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JCB Prize 2020 shortlist | Annie Zaidi on how to tell the living story

In part three of a series of essays, written exclusively for Lounge by writers shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020, Annie Zaidi talks about zombification of form and how to avoid it

Writer Annie Zaidi. Photo: Harneet Singh.
Writer Annie Zaidi. Photo: Harneet Singh.

Consider the zombie. What separates it from a human? Both walk, both get hungry, both are capable of violence, both can – in different ways – reproduce, and anyone who has ever seen a zombie apocalypse movie knows that the undead can be clever in pursuit of their goals. What a zombie is not, is self-interrogative. If it was, we’d think it human.

Over the last few years, there has been some literary debate about the death of the novel. I laughed at it before but now I wonder if our fear is not so much that the novel might be dead as that it may be undead. Many more novels get published than at any time before, but how many of them have a throbbing pulse?

A few years ago, I was asked to be on a jury for a fiction award. I agreed, for I couldn’t think of anything I liked better than weeks of intense reading. A carton was delivered home with about a hundred books inside. My excitement gave way first to disappointment, then to alarm. Many of the nominated books left me straining to finish. I was turning pages out of a sense of duty, and it wasn’t just me. I was alarmed because I have no quarrel with iffy grammar, or the mixing of English with words from other Indian languages, or with sentimentalism. I like sharp accents. I like ‘genre’ literature. I like kitsch. I like stylistic experiments. What I don’t like is ennui, and of ennui I had half a cartonful.

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My thoughts at the time were uncharitable: this book takes a few bites out of other prize-winning books and digests poorly. Or, x author seems to have a serious case of y author. Later, I grew ashamed of these thoughts; I know that being inspired by what you read is inevitable and even with a tiresome book, a close reading affords glimpses of the author’s mind. Close and empathetic readings, however, cost too much. It takes a ton of emotional labour to look for the spark of life – a pulse! – in predictable novels packed with overused narrative tropes.

Many more novels get published than at any time before, but how many of them have a throbbing pulse?

I was also alarmed because I was a young writer hoping to write a few novels myself. As it is, most publishers are lukewarm towards short stories and cold to plays and poems. For them, the prize is a novel that smells fresh, is clever, in sync with its times, reasonably accessible, and ideally, a page turner. A tightrope act over a bed of hot coals. Worse was the realization that readers who enjoy a tightrope-over-hot-coals act will be amused by it once or twice. They’ll want trapeze acts next, or fire-eating clowns, or philosophizing tigers. I knew this, because I was primarily a reader of fiction, and I sensed my own growing impatience with contemporary fiction. Did it make any sense trying to write fiction?

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I’d been trying to write a novel since my early 20s. After a few years of working as a news reporter, I went off on a writing residency and, for ten weeks, wrote with military discipline. Once the story spilled over 80,000 words, I thought I had a first novel. I shared the manuscript with a couple of writer friends and heard, “it needs work”.

Of course, it needed work! It’s a first draft, I thought and put the manuscript away. Looking at it with cool eyes after several weeks, I saw that it lacked a pulse. I could make it walk, but it would be the stiff walk of the undead. In retrospect, it is difficult to say why it lacked grace and urgency. Perhaps the problem was that it was an approximation of what I thought a good novel should be (love in the shadow of political violence etcetera), rather than a story that was fighting to make its way out of me.

The front cover of 'Prelude to a Riot' published by Aleph Book Company.
The front cover of 'Prelude to a Riot' published by Aleph Book Company.

I junked that manuscript, salvaging only two chapters that made their way into a book I co-wrote with Smriti Ravindra. The Good Indian Girl (Zubaan 2011) was a madcap venture, dodging categorization as fiction or non-fiction. Whether or not it was good, it was honest. I’d also published a book of essays that combined reportage with travel and memoir. Over the next decade, I wrote plays, movie scripts, short stories, regardless of whether they got published, produced or performed.

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Letting go of the first novel helped. I came to see the difference between writing because I wanted to be a writer, and writing because I felt moved to write. With fiction particularly, I followed my instinct and avoided all thoughts about who would publish it. I was prepared to self-publish Prelude to a Riot if it came to that. A set of soliloquies mixed up with poetry and newspaper classifieds isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was mine and that was reason enough to write it. Besides, I firmly believe that readers don’t really know what they want until they see it.

I buy a lot of books and I don’t know what I’m looking for, only that I should not be bored. Let them take me down tunnels of discomfort, grief, caution, disappointment, happy accidents, panic, excision, shock, mirth. Let me have stories I can argue with. A weird story that answers only to its own name and will not accept any genre tag. A purposeful story that doesn’t carry a placard. A sprawling conquest of a story that doesn’t smell of ambition. Anything except more of the same.

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Writers as different as Alexandre Dumas, Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Hilary Mantel, Vikram Seth, Doris Lessing, Douglas Adams, P.G. Wodehouse have breathed life into the novel, simply through writing the way they felt moved to write. Not all their work is equally compelling to all tastes, but it certainly isn’t predictable. Can you imagine what would have become of the novel if our favourite writers had followed the dictates of the market and written the sort of books that were bestsellers the year before? One Marquez is a bittersweet dreamscape. A hundred would-be-Marquezes is a magic-surrealist zombie outbreak.

I buy a lot of books and I don’t know what I’m looking for, only that I should not be bored. Let them take me down tunnels of discomfort, grief, caution, disappointment, happy accidents, panic, excision, shock, mirth. Let me have stories I can argue with.

As publishing and filmmaking get cheaper, our minds, bookshelves and screens feel crowded in by ‘content’. We have to work that much harder to locate stories that rejuvenate the form, and which restore to us our capacity for independent thought and transformative action. We need stories that work through inversion and subversion as Ursula le Guin did with The Left Hand of Darkness, challenging conventional ideas around gender fluidity, that play with narrative form assumptions as Paul Auster did with his New York trilogy, that mix up formal legacies as Afzal Ahmed Syed does with contemporary prose poetry in Urdu, and we need new twists in ancient tales. Medieval fairy tales were losing relevance for twentieth first century girls until film writers turned princess into ogress, and showed that ‘the one true love’ could mean sister or mother, or the huntsman rather than the prince. It was imperative to break the old assumptions simply because that is the way of truth.

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Novels, drama, journalism, cinema have the capacity to heal society through truth and contradiction, and the clarity that comes with insight. However, we do run a risk of zombification if form, content and the processes that enable storytelling grow rigid, if similarity becomes more attractive than novelty, or if we are reduced to an algorithm that doesn’t let us chance upon what it doesn’t predict we’ll like. We saw this happen with Hindi television serials and commercial cinema in recent years; whatever is radically different is buried out of sight, and eventually not produced at all on the grounds that it lacks an audience. I need not describe the danger of the stultification of literature in any society, but perhaps I should.

If we’re not careful to make room for the unfamiliar, our stories will taste of putrefaction. We would do well to remember that the scariest thing about a zombie outbreak is not that live people get chewed up. To decay en masse, to hurt others in turn, to be incapable of healing – therein lies the horror.

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Annie Zaidi is a writer and journalist. Her novel Prelude To A Riot is shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    11.10.2020 | 09:36 AM IST

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