On April 12, The Last Bookstore is proud to host Anjali Mitter Duva as she presents her novel Faint Promise of Rain and demonstrates the northern Indian story-telling dance called kathak. She is pretty extraordinary, with a lot of irons in the fire, but she gave us some extra time for this thorough interview.
Last Bookstore – You are both a novelist and a kathak dance student/teacher. A complete answer to this question would probably be extremely long, but can you tell us a little about how storytelling thru a novel compares to storytelling thru dance?
Anjali Mitter Duva – In a novel as on a stage or in a studio, one must be aware of one’s story in space and in time: how the story unfolds on the page or on the floor, how close to the audience one wants to be—is this an intimate story? A more distant one? How does one use the white space on the page, or the dimensions of the dance space, to advance the story? What is the most appropriate point of view or stage lighting? How does the pace of the sentences, the length of the words, create the rhythm and thus the emotion? This is not very different from how one uses movement and music in dance. When and where are the pauses, the scene breaks, the moments of stillness? When does one go “in scene” and when does one summarize, perhaps through a few symbolic gestures? All this to say that I feel storytelling through a novel and storytelling through dance have a lot in common. The storyteller must ask and answer for herself many of the same questions.
LBS – Your background is French, Indian and American. Has storytelling played a role for you in being a part of three distinct cultures? What kind of role do you think an individual plays in writing their culture’s story, and vice versa?
AMD – Growing up a part of three cultures made me feel both an insider and an outsider to each of them. For some people, this can result in discomfort, a desire to be wholly one thing that can be a response to the (I believe misplaced) skepticism of “full” members of a specific culture. However, I found as a child that there can be something wonderful about fitting in yet being a bit apart. One develops a particular sense of observation, and with it comes an opportunity to hone one’s descriptive skills. And when one has to describe and explain cultural phenomena to others—high school friends in Paris asking about what it’s like to live in India, Indian relatives in Calcutta asking about suburban America—one is forced to think about them and to decide how one wants to present them, what details are the most telling. It’s a constant form of storytelling, and it relates very closely to writing.
As to the role that an individual plays in writing their culture’s story and vice versa, that is a separate and delicate question. Often, it ends up being not really up to the individual, but instead a product of other people’s expectations. Oh, she’s Bangladeshi, so of course she’s speaking for her culture. (Or the equally problematic flip side of that expectation: Oh, he’s Guatemalan, what is he doing writing about China?) Perhaps some writers set about to do this very thing, to illuminate some corner of their culture for the edification of others (as opposed to focusing on the story itself), but I believe no one should feel they need to be an ambassador for their culture. It’s not a fair burden, really. Yet it’s important to be aware of the public’s expectations, and to be ready to be seen as an ambassador, even if that was not one’s intent. This means giving thought to how one is presenting this culture, and being prepared for questions about it. A culture’s own story will always, I think, influence an individual’s story, just as it shapes that person’s outlook on opportunity, on the environment, on relationships, on the future. The two can never be completely disassociated. And that’s a good thing.
LBS – On top of your urban planning work, novel-writing and teaching of kathak thru your organization Chhandika, you also run both the Arlington Author Salon and a children’s book club. Can you tell us a little about these last two? Also, do you have any secrets on how to juggle a professional career, a creative career and work in the community?
AMD – Hah! I’ll answer the second part first: I have no secrets on how to juggle it all. I’m sorry. Will you still let me speak at the bookstore? No, seriously, it’s a challenge, and I’ve thought many times about what I could cut out of my life, but every time I imagine letting go of one piece, I just can’t bring myself to do it. And that’s on me, I can’t blame anyone else. So I have to be ok with a certain level of chaos, with not having much down time, and with being flexible. If I get that dreaded call from the school nurse letting me know one of my children is sick, there’s that initial frustration of having to change my plans, and then I have to be able to let go of everything and just focus on what is most important at that moment. The danger lies in trying to do it all at once: responding to emails while thinking about the novel and lending half an ear to the child and her homework. That’s a recipe for disaster on all fronts. Lastly: I am tremendously lucky to have a supportive spouse and good health, and those are two things I try to remind myself of every day.
The Arlington Author Salon is a quarterly literary series that I launched a year ago with a handful of other books-and-community minded folks in part out of frustration that most literary events in the Boston area take place either in Boston proper or in neighboring Cambridge, both of which present the very real obstacles of intense rush hour traffic and lack of parking, especially in the snowy months. I found that I wasn’t attending many great events because of the logistical challenges. That, together with the fact that I know many local authors who live outside the city, gave me an idea. It all came together when I was sitting in a very vibrant café (my “office”) in the town of Arlington where I live: why not ask the café owner if she would be willing to host a quarterly series featuring local authors? It all happened very fast after that. We had 75 people show up to the first event, and they raved about it to their friends, and at our last event, in January, when we announced we’d received funding from the Arlington Cultural Council, we had an audience of 125. So I guess the series was a good idea.
And the kids’ book club (which the Boston Globe caught wind of and wrote up), that’s a project that’s quite close to my heart. When my oldest daughter was in third grade I became very frustrated with the books she was bringing home from the library—books that were selected for her by the librarian—because she clearly wasn’t enjoying them, and I felt they underestimated her (and her peers’) intellectual capabilities. My daughter, who loves reading, would brag about getting through the weekly school library visit without having to take out a book. A dagger right into a writer-mother’s heart! And then those Scholastic Book Fair flyers would come home in her backpack full of books that were sold with charm bracelets, all the “girl” books pink and sparkly. So I started a book club for her and for her friends, and a full three years later, we are still going strong, with eleven sixth graders meeting once a month in my home, discussing all types of books—some heavy, some more light-hearted—and engaging in conversations in which I’m constantly impressed by the children’s depth of perception and thought. The kids like the “snack,” too, which I always prepare based on food mentioned in the book. By the end of each meeting I’m wiped out, but I feel this is an important use of my time.
LBS – Those are some lucky kids. Can you recommend any books you’ve read recently (or not recently) that you think are deserving of more attention than they’ve received?
AMD – The Saskiad, by Brian Hall
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller
Island’s End, by Padma Venkataraman
LBS – You are working on your second novel. Can you tell us anything about it?
AMD – Certainly! My second novel is the next in what I envision as a four book set, each taking place at a time of upheaval in India’s history that is reflected in the world of dance. Whereas my first book is set in the 16th century at the start of Mughal (Muslim) rule, this second one is set at the very end of Mughal rule and the messy start of British rule. The main protagonists are a restless courtesan who is not satisfied with her (very privileged) station, and the adolescent son that she had with a French engineer and who is struggling to find his place in a society that is rapidly being divided into immutable categories—Indian, British, Anglo-Indian, Hindu, Muslim, Christian.
LBS – It sounds epic, and all the more reason to read Faint Promise of Rain. Thank you so much for your time. We’re looking forward to seeing you in person April 12th.
Come see Anjali Mitter Duva in person this Tuesday, April 12th at 7pm, before she heads back to Boston. She’ll be back, but who knows when?