Narrating NepalHow relevant is your writing when you reside in one country and write about another?
How relevant is your writing when you reside in one country and write about another? Is it even possible to do this? Maybe it is not the question of possibility but of authenticity and relevance. Is making up stories of a place you had lived in so long ago as relevant as weaving a narrative out of what you see and what you feel while residing in the place yourself? Questions like these were raised during the event: Arresting Samrat in Kathmandu, a discussion with the author Samrat Upadhyay held at the NexUs Café in Bakhundole, Lalitpur.
Upadhyay, who is currently in Nepal, chaired the discussion organised by the online book discussion forum Bookaholics. The discussion was moderated by Saguna Shah, and participating in the discussion were more than two dozen readers, or bookaholics, if you will. Also in the audience were two other Nepali writers writing in English—Prawin Adhikari and Rabi Thapa.
Before the formal event started, moderator Shah recalled an event from last year’s Nepal Lit Fest in Pokhara where she moderated a session on writing in English with three prominent writers: Pranaya Rana, Rabi Thapa and Prawin Adhikari. After asking Prawin Adhikari if he thinks his prose is too complex for a common reader, Shah reported that Prawin replied with the question, “Why don’t you write yourself?”
Shah asked Upadhyay, “Your writing can easily be grasped by a seventh grader... Who do you write for; do you have a particular audience that you target?”
“No, not particularly,” said Upadhyay. “There are some inside jokes that only a Nepali will understand and would be lost to western readers; whereas there may be others that only a western reader would grasp.”
Afterwards, as the event unfolded, a reader in the audience asked Upadhyay, “A friend of mine says that you have no right to defame Nepali society; the way you portray the Nepali society is not how it is in reality.” To that Upadhyay replied, half-jokingly: “Who gave him the right to say what or how I should write?”
Upadhyay also mentioned in separate instances that critics’ opinions don’t faze him in the least.
“There are instances when readers say we don’t have sex like your characters do,” said Upadhyay. “To me, it’s nothing. While I am writing about sex, I am not aware that I’m writing about sex.”
The talk eventually tugged at the sentiment of if what an artist does is anyone else’s concern but theirs. With their craft, authors retell what they see and how they feel. “However,” writer and actor Archana Thapa said during the event, “one artist should not be nagged to be a catalyst for a social change; his art is his own expression.”
Speaking at the event, Upadhyay, who is a professor at the Indiana University’s MFA programme, shared his thoughts on whether writing can be taught. “I think creative writing programmes help you to grow as a writer. It’s a group activity; there, you generate ideas and get reading recommendations. However, a professor or a writing instructor is not going to hand you knowledge necessary to be a writer.”
Upadhyay also talked about how he crafts his stories. “While writing a story, entering into a character’s psyche is very important. Sometimes, it’s easy to do. At other times, it is difficult to navigate. I was writing about the incident that happened in Ferguson in Missouri, US. I found it quite hard to enter into the character’s psyche. Also, I find it hard to write about characters working in gas stations because I have never worked there, and to write about it I have to do a lot of research.”
Sharing some advice for budding writers, Upadhyay said: “You have to read, and you have to write. You have to be dedicated to what you do. And then, you have to spend a lot more time writing than you do talking about writing.”
In the last few years, Nepali writers writing in English have been published and have been putting out promising works based-out of Nepal, whether it be Prawin Adhikari’s The Vanishing Act or Pranaya Rana’s City of Dreams. Others, like Manjushree Thapa and Samrat Upadhyay, who weave their prose by reconnecting to their Nepali roots help proliferate Nepali narratives in the world at large. After all, that is all what literature is about—retelling the tale of a world from your lenses.