Friday 29 May 2020

Short story writer Janet H Swinney Chats With Elaine Chiew

Credit: Janet H Swinney; Design: Kay Green

Bio:  Janet H Swinney is a former education inspector who grew up in the North East of England, got her political education in Scotland and now lives in London. She has longstanding connections with India that have deeply influenced her writing. Her work has appeared in print anthologies and online journals across the UK, India and America, and has been listed in many competitions. Her story ‘The Map of Bihar’ was nominated for the Eric Hoffer prize for prose 2012. She was a runner-up for the London Short Story Prize 2014. She has written features articles for the UK press including the Guardian and the Times

Synopsis: The Map of Bihar is a collection of stories about yearning; about aspiration thwarted and fulfilled. Faced with the constraints of culture, caste, class, poverty and the complexities of modern-day life, individuals from opposite sides of the globe strive for something better. Their ambition takes many forms. While some reach out towards a distant vision of fulfilment, the best that others can hope for is simply to survive. And while some turn out to be adept at grabbing opportunities, others are not so fortunate. Between them, they display resourcefulness, resilience, vulnerability and, sometimes, a pungent sense of humour. 

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Janet. Congratulations on The Map of Bihar, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. The short stories take place primarily in India and the northeast of England.  Why these two locations?

JHS: Thanks for inviting me, Elaine. I was born and grew up in a village in the North East of England. I couldn’t wait to get away from the place. It was a very close-knit community, where everybody knew what you were up to, and was very keen to tell you not to do it. It wasn’t until I had to go back many years later that I realised the strengths of that community, even though much had happened politically and economically in the intervening years to undermine them.   I was brought up as a Christian, but I thought the teachings were flawed. When I was a teenager, I started casting around for something else. I became interested in Indian philosophy, and I started practising yoga. I wanted to go to India to find a guru. But for a young woman with no money and no worldly wisdom, that was a complete impossibility.

Then, in 1973, I was at Leeds University ostensibly studying for a teaching qualification, but in reality doing everything to avoid it, and met the composer, Naresh Sohal. Our interests in yoga philosophy and music drew us together and that was the start of a relationship that lasted until he died in 2018, forty-five years later. Naresh gave me an extensive drubbing about the shortcomings of the British Raj, which I had to concede was justified. Over the time we were together, we visited India frequently, staying with his family in Punjab and exploring many other parts of the country.

Credit: Naresh Sohal
EC: From your perspective, what were some important themes you wanted to draw out in your stories? 

JHS: The stories were written over an extended period of time, so I can’t really say that I set out with specific themes in mind. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I can see that there are themes.

A lot of contemporary fiction writing seems to be of a psychological bent, obsessed with the nuances of troubled personal relationships. There’s a great deal of emphasis on interiority and personal reflection. I’m more interested in the sociological, in how people deal with situations that are thrust upon them; that they find themselves in because they belong to a particular race, class or gender, or that are the result of  some ill-conceived government policy. Life can be bizarre and the parameters you’re expected to operate within contradictory. There are plenty of examples around at the moment as the UK struggles to deal with the Covid crisis: ‘Stay at home, unless you have to go out,’ ‘Go to work, but don’t use public transport that’s your only means of getting there.’ Society or Fate deals you a ridiculous hand of cards, and you, the ordinary mortal, think: what the hell am I going to do with these? On the whole, it’s people near the bottom of the pile economically who are most acutely affected by these things, so that’s who I tend to write about.

EC: I am particularly impressed when you enter into the heads of certain characters and we hear the Northern English or Indian lilt, because they add an entire metatextual and linguistic layer to the sociocultural themes of race, class and belonging in these stories. What are your strategies for honing in on regional voices and getting it right?

JHS: You’re right about the importance of language. It’s an intrinsic part of personal identity. It carries all kinds of markers about class, age, where you come from, which sub-culture you belong to and so on.  Linguistics is a fascinating subject, and I studied it at university while other people were slogging away at tedious tosh like Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’.

In my own family, language usage changed significantly over three generations. The voices of these generations are planted very deeply within me, and I just have to listen to them in my head when my characters speak. My own way of speaking changed, per force, when I left home. When I return, I revert in large part to my original voice. This is a very weird experience because it brings your own multiple identities into conflict. I’m sure lots of people experience it.

Listening to those around you is the key, of course, and my natural interest in language usage keeps me alert. I lived and worked in Scotland for thirteen years, and enjoyed being in that different linguistic milieu. One thing I discovered is that Lowland Scots is, in some ways, close to the way my grandparents’ generation spoke, which shows that national boundaries are artificial constructs and that culture and language are entities that resist political attempts to proscribe them.

One thing that intrigues me about Indian English, is the way the middle-class variant is developing along lines that take it away from British English and closer to American English. This gives quite a lot of scope for cross-cultural misunderstanding, which is ripe for exploration through fiction. When I’m travelling, I like to eavesdrop on conversations, and I sometimes take notes.

The Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon, in particular, showed me that it was possible to write using the vocabulary, cadences and idioms of a specific region in a way that is powerful, beautiful and of value. This was a big boost to the confidence of someone from outside the metropolis. At the same time, I’m impressed by the ability of Amitav Ghosh to reinvent a plurality of historical varieties of English so comprehensively that you feel the vibrancy of the period he’s writing about. Why write if you’re not going to explore at least some of the possibilities that language has to offer?

EC:  The characters that tell these stories are sometimes unexpected: there’s a stray cat (Degsie’s All-Time Runners), a care home boy (The Queen of Campbeltown), an Indian father trying to marry his daughter off (The Map of Bihar), an artwork even (Veil). How do your stories first start to germinate: character, voice, or something else?

JHS: The ways that ideas come to me are many and various. Someone may tell me an anecdote and I’ll think: ‘That has real dramatic potential’, or a phrase may come into my head and I can’t get rid of it until I’ve worked out where it might be leading – that can take years – or I glimpse something from a train window, a woman drawing water from a pump, for example, and I’ll think about the scene for a long time until I feel I have a handle on the backstory and some idea of the events that surround it, or there might be something in my own life experience that I think is illustrative of something bigger.

I do sometimes have to think: ‘What is the vehicle that will help me tell this story?’ and that may lead me to create a character with a certain point of view, such as the cat, or the statue. The one thing I can’t do, though, is generate ideas from writing exercises. Nope. Dead loss, that.

EC: The humour in the collection is exquisite. I found myself chuckling over many turns of phrase or surreal happenings (for example, the old guy and his toilet crashing through the ceiling onto the toilet below in the first story). Does humour come quite naturally to you as you’re crafting a story, or is there a lot of hidden effort involved?  

JHS: I’m glad you appreciated that. There’s no hidden effort at all. Life can be dark, but it usually has some funny stuff stuck to the underside. Our lives are full of bizarre juxtapositions, some of which are thrust upon us, and some of which we generate ourselves because we’re sometimes prone to cognitive dissonance. So Barbara in Is it Sunday Yet? , a story in the collection, is out for a night at the opera in her best clothes, but still thinks it’s a good idea to try and make an escape through a toilet window. 

EC:  Among the most powerful and intriguing of the stories are those that tell about ordinary lives which take on a violent turn seemingly out of nowhere (Leonardo’s Cart, The Map of Bihar, Washing Machine Wars). Do you believe that violence and menace ride close to mundaneness in our everyday life, which we blithely ignore or fail to detect?

JHS: Many people live in circumstances where unreasonable things are being asked of them all the time. They’re disrespected at work, have no time off and don’t have enough money to live on. This creates a situation like a pressure cooker. Most people carry on until they drop like Boxer, the faithful horse, in Animal Farm, but for some of us there comes a point when the valve on the pressure cooker just blows. This is what happens to Patti in The Work of Lesser-Known Artists, another story in the collection. She has a moment to consider what she’s doing and then, pow!

I also think civilisation is a very thin veneer over society, and it doesn’t take much for that veneer to peel off. If one or two civil institutions wobble, violence, particularly communal violence, can flare up after generations of peaceful co-existence.  It’s happening all over the place: in the former Yugoslavia for example and, more recently, in India. In 2011, civil unrest erupted in the UK, and that was the stimulus for me writing Washing Machine Wars, a story set in London about the sudden surfacing of Hindu/Muslim conflict.

EC:  What next in the pipeline for you in terms of writing?

JHS: I’m finalising my second collection of short stories. This focuses more tightly on the tangled relationships between Brits and Indians from the days of the Raj until the present time. The stories span India and the British Asian diaspora, with characters moving to and fro between those two locations.  As India and the UK struggle towards their respective futures on increasingly divergent paths, tensions run high, values collide and there’s plenty of scope for cultural confusion. Inevitably, politics have their part to play.

And, I’m trying to find a home for my play ‘One Million People, Full Stop’, based on the stories and vignettes of the Indo/Pak writer Saddat Hasan Manto, whose work has taken on a new immediacy given the turmoil caused by the Indian government’s introduction of its Citizenship Amendment Act. 

EC: Thank you for joining us on Asian Books Blog.
NB: The Map of Bihar is available from the publisher's website: Circaidy Gregory Press and Speedyhen Books UK and Amazon.