On the back of winning several prestigious awards for his latest novel, Family Life, Akhil Sharma talks about success, goodness, exoticism, and the consequences of being read by a large audience.
BY NANDINI KRISHNAN
Akhil Sharma burst on to the writing scene with a series of award-winning short stories, followed by his debut novel, An Obedient Father (2001), which won the PEN/Hemingway Award. There was silence for the next thirteen years, except for the occasional short story. From being the next big thing, Sharma seemed to have disappeared into anonymity. But in 2014, Family Life was published. The book, a visceral account of a family coping with the aftermath of a crippling accident, has won the Folio Prize 2015 and Dublin Literary Award 2016, and was shortlisted for numerous other awards. The trait that stands out in the author, both in his writing and in his conversation, is his honesty, almost discomfiting in a world that is fuelled by pretences. In a telephonic interview, Akhil Sharma speaks of shame, flaws, and success, among other things.
It feels a bit awkward to congratulate you on the Dublin Literary Award, because your novel drew so heavily from your life. And I remember, when you won the Folio Prize, you said in an interview that you felt shame, not joy. Have you been able to get over that?
It isn’t so much that I’ve gotten over the shame. It’s simply that the first response to that much happiness was feeling that I had too much luck. The response to the second success—because I had already experienced that shame—when it recurred, I didn’t have the same response. So it isn’t that it’s gone away or I’ve gotten over it, but you know, the same way the first time you do something, you might be a little bit scared or intimidated, and then the second time you do something, you feel more comfortable. That’s sort of what occurred with this. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it does. As you were speaking, it occurred to me that there’s not a single novel or story that you’ve written which hasn’t won an award, which is a fantastic record. But does that put some pressure on you in terms of what you have yet to do?
I’ve written one story that didn’t win an award. (Laughs) But…does it put pressure? I mean…no, you never really think about it. You just keep doing your thing, and you keep hoping that things work out. A lot of it is luck, you know. I feel like when my stories began to be published, it was around the same time that there was a lot of interest in Indian writing. So I don’t know if I would have received the level of attention that I received if I didn’t happen to be there at the exact right moment. In the early Nineties, up to ’95 or so, just because the Indian economic liberalisation had started, the world was much more interested in what was going on in India.
To return to Family Life, a lot of people believe it is cathartic to revisit a traumatic event. But I remember your speaking at a literature festival about how hard it was. Was there any time in those twelve and a half years when you were tempted to put the novel aside and work on something else?
I did think about that, but I had already invested so much time into the book that I was scared that if I put it aside, it wouldn’t work out; that I would ever go back to it—and the loss of that would be so enormous. Because, you know, when I say I’ve invested six years, seven years in a book, that means I’ve invested six or seven years of earning capacity into the book. And the loss of that would be just so vast and damaging.
Since the book came out, a lot of the focus has been on the autobiographical element. Did you feel that your privacy was being invaded at any time, that your life was being scrutinised rather than the novel read as a novel?
It’s very hard for most people to read a novel as a novel, right, because most people are not writers, and they don’t have that capacity. You know, most people read it as a story, and they read it wanting to know whether something is true or not true, or being moved by something, or not being moved by something, or being confused. So that’s how most people read most books. Most people read Naipaul and think okay, this guy is this sort of person. I think that’s just the nature of what it means to be read by a large audience.
There were occasional moments when I felt some line might be crossed. So, for example, people would ask if they could put a photo of my brother in an article that they were doing.
And then I would say no, that it felt wrong. But I don’t view it as my privacy being invaded. The reality is that these readers are not people that I meet, they’re not people who are in my life; they read something, or they have an opinion of something, but it doesn’t really matter to me.
You must have some idea of how you would like to be read—who would a good reader be, to you?
I think for me what would make a good reader is just a reader who is responsive to language and who is responsive to stories. You know, my book has certain strengths; it has certain weaknesses. If you’re open to it, it might give you pleasure. But I don’t really have anything beyond that.
I would like writers to admire the book, because I think writers tend to read in a very different way than ordinary readers. So that’s something I would like. I would like to have the respect of writers.
I think writers are more sensitive to how they would want to be read and that’s what makes them more sensitive to each other. In the sense, we’re constantly thinking about how we craft a work—because sometimes it could take half an hour to come up with that perfect sentence and sometimes it’s just there. And when you’ve been through that, it can make you kinder, perhaps?
Uh…I’m not sure. I don’t know if we’re kinder to each other. In some ways, I think because writers are so sensitive, they can be much less forgiving. I think because we are more sensitive, we are willing to be bothered a lot more. A minor flaw in a story might not bother an ordinary reader, but it would bother a writer vastly, vastly more.
I guess phrases do stick in a writer’s head a lot more. And you’ve come up with some unique ones—it’s been two years since I read Family Life, and I remember you said “Brother Life” for “Bhai Jaan”.
Yeah, I remember that, and I remember sort of embracing a little bit of awkwardness. You know, it’s…in a story I wrote, I described gilli-danda as stick-stick…
Yeah, it was some years ago, I think, about the boy no one liked? [The story is We didn’t like him, published in the June 3, 2013 issue of New Yorker.]
Yeah. And I was asked about this at an event, and I said you don’t want the exoticism. You know, if you allow exoticism to exist, it becomes just like everything else.
I’ve noticed that you pay a lot of attention to language and to craft. And in Family Life, I felt there’s a lot of craft involved in the way you frame sentences, the way you write, and it struck me as a bit strange that in a book that delved so deeply and constantly into your personal life, there were so many literary devices. Did it help distance you from the pain?
The formality of literary devices is oftentimes…it isn’t so much that it is a way of distancing myself from the pain, but that it allows me to find a way to channel the pain more accurately. You know, if I were to simply scream with pain, it wouldn’t mean that much. I would want to somehow put it into words so that other people might understand it more.
When you speak of your books, the time that it took you to write An Obedient Father (which was nine years) sounds a lot less frustrating than Family Life. What was it about writing Family Life which seemed so much more difficult?
You know, I was not financially dependent on The Obedient Father, whereas I was financially dependent on Family Life. So it was so much scarier. For me, that’s one enormously big difference. Like, how do I pay my bills? So, for me, that would be the big difference.
There’s always problems, right? Every book has its problems. Every book has difficulties in its own way. But if you care less, you know, the consequences are less grave, then it doesn’t matter.
Yeah, you were quite prolific even when you were not a full-time writer. Was there a point at which you chose to write and not do anything else?
You know, it wasn’t so much that I chose writing as that everything else didn’t work out. Everything else…I just couldn’t do. I just didn’t care enough to do it.
But I also get the sense when I hear you talk about writing that writing was what you always wanted to do, all your life, and everything else was something that maybe you had to do, but writing was your destiny. Am I wrong?
I don’t know if I would phrase it that way. I think for me what occurred was I was very unhappy, very lonely, and writing allowed me to communicate. And I just didn’t have any other way of communicating. So that’s how I ended up doing this. It wasn’t so much destiny except that I was so traumatised by my life that I needed to deal with it in some way.
Is that a choice someone can make, to write, or is that something one cannot help?
Ah…I can’t say. You know, I think one way to think about it is that there are writers who for various reasons are able to write; they are at least competent at it, and do it, and they build a little career and they get a lot of satisfaction out of it. And then there are people who can’t do anything else.
Because as somebody who teaches writing, I’m sure you have students who come to you and ask if are good enough to become writers. That’s a crisis that most writers face, not just before they’re published, but even after a book or two.
The reality is that most of us are not good enough. When we think of what is good enough, we think books that are so strong that they will endure. Right? Like, you pick a book by Thomas Hardy and it was written a hundred years ago, and it still affects you.
Nothing I have ever written is that good and I can’t imagine I will write anything that good, I mean, realistically. And so the proper answer is—most of us are not that good. We try, in our small ways, to write something. And it might have some meaning for a small audience, but we’re not good enough, right?
The reality is that almost nobody is good enough, and with students, you want to encourage them, but you don’t want to create false encouragement. I think mostly students, at least at the graduate level, know that that’s the case. I mean, they’re old enough and they’ve looked around enough to see how many books there are, and how few of them anybody reads. So what I’m saying is not anything new.
You’re right. We are still talking about this book which has got more children to read, and that book which has got more adults to read. Do you ever think about the relationship between writing and reading?
All I can say is that my own reading is seeking insights and seeking a way to experience the world. So I am looking to be transported. Then when I write, I’m looking to generate the same experience in my reader. That’s all I do.
The intention with both [my] books is to get people to relate, to engage, to hold the reader’s attention. So, you know, An Obedient Father begins with “I had to force money from Father Joseph and it was making me scared.” (The line is “I needed to force money from Father Joseph, and it made me nervous.”) That sense of immediately there’s a plot and immediately there’s an emotion. And so we’re engaged, we’re caught in that world, and the same thing is occurring with this book—“My father has a glum nature.”
It’s something of a challenge with a novel that draws from one’s life, as opposed to a memoir, right? Because a memoir doesn’t really have to be relatable. It is allowed to touch certain emotions, while a novel calls for a different set of parameters.
I would agree with that, that our expectations of a novel are different. I didn’t know how to write a memoir. I sort of knew how to write a novel, but I didn’t know how to write a memoir. I didn’t know what are the freedoms and restrictions of a memoir.
What I find striking, though, is the fact that your narrators, in both An Obedient Father and Family Life, are so aware of their flaws. Especially in the first book, he was a guy whom one would shun, whom one would not aspire to be or even want to meet, but there are moments of empathy among those of revulsion. What was your journey as a writer, living with that character?
I don’t think of myself as an especially good person. I don’t know if you think of yourself as an especially good person. But because I don’t think of myself as a good person, it’s okay for me to relate to other people and relate to other shames, other people’s shames. I’m comfortable with that.
It doesn’t bother me, and in some ways, that ability to relate is a way of generating yourself forgiveness. You know, when we can offer compassion to the world, we can offer compassion to ourselves. We can say oh, this is what it means to be a human being—to be a human being means to suffer, to be a human being means to make mistakes, it means to be unkind, it means to not get the things we want most.
I think it also pushes boundaries for the reader. And—maybe because we have a tendency to align ourselves with the good—we look for heroism in unlikely places. And find it in a character like, say, the mother in Family Life.
Yeah, she’s heroic in a certain way. She’s deeply flawed, and that’s what makes her heroic in a sense.
I feel that I can’t help but see my own faults, and I don’t align myself with the heroic. I aspire to be a decent person, and I work hard at it. But I don’t know if I align myself that way.
My flaws press upon me. Everybody is different and everybody comes from their own background, and everybody is sort of living with the weight of their own history, and my flaws press upon me.
And then I think…our perception of ourselves as particularly awful is just a form of vanity. You know, where we might not be super great, but we’re not super great in an ordinary way. There’s a phrase that the Americans use—get off the cross, we need the wood. In the end, your own perception of yourself doesn’t matter. What matters is your actions.
I’d like to talk a little bit about the Indian immigrant community, which is kind of present as a subtle undercurrent in your novel, because of the milieu in which the family lives. And I thought how strange it is that the story was set nearly forty years ago, because when I meet people from that community now, in the US, I find the same kind of prejudices, the same kind of shame and attempts at being accepted and longing for success. Do you think being seen as part of that community imposes certain pressures on these families?
You know, we all live inside a community. What’s interesting is if you were to think about a white person, a white writer, we would not think of them as living inside a community because to some extent, we don’t acknowledge the fact that they live inside a community, a community of Irish Catholics for instance, or the community of Ukrainians, or the community of people from a certain town or from a certain type of family—we don’t acknowledge it, because we somehow think of them as general or universal. But they experience the same things.
It’s funny when you said this book is of a period set almost forty years ago, because it’s funny to think I’m that old.
The Indian community has a certain sense of how they need to appear to everybody else, and that creates pressures and ways to hide things and we also have a strange way of experiencing loyalty. You know, loyalty means to deny something, right? Whereas, you know, when I love somebody, I’m grateful for their flaws, because that’s part of who they are. If somebody I love occasionally smells bad, I’m grateful for that.
So, to me, this need to be flawless is almost a need to be generic. I understand where that comes from—the feeling that we can’t be accepted, and so we need to be just like everybody else. I understand that. I don’t think it’s any good, though, and I don’t think it’s true. I mean, the only type of love that really matters is the love where people see you clearly and say oh, look at you, you’re wonderful.
Right. I don’t know whether ethnicity has anything to do with it, but all of us carry this hereditary burden where we’re obsessed with success, whether it’s financial or social or familial—there’s a certain set of things that we almost unconsciously want to achieve.
Yeah, and then we can be like everybody else. (Laughs) That’s what it means. Either that or we can be like some ideal, some way where who we are as individuals doesn’t matter. I think it’s a very harmful way of doing things.
But I also wonder whether it came from the circumstances into which people moved. At the time at which your novel is set, and maybe till about 10-15 years later, to emigrate was very hard even in terms of practical things like finding foreign currency. And then, your qualifications suddenly didn’t matter, and I think that’s one reason I find the mother so heroic—because from having a life of dignity back in India, now suddenly she’s working blue collar jobs; there’s a beauty to being able to accept this is what one can do here, but there’s also an aspiration for her children to do better, to be equal to everyone else.
You know, both you and I are talking about a certain type of middle class family, and the reality is that for most Indians in India, they’re not part of this world. Right? And the reality is that now, in America, most Indians are not part of this world that I’m describing. And it’s a tiny bit unfair for us to talk about this as being Indian because when we do, we’re erasing all the other Indians, and so that feels unkind to me.
But, be that as it may, right, just acknowledging that and putting that aside, I feel you’re right, I agree with you that this was the experience of a certain type of immigrant and I perceive things in the same way as you do, the only reason I said that was that it’s wrong to erase all the other Indians out there.
That kind of makes me think about labels. Like Indian Writing in English—it makes me cringe because it’s such an ugly label, because there are so many kinds of Indian writing, and it’s almost like speaking about women’s writing as if it is a category on its own. I understand why labels are necessary for publishers and so on, but as a writer, it’s deeply troubling.
But you know, there’s two audiences, right? There’s an audience of other writers and there’s the audience of the general readership, and those are separate things.
Obviously, many writers are stupid in the same way, and dismissive of women writers, as the general audience, and I feel that’s important to acknowledge. Within that, though, these labels exist and they also matter and they also don’t matter.
I think sometimes labels become a way by which people decide whether they want to read something, and then it translates into asking certain writers for comments on, say, what do you think of this political thing happening in India because you’re an Indian writer, for instance. Whereas you may not be an Indian writer in that sense.
Yes, I would agree with that. That’s very fair, what you’re saying.
You know, a writer, any writer, is just one voice among many. Right? One of the writers today that I admire very much is this writer named Edmund White, he’s a gay writer, and he’s spoken about gay issues for a long time, and I’m glad to have his voice, but his voice is just one of many voices. And I’m sure he feels relieved too, by that fact, by the fact that he is not the only voice.
Many people influence history, not just writers.
I guess the advantage writers have is that their books can linger on for centuries after they do.
That is true.
To get back to your own writing though—both your novels took a fair bit of time. Did you ever feel burdened by having to send in a draft to a publisher soon, or were you able to let each take its own course, to direct you as it wished to?
Well, what occurs is that you have an idea of the story, you begin writing it, you realise it doesn’t work, then you try to move things around, and then when that doesn’t work, you try something else. It isn’t so much the novel that is directing things. It is the limits of your talent or the limits of your understanding that sort of determining where you go.
How did you know that it was done, this was it, the finished draft?
There were certain experiences I was seeking to generate. When I felt that I had achieved that sensation, I stopped. That was it. You start off wanting perfection and then all you end up wanting is just wanting this to be okay.
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