Process, Politics & Plurality

Ven Begamudré interviewed
By Zool Suleman

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Zool: Tell me a little bit about your background.

Ven: Well, I was born in South India in Bangalore and I spent about a year and a half of my childhood in Mauritius and then the next three years in Bangalore again. I came to Canada when I was six and half and I have lived here almost exclusively except for a year in India and a year in the [United] States. So some people tend to think of me as a second generation [immigrant]—I don't know what the difference is between first and second generation, but they assume because I came here so early, it's almost as though I was born here. In fact, it's a bit ironic because having only lived in India, or in that part of the world for only six years, the writing is very much a matter of rediscovering my roots. This causes some critics problems because they think I should be writing in an authoritative fashion about India but it's not something that I know as much about as I do about Canada.

Zool: What are your memories of India from that time? Do you have strong memories?

Ven: Quite vivid ones because my earliest memory is from Mauritius, but it is more a dream. A strange thing happens to me. I will remember things in dreams. I will dream something and later on I will find some confirmation that it actually happened. I very vividly remember my last two years in India when I was four and half to six and a half and I have been basing quite a bit of the material in the first half of Van der Graaf Days on that. But typically when people ask me about this, I say I write about what I know, what I don't know I research, and what I can't research I make up. As a result of that, sometimes a scene which I will make up can seem more real than the actual place.

Zool: How do you feel about the issue of authenticity? Is it an inhibiting factor for you or do you just find it tiresome?

Ven: No, it's not inhibiting or tiresome. I try to be as authentic as a fiction writer can be in my writing, which means using my memories, using photographs—I take a lot of photographs when we travel. But not to the point that say a nonfiction writer might go out and do extensive interviews with people. Because I am not really a part of the Indian community and I don't want to deal with the Indian community where I live simply for material. If I have friends, I have friends. That's it. I suppose if I'm going to be writing about more complicated settings and characters and issues, I really should find people who can look over my manuscripts. Otherwise, I make very elementary mistakes like I have someone walking in rural India without sandals on—an Indian could have caught that.

Zool: This is in Van der Graaf Days?

Ven: No, that was in A Planet of Eccentrics.

Zool: The reason I ask you about the issue of authenticity is that I read a review of it [A Planet of Eccentrics] and I think that, in some ways it was unduly harsh.

Ven: That was [in] the Toronto South Asian Review. Yeah, the whole book sank because she [the reviewer] didn't like the cover and because the character didn't wear sandals and because there was the wrong kind of painting in somebody's living room.

Zool: How do you respond to that kind of criticism?

Ven: They were valid things to point out but I am not sure they were valid things to sink an entire book. In any book there are going to be mistakes. Now at the same time I have read books in which people make up a story and they want to put it in an exotic place, even if it's just Austria or something, and I have been to these cities and I know you can't get from this street to that street by going through a passage way. Those are just simple mistakes. But if the person makes grander mistakes about the Austrian people or something, then I can see that that could sink the project. I think that what reviewers do is very important; they interpret our work to other people. When the early reviews of A Planet of Eccentrics came out, I learned things about the book that I didn't know were operating at a subconscious level. But at the same time, the reviewers have the same responsibilities we have which is to be fair and intelligent and objective.

I suspect, though, that that particular review might have been motivated by forces that were completely beyond my control and didn't have anything to do with the book. In the mainstream white Canadian writing community, especially in fiction, it's dominated right now by middle class, white women writers. The last Canada Council jury I was on gave out twenty one grants and eighteen or nineteen of them went to [white] women. Now we hadn't planned that at all. Nobody realized that we were giving eighteen grants to women and three grants to men. But I think that it's time this was happening and it's a symptom of what is going on in the writing community. But in the South Asian writing community, the sense that I get is that it is still dominated by men. So some of these harsh criticisms, I suspect, are motivated by the fact that the women writers are not getting their due. Now I have never met that reviewer, and I hope I never do because she's a very theoretically oriented person and I am not. I suspect it's things like that that are more at the heart of a review like that.

Zool: Lets talk about A Planet of Eccentrics. Is that your first short story collection?

Ven: First short story collection. There were ten short stories in there and my short stories tend to be somewhat long. They were written over a seven year period from 1982 to 1989. I didn't realize that it was a collection—I don't sit down to write a collection. I just write stories...But I have never been the kind of person whose early work is particularly brilliant, even in my other career which I don't practice any more, which is as a civil servant. I learn better by doing. It's not that I was embarrassed by Sacrifices… Fortunately, not many people noticed I had written Sacrifices. People knew I had published it, but not that many people read it. What it did was bought me the time to finish A Planet of Eccentrics, which many people treat as my first book, simply because it got a fair amount of attention. It really should have been my first book, but we're not all so patient to wait for the many, many years until we finally come up with the one good book that's going to be that first book.

Zool: Were you surprised at how A Planet of Eccentrics was received?

Ven: I was very surprised. I knew that it would not be ignored because nobody knew me when Sacrifices came out. I had only published two stories. By the time A Planet of Eccentrics came out and I had been in the Journey Prize Anthology and I had been to a couple of conferences. So I knew people would notice it, but that they would either like it a lot or dislike it a lot. Fortunately, I would say that 90% of the people liked it and 10% disliked it. The scholarly reviews tend to be more critical and take their time, focusing on different aspects and I learned things from reviewers. There was quite a mixed review in Paragraph magazine by someone whom I respect; it was a fair review. So I wrote to him and I said, "Could you elaborate on this." After his daughter was born a number of months passed, he finally wrote back to me and it was a two page letter, it was very forthright, and he gave me examples. I wrote back to him and I said, "Thank you. These are the pitfalls I hope to avoid in the next book." It's great to have people like that, you know.

Zool: Right, people who can give you criticism that you can work with.

Ven: What I didn't expect with A Planet of Eccentrics was that the reaction would be immediate. And it was; within three months people were noticing it. Also, (I did not expect) that it would have such a long life, because that book now is over two years old but there's still the occasional review of it. Now anthologies are starting to pick up the stories.

Zool: I've also noticed you've been involved with some anthology projects.

Ven: I've coedited one anthology on transcultural and other forms of dislocations called, Out of Place. And then, I recently edited an anthology which came out in April called Loathstone.

Zool: How would you differentiate your editing functions when you are editing anthologies from when you are writing fiction?

Ven: Well, writing involves creativity and analysis, in equal measures.

Zool: And do you think you are an analytical writer?

Ven: Fairly, but I can also be an extremely creative writer. There are times when the narrator will start speaking, and after I've listened to the narrator for a few weeks or a few months, I'll sit down and write, and it all comes out. Usually I make two more revisions when the story is finished. That is an extremely creative process, not very much analysis involved except in the revision. Most of my work does not come that easy. It's a matter of writing scenes, laying them out on the floor, cutting them up, marking them with yellow markers, coding everything '1-B,' '1-C '2-D' '2-E'... that is not a creative process, it's a strictly analytical process. Editing is much more on the analytical side than the creative side.

Zool: When you have your editing hat on, do you deal with writers the way you would wish to be treated? Is there a code you follow in trying to be supportive of work, but also being honest with writers about their work?

Ven: Probably I deal with them the same way that I was treated in the early days, which is that people would give me a lot of support, but if it looked as though I was slacking off they would suddenly draw in the reins and say, "This is a cop out, you can't do this." I'm not worried about bruising writers egos. If you don't develop a thick skin, then you're going to have problems. There's a certain time when you have to be hard when you're writing. You know, stop screwing around and get down to work, and stop doing such and such which is not working. That's the way I was treated; people were very supportive, but if I wasn't working hard enough then they came down on me hard. I tend to be like that as an editor too. I don't mean to be unkind to people. I think that the very fact that anybody is spending so much time on your work means that they care about it.

Zool: What's your process like? Are you a rigid writer in the sense that you wake up at a certain time, have a set writing time, or is it when the muse hits you?

Ven: No, neither one. The first few years I wrote full time. I started at nine, took a coffee break, took a lunch break, another coffee break, finished at five. And I worked five days a week, because I was training myself to sit at the desk for forty hours a week and produce material. I did that for three years. Once I had the discipline of sitting down at a desk, I discovered I didn't need to do that any more. So, now I write when very practical considerations are taken care of. I travel a lot now, and I do write when I travel, but I don't feel obliged to. Other times when I'm finishing a major project, I do have to concentrate. So, when I was finishing Van der Graaf Days, for instance, it had to be completely rewritten from start to finish. I went to Banff for five weeks and worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, or six and a half days a week. I gave myself half a day off and got the thing done.

Zool: So, tell us about Van der Graaf Days. What is the subject matter, what are the different forces that play in the book?

Ven: It's about a family, a South-Indian Brahmin family which realizes that in order for their son to have a better life they'll have to get out of India because the Brahmins are on the downswing. This is after independence. And so the parents leave the child with a grandmother in Mauritius. The parents go to graduate school in the US, but to separate graduate schools. The mother comes back to Mauritius to pick up the child, and then they live together in India. It takes them another three years to get to North America because of certain complications. In the meantime, the father decides to move to Canada. So then, in the second half of the novel the three people are reunited finally. It's the first time in six years they've all been under the same roof, and they don't know how to work as a family.

Zool: Would you describe it as dysfunctional, or just...

Ven: Yeah, it's all screwed up. [laughter]

Zool: Great, and that's a wonderful territory to mine.

Ven: Yeah, in the beginning of the novel, the father is the dominant character, but he disappears for a long stretch of the novel. While he's not in the novel, the mother is stronger and stronger, so when they get to Canada the father is still apparently the dominating character. My favourite character in the novel is the mother because of the way she changes, which is, she begins as a hopeless upper-class girl who is terrified of running a household, terrified of childbirth, of raising a child, and until the end she is the one who does the one thing that is very important to the son at the end of the novel. What the father has to learn is that he's not necessarily the most important person in the family, though I never thought of it in those terms. Mainly what he has to learn is just to be more human because he gets stuck having to look after the boy. It's a novel about people immigrating, but it's more a novel about a family that doesn't know how to be a family. There are probably a lot of families like this.

Zool: Do you deal with issues of racism in the book at all?

Ven: A certain amount. In fact, it's probably more noticeable in what I call the Indian half, the first half, because of the caste system, the different religions, the Muslims and the Sikhs and so on. I wanted to get across how claustrophobic Indian society can be. And so, in a way, those conflicts are much more insidious than the conflicts that occur in Canada based on race. It's not that I try to play down issues of racism or prejudice, but they have to be looked at in the context of the people involved, and this family is an upper-class family which has come to Canada and education is the one thing that keeps it going. So, even if they are subjected to prejudice and racism they know they will still make it. They don't allow people to hold them back because of it. Now, if they had come to Canada as labourers, then they would have been far worse stung by the prejudice and racism simply because there's much more of the society that's above them that can just push them down. When people ask me, "Why don't you write about racism?" is not that I don't write about racism, it's simply that there are different forms of racism. Much of what I write about is not racism as it is bigotry, which is [a] different thing. I get a bit worried when every problem is put down to racism.

Zool: How do you differentiate between things like bigotry, or prejudice or racism?

Ven: Well, racism I tend to think of…I suppose it's a matter of degree. When I look at South Africa, I can say, "This is a racist society."

Zool: Because of the institutionalization of it?

Ven: Yeah, the people who are put in a certain niche have no hope of moving out of that niche. When I look at Canada, I don't see it as a racist society, I see it as a bigoted society. Maybe it's a semantic difference butthe main difference for me is that in Canada, you can get beyond the boundaries you're put into. When I lived in Vancouver twenty years ago, it was a terrible time to be an Indian in this city, and I swore I would never come back after some of the experiences that I had. But apparently the city has changed in the sense that there are so many immigrants and descendants of immigrants that the mainstream society in Vancouver can no longer afford to be racist. So, instead of being racist, they're just bigoted. I'm sure people could well pick an argument on the way I'm defining this but I need some way of categorizing these things. There is a matter of degree. People are mistreated in the Third World in ways they're simply not mistreated here, even if they live on reserves. At the same time, there are people who live here who cry about the mistreatment in the Third World and don't realize what is happening on a reserve 100 miles away.

Zool: Do you find that because of your perspective on these issues you are at times not seen as an ally in those sorts of fights? Do you find yourself marginalized by the people that are fighting those fights simply because you have that perspective?

Ven: I don't think so. I think that it's more of the case that people look at me like I'm an established literary writer, which is not the same thing as being an established writer with a commercial press. There are different leagues we all play in, and I don't play in the National Hockey League, I play in one of the farm teams. But the players in the farm teams are just as good, they just don't happen to play in those particular arenas at a certain time. Now, the people I like to deal with are people that have interesting things to write about and care about the quality of their writing. Probably, I spend two thirds of my time dealing with white Canadian writers and a third of my time dealing with minority Canadian writers, simply because of the mix of the population. There are certain minority writers whom I think are very good and simply have not received the attention they deserve. There are also other minority writers who I think are vastly overrated and have only received that attention because they are angry and white liberal Canadians need to feel guilty, and it just doesn't cut it with me. When a minority writer accuses me of always defending white people in public, then I know this is the sort of person I do not want to have many dealings with, because they are obviously not thinking the situation through. At the same time, none of my white writer friends have ever felt that I have ever disadvantaged them.

Zool: Right. To pursue that just a little bit, I think you were involved with the Writer's Union of Canada's racial minority consultations? [see Rungh - Volume 1, Number 4]

Ven: I wasn't on the committee. I was at the Geneva Park Conference.

Zool: What do you think of that? What's your opinion of the resolution that was finally accepted by the Writer's Union?

Ven: I think that it was too bad they made that amendment, but it was fine that they made it. If it made some of them feel happier, that was fine.

Zool: Which amendment in particular?

Ven: Well, when they amended it from 'appropriation' to 'misappropriation' it was a semantic thing. What I was worried was that the entire amendment would be voted down. I didn't want that to happen. So, even if it had to be watered down a bit, and it got through, that was fine with me. At a certain point, you simply have to say, "Well, something was accomplished." In fact, I had very little use for that amendment, or for the appropriation resolution from the very beginning because I believe that writers can appropriate whatever they want. But that resolution mattered to so many people that were at Geneva Park that to be fair, it was my obligation to support them, and that's why I was asked to speak to it. It was an ironic situation in which a person who believes in appropriating material was the one who introduced the resolution and spoke to it, and I felt fine about that. In the long run, I think it's going to be surprising that that battle ever had to be fought. I said at Carlton University, "The people who were at Geneva Park, twenty years from now are going to be the literary establishment". But there's just certain steps that you have to go through, like the baby has to learn to walk and then to talk, and then when he's asking you for the car keys you're wondering, "Did he ever shit in his diapers?"

Zool: [laughter] So it's and evolutionary thing for you?

Ven: Ahuh.

Zool: Within the South Asian writers as such, who's work do you enjoy, or do you read?

Ven: I like Ondaatje's writing a lot, and I've always admired him. Austin Clarke was another of my heroes from way back. And it's only now that people are in a strange way rediscovering him because now there are categories in which you find him.

I think I have read everything that Rohinton Mistry has published, with the possible exception of a couple essays. But I don't tend to model my writing on the writing of these people. To me, they're an inspiration.

There are two articles from newspapers on the wall in my study. One of them is the Rohinton Mistry article with the headline, "Keeping the World at Bay." I guess that's something I need to do too, in order to get my writing done. But the other is the photograph of Ondaatje in his tuxedo receiving the Booker Prize. Now, I don't want to write like these people. Though, if I could write a book using language the way [Ondaatje] has in The English Patient, I would die happy.

There are other writers from whom I take literary inspiration. My favourite all-time Canadian writer is Tmothy Findlay because of the type of man he is, or the type of man he allows us to see, and because he seems to care so much about the world in general. As far as other literary influences...I'm not sure who they are. Certainly when I was growing up I read the classics.

Zool: And would you recommend to any young person to do that? Do you think that having such a grounding is essential?

Ven: Well, I learned something interesting from Nino Ricci. I read in an article somewhere that he alternates his reading between a classic book and a contemporary book. And I thought, "What a good, organised way to do it." And yet, there are classics which I have only recently read, which amazed me that I hadn't read them earlier. [For instance], I read Jane Eyre last summer and thought it absolutely wonderful. And in a strange sort of way, I've been reading more of these classics recently because of this attitude in Canada, even among mainstream Canadian writers, that we have nothing more to learn from the European and British writers. I started buying into that and the minute I realized I was buying into it, I thought, "Well, why don't you go read some of these books and see if they're as bad as [everyone says]."

And when I write my stories I use a trick, which I assume other writers use, too. Once I know that the story is... even before I know the story is working, I sit down and say, "I know the story. I know the characters. What is going to happen?" Then I have to worry about the style or the narrative voice. I have that narrative voice in my head as I am writing and as I am writing the first paragraph, I realize, "Oh, this is my William Faulknerstory," or "Oh, this is my Sommerset Maugham story." Recently, the work I've been doing is, "Oh, this is my Carol Shield story."

Zool: Where do you go now? I mean, do you have a sense of the territories, the imaginative territories you want to mine?

Ven: Well, last year I finished a collection of nonfiction, fiction, and photographs, and some of those pieces have been published in a number of different magazines. I also finished a young adult novel last year. I write essays now because magazines ask for them, though I'm not good at writing the scholarly essays, so I write what they call the personal essay. The content is changing, which surprises me. In my most recent work, these are stories which I've started within the last year, which means they won't even be published for four or five years, because I'm a very slow writer. They seem to have very little to do with Indians any more. It's as though I needed to spend these four or five books, a couple of them which haven't come out yet, finding my place in the world, and then I can go on and explore other things. I just finished a story set in Prague last week. The only Indian connection is that the mother, who is actually American, attended a boarding school in South India. But the other two characters, the father is a Czech refugee and the boy is born in Canada. And I think at first I was resisting this, because I thought, "Well, it's your obligation to write about Indians for the rest of your life, because somebody has to do it." And then I thought, "There are good Indian writers who can write that stuff. My obligation is to write about what is happening in my life and around me." And if I become less Indian as I grow older, then my writing will deal less and less with India. Ironically, I know as I grow older, I find myself becoming more Indian as a person and less Indian as a person.

Zool: Why is that, why do you think that's happening?

Ven: I don't know why that happens. Part of it is knowledge, it's because I simply don't have as much knowledge as somebody who comes over in their twenties and thirties, but the other part of it is probably psychological. There's some gestures which I use now, which I never used to use, and my wife laughs when I do them because they're so typically Indian. Now, why should it be that your gestures would start changing like that as you grow older? I suppose there's an unconscious process of reaching out from your own civilization, which is reminding you that you were born Indian, and you're going to die Indian, and then, what happens in between?

Zool: Do you find that right now there is a whole generation of children born of Indian or mixed parents who are doing a searching, a finding, a quest, as such, and that in the process of that quest they become more Indian than their parents ever were?

Ven: Yeah, and they can afford to be, because nobody is going to frown on it, or beat it out of them, and they're not going to frown on it themselves. When I came to this country, in order to be a good Canadian, you had to be bilingual, and you had to be white. Now, I couldn't turn white. I nearly did become bilingual, and since I live in Western Canada I've lost the French/English thing. But if I had children, they would have the luxury of being Indian in a way I never had when I was growing up in this country.

Zool: Because you couldn't bow to that passion, or because there's more receptivity?

Ven: I think both. Part of it was that my parents wanted me to grow up Canadian, to the point where English was my first language. It was done deliberately so I would lose my Indian language and assimilate very quickly. But part of it was also [multi-culturalism and melting pot, and that's all very well to differentiate between the United States and Canada, but still], in Canada, when immigrants came here in the fifties or the sixties or whenever, the pressure was to assimilate. It was a melting pot of a different kind. And so, in order to recapture my Indianness, I had to learn all over again when I was about 21 or 22. I never learned the language, but I started reading children's books, Indian children's books, and then I graduated to reading adult Indian books. Because what I was doing at that point was undoing the Canadianization that had occurred, but it had occurred at such a crucial time, between the ages 6 and 20 to 21. It was ingrained. It was stamped upon me. I couldn't have become Indian if I had wanted to. This was a terrible thing which was done to my generation, where as the next generation can laugh at it. You can wear it. I see young Indian women who are in high school and college walking down the streets wearing Indian clothes. My generation couldn't do that.

Zool: I understand those pressures. Do you wish that you could've been more Indian then?

Ven: Ironically, when I was rediscovering my Indianness, I did wear Indian. I would wear kurtas and stuff like that, and I would wear a kurta if I was giving a reading. I don't feel that I need to do that any more, even for myself. I like them because they're loose, and because I'm putting on weight, but I've discovered what I needed to discover, and so now I can wear whatever I want. But I have a beautiful Indian shawl, which I don't wear now as much as I used to. I needed it at that time, and I used it. Now I don't need it so much.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Ven Begamudré
Ven Begamudré is the author of three works of fiction - Sacrifices, A Planet of Eccentrics and Van der Graaf Days.
Zool Suleman
Zool Suleman is the Editor of Rungh and the Executive Director of the Rungh Cultural Society.
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