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Oprah picks Mumbai debut writer Shubhangi Swarup for her summer list

The author of the JCB Prize shortlisted ‘Latitudes Of Longing’ speaks about her journey from struggling to publish to finding success

Writer Shubhangi Swarup. Photo by Nikhil Hemrajani
Writer Shubhangi Swarup. Photo by Nikhil Hemrajani

Since its outbreak, the pandemic has been wreaking havoc in the publishing industry around the world, though it hasn’t been an unmitigated disaster for everyone. Mumbai-based writer Shubhangi Swarup, for instance, has had a dream run in the last few weeks, filled with exciting surprises.

First, her debut novel, Latitudes Of Longing, found homes in the UK and US after a wait of nearly two years. Then, in June, Oprah Winfrey’s O, The Oprah Magazine included it in its summer reading recommendations, praising it as “a marvel of magic realism". Actor and entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop book club followed suit, choosing it for its members last month. From struggling to find a publisher, Swarup is suddenly riding high, tasting the kind of success literary fairy tales are made of.

First published in 2018 by HarperCollins India and shortlisted for the prestigious JCB Prize for Literature that year, Latitudes Of Longing has been a best-seller in the country. Critics have generally loved it, too, but it wasn’t easy to find takers abroad.

“You would think being on the shortlist of a major literary prize would help," Swarup says on the phone. “But it didn’t in my case." After working with a UK-based agent for a while and facing scores of rejections, she shifted to an agency in Europe. Within days, her fortunes turned. The book was picked up by Oneworld in the US and Riverrun in the UK and is going to be translated into 10 languages worldwide.

Latitudes Of Longing is a curious mishmash of stories and ideas, moving from the quiet splendour of the Andaman Islands to the inclement heights of the Karakoram range. Its major characters are idiosyncratic, inhabiting different timelines but tied to one another via affective bonds, especially through their relationship with the natural world.

The narrative mood keeps shifting from a clinical, scientific tone to a nebulous realm of beliefs and sorcery that do not obey physical laws. A see-saw of conflicting emotions also rends through nature. Tsunamis, earthquakes and avalanches punctuate the pages of the novel—as much as portents of climate change as signs of a spiritual crisis ripping through the fabric of humanity.

With its ghosts and humans, psychics and scientists, Latitudes Of Longing may appear to be rooted to a specifically Asian geographical and cultural milieu but many readers outside India have responded to its themes with warmth. “I have been having what I would call deeply spiritual conversations with people in the US about the universality of the themes in the story," Swarup says. “Details that I, or readers in India, didn’t notice are being brought to my attention for the first time."

Swarup says it has been fulfilling, for instance, to have “readers read my work without knowing what my nationality or gender was, when these details didn’t matter". A girl in Sweden assumed she was a man, and there were many who read a work by an Indian writer for the first time when they picked up her book. “To be judged by the page, without any other expectation or preconceived notion, to not be ‘told’ who I should be, or what my writing ought to be like, means a lot to me," she adds.

But in spite of such rousing validation, Swarup isn’t forgetful of her arduous and unpredictable route to becoming a writer. “We read the success stories but we don’t get to see the real journey," she says. “And such perceptions often turn out to be misleading for the next generation." For now, though, the story of her rise shines like a beacon for aspiring writers, struggling through the last few months of uncertainty and looking into an unknown future.

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