In a conversation about a younger generation of Anglophone writers in India, Annie Zaidi’s name is bound to come up. From poetry to non-fiction to drama to a novella that is both ghost story and romance, her writing continually shifts forms, landscapes, and languages. Zaidi is the editor of Unbound: 2,000 years of Indian Women’s Writing and the author of Gulab, Love Stories # 1 to 14, and Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales. She is also the co-author of The Good Indian Girl. Her work has appeared in several anthologies including Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, Mumbai Noir, Women Changing India, and Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now. Zaidi spoke with me about her influences, process, and literary interests in an email interview.
Poorna Swami: Your grandfather was a well-known Urdu writer, and you have said in the past that literature was a big part of your childhood. How has that culture of language and literature influenced your career as a writer? Although you write primarily in English, does Urdu shape your work in any way?
Annie Zaidi: Literature was a big part of my childhood, but not in the sense of literature with a capital L. My family had some literary background, and there were a lot of books around but there were no literary discussions and for many years, I did not have access to a good library. But books were seen as a good thing and we were bought books and comics from an early age. Books were my main source of entertainment and, later, my main solace. I read almost all the time and that turned me into somebody who didn’t know much except the world of words and stories. Turning to literature as a vocation was a very short step from there.
Urdu was not a big part of my childhood. It was never taught in schools, and my grandfather was usually busy with his own writing and research, so he never really had the time to draw us kids into it. Most of us could speak a kind of colloquial Urdu, or Hindustani, but the high Urdu employed by many poets was far above our grasp. At some point, my mother became interested in her father’s work and she began to write letters to him, copying the text of his Urdu poems into Devnagari (the Hindi script) and asking him for the meanings of the more difficult words. He would write back with explanations. I also read these poems and I think this was my first conscious initiation into Urdu poetry.
But I believe I was subconsciously prepared for enjoying Hindi and Urdu poetry through film songs. It wasn’t until much later that I realized a lot of film lyricists were also highly-regarded Urdu poets and that they often used simpler language for their film work to make it more accessible to common folk. It was a great education. Gulzar is particularly enjoyable because of what he can do with language and metaphor within the popular entertainment framework.
PS: You have published in various genres—fiction, non-fiction, poetry—but is there one in which you feel most comfortable? Do you approach poetry and prose differently?
AZ: I don’t know really. Sometimes an idea occurs to me and I just go at it, and the question of genre is settled then and there. Other times I pause and think about the words and the way they are occurring to me and whether it ought to be prose, and what form and so on. Poetry is harder to approach in many ways. You’ve got to catch a poem at a precise moment. At least, I have to. If I postpone the moment of capture, or half-write it and then try to finish it later, it is mostly a failure. My recent approach to poetry is also much less disciplined. I don’t show it around much.
PS: Your characters’ relationships, experienced or aspirational, to Bombay seem thoughtfully layered, and you even published a story in the collection Mumbai Noir. How does your own relationship with Bombay affect your writing?
AZ: Where I live affects me a lot. I think this is probably true for most writers. Bombay/Mumbai is the city I’ve lived the longest now, and familiarity brings with it a different gaze. The repetitive experience of living there deepens all emotions and mixes them up. Safety and confidence gets mixed up with fear and anger. Anger gets mixed up with comfort or ennui. It is a very complex city, full of edge. When I write about it, it’s often a darker, harder sort of writing.
PS: I believe you wrote a Hindi play, Jaal. What made you write in Hindi, and was your process different from that of your English writing? Are you looking to write in Hindi again?
AZ: I often write scripts in Hindi. Scripts are a form in which you’ve got to imagine scenes—not only do you put down the words that characters may speak, but words they will actually speak out loud. I found that in the scene playing out in my head, the characters spoke Hindi. It is a play set in a rural landscape and it would have been a greater creative effort to have my characters speak English.
My scripts tend to be set within India and are not necessarily confined to upper-class, urban contexts. So I’m guessing there will be more Hindi writing.
PS: You recently edited Unbound: 2000 years of Indian Women’s Writing, a thematically, historically, and linguistically diverse anthology. Would you speak a little about this anthology project and the state of contemporary women’s writing (if there is such a thing) in India?
AZ: I have to confess that it was only when I began researching and reading for this anthology that I started thinking seriously about women’s literature in India. I had read the Susie Tharu-K Lalitha set a few years before and was vaguely aware that women have been writing for ages. But it was not until I went on to read whole books, and not just extracts, that it struck me how much of my own history—as a woman, as an Indian, as a citizen of a new nation in the twenty-first century—lay in the writings of women. Also, it became apparent at once that women have always used writing as a form of politics and activism.
I gained new insights about the different states, their histories and difficulties as experienced by women. My main intention in arranging the anthology (thematically) as I have done is to showcase the great diversity of theme and style and genre within the box labelled “Indian women’s literature.”
So, to answer the rest of your question, no, I don’t think there is any such thing as “contemporary women’s literature.” Or there might be, but I wouldn’t know how to define it. We tend to define women’s writing only in one way—which is, that it is not men’s writing. This is the problem really and there are all sorts of historical and political reasons why this is the way it is. Every sort of women’s ‘issue’ is linked to every other aspect of gender and identity politics and it makes very little sense to try and extricate only women’s literature from that whole mess and try to make sense of that in isolation.
PS: Several works in Unbound have been translated from various Indian languages. How did you select the translations?
AZ: By reading as much as I could find. I could read most things only as existing translations and it is often hard to tell whether its translator is failing a particular piece of writing or not. But if I liked it well enough in translation, I put it down on my list. In some cases, I sensed the translation was awkward. The translator was not familiar with idiomatic English, or didn’t know to shift between the rhythms of two languages. With poetry this is most evident, and I did squirm over some selections. But I looked at the strength of the ideas presented in the work and whether those seemed fresh, and whether they added more richness to the diversity I was trying to showcase. I did drop a couple of writers just because the one translation I found was so poor that it stripped away all beauty and novelty-of-idea and image from the original.
PS: Love seems to be a recurring theme in several of your works, across genres. What draws you to write about love?
AZ: Well, it’s the one thing that matters most to people. Besides staying alive. Almost everything else we want and work towards is another facet of staying alive, protecting ourselves from harm and the vagaries of the world and nature and so on. But love (not necessarily romantic love) is the only other thing that matters, and it is often the thing that drives people to rise above self-interest and even to squash that strongest of base instincts—survival. I look at the world and I see people damaged by a lack of love, or trying to learn how to love, or struggling to overcome their fear of love, or suffering from having loved, or questing for new love. It is harder to not write of love than to write of it.
Annie Zaidi writes fiction, non-fiction, poetry and scripts. She is the editor of Unbound: 2,000 years of Indian Women’s Writing and the author of Gulab, Love Stories # 1 to 14, and Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales. She is also the co-author of The Good Indian Girl. Her work has appeared in several anthologies including Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, Mumbai Noir, Women Changing India, and Griffith Review 49: New Asia Now.
Poorna Swami is a writer, choreographer, and dancer currently based in New York City. Originally from Bangalore, India, she is Editor-at-Large, India for Asymptote. Her poetry is forthcoming in Indiana Review.
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