Monday, May 21, 2012

In the Lit Lab with Kuzhali Ehm

I've come across a handful of stories over the past several years that have truly stayed with me. "The Ash Eaters" is near to the top of that small list.  I'm so very pleased to have the the author, Kuzhali Ehm, write a few words here today about that story.  To read the story, visit here.

"The Ash Eaters" is based on some of my experiences in school in Chidambaram. I don’t like mentioning this, because sometimes people will say things like, ‘what is a Chidambaram?’ and I don’t know what the answer is. Once I wrote a story that mentioned a place called Neelankarai and someone contacted me via the internets to say, ‘I wanted to read your story but we all had to pull out an atlas to find out where Neelankarai is and we couldn’t find it.’ I felt like they wanted me to do something about this but I wasn’t sure what to do.

Anyway, another reason why I don’t like mentioning that ‘The Ash Eaters’ is based on my school experiences is because sometimes people say ‘well why couldn’t you just write about that normally? Why make it deliberately difficult for the reader?’ And that makes me feel bad. I know I shouldn’t feel bad because writers are supposed to be like pfft you didn’t get my story because you are stupid but I feel bad anyway.

I actually did try to write this normally. When I did that, the piece was longer and very awkward and filled with detailed explanations for everything, especially the non-English words. It was among the worst things I have ever written, and I have written many very bad things. The editing and revision process for this story was a massive pain in the bum, because I kept feeling like I had to explain everything. I’m not sure if this is part of the baggage of being an Indian Writer in English, where you feel like you have to provide italics and explanations because if someone doesn’t ‘get’ it, you fail and you should kill yourself. I ultimately did away with all the explaining and the piece dissolved into a single paragraph, which was pretty close to what I wanted to say. It was also quite close to what school was like for me at the time. That was normal, at least for me.

I like to think that this piece has some meaning beyond the “difficult” names and constructions. I like to think that you don’t necessarily need to know what this piece is “about” to get something out of it. I also agree that this would have probably been an easier piece to ‘get’ if it had made more of an effort to explain itself. But I don’t know if getting someone’s explanation means that you get their story. I think that means you’ve just understood their explanation and the story is often a very different thing. Also, I think it’s slightly flabbergasting to assume that all narratives about school or anything are going to be the same, just because they are in English or just because they are about something we all share.

I want to say that I write this as someone who dismissed a lot of writing because I didn’t get the words or the narrative made me think and work a bit harder. I feel this is my loss. I do believe there are stories that challenge the idea of how a story should be and they aren’t what we’re used to, and I think everything gets a little more interesting when we allow ourselves to be open to the possibilities of what a story can be or say. I’m not sure if ‘The Ash Eaters’ does that, but it is a piece that made me really think about that, as a reader and a writer.

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