Jahnavi Barua is a writer and critic, based on Bangalore. Her first book, Next Door, was a collection of short stories, and was very well received. She recently released her first novel, Rebirth, which captures a tumultuous marriage in the words of a young mother-to-be speaking to her child. Jahnavi’s stories are often set in Assam, her homeland, or populated with Assamese characters. She’s a strong proponent of the art of short stories – unfortunately, shorter-length fiction is not getting the attention it deserves these days. We asked her a few questions about her writing and her interests, and then asked her to list her must-read short story collections.
Q: Do you feel the art of the short story has evolved over the past decades? Modern stories seem to be a different beast from the ones written by, say Saki or Guy De Maupassant.
A: The short story actually evolved more rapidly during its early history than it has in the past few decades. In the beginning there was this prescriptive style of short story telling, where the author maintained a rigid control over the narrative, forcing it into a certain ineluctable conclusion. Consider the stories of Edgar Allen Poe and later O.Henry. Then the style changed considerably, authors relinquished this tight control and the short story became a more relaxed thing where often things could happen at random, where the traditional structure of a beginning, middle and end was often ignored and where, sometimes, nothing really happened at all. Chekov was perhaps one of the first to practise this.
In recent years, Alice Munro had perfected this art: reading her stories is like taking a lazy ride on a slow flowing river- you enjoy the water and the sun and the wind in your face; you admire the views and at the end of the ride, although nothing seems to have happened, something profound actually has. You have experienced something!
Q: Do you approach writing a short story differently from longer form fiction? In your case, does the idea come to you first, or the form?
A: Writing a short story, I find, requires a completely different approach from writing a novel. A short story demands that a lot be said in a small space with few words, while the novel has room for many words, so much so, that one has to be careful not to say too much. The idea comes to me first but almost immediately the form suggests itself.
Q: As an Indian, have you ever had a concept or thought that you couldn’t express in your writing in English at all (but could explain quite comfortably in Assamese/Hindi)?
A: No, I have not had a thought or idea yet that I couldn’t express in English.
Q: Please tell us a little about the association you mentioned at your launch – the association of Assamese Writers in English. Any links to sites/mailing lists would be welcome.
A: The North East Writers’ Forum started in 1997 with the intent of creating a space where writers from the eight North East states, especially those writing in English, could come together and share their ideas, experiences and work. It grew into a highly successful forum and is now a solid platform for writers from the North-East. The website is www.newritersforum.com – all contact details are given there.
Q: What’s your ‘guilty pleasure’ – genre/non-serious fiction that you read only for fun? 🙂
A: Guilty pleasure! Well, I read history for fun and also anything to do with the world of medicine. At the other end of the spectrum, I also love stuff on gardening and on birds…
So, what short stories do you like? Any recommendations for us?
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
This collection of 9 stories has Alice Munro at her best as she tells us the stories of men, women and children entangled in human relationships. In her inimitable style – elliptically, ever so subtly – she tells us many things without seeming to say anything at all.
A Multitude of Sins
Richard Ford’s is a voice that is robust, hard-bitten, cynical even, but in this collection as he masterfully excavates the chaos of human relationships, he tempers his own style with a unique tenderness.
How To Breathe Underwater
An outstanding debut by a young author. Like many great authors before her, Orringer presents us with breathtaking slices of life, effortlessly and with great visual drama.
Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner
Faulkner’s stories are deeply rooted in his native soil of Mississippi and reading this collection gives one a clear sense of how place and a sense of deep belonging can colour one’s writing.
The Shadow of Kamakhya
One of the greatest Assamese living authors, Indira Goswami’s work is marked by her deep empathy with her subject. this collection is a good way to acquaint oneself with her work.