JCB Prize 2020 shortlist | Deepa Anappara on storytelling and what it counts for
In this first of a series of essays, written exclusively for Lounge, by writers shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020, Deepa Anappara looks back on writing her debut novel, 'Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line'
One rainy morning you leave for your sister’s hospital to pick up a prescription for morphine. She is six years younger than you and she has stage four cancer, and the pain behind her ribs will not let her sit or walk or sleep. In a metal chair outside the doctor’s office, below a halting ceiling fan, you work on your masters’ dissertation, a novel about a nine-year-old boy searching for his missing friends. The room is full of the voices of patients and caregivers, and the light is artificial but mercifully dim. Your feet are planted on earth, but you feel untethered, as if you are a leaf let go by a tree. Time like a river warps around you. Your dissertation is due in a week. You can ask your university for an extension, but you want it to be over. You have already given this degree two years of your life, and almost the entirety of your savings. You suspect you are too old to be doing this.
When you were young your parents hoped you would be a doctor and, all these years later, you wish you had listened to them. Your creative writing degree and your novel cannot cure disease. You always knew this but only as you knew the warmth of a distant flame. Now sparks char your skin and around you is the smell of smoke and your fingers snag against the words you type.
On your way back with the morphine pills, you text a friend and say, how can I write about a boy who is happy? You text your husband, who is in a different time-zone and perhaps still sleeping, and say, I will never be happy again. At a traffic junction you see a woman cursing passers-by, her hands slapping their helmets, her spit streaking the windscreens of cars, and you know she’ll reappear as a character in this novel you may or may not finish.
You reach home and you wait with your sister for the morphine to dampen her pain. What story can you tell of this moment that infuses it with meaning or shape or form? When you were a child you spent your summer holidays at a grand-aunt’s house and after you returned home you heard her call out to you for days, but one morning the sound became indistinct and then altogether disappeared. On a scale of one to ten your sister’s pain becomes seven and then five and you should be relieved but all you can think about is how quickly time erases voices and words. Every memory is a photo curling and fading within a frame.
In your family you do not share feelings or fears. A man once chastised you for saying sorry and thank you. You’re not American, he said. Why would you speak like that? You sit with your laptop in the dark and write about this boy darting through the alleys of an unnamed settlement on the outskirts of an unnamed city. He is a naive, energetic child who, upon learning about the disappearances of children in his neighbourhood, contrives a story that he is a detective and, in this way, convinces himself that he is invincible.
You consider loss only through his lens. You chafe at the notion that a fictional character must be created from authorial experience, or that art has value only if rooted in autobiography. This boy, your main narrator, lives solely in your mind, but he is also separate from you. But because he witnesses the grief of others, you foolishly hope that he can instruct you on how to live, or that some meaning that has eluded you will reach you through his consciousness. Characters, unlike you, may have epiphanies.
You submit your dissertation.
There are weeks when you don’t write because words don’t appear to contain the same efficacy as, say, morphine, and your sister should be buying clothes on the internet like anyone else her age and not researching clinical trials of drugs with mysterious-to-you combination of numbers affixed to their unpronounceable names. There are weeks when you write because you are wondering about the fate of the boy in your novel, and the yarn he has spun, and you wish to discover if his story can save him (and even in your most hopeless moments you still hope that perhaps by extrapolation, by some unimaginable miracle, maybe he’ll save you). Your novel is simultaneously your life and an escape from its stranglehold. It inhabits two opposing spaces and, in brief moments of clarity, you worry that what you are writing cannot be a novel. You imagine serious writers considering the rhythm and cadence of their sentences, the shape of their scenes, the inventiveness of their narrative arcs, and you, meanwhile, alternately furious and depressed and befuddled, seeking an emotional truth that possibly can’t be found within the margins of a Microsoft Word document. How can this work? But then two years pass and you complete your novel and it is picked up for publication and people write to you to say, you must be so thrilled, and you agree because you think it would be churlish to disagree. Your horrors must remain as invisible as your dreams.
When the pandemic forces an early end to your book events, others express commiserations, but a part of you is relieved to be granted permission to retreat. Like driftwood you washed up on the shore of various cities, marked and bruised and perhaps even hollowed out by time. You have been here before. You are practised in the art of wearing anxiety such that it merges with your skin, and bargaining with gods you don’t quite believe exist. For three years now, you have registered the passage of time as the ticking of a clock, a familiar sound that the turning of your life has rendered sinister. You are an expert at grieving that which has already been lost or may soon be lost.
Established wisdom tells you, don’t take decisions in the middle of seismic changes in your life, or don’t write in the middle of grief. You read an article in which the reviewer remarks that they found a certain novel by a celebrated novelist perplexing, until they realised that the novelist had been deeply depressed at the time of writing it. You sympathise with the novelist. You know of no other way to exist but to make and remake the world in your stories. The boy whose capers you followed for two years is now enclosed within your book. You imagine he brings to its pages a kind of clarity, though you also fear that the central image is distorted, as if you are underwater and looking at a yellow orb that may or may not be the sun. You can call this murkiness a failure of the craft or of the imagination or you can say it’s honest. You hope the boy and his story suggest a way of being in a world where nothing is certain and you’re always only a hair’s breadth away from vanishing. And you must insist, that too has to count for something, right?
Deepa Anappara is the award-winning author of the novel Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line, shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020.