In Conversation with Samanth Subramanian
I picked up Following Fish at an airport bookstore, drawn primarily by its beautiful cover, the author unknown to me. At the time, it also seemed appropriate to spend over eight hours on a transatlantic flight reading about travels around the Indian coast. Less than four pages in, I was hooked. No pun intended.
Soon, I found myself devouring Samanth’s essays (they appeared intermittently online), and pre-ordering his second book – This Divided Island. And by the time I’d read the latter through, there was no longer any denying – yes accidentally, but equally fortuitously, I had stumbled upon an immensely gifted writer with a staggering eye for nuance and detail.
And so it happened that when I met him at the Jaipur Literature Festival, it was all I could do to restrain my smitten gurgles. Samanth of course, humoured me with the utmost kindness – an absolute gentleman to the end. He made conversation, despite the fact that his time could have been spent talking to people far more important than me. He made jokes and flirted in that assuredly suave way, that I recognized instantly and frustratingly, as designed to go absolutely nowhere. Then without batting an eye he signed my bruised and battered copy of Following Fish, asking me to be in touch with a smile that hammered the last nail into the coffin of my utterly doomed fan-girl worship of him.
Anyone who encounters Following Fish – a delicious compilation of rich journalistic investigations conducted over several years, brimming over with wit – instantly knows it to be more than worthy of the Shakti Bhatt First Book prize that it won. Pulsating with pleasure, adventure and discovery, and tempered by nostalgia and loss, here was a book that spoke as eloquently to armchair travelers as to lovers of the sea and its lore.
This Divided Island contrarily, is much darker, starting off in Colombo but ranging wide and far in both the witnesses it seeks out, and the stories it tells of Sinhalese majoritarianism that sparked the Sri Lankan conflict. A book vastly different from his first, yet undoubtedly one that displays the very same meticulousness and finesse that is so characteristic of Samanth’s fine journalism.
In any case, an impulsive email that I wrote him, taking him at his word to “be in touch”, led to us having a meandering sort of conversation, on everything from the research methodology he employs, to the writers that he reads, to his travels, which happily, have now found their way into this piece about Samanth and his books. Below are excerpts, produced verbatim, bound together, only by my own curiosity and mostly arbitrary questions.
Q: Let’s begin, at the beginning – did you always want to be a writer? Where does the impetus to write come from?
A: “I can’t say I’m one of those people who dreamed of being a writer even as a child. Certainly I always read a lot, but it never struck me that I too could – or even wanted to – write. But there was a series of little incidents. When I was picking a major while applying to a bunch of American universities for my undergraduate studies, I chose journalism entirely as a placeholder, thinking I’d switch it later. Then I took a couple of classes and enjoyed them, so I persisted. Then, a few years later, I began to get immersed in a stream of journalism that I really enjoyed, both as a reader and as a writer – these long magazine stories that combine the pure ability to tell a story with the diligence of doing research at great length. Once I lucked into this, I didn’t want to do anything else.”
Q: You started your career writing elegant longform, and now you have two hugely successful books out. How did you make the transition from journalism into books? Tell us a little about your process?
A: “The books are really an extension of my journalism. They’re still non-fiction, still based on reportage – they’re just longer, and they’re conceptualized differently. So in that sense, I don’t think there was a transition from journalism to books. I’m a journalist through and through.
The process is always the same, in essence. First the research; then the writing. I can never begin writing until I’ve finished every ounce of research I think I’ll need. I may find it necessary to read more or look more things up mid-writing, but I will rarely do fresh interviews. As a result, I over-report – I gather more stories and material and interviews than I will use. But that’s all right; it gives me a feeling of security to have that much research stashed away.”
Q: If you had to bottle your writing into a genre – what would it be? What style do you veer towards most naturally and why?
A: “Narrative non-fiction? It’s a clumsy term. But it is functionally descriptive. I write non-fiction, but in the writing of it, there’s an emphasis on narrative, on the storytelling. And I love what the genre can do. It’s nimble and effective; a practitioner can take a set of fundamental skills (reporting, research, writing) and apply them to any subject that catches her fancy. This suits me well. I’m intrigued by many different things at once, and I’ve never possessed the skill that the beat reporter has, of being able to stick to just one beat. I like to hop from topic to topic; it keeps the work fresh for me.”
Q: Following Fish is about food and travel? What is your personal relationship with food? And what of travel?
A: “It’s sort of trite to say, I guess, that I love food and travel. Nearly everyone loves food and travel, after all! So I won’t say that. What I’m interested in is the lives we encounter around the food and the travel. I always want to know more about the social context in which something is happening. So with food, there is a universe of customs and history and emotion with the simple act of cooking and eating a particular dish. That’s what grabs my interest. Similarly, I’ve never been the kind of person who can travel through five cities in ten days. I’m much more inclined to stay put in a single city, to try as much as possible to see what it would be like to be a resident there – what the texture of life and society is. ‘Following Fish’ married those two interests of mine.”
Q: What kind of research went into Following Fish? Tell me more about the journey – how do you go from scribbled notes to beautiful travel essays?
A: “At the granular level of research logistics, it was quite simple. I knew the broad structure of the book – that there would be nine essays, nine chapters, roughly one per coastal state. So I set about trying to think about ideas for each of those chapters, based on just reading, talking to people, things like that. Then I would set out for these states with a vague idea of what I wanted to capture. Invariably, these ideas fell apart once I got there, to be replaced by a new idea based on what I was finding. I made notes of conversations, of the landscape, of my own thoughts; I took photos. Then I would get back home and do more reading, more interviews on the phone, perhaps take another trip to the place. The writing was done in chunks, since each chapter stands alone. I would do this in the mornings and on weekends, since I was working as a journalist with ‘Mint’ at the time.”
Q: Do you have a favourite essay from the book?
A: “My favourite chapter was probably the one about the fish cure in Hyderabad. I remember taking great pleasure in writing those opening pages about my grandfather, and then again in describing the Bathini Goud family that administers the treatment. That entire week I spent in Hyderabad was such fun – going behind the scenes of this annual event, exploring these questions of faith and superstition. It exemplified what I love so much about my life as a journalist: this ability to go deep into these slightly odd environments, which would otherwise be closed off to people.”
Q: In the Hyderabad fish cure story, you actually swallowed one whole! That’s one experience I was glad to have had through someone else’s eyes, words and story, especially since it takes (pardon my French) some serious balls to go through with something like that! How much of research and storytelling actually spills over into the turf of adventure? In your opinion, can you be a good but unadventurous writer, especially when we’re talking about experiential writing like in food and travel?
A: “The question of whether you can be a good but unadventurous writer is very thought-provoking. I don’t know if I have an answer, actually. Certainly in the kind of work I do – journalism – it is always rewarding to push beyond your comfort zone, to get as far out of your comfort zone as possible in fact. That’s where you encounter the most unfamiliarity, which makes for a certain richness in the stories and details you narrate. The journalist’s work after all is predicated on finding unknown or little-known stories. That can only be done if you are, in some way, adventurous.”
Q: This Divided Island also ‘travels’ in a certain sense. It’s set in a whole other country. It’s also much more political than your first book. Why Sri Lanka?
A: “Sri Lanka was a very specific choice, because of the circumstances the country found itself in. A long and brutal war had just ended. In 2009, it was suddenly possible to travel around the island again, and to talk to people who (often, but not always) felt freer to tell their stories than they had in three decades. I’m Tamil, so I’ve grown up with this conflict inhabiting the suburbs of my consciousness. Writing “This Divided Island” was, in one sense, a way of getting to find out what it was like to live through a war like this – to fill in the details in the picture that had, for me until then, just been outlines. But it was also a way of narrating these details on to the world. I think that’s an imperative part of a journalist’s job – to tell these stories, to add to the world’s larger body of knowledge about something as destructive and ruinous as a war.”
Q: What kind of research went into This Divided Island. Was this book journey different from your first?
A: “For This Divided Island, the process was different and more immersive. I moved to Sri Lanka in August 2011, and I spent nearly 10 months there over the next year or so. I lived in Colombo, and I travelled a lot across the island. The travel was more open-ended. Sometimes I went somewhere with the express purpose of meeting someone. But more frequently, I would ask people to introduce me around and just have conversations, to slowly build a picture in my head of the kind of history the island had witnessed during the war. As that picture grew fuller, I got some sense of how I could write about those decades through the lives of particular people, and then I spent more time with them, to get to know them better. Living there was essential, I think. It wasn’t for as long as I would have liked, but it helped very much to absorb some of the rhythms of the country.
But the book was more difficult to write than Following Fish. The people I was writing about were sometimes living in delicate situations, perhaps under threat or afraid, and it was my responsibility to be sensitive to those situations. They were very often not well off. They were exhausted and frustrated after the ordeal of surviving the war. Some of them were, at the outset, not very sure what I was there to do, so I always wanted to spend the time to communicate that clearly, and to earn their trust over days or weeks. This was all very different from the process of researching Following Fish.”
Q: Tell me a story about This Divided Island that nobody else knows. Perhaps something you wished you had been able to keep in the book, or wrote in the first few drafts, but later edited out?
A: “Somewhere in my notes, there’s an interview with a Sinhalese man who fell in love with a Tamil woman, in which he talks about the difficulties they faced in being together. It was a story with a happy ending. I never found a way to put it into the book, so I left it out. I hope I’ll write it up some day, though.”
Q: Do you think writers have a responsibility to address the political or is the marriage of your writing with politics, in your second book, a happy coincidence?
A: It’s impossible to avoid the political in any writing, I guess. But for me at least, it’s important to make the writing not just about politics. We come back to this notion of discovering and describing lives as they are lived, whether under ordinary or extraordinary circumstances. That is forever front and centre in my writing – or at least, that’s what I attempt to do. So I don’t think of myself as a political writer. I think of myself as a writer who writes about people, and inevitably, politics is a part of the superstructure of their lives.”
Q: And what of art and literature as tools for social change? Should they serve a greater political purpose, do you think? Or is art for arts sake good enough?
A: “I’m hesitant to plump for either option. What an artist wants to do with her art, and why she wants to create art, should be entirely up to her. We cannot demand of artists that they be political or that they have a social conscience; we also cannot sit in judgement and deem it “good enough” or “acceptable” that art has been created for art’s sake. What we should do is create an environment that is conducive to making art. If that happens, there will be enough artists to fill both categories, as well as several other categories in between.”
Q: People have said your words have ‘a magical, transportative quality’ to them? How do you inspire such potent emotion in readers?
A: “In truth, I’m not sure anyone sets out to inspire that kind of emotion. The primary duty of a writer is to write honestly and clearly. If a writer can do that, I’d like to think, then the writing will have a potent and transportative quality to it. That’s a broad answer. The narrower answer is, as simplistic as it sounds, to think very hard about the words we use when we write. Avoiding clichés and paying constant attention to the cadences and rhythms of sentences are both integral aspects of writing, and they can help create the kind of effect you talk about. But honesty in writing is, by far, the most important thing.”
Q: Following Fish won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in India and was shortlisted for the 2013 André Simon Award in the UK. This Divided Island has been shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize. All a very very big deal! Do you ever worry that the next book must be even better? Do you ask yourself, ‘how do I top this’?
A: “You’re very kind, but in truth, there’s no pressure at all. I suspect every writer is an insecure wreck about his or her work, so the question of feeling the pressure to win awards pales in comparison with the self-imposed pressure to just write something that isn’t awful. I do worry that the next book must be better, but only insofar as I want to write a book that is meaningful, and that doesn’t make the same mistakes as my previous books. All writing is a learning process, so you’re constantly trying to improve yourself. And there’s always, always plenty to improve. Plenty.”
Q: Who are your favourite writers and how much of an influence do they have on your own work? What are you currently reading?
A: “At the moment, I’m reading a novel called ‘The Great Swindle’ by Pierre Lemaitre. It’s translated from the French, and it’s spellbinding. It fell into my hands entirely by mistake, but I’m glad it did! It’s about these French soldiers who return to their lives after World War I, and about these swindles they think up to enrich themselves, all the while trying to shake off the horrors and trauma of the war they survived.
I can never list enough writers when asked who my favourites are, so I name a different one each time. On this occasion, let me cite Rebecca Solnit, the essayist, critic and journalist. Actually, it’s difficult to classify her work. It’s a wondrous mixture of research, history, social analysis and her own, highly original thought and philosophies – and she manages to weave these various threads into one strong narrative. Her prose is beautiful. I re-read River of Shadows earlier this year, and marvelled again at how sophisticated and entrancing her books are.”
Q: As readers what can we look forward to next?
A: “Just a raft of magazine stories for now, I think. I haven’t begun working on a new book yet.”
Q: Advice for writers?
A: “I wish I had some advice to give here. The truth is, every writer’s life is a jury-rigged creation, cobbled together to achieve some measures of both financial and creative freedom. I’ve been immensely lucky, in that my daily journalism supports me enough to produce the books I want to write. I’ve also had fantastic editors who are deeply supportive of my longer projects. So I’ve never been in these situations you describe, and it would be presumptuous of me to prescribe advice for writers in such situations, I think. Perhaps the only category I can address is that of writers steeped in self-loathing and doubt. Here too, what I would say is: It never goes away! The best thing to do is to channel those qualities to improve your work. The more you write, the better you get at it. It’s the simplest equation in the world, and there’s no dodging it.”