Ethnographic Fictions: Talking with Megha Majumdar

人类学’s attention to the granular texture of someone’s life is a beautiful training for being a fiction writer.
Megha Majumdar.

W帽子的小说能教我们关于reacti的激增onary nationalism in so many democracies around the world? Betrayal is a critical aspect of this moment. People are moved to turn against kin and long-standing friends and neighbors, with the idea in mind of a nation that is no more than a certain kind of story, an exclusionary vision of community and belonging that grows more fearsome and powerful with every retelling. Unraveling the force of this politics requires us to heed the circulation of these fictions: to focus our attention on the way that they gradually seize hold of the imagination, frame the boundaries of a possible community, and preclude other ways to narrate that collectivity. Slip into the space of such a story, and you can begin to see how it works to confine everything else it manages to corrode.

这些问题陷入了剧烈,令人不安的重点在Megha Majumdar广泛称赞的首次亮相小说,燃烧。The book brings an anthropological sensibility to bear on the problem of nationalist temptation, tracing the intertwined lives of three ordinary individuals in contemporary Kolkata: a shop clerk, a physical-education teacher, and an aspiring actor. The novel outlines, in excruciating detail, the texture of those moments when opportunity can turn people against each other to deadly effect, ruining certain lives as a condition of national progress. Majumdar lends an ethnographer’s eye to these dynamics, capturing both the stories that people may tell themselves to rationalize their choices and the social and political stakes of learning how to narrate these circumstances otherwise. The plot begins, as stories do so often these days, with a throwaway comment on social media.

此举使Majumdar C是一个作家,资深编辑atapult Books in New York City. She spoke recently with Anand Pandian, a professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, where Majumdar completed a master’s degree in anthropology in 2015.


Anand Pandian(AP):Your debut novel,燃烧,一直是一种现象,去年出版的最重要的小说。这是一年的大流行,一年深入的选举混乱,一年的种族暴力和迟来的考虑,以及美国在美国的一年,在这里,印度和其他地方的前所未有的政治暴力形式。在所有这些麻烦和不确定性的中间,您关于印度一角的这几个人的书似乎遇到了这种深厚和意外的和弦。在这种情况下,为什么你认为这发生了这种情况?

Megha Majumdar(mm):我从一本阅读新闻的地方开始在这本书上工作,看着印度发生了什么,并到达这个问题:个人在这个极端,右翼民族主义的极端仇恨思想周围时如何向前发展?所以我非常想着家,对我来说是印度,我来自哪里,我的父母住在哪里。它真的很明白,看看在美国的同样的问题 - 我们如何生活在不适合我们的系统和机构内,事实上,可能会积极破坏我们想要领导的有意义的生活?由于大流行和黑人生活之间的碰撞,那些问题是如此艰难,人们在思考,How are there so many brown and Black lives being essentially sacrificed by this administration, and what are the systems that we are living with?

与此同时,看到很多互助的社会都有如此强大,邻国帮助邻居在大流行的初期,弄清楚谁需要杂货,我们能做什么。人们正在远离机构并想知道,Well, what can we do to help the people we know?

AP:我们肯定看到这些不同的社会和集体反应对这一时期挑战的新形式的睦邻形态。与此同时,在燃烧, you give us a situation where neighbors can in fact become mortal enemies. You tell us a story in which the will of the people can be absolutely terrifying.

MM:Yes.

AP:What did you want readers to understand about nationalism, by issuing these warnings about the potential toxicity of collective life?

MM:我不确定我试图发出任何特定的警告。但大问题 - 个人如何向前迈进? - 在这三个角色中对我分开了:吉文,可爱和Pt先生。吉文纪念,是一个年轻女性,在Facebook上遇到政治上的风险评论。与她在一起,我想看到某人如何通过他们所申请的叙述来对他们产生的叙述。但由于她的身份和背景中某些事件的某些元素,因此状态非常容易提出这种逻辑,因为她是谁。然后她的战斗是试图提出不同的叙述。我有兴趣没有任何关于国家可能的幻想。

AP:The book is framed around the story of three outsiders. In fact, you even use that term,局外人, to describe the way that Jivan sees herself and also PT Sir, a reason she hopes he might rally to her defense. These three outsiders don’t band together, however, and in fact, something very different happens: possible lines of loyalty or affinity turn instead into betrayal. Why is trust such a problem in the book?

MM:One of the greatest injustices that I was thinking about was how, in such a society, opportunity is so scarce. The opening to move up in life and to make a more comfortable life for your parents, or for your wife or whomever, that opportunity is not available to everybody. So when you do have a shot at moving up, I wanted to see, what will you do? What will you sacrifice? Will you remain the moral self that perhaps in your fantasies you are, or will you give it up for a chance at practical betterment for yourself, even if that means stepping on somebody else’s life and freedom? People are pushed into such corners, and I think that is one of the great tragedies of such a society: you feel there isn’t enough opportunity for everyone.

AP:这本书始于“喜欢”的诱惑,因为在Facebook上评论评论的评论非常简单的雄心壮志,一切都从那里展开了很快和意外。这部小说成为螺旋失控的雄心的纪事。例如,我认为这本书结束的方式,在那个政府大楼的特殊电梯里,PT先生,向上移动。这是一个如此美丽,也是令人痛苦的形象。这本书姿态是否朝着某种进步的病理学,让我们这么黑暗的野心和他们反复的结果?

MM:哇,进步的病理学。我不认为有人以前把它放在我身上。正如您所指出的那样,我非常感兴趣,在Facebook上的“喜欢”的公制,以及这种社交媒体是这种休闲和表演激动的空间,但能够从事这种表现仍来自一个地方舒适和休闲。手机已经改变了印度的景观,你有非常实惠的电话计划和人们第一次在线上线,第一次获得社交媒体,并导航那个空间,这往往会产生阶级和成就的表现和成就。志向。我认为这就是为什么Jivan的性格对人们对社交媒体的自由感兴趣,他们会发布一些东西并获得“喜欢”。谁会发布一个令人挑衅的笑话,谁知道即使他们说挑衅的东西,他们也可以从最糟糕的后果缓冲。谁知道他们有救援机会。

AP:What you’re saying reminds me also that this is a world awash in phones; it’s a world awash in media forms of so many kinds, and yet the character at the heart of the story, Jivan, has this basic faith in storytelling. She has the basic faith that if her story is told, and if people retell the story of what happened to her, then she will be freed from the fate toward which she is careening. That faith, of course, proves misplaced in the end. I wonder what this might tell us about the way that stories, imaginative possibilities, and accounts of other lives circulate now. What kind of work do they do? Or is there a fundamental mismatch between Jivan’s faith in storytelling and what winds up happening in the very, very dark conclusion of the book?

MM:That is such a powerful question, Anand, and you’re really helping me to think through this. The court battle that occurs is, for Jivan as for others who are charged with crimes, very much a battle of narratives. In other words, what is the story that the public finds most persuasive? And even now, during the week following the 2020 US presidential election, people talk about how they’re having trouble reconciling what they know about the past year and the kinds of voting results they’re seeing (specifically, that46.8%尽管在他的任期内发生了各种灾难,美国选民投票赞成。对于许多人来说,故事没有意义。这是一个如此令人沮丧的一部分:看看我们有多么狂野的不连贯,我们始终试图找到一个有意义的故事,以正确的方式让我们感动。你是跨学术和一般读者界线的人。你对故事有什么看法?

AP:I believe sincerely that there is something profoundly transformative about the experience of being put in the place of someone else who is different from you in the world. I believe that reading such a story can potentially change your sense of what you take for granted as necessary, as desirable in the world, for your life or for your society. But clearly stories of this kind fail to move all the time. How many times have we foundered this last year when something that to some of us felt so compelling and so profoundly disturbing somehow failed to do that work for others?

MM:You’re making me think of the news about how lawyers couldn’t find the parents of 666 kids who had been in ICE custody after being detained at the border. And the US government couldn’t find the parents because they had been deported, and the kids were still in detention. I’m thinking about the horror of that, and how we as a society kind of moved past it, and the story wasn’t enough to really change anything, you know?


AP:我认为实际上是一个至关重要的务实question at stake in a novel like yours. In circumstances of tremendous distraction, in circumstances of tremendous unease, in circumstances in which our attention is very much inclined to flit so quickly from one thing to another, many, many people actually did stop to read your book. They actually stayed with Jivan’s story till the end, and were moved by it. And there’s a pragmatic question as to how you pulled that off. Why did the book work so well, given the great challenge of making any such thing work at holding people’s attention?

MM:Oh, [这对我来说成为了一个工艺问题,但即使我说我也要铭记一本书对某人说话而且不会与其他人说话的方式。因此,任何读取它的人都会向这本书带到这本书的平等的关怀,思想和经验。我的部分正在考虑所有这些工艺问题。部分是,对我来说,写作能够持有矛盾的人物。然后部分地考虑了故事如何移动和叙述的步伐。我希望它成为一个非常快速的书。所以我花时间真的询问每个句子,每个段落,并询问它表现了什么样的运动?它是如何为书服务的,所以要么它会向我们移动,或者它会拳击我们,以便看到故事的不同维度?

AP:I’ve done some ethnographic work with filmmakers in India, and they might describe燃烧as “pacey.” In fact, to me as a reader, the book feels almost cinematic in structure, insofar as it cuts so quickly and sometimes even abruptly between different points of view. Certain scenes, like the riot in the village and the murder of that Muslim family, have almost a documentary quality about them. Were you thinking about the intermingling between literature and cinema when you wrote it?

MM:When I write, there is a cinema in my head that I’m trying to describe. I was definitely thinking about how movies and TV work. I don’t think I had specific movies in mind, but I was considering how a scene is constructed onscreen: Where does it open, where does it close, and what happens in the blank space between one scene and the next? And I think that there are craft lessons in how TV shows and movies work—how people are binge-watching this show or that show—and the creators are holding someone’s attention for an hour and a half. That is no small thing. Of course, in a movie, you might have no time between one scene and another, but then in a book you have this beautiful white space between one chapter and the next. What can you allow that white space to hold? When you end a chapter, what kind of subversion or surprise or reflection is allowed in that ending?


AP:You were trained as an anthropologist. You completed a master’s in anthropology at Johns Hopkins, where I teach, before turning to publishing and writing full time. How has that shaped the way that you think and work as a writer?

MM:Anand,你是如此谦虚。你是一个非常有价值的顾问;当我开始意识到学术界不会为我而不是我的人类学时,你帮助我看到了路径。我对人类学的一部分兴奋,我仍然非常接近,来自像你这样的教师,就像你向我展示那里有很多方法可以与这种学科一起参与,这么多方法可以做民族志和读民族识别,坐在课程中。所以我不得不对你为我开放的所有门来说,谢谢。

AP:那真是太好了,我珍惜你所说的话。花了很少的时间阅读人类学和民族志,你认为训练在你练习时进入小说写作的工艺吗?

MM:绝对地。人类学教会我要做的事情就是寻找惊喜和复杂性。纪念表不断推翻对任何东西的简单理解;他们正在抵制第一个,最容易获得的答案。他们正在推回来,说你必须沉浸在一个地方,你必须倾听人民,你必须看看他们在说什么或不说的话。他们在做什么或不做什么。

That long immersion, I think, shows such deep respect for the perspectives of other people and for the ways an ethnographer can recognize the confinement of their own perspective, while at the same time attempting to approach the truth of someone else’s life. It’s absolutely a valuable recognition for any fiction writer to be aware of. Additionally, ethnography is so much about the texture of life: What does life look like for a certain person in a certain place? That attention to the granular texture of someone’s life is such a beautiful training for being a fiction writer, where so much of what you are doing on the page is building a world.

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人类学家和小说家

由Richard Handler.

AP:I’m reminded very much of the lifeworld of your character Lovely, the really detailed texturing you give us of her spaces, where she lives, who she lives with, where she takes her lessons, the streets that she walks through. But I’m also reminded of the difference in her English. I was reminded, for example, of the Black vernacular that Zora Neale Hurston was so emphatic about using in her writing. Would you say that the difference in Lovely’s English was a matter of faithfulness to a vernacular culture? I’m still thinking about the question of your fiction in relation to your anthropology.

MM:可爱的英语听起来不得不从她的角色中出来,她是一个学习英语的人。这是一个斗争和渴望的元素,因为英语当然是精英的语言,印度的特权语言。我觉得可爱试图到达那个地方。所以我希望她的英语是非标准的,并在其中举行这种斗争和渴望的精神。我还希望,随着读者留在书籍并保持可爱的情况下,他们可能会发现她的语言是一个宏伟的杂交种族:可爱的英语。她已经实现了,当我还是个孩子并努力学习英语时,我也经历过。我被告知我需要学习英语,我们在学校惩罚了孟加拉或印地语。与此同时,意识到英语可能属于我的生活,即使我正在阅读的照片书籍在沙滩上制作沙堡,也真的很强大。当我和母亲一起去鱼市场时,英语可能属于我的生命。因此,意识到英语可以安顿下来的地方是我想带到这本书的位置。

AP:This reminds me of the loyalty that we often feel, in anthropology and as ethnographers, to those we know and work with and write about. And I wonder how that might relate to the fidelity that one feels for the characters one creates as a writer. How do we think about the difference between these forms of responsibility: to individuals in the real world and to fictional characters?

MM:That is such a beautiful question. Of course the huge difference is that I made these people up. But I never wanted to put forward these characters as representatives of an Indian story. I wanted to be very conscious that these are specific individuals in this fictional world. The specificity of their experience felt really important to me, because it is only through that kind of specific attention that we have any hope of understanding how people actually live and dream and have humor. And the specificity that real people hold as they are written about in ethnography—it feels quite similar. It was really important, for instance, that Lovely not be this stereotypically tragic figure, but rather somebody who is intimately acquainted with suffering and at the same time manages to exceed it with this mix of teasing, joking, and self-preserving behavior. She’s able to turn the shame of the society back on itself. Characters are always these heightened humans-but-not-quite-humans.

AP:Given the narrative arc of the book and where we ultimately wind up, what you say about characters that are human and not quite human is actually rather chilling. The book ends with the sense that someone must die for the nation to be satisfied. And it so happens that it will be Jivan. It reminded me of a story by Ursula K. Le Guin called从omelas走开的人。It’s essentially an allegory. There is a land of great happiness and joy and festivity, but all of that is predicated on the miserable suffering of one child, hidden away, who must be neglected and abused for everyone else’s happiness to be possible. Did you intend Jivan’s fate as a kind of parable? Why is it that she has to suffer this way?

MM:首先,贾万成为一个不仅仅是她痛苦的人真的很重要。很重要的是让她从事这种真正决定的斗争,以获得奖学金,以便她去学校,曾经在监狱里,试图找到一种方法来联系这个记者并让她的故事。对我来说真正重要的是展示她的意志力。但是,当这本书的担忧与国家如何极为危险时,给她一个幸福的结局是一个虚假的胜利,当然是如何被认为不属于这个国家,或者担心人口的纯净担心。我希望这本书没有关于这种国家可以制定的暴力的幻想。您可以肯定会在社会中取得成功,但即使这一成功也受到污染。

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Le Guin’s Anarchist Aesthetics

By John Plotz

AP:你所说的一切都会让我感到非常相关,对我们看到的目前不仅在印度而且在美国而言,以及世界上许多其他因素被毒性和排他性民族主义所拥有的其他地方的表现。

I want to ask you one more question of a different kind before we close. You read so much. You have so many kind things to say about new books that you’ve found and picked up and somehow finished in spite of everything that is happening in the world. You have kept that habit up despite the press of these times. Tell us something about how one cultivates that habit. How do you make space in your life for so many books?

MM:一件很现实的事我说的是,我做了很多of my reading at bedtime. Bedtime is only for pleasure reading. I never read manuscripts for work. I don’t read anything where there’s an obligation to read it. There have been times in my life where I felt like I was too busy to read for pleasure, and I was absolutely miserable. So I’m never getting caught in that trap again. No matter how immersed I am in the news or in the work or in urgent matters of the day, reading is how I think about things—just the pure pleasure of learning something from a nonfiction book or encountering a beautiful sentence in a work of fiction. I think the value of that is always undiminished for me, and it’s a good reminder to myself every day.

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Featured image:Megha Majumdar.。摄影:Elena Seibert