Interview by Jennifer Emelife
Congratulations on being regional winner of the Commonwealth short story prize for Asia, Anushka. I think it’s the second time you’re winning this. How do you feel about it and why’s applying to and perhaps winning the Commonwealth Prize so important to you?
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is one of the few prizes that doesn’t require an entry fee or cover letter. So there’s really no excuse for not applying! Commonwealth Writers have been publishing my work for the past few years – through the prize, and on their website. Their support made it possible for me to take risks in my writing without worrying about pandering to a particular audience. Winning the regional prize this year was particularly special because I finally got to meet the Commonwealth team in person, after communicating with them over email all these years.
In your winning story, ‘Drawing Lessons’ (read the short story here), you painted a picture of a woman who’s depressed because of her inability to have children. But there’s the husband who is unaffected by the situation. He goes on living life as usual. Would you say that is typical? Could it have been the other way round?
I don’t know if the husband is necessarily unaffected. The story focuses on the woman’s internal life, so we don’t really know what’s going on with the husband except that he’s distant.
And then the drawing classes were perhaps meant to be a distraction from her predicament, but they ended up opening up a new kind of desire in her as she finds herself attracted to her female tutor. I’m curious to know why you’ve chosen to tell the story in such angle.
The story started with the idea about these drawing lessons. I was also interested in writing about these ‘hobbies’ that housewives take up, which are often dismissed as not being art.
The common hobbies would normally include knitting or baking. I think now it’s important that you introduced something different. Having grown up in India, I’d like to know what’s it like for you writing about such topics. How does the audience there react to queer literature? In Nigeria where I come from, there are talented young writers venturing into queer writing and are being successful with it. But there are also a few of them who meet with great opposition and threats, almost to the point of attack. What is the story like in India or for Indian literature?
I have been very lucky in this regard because the reaction to my work has been mostly positive. I haven’t received any opposition yet, but I’m also sheltered because I study in Austin, and only spend summers in India. I think the literary world in India is very accepting though – people who read and care about literature are less likely to be bigots.
Would you consider queer literature just art or a form of activism? What extent can it go towards ensuring the safety of queer people especially in hostile environments?
That’s such a good question, I hadn’t considered the ways in which queer writing can ensure safety in hostile environments. There are definitely writers whose work can do that, and their writing provides visibility to queer lives. I’m not sure I would call it activism because it’s a much more intimate experience in how it can transform the individual lives of readers. I had that experience when I first read Sara Ahmed’s work because it felt like she gave me language for something I couldn’t articulate about myself – and maybe it provides emotional sustenance in hostile environments.
I agree with the emotional sustenance. It was the same feeling I experienced reading Akwaeke Emezi’s ‘Who is Like God’. But people tend to insinuate that one’s sexual preference can be altered as a result of certain experiences. This is almost the case with the ‘Drawing Lessons’. Your character appears to have tried to fill the void of a child’s affection with the love of another afflicted woman. Could the story have been different if she had children? Would she be finding out that late in life that she was homosexual if she had the love of her own child?
I didn’t really think of the character as bisexual, but your questions could be the premise of an entire novel. In her essay on Intimacies, Lauren Berlant says something brilliant about how the fantasies of intimacy are usually normative, but the drive towards achieving those fantasies never is. I think the character finds herself in that dilemma – where her actions and the fantasies on which she’s built her life don’t match up.
I’m going to try to do a bit of comparison between ‘Drawing Lessons’ and ‘Radio Story’, your winning story in 2012. In reading ‘Radio Story’, I found that it centres, like ‘Drawing Lessons’, around marriage and love. Why do you choose to focus on these themes?
I’m not sure why those have been the recurrent themes. It could be because I am ambivalent about the institution of marriage.
Though both are written in the first person, I’d like to think ‘Radio Story’ more stylistic . It started with a man speaking and ended with his daughter’s voice. The transition was so spontaneous, one couldn’t have known who was speaking until halfway of the second part. Why did you choose to switch the narrative that way? Did you find it a bit confusing, especially during the course of writing?
Those stories were written five years apart, so I couldn’t really tell you what I was thinking when I wrote ‘Radio Story’. It did take longer to write, and many months of revisions, while ‘Drawing Lessons’ was written within a month. Writing now, I wouldn’t switch voices the way I did in ‘Radio Story’. Maybe it was beginner’s luck that I got away with that move.
In ‘Drawing Lessons’, it was the husband working and almost too busy for his wife. In ‘Radio Story’, it’s the woman who worked while her husband stayed in the house. What are some of the things you bear in mind in the course of planning your story as regards characterisation?
I usually start with the first sentence of the story, when I hear a character’s voice in my head, and that begins to define who they are.
You have an MFA in Creative Writing. Are there any rules that often come to play in your writing?
Radio Story was written pre-MFA, so clearly an MFA isn’t necessary. I think it’s more about working consistently, and getting good feedback from people who are supportive. I also try to avoid adverbs. That’s always a good rule.
I’m awed at how much that can be accomplished in one short story. What are the things that have endeared you to the short story format? Do you sometimes find it restraining?
I always aim to write four thousand words – that’s just the number I keep in my head. Sometimes the story will end up being shorter or longer. The short story has been my preferred form because I can work on stories whenever I have a few weeks off from other work commitments. I also think my writing is concise in a way that lends itself to the short story form.
What are some of the things/people or books that have influenced and continue to influence your writing?
I’ve mentioned a lot of queer theorists in this interview, so that’s obviously a big influence right now. It influences how I approach my work, how I represent characters, and the kind of narratives I write. Joy Williams and Grace Paley are some of my favorite short story writers.
What are you currently working on?
After winning the regional prize, I ended up getting an offer from an Indian publisher for my short story collection, so I’ll be completing that over the next year. I’m also writing my master’s thesis on Emily Dickinson.
Anushka Jasraj grew up in Mumbai, India. She holds a BFA in Film Production from NYU, and a MFA in Creative Writing from the New Writers Project at the University of Austin-Texas. She was a 2015-16 fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and is currently based in Austin. She is a 2012 and 2017 regional winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Asia. In this interview, we talked about her short stories, queer writing, and the Commonwealth Prize.
Jennifer Chinenye Emelife was born in Northern Nigeria, Sokoto state. She studied Literature in English in Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. She lives in Lagos where she writes, when she isn’t teaching Literacy to kids. She is also rounding up a Post Graduate studies in Education. She believes that the African literary sphere suffers because no one covers its stories. Lead correspondent at Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature, she has written reportages and interviewed writers, publishers and other literary experts. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and in 2016, she was selected as one of the participants for Writivism Creative Nonfiction Workshop held in Accra, Ghana.
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