Susmita Bhattacharya is a writer born in Bombay, India. She’s published many works of short fiction, and in May 2015, her novel, The Normal State of Mind, will be published. To learn more, visit Susmita’s website. I want to thank Susmita for answer my questions!
What is your approach to doing a public reading? Are you a theatrical person, do you get nervous, any advice or particularly memorable readings?
I’m not a theatrical person, but have always enjoyed doing public readings. I love the vibes one gets from interacting with the audience. Since I was a kid, I used to perform at piano recitals and I suppose that gave me the confidence to stand up in front of a crowd and perform. I would say preparation before reading always helps. Recording my voice and listening back also highlights where and when to pause, speak with the correct expression etc. Reading my own work to an audience and seeing their reactions as I read gives me a real high. Question and answer sessions are great fun too, and I learn a lot from them, what the audience enjoyed or what they didn’t understand. I like a good debate as well!
I’ve had several memorable reading experiences, including standing next to an Indian elephant in an English garden, not a real elephant, I must confess but very life like. Also reading to an audience where my school English teacher attended and that was such an honour.
But I think the one that meant the most to me was the book reading I did from my debut novel at Plymouth International Book Festival in 2014. I had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and I had to have my first chemotherapy session the next day. The venue was packed with family, friends and well-wishers, old students and colleagues. Their presence and encouragement gave me the strength to face the journey I was to take in the months to come, and an evening of reading, laughing, hugs and good wishes went a long way to help me through my treatment.
How do you facilitate creative writing in your community?
I have a Masters in the Practice and Teaching of Creative Writing, and this wonderful programme at Cardiff University gave me the opportunity to be able to facilitate workshops and do creative writing lessons for the community through the library services and the museum in Plymouth. I’ve had ‘students’ in their 80s and I have learnt much more from them about life than they have about writing from me! I must say that when I first moved to Cardiff, I joined an evening creative writing class, and it was there that I was inspired by my wonderful tutor, Bella Kemble to take writing seriously. I also did a workshop for top engineering students at The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kharagpur, India and that was another valuable experience. That these students, with their scientific and logical minds, could produce really great pieces of writing was great.
I see a lot of lists that name the top women in publishing that we should read “RIGHT NOW!” What is your response to those kinds of lists?
I don’t like lists that say we ‘should’ do this or not. Reading is subjective and I don’t believe that I have to read whatever the world dictates one should read. Yes, lists are helpful in getting to know new names, new books. But in the end, it’s up to me who I think I should read or not. The same way, I don’t jump onto the bandwagon and read the latest award-winning novel, because it may not be interesting to me. I love browsing in bookshops, especially the British Heart Charity bookshop near my house, or at the library and if the synopsis interests me, or the cover I will buy it or borrow. I keep up with fellow writers and their work on social media a lot, and if I know the writer and would like to read their work, I’ll buy their book from a proper bookshop. And now that I am published and know a bit more about the big bad world of publishing, I try to buy books directly from indie publishers if the pocket allows! So no, those lists are not for me!
I’ve read that people are on the hunt for a book set in India that doesn’t span generations because it’s almost become a cliché. Any thoughts on this?
There are lots of clichés in story themes and settings, and they are so because that trend had become popular at the time. That was what worked and so people wrote about them, and then they became clichéd. But there are many writers who have written books set in India that have a different point of view. I hope those clichés about the immigrant experience, nostalgia, historical settings are over and done with and the current writers focus on newer themes and ideologies. The Indian woman had become synonymous with passive strength, homesickness, passive weakness, sari clad beauty who had left her heart back home in India. (Or is it that I was reading mostly about these women only?) Anyway, I have moved on and read some seriously interesting books set in India that do not conform to such clichés.
You just had a new book, The Normal State of Mind, come out with Parthian, a press that describes itself as “A carnival of voices in independent publishing.” Where do you feel you fit into Parthian’s “carnival”?
Parthian is a wonderful Welsh independent press, and they have an eclectic list to their credit. I think Parthian doesn’t play safe and has experimented with a variety of voices and writers, and so their list is varied and exciting. Parthian champions Welsh writers and gives them the stage to showcase their writing, but also they include writers from diverse backgrounds, such India, Canada, Slovakia, Siberia and that makes their list feel like a carnival indeed. It is also important to note, that in this publishing business where short stories are not considered worth their weight in profit, Parthian is one of the few publishers that encourage the short story and have published some very important collections. I am honoured to be a part of Parthian as one of the diverse writers who makes up this ‘carnival of voices’.
Can you tell me a bit about your new book and what you love most about it?
My book, The Normal State of Mind, celebrates the friendship between two women, Dipali and Moushumi. These two women are not ‘normal’ in the eyes of Indian society, as one is a widow and the other is a lesbian. Both have their restrictions on how they can live their lives in the public eye or under the Indian law. I love how their friendship gives them the strength to believe in their judgments and decisions to live life as they choose to do so. I love that the book gives a glimpse into the lives of urban women in modern India. I love that there is no space for sentimentality or nostalgia and that through them, I have found a way to explore sexuality and empowerment of women in India. I also love the fact that both women have their strong points and their flaws and know how to have a good time, in spite of it all.