you were in the Aid world yourself?
As a much younger woman yeah, when I came back to Nepal from college at 21, in 1989, I hardly knew Nepal, I had grown up mostly outside, so for me it was complete confusion. Especially, because we were going through a transformation, with the Maoists and rights of people and the democratic moment, it was really confusing for a while, especially with the constitution being promulgated and not really knowing which direction the country was heading to. So, yeah it was a process I went through too.
You just spoke about the constitution, and I remember this time round you were the first voice to speak out against the lack of consideration for women's citizenship rights in Nepal, as the new constitution did not meet the expectations of Nepalese women. How do you feel about it right now?
You know there is this kind of hurt, that is difficult to explain because for me it doesn’t really have a direct impact on my life, and this is particularly in relationship to citizenship, I have my citizenship papers and I have been able to negotiate a space for myself in this society and I am very lucky that way, but it is such a strange thing to think that as a woman I have never been equal to a man. So it is such a feeling of personal hurt and humiliation.
It is a very personal thing and the resistance to equal rights is so strong, that it will not happen anytime soon. I feel very lucky to know that there are a lot of people I know who are pushing for change in the right direction. It feels to me like Nepal does this again and again in so many things, like it chooses the wrong things that hold progress back and there is really no reason to have such fear of women being able to confer citizenship to their children independently and to be independent. But there is such a patriarchal fear of it, and I think it's just very unfortunate. I mean you said how I feel, well it makes me angry, it makes me hurt it makes me everything. All of my disappointment with Nepal is centered on that issue right now.
How is your day structured, do you have a special time to write?
Particularly with the novels it depends on which stage I am on, with the first draft I have a very strict structure so, in general I always write in the morning. And by afternoon my mind isn’t really sharp or functioning so work in the morning.
With the first draft I just glue myself to the chair it is like going to the office. Full day work, I do the word count, I find the first draft the hardest part because this is where you have to do your work with the structure of the novel. It is where you have to do all of the architectural work. Which, character goes where. What happens to them, you know all of that.
After that the drafts are more fun, and more unexpected, this is where the characters grow, become more developed. Where the first draft, is like pulling teeth it is really hard work. So, for the five month, six month and seven month I write that I must have really strict discipline.
Where do your ideas come from, especially when you are writing fiction?
I tend to hold on to ideas for many years, so this novel 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 the aid work.
So I had that idea, I always wanted to write about the aid work. So, when my second book came out six years ago, I had the idea of this book ever since but I just did not have the time to get to it. I just hold on to the ideas this way. The original ideas will come shortly but for now I just hold on to ideas for a very long time
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.
Any tips on how to get through the dreaded writer’s block?
You just force yourself to keep writing and keep ignoring it. If you can't ignore it you still keep writing. You just have to sort of plough through it. With the short stories you can be spontaneous, but with a novel you just have to plot it because it loses its structure, so there has to be some sort of doggedness. You just have to do it. Though this makes it sound UN fun, it isn’t it is actually very fun, but, you do need to have a lot of focus,
What has been the hardest thing about writing, for you?
I think its organizing 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 alt 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.
So, just organizing your life as a writer is actually not fun, this part is a constant challenge.
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