Over the Kenyon Review blog I’ve just posted an interview with Sunetra Gupta, discussing her craft, the distinctive formatting choices in So Good in Black, and many other matters. An excerpt:
HP: Your work moves not only geographically through India, the United Kingdom, and the US, but also linguistically. You’ve written in and translate from Bengali, and of course write both creative and scientific work in English, and, I imagine, in an English that encompasses something of the breadth of these locations and dialects. Can you talk about the different languages, including the different “Englishes,” that you have access to as a reader and writer, and how they interact or are given voice in your work?
SG: I had no acquaintance with the English language until I was four and a half years old which, of course, is still very early in life so I had no trouble picking it up. We had just moved to Zambia after living for three years in Ethiopia, where I spoke Bengali with my parents and Amharic with my nanny (the one friend I had then was also a little Bengali boy) and I had no idea that it was possible for people to converse in a language I might not understand. As a result, I was absolutely infuriated that the little English girls to came to welcome me to our new home spoke in such a way that I could make no sense of what they were saying. I learnt to read and write in English at school, but was also instructed in Bengali at home as it was always my parents’ intention to return to Calcutta. When we finally did go back in 1976 (I was then eleven), I was at first enrolled in a missionary school by the name of La Martiniere with a long and distinguished tradition of offering young ladies an excellent and exclusive private education in English, which meant that while I still had a lot of catching up to do, I was still studying Bengali as a second language. But after two years there, encouraged by my father, I made a very conscious decision to switch to an experimental school by the name of Patha Bhavan which had been founded in the ’60s by a group of intellectuals, many of whom he knew very well. I put myself through a course of rigorous immersion in Bengali, devouring the literature—and also starting to write in Bengali—I did in fact manage to publish a few science fiction short stories in little magazines, but I was always attracted to the novel as a form and there are several unfinished Bengali manuscripts gathering dust somewhere in my mother’s flat in Calcutta. These were my formative years, and so I owe as much to the writings of Bengali moderns like Premen Mitra and Jibananda Das as I do to TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf in the construction of my literary sensibilities. Bengali humour—not just humorist tradition, but the use of irony in everyday life—was an important ingredient of my life in Calcutta—whatever ludic qualities there are in my prose derive from this as much as my later exposure to writers like Nabokov, Borges, Calvino. Rather by chance, I ended up in 1984 as an undergraduate at Princeton University, but was still writing in Bengali in my summer vacations back home. In my senior year, however, I decided to attend a Creative Writing workshop with Joyce Carol Oates, and that was when I began write in English.
I think English is a wonderful language, and it is possible that it has a unique degree of malleability—it’s hard for me to say, as I do not know any other language as well other than Bengali. Would Bengali, if it had been disseminated as widely as English, mutated into different forms in the same way? I really do not know. The Bengali language itself has a very recent history of evolution connected to the 19th-century phenomenon of the Bengali Renaissance, so it is certainly capable of adapting itself to new circumstances. My general feeling about all languages is that they are all unique and unpredictable, and it is possible to find your own voice within any of them. Naturally, the language itself will condition the voice that you find within it, and the way you think in general. But I do not think that it is useful to have any particular political allegiances with language. Many of us who write in English, even though it is not our mother tongue, have been called upon repeatedly to justify this action, as if it were an obvious disloyalty. I have never been much exercised by this—as far as I am concerned, the only option available to me when it comes to languages is serial monogamy, and I know within myself that the only reason I “abandoned” Bengali was because it was difficult for me to remain immersed in it while living away from Calcutta. Recently, though, I’ve revised my position somewhat upon reading Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s thoughts on this subject. To quote from one of his poems, rather than essays: “Insomnia brings lucidity, And a borrowed voice sets the true one, Free.” We are permanently in search of our true voice, and this has to be mediated through a borrowed voice—to imagine that our mother tongue is less of a borrowed voice than any other is perhaps a mistake.
Read in full here.
And also check out this interview with Sunetra on narrative in literature and science at London’s the Royal Society blog, as part of the One Culture Festival in which she just participated.