Tuesday 16 August 2016

A Conversation with Susmita Bhattacharya

Susmita Bhattacharya is from Mumbai, India. Her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian), was published in March 2015. She is the winner of the Winchester Writers’ Festival Memoir competition 2016, and her writing has appeared in several magazines and journals in the UK and internationally including Structo, The Lonely Crowd, Litro, Wasafiri, The Bangalore Review, ElevenEleven (USA), Mslexia, Commonwealth Writers, Tears in the Fence, and on BBC Radio 4. She has recently moved to Winchester from Plymouth, where she taught English and hosted creative writing workshops. She is an Associated Lecturer at Winchester University.

Her novel The Normal State of Mind deals with difficult subject matter such as the illegality of homosexuality as well as life in contemporary India. 

It's the end of a millennium. India has made tremendous progress in science and technology, but in these times of economic boom can a friendship between two women give them the power to defy society, and law, to reach for their dreams?

Dipali, a young bride, is determined to make her marriage a success story. But her plans are cut short when her husband is killed by a bomb blast in Mumbai. Forced into a life of widowhood, her brother expects her to sacrifice her own independence for the sake of caring for her elderly mother but Dipali has other ideas.

Moushumi, a school teacher, discovers that her attraction to women is not just a girl crush. As her parents discuss potential husbands, Moushumi escapes to her high-flying lover. But how long can she keep being a lesbian secret beyond the safe walls of glamorous art crowd parties?

In the midst of communal riots and gay rights movements, India too has to make her own decisions about which traditions she must keep, and which she ought to let go. At the end of it all, who can decide what is the normal state of mind?

You can read more about Susmita's writing via her blog, Her Writing Life.

We thank Susmita for participating in our Conversation and wish her every success with her new novel and look forward to seeing more of her writing in the future.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

I remember always writing as a child. I had an old diary, and a green ink pen. I wrote poetry in green ink, because I believed that’s what gave it credibility. I must have been 7 or 8 then. I wrote adventure stories, in the style of Enid Blyton and illustrated them in old school notebooks in the summer holidays. I was very lucky, my English teacher in school was a wonderful lady, who recognised my potential and encouraged me to keep writing and improve my skill. She taught us how to read, really read a text, appreciate it, learn from it, develop our own style of writing.

After school, I didn’t write much. I went to art college, and then worked as a graphic designer. I wrote the occasional short story, but it was only after I got married and joined my husband at sea, as he was in the merchant navy, that I had all this time to actually write. I wrote letters, journals, stories, about my travels, my experiences, and a few novels were even attempted.

It’s only after he left his sea career and we moved to Cardiff in 2004, that I realised creative writing is actually an academic subject. I was new to the UK, didn’t have a job, and wanted to enrol in some courses at the university. The Lifelong Learning department had a few Creative Writing courses, and I signed up for one. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. The tutor was an absolute inspiration, she encouraged me to better my writing, and eventually suggested I do the MA in Creative Writing. I started taking my writing seriously then and embarked on a long, long journey writing my first novel. After ten years, it was finally published by Parthian last year.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I write because I enjoy writing. But I know that I also want to use my experience as a writer to be able to enthuse young people to write, and read. I enjoy hosting workshops and working with people from all sorts of backgrounds, be it school children, refugees, cancer patients, anyone with a love for writing. I also want to write about themes close to my heart, and because I love reading books set in different countries and cultures, I want to add my own books to the list of diverse books for people to read!

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?
Hmmm interesting question. I wrote a short story about a woman who was badly bullied in school, but grew up to be a successful career woman. She bumps into the girl who bullied her at school, who is now not having a very good life. It made an interesting meeting, and conversations, where I began to feel sorry for the bully, and didn’t really take to the successful woman, who with her sense of superiority started giving the other woman a hard time.

Last year, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

Since I am a ‘diverse’ author, my characters have been diverse, which means they are not diverse to me, in that sense of the word. For me, diverse is writing about a white person living in the West. I was very nervous to write about them because I felt I would not be able to portray them authentically. I am finding my confidence to write about people from all kinds of backgrounds, because in the end, human nature and relationships are similar anywhere in the world.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

I would love to return to Mumbai, and since all this is happening magically, I’d love to have a little cottage by the sea near Mumbai. Write on a balcony with a sea view, while being constantly supplied with coconut water and prawn fry. A well stocked library, and a well stocked fridge, friends, family and regular train journeys to Mumbai would be my fodder for a great writing life!

What is the one book you wish you had written?

I wish I had written A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It’s a beautifully written book about the lives of a widowed Parsi woman, Dina, two tailors who work for her business at her home, and a young man who comes from a distant town to work in the city and is a lodger in Dina’s home. It is set during the Emergency in India. The language is beautiful and the plot is so intricate, and the story so touching, it transports me straight into their lives every time I read it.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

It’s not any new advice, but the same old, same old. But it works. Read. Write. Read. Read. Read. Write. If you are lucky to find a writers’ group that works for you, then it’s a great opportunity to share your work, read others’ works and discuss. Be open to criticism and do not look down on other people’s work. Everyone has their own readership, and audience which may work or may not work for you.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I am currently working on my second novel, and also a few memoir essays. I hope to have my collection of short stories published. I'd love to write a travel memoir of my time at sea with my husband.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

My favourite character has got to be Swami, from Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan. I read Enid Blyton as a kid, and fantasised about having adventures on the moors and islands. But I didn’t know what a moor was. I had never tasted potted meat or ginger beer. But here was Swami, a naughty little boy in the imaginary village of Malgudi. His adventures, or rather misadventures, were more relatable. The stories were adapted into a hugely popular television serial, and it was a topic of discussion in school. We all wanted to do the things that Swami and his friends did! The theme song is playing in my head as I type this!

It is sad that regional literature was not encouraged, and it was not cool to read anything other than English, when I was in school. There was a disconnect with what I read and what I experienced, as the geographies, culture, language, everything was different. I read Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and I read and re-read Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.  Maybe that was another book I could relate to because it could have happened anywhere.

Thank you for having me on the Greenacres Writers Blog. 

The Normal State of Mind is published by Parthian.

You can follow Susmita on Twitter: @susmitatweets

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