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Interview with Anuk Arudpragasam

I first met Anuk Arudpragasam at a party in New York. The apartment was heavy with music, but our exchange had its own infectious pulse. We spoke about modernist novels, the Tamil imaginary and solitude. In conversation, Arudpragasam opened up a new horizon on the philosophical. Loss, habit and desire run through what he reads and writes.

 

Arudpragasam’s debut novel The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016) is set over the course of a single day and night during the Sri Lankan Civil War. In the book, time appears liquid and slippery. The novel is possessed by the notion that some of the most fleeting moments in our lives occupy a space that doesn’t match their original duration. I was struck by the ordinariness of human intimacy in The Story of a Brief Marriage – people touch, wash, sleep, eat and speak, while all around them, a war marks these everyday moments as fragile and precious.

 

While in his first novel Arudpragasam’s investigations into time occur against the awareness of its brevity, his new novel A Passage North (2021) confronts time through duration and distance. The book’s protagonist, Krishan, travels north from Colombo to attend the funeral of his grandmother’s caregiver, Rani. Absorbed in reflections on both his own life and the island’s recent history, Krishan meditates on absence and longing at a remove, wondering what emerges if we are ‘lifted up from the circular daydream of everyday life’.

 

A Sri Lankan Tamil, Arudpragasam splits his time between India and Sri Lanka. The Story of a Brief Marriage was translated into seven languages, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. On the page and in person he is a magnetic interlocutor, his presence marked by tenderness. As Arudpragasam’s thoughts and ideas slowly unwind, his companions and readers join a new temporality and become more aware of the significance of the everyday.

 

Q

Shivani Radhakrishnan

— You wrote The Story of a Brief Marriage between 2011 and 2014, while you were doing a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University. Did you always intend to write novels?

A

Anuk Arudpragasam

— I had a clear vision of wanting to write from the age of about 19 or 20, when I first began to see writing as something a person could do. I didn’t grow up in a household of books or readers, and though my mother especially encouraged me to read as a child, I didn’t have a sense of literature as something around which you could develop tastes, much less a life. My encounters with books during adolescence were mostly accidental, and it was philosophy, not fiction, that was my first real reading obsession. I started reading philosophy around the age of 15, partly because it gave me some distance from the toxic environment of my school, partly because like a lot of young Tamils in Colombo during the war, I was seldom let out of the house alone for fear of being stopped or detained, which meant I spent a lot of time at home. It was only when I went to university that I began to appreciate that literature could also teach me something about life, and that’s when I began to read fiction in earnest. There was one novel in particular that changed my trajectory, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930–43). The novel is full of long, essayistic digressions on philosophical subjects, but because they’re located in a literary and narrative context, these reflections are emotionally charged in a way philosophy rarely is. It helped me understand that what I wanted could be done better in the novel, or at least in a certain kind of novel, than in conventional philosophy.

Q

Shivani Radhakrishnan

— I see your novels as a contribution to philosophy. They suggest that certain experiences can only happen in the first person. To speak abstractly about love or war is so different from being aware of their perceptual and sensual textures. What do you consider the connection between writing novels and thinking philosophically to be?

A

Anuk Arudpragasam

— I trained in what is called the analytic tradition, which tends to see philosophy as continuous with the sciences and to approach philosophical problems removed from the social, historical, psychological and bodily contexts in which they arise. This is very different from how we ask philosophical questions when we’re young, when something about a situation we inhabit moves us to seek out its boundaries, its invisible walls, with a kind of urgency or immediacy. These are often moments of attentiveness, of presence, but they’re also filled with a kind of wonder or mystery, part of which has to do with our inability to put these experiences into words, to articulate the ways in which they arrest us. These feelings of presence and wonder are forgotten when people pursue philosophy professionally, when they begin reducing these experiences into philosophical problems that they are then supposed to solve using logical ingenuity. A lot of academic philosophers, I’ve found, eventually cease to be moved by the questions they first asked.

Q

Shivani Radhakrishnan

— Your description of philosophy makes me think about how writing can also be an open-ended seeking, a search that does not require resolution.

A

Anuk Arudpragasam

— Most philosophers who come out of the analytic tradition see philosophy as consisting of various sets of problems, problems that they believe can be stated in a formal but relatively conventional language. This assumption sets up the expectation that solutions will come in the same form, in sentences composed in the same formal but conventional language. I spent a lot of time looking for such sentences, but gradually came to feel that very little of what I wanted from philosophy could be rendered in this pale, abstracted language. What I wanted from philosophy was not a declarative sentence but a mood I could internalise, a mood that would help me assimilate the world I lived in, that would make certain dimensions of life more salient. What philosophy has given me, instead, is a certain rigour and clarity, a sharpened sense of where solutions to life’s problems are not to be found. This involved some disappointment, but I hold dear the clarity that has come with that disappointment, the clarity of having the shape of what I am searching for, the outlines of its absence, more clearly demarcated.

Q

Shivani Radhakrishnan

— How would you describe the mood of your most recent novel, A Passage North? The book takes place in the wake of a death. Its protagonist, Krishan, is a Tamil man living in Colombo. As the novel opens he receives news that Rani, his grandmother’s caregiver, has died. He begins a journey to northern Sri Lanka for the first time since the war’s end. Much of A Passage North comprises recollections, involving both Krishan’s relationships to people and places, but also literary and political history. In the book you discuss yearning as related to these reflections.

A

Anuk Arudpragasam

— There’s a long discussion near the end of the book about desire and yearning, where both these states are characterised by what might be called a sense of absence, a sense that something is missing from life. What distinguishes the two is that to desire is to have a concrete sense of what is missing, of what one needs to find or obtain, whereas to be in a state of longing or yearning is to know that something is missing but not know what it is. To long or to yearn, in the way I am using the terms, is to desire without having an object of desire, and involves a certain kind of directionlessness. This is a slightly artificial distinction, easier to make in abstraction than in practice, but I’ve found it useful for thinking through what I was trying to do in this book. The novel’s main characters all yearn more than they desire, in the sense that they don’t know how to find or retrieve what it is they need. Krishan is suffused by longing for the world that existed in the north-east before the great violence of war, a world he never actually knew, as well as for a future Tamil world that might come to exist in its place, a world he hopes for but doesn’t know how to imagine. Appamma, his grandmother, is being pulled away from her ordinary life by her increasing immobility, her deteriorating senses, and what she lacks is not so much a specific person or object as the world itself, which is receding further and further from her every day. Rani, her nurse, who in a sense is the main subject of the novel, has lost her two sons during the last months of the war, and is unable to stop thinking about them, whether in flashbacks or nightmares or ordinary waking life. Unlike Krishan and Appamma she knows exactly what she is missing, but is condemned to a world in which they no longer exist. All the characters are constituted by a strong sense of absence, but are unable to concretely resolve or negotiate this feeling. The novel is a study of these different longings, of their directions, past and future, horizontal and vertical, and how these longings frame each character’s relationships with the world.

Q

Shivani Radhakrishnan

— I want to ask about loss. There are, of course, the losses incurred in war, but the narrator also seems to think about loss as a feature of life in general. It makes me think of Sigmund Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917): he proposes that mourning is something that can be resolved, while melancholy is more persistent. In A Passage North there’s a melancholic acknowledgement that to make any choice at all is to incur a loss.

A

Anuk Arudpragasam

— I see longing as a state that anybody who is attentive to life and not yet wounded beyond repair can inhabit. Insofar as what we need is something that used to exist and can no longer be found, something that we once had and now need to mourn, I suppose that longing can come close to melancholy. This melancholy is what I love most in W. G. Sebald’s writing, for example, in his characters who are always walking places, not so much walking as wandering. We get the sense that there’s no fixed direction they’re going in, or that they are devoted to pursuits that they know will not give them what they want. The longer you stay with his wandering narrators the more you question what is moving them in one direction or the other, what is governing the logic of their movements. You slowly begin to see that what they are looking for, without quite knowing it, is a world that existed pre-Holocaust, a community and a life-world that might have given them a sense of belonging or fulfilment. The reason that they wander here and there rather than in any specific direction is precisely because such a world no longer exists, because it has been wiped off the surface of the Earth. The power of Sebald’s work, for me, has to do with how it presents absence as something one can live with or live inside.

Q

Shivani Radhakrishnan

— Another thing that occurs to me, which feels adjacent to longing, is distance. Across the novel, Krishan is lost in various recollections. He thinks through a relationship with his former lover Anjum; he also reflects on Rani’s life once he learns of her death. Reflection more generally, in this book, seems to require distance. Krishan thinks about places he has lived but doesn’t live any longer; the war is considered after it ends. But distance in your work also means entanglement: just because Krishan isn’t in Sri Lanka during the war, or just because he’s no longer with Anjum, doesn’t mean these places and people don’t reverberate in the book.

A

Anuk Arudpragasam

— You’re right that distance comes up often in the book: the distance of longed-for landscapes, for example, or the distance between us and the objects of our desire. The most important distance in the book, I think, is the one that exists between the protagonist and the world of the former war zone, a distance which is geographic and also temporal. Almost all the events related in the book are events that have already happened, that are irretrievably in the past, and so there’s this distance between the protagonist and what he cares about, not in the sense that he is unconcerned with the subject matter but in the sense that he has no say or agency over it. I think this is a reflection of my own relation to the anti-Tamil violence during the war, because I only truly understood what happened after it was over. Like many Tamils outside the war zone I knew that there was a lot of civilian death as the war was coming to an end, but had no idea what its real magnitude was. I had no idea that the violence constituted, according to UN criteria, a genocide, and certainly no idea that it would become my subject over the next 10 years. When I did begin to understand what had happened, what I felt, above all, was a vivid lack of agency, and I wanted this lack of agency to be part of the emotional texture of the novel.

Q

Shivani Radhakrishnan

— This takes us to another aspect of distance – the different ways in which sight operates. It is such a prominent part of this book: from Krishan recalling the graininess of war images he encountered while living in Delhi, to his description of love not only being about looking to another person, but joining them to look out at something beyond.

A

Anuk Arudpragasam

— One of the working titles I used while writing was Visions. One of the things that’s distinctive about vision is the distance at which it can operate from the body. We see, generally, much farther than we can hear, and certainly much farther than we can smell, touch or taste, which are the senses that operate in closest proximity to the body. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but I wonder now if the importance given to vision in this novel is also a reflection of the protagonist’s psychic distance from the events of the war. It’s interesting because my first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, takes place in the midst of all the violence, and gives much more prominence to hearing than to vision. The protagonist’s consciousness is embedded less in a landscape than in a soundscape of endless explosions and screaming. And it makes sense, because what we hear often situates us in the present far more immediately than what we see, and can therefore be a lot more overwhelming. It reminds me of something that came up when I was teaching Dante’s Inferno a few years ago, how whenever Dante the character first enters a new level of hell, we are told not what he sees but what he hears. The eyes generally have a longer range of operation than the ears, which means we usually get to see things before we hear them, which means that by the time we’re close enough to hear things we usually already know what to expect. When it so happens, though, that we hear something before we see it, we’re often left shocked or terrified, because we haven’t had a chance to prepare ourselves for whatever it is and suddenly it is already in our midst. Having the protagonist hear the sounds of hell before seeing it creates this effect of disorientation, of finding oneself in a place one cannot make sense of. This is probably why sound was so prominent in my first novel, which was in fact an account of a version of hell, whereas in the second novel the priority is reversed, because we are dealing with a protagonist whose relationship to the violence is virtual, who witnesses it in silence across the sea, through images uploaded onto the internet by survivors.

Q

Shivani Radhakrishnan

— And what of vision and romance, which is something Krishan meditates on when he first encounters Anjum in A Passage North? The sections on their relationship are some of the only places in the book where the war isn’t present, but their relationship is also mediated by vision and distance.

A

Anuk Arudpragasam

— If we think about romantic or sexual desire as aiming at the incorporation of a desired body into our own bodies or into our lives, then we can think of desire as seeking to eliminate the distance between the self and the object of desire. And if we keep in mind the fact that the different senses operate at different distances, then we can think of flirtation or pursuit, at least in their conventional depictions, as moving across the sensory continuum: beginning with gaze, moving to voice, then to touch, to smell, and finally, in the ideal case, to taste, which might signify the completion or fulfilment of desire. You are right that gaze is the primary mode of interaction between the lovers in the novel, even though they do also touch and smell and taste each other, and I suppose that is because there is a distance between them that cannot be bridged, a distance that they might close physically but which is maintained by their different visions of the future, their different identities. I wanted to play with these different sensory modalities in depicting their erotic relationship, since the movement between gaze and touch seems so central to the dynamic between desire and possession.

Q

Shivani Radhakrishnan

A Passage North takes us through the war more obliquely than your first novel, through its psychic afterlife and how it recurs in unexpected places: in Krishan’s thinking about how Rani might feel to hear New Year’s fireworks because they might evoke shelling, for instance, or in his reflections about not being physically proximate to where the war’s toll, at least in terms of lives lost, was greatest.
A

Anuk Arudpragasam

— In part, A Passage North is an attempt to reflect on what was going on inside of me as I was writing my first novel. My first novel was written under the sign of annihilation, in proximity to intense and sustained death, and couldn’t have been further from the situation that I was in as I was writing it. I was a PhD student in philosophy living in New York at the time, young, healthy and psychically unharmed, with nothing in my environment or my body that would have reflected the events that I was writing about. The novel was a world that I entered into for several hours a day, almost every day for three years, and when I surfaced back to the world I was physically inhabiting I often found myself unable to fully assimilate it. I remember, for example, writing until 10.30 or 11 p.m. one Friday night when I’d promised some friends I’d go dancing with them. I finished my work, quickly got ready, and then biked across the borough to where my friends were. Within a space of 45 minutes I had gone from being immersed in the massacres against my people to being intoxicated at a warehouse somewhere in New York, surrounded by people who couldn’t point to Sri Lanka on a map. Part of me wanted to leave but another part wanted to stay and try to enjoy myself, which meant finding a means to be present without dismissing or disrespecting the world I had left behind. I did manage to dance that evening, but differently from how I usually dance, without facing or making eye contact with anyone. In general, there were a lot of conflicts of this nature as I was writing my first novel, conflicts between the mood demanded by the novel and the tenor of everyday life. Certain things I previously did unthinkingly suddenly felt frivolous or absurd or disrespectful, certain forms of humour or gossip, for example, or certain forms of lightheartedness. The fact that my first novel was so central to my inner life for three years meant that the rest of my life was subject to constant scrutiny, an interrogation of what was consonant and what was dissonant with the consciousness of genocide. My second novel is about that interrogation, about the everyday life of that consciousness.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

SHIVANI RADHAKRISHNAN is a writer whose work has appeared in n+1, The Washington Post, The Georgia Review, The Believer and others. She’s currently a PhD candidate in social philosophy at Columbia and in training to become a psychoanalyst at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies.

ANUK ARUDPRAGASAM is a Sri Lankan Tamil novelist. His first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016), was translated into seven languages, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. His second novel, A Passage North, is published by Granta (UK) and Hogarth (US) in July 2021.


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