Five years after Shubhangi Swarup’s debut novel Latitudes of Longing created something of a sensation because of its unusual structure and the vast terrain it covers. Latitudes sweeps across India, from an island, to a valley, a city, and a snow desert to tell four interconnected stories about humans and nature.
Latitudes of Longing, translated into French by Céline Schwaller as Dérive des âmes et des continents, is the 2023 winner of the Émile Guimet Prize for Literature. The jury described the book as “Fiction of Nature,” and Swarup agrees that it might be the most appropriate “genre” for her book.
Swarup is convinced that her challenge as a writer lies in achieving the right balance between an “authentic voice” that reflects her perspective while “engaging with the environment.” For this, there’s a need, the writer thinks, to explore a new genre, one that is all-encompassing.
In a chat with Scroll, Swarup spoke about the research and travels she undertook to write Latitudes, the necessity of keeping wonder alive, the need to change the idea of the writer, her novel-in-progress, and more.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Saying that Latitudes of Longing is a vast novel is putting it mildly. It is ambitious, imaginative, and quite unlike anything that has been written before. How did you imagine the story that is so expansive in both geography and time? What was the seed of this idea, if I can call it that?
The idea stems from disbelief. We spend our entire lives in denial of the deeper connections in nature, especially our own connections with nature. I think the ignorance and arrogance of being a first-time writer helped. I didn’t realise what all it would take when I started writing.
In order to be true to that aspiration, I made a tectonically active faultline the sutradhar of Latitudes of Longing. I let that be the vehicle of the story, by setting all the stories and characters on it. I did not want to do a fly-by job in order to write about so I lived in these places and I really tried to do justice to the stories that I came across. I let that lead the way. It took me seven years to write the book.
Now that I’m talking about the book so many years later – I recall that as a new author, I did not speak about the discomfort, the sexual harassment, or the vulnerable spots we put ourselves in to write and to research, and I regret that. I spoke in interviews as if it is just a big adventure…but it comes with its own price. I hope that this changes for women writers. We don’t have a safety net – there is no support group and fieldwork is still dominated by men.
The novel also puts forth serious questions about climate change and conservation. It reflects your concerns about them, I imagine. There’s no denying that we are hurtling towards a grim future and yet fiction about climate or ecology is yet to break out in a big way. They are still thought to be speculative fiction. What do you have to say about it?
In India, I think the tragedy is that we treat climate change as a western construct. Even our debates are not rooted in reality – we pretend all of it is happening somewhere else. As a writer, my challenge lies in achieving the right balance between an authentic voice, one that reflects my perspective, while engaging with the environment. And this is why I feel its important to explore a new genre other than cli-fi, one that is all encompassing. For me, it was important to first be in love with something to protect it. If I am unaware of the larger narrative of the planet or other life forms then how can I connect it to my own narrative?
The most dramatic ending you can construct is death – you can’t beat that – yet we live in denial of it, especially in how we tell our stories. I want to understand the nuances of our own mortality and insignificance, for how else can we truly appreciate this large web of existence at play.
And I feel works like Latitudes of Longing and Janice Pariat’s Everything the Light Touches are part of this new genre, which addresses current environmental and planetary issues by offering a different perspective on it. The jury for the Emile Guimet Prize for Asian Literature, when speaking of Latitudes, called it “Fiction of Nature.” I consider that an apt description.
The novel takes us to Rangoon, the Andaman Islands, Karakoram Pass…what is your relationship with these places? Did the story emerge from imagination or to a certain extent, your lived experiences?
The lived experience, especially being in the moment, really spurs my imagination. Everything, right from the baby gecko in my room, or the stare of a stranger or my own irrational fear becomes part of the writing. Even the magical realist aspects are born out of research.
For example, the bit about the yeti comes from an anecdote. I met someone very senior in the Indian Army who told me about the yeti – he told me that even if you tell other people they will not believe you. Till he told me about it, I did not realise there was space for magic in that place. It was fantastic! We associate the Siachen glacier only with war, we have preconceived notions of what a place and its story should be…but the yeti – with one clean stroke – destroyed all my prejudices. There is always scope for something beyond what is known to us. And it’s not in conflict with science or logic. It is possible to be scientifically sound in my research and still have space for a yeti or Mount Everest shrinking in my story.
Can you briefly tell me what kind of research goes into your fiction writing?
I did all kinds of research, right from the flora and fauna, longitude and latitude, history and politics. Though I got a Fellowship from the Department of Creative Writing in the university of East Anglia, I sat in on undergraduate classes in the Department of Earth Sciences instead, to teach myself geology and other related disciplines.
I also researched oral folklore and local histories, I bought locally published books wherever I went, especially in translation, and I listened to people’s stories. To me, even if one person shares their story, it is a document worth studying.
Fiction taught me to be fully present. After a while, I stopped carrying voice recorders to interviews. I learned to listen to a person’s body language – I noticed the moments when they had tears in their eyes or found it difficult to articulate their thoughts. It opened me up…I was also listening with my whole being. Language can hide, it can manipulate and listening in this way allowed me to be true to the truth behind story.
Do you think fiction can play an active role in climate consciousness? What is your hope for your own writings?
If it cannot and if does not then we writers should just shoot myself! I mean, what are we doing then? This is applicable to other causes as well but especially to this one.
I am not saying that my writings can make someone climate conscious. But if a reader tells me that my book has opened them up to nature and helped them see the planet in a different way…then my job is done. The question should be – can writing open us to other ways of looking, to form deeper connections with the world around us? For instance, can I write about Mumbai in a way where the sea slug and the Sea Link are equally important?
After all, this is our ecosystem, and we are all inter-dependent. For me, even consciousness is an ecosystem, and if something is amiss in this system, then I cease to exist. We are especially prone to dismissing the sanctity of things that are not human, like the elements and our climate…I think fiction can change that. Through my work, I hope to highlight the sentience and sanctity that exists as much in a rock or a slug, as anyone else. And I hope that we understand how we treat the planet, is a sign of our own sentience!
Your characters are solitary creatures. Are you too? Is writing a solitary act for you?
I think that’s an idea that only a man can come up with! I remember reading how Roald Dahl would disappear into his cabin for hours to write, how his kids abstained from disturbing him and it made me think about how I will never be at a point in my life where I will be able to do that. I mean, I have a desk but even that isn’t sacrosanct. Someone will always leave unnecessary things on it, and my child has her own scribbles to add. And even if I tell people not to disturb me, it’s not an ultimatum.
In the left margin of my notebook, I make grocery lists and on the right, I note down my research. It is chaos! But I also think this is what makes writing a vibrant and rooting activity for me. Earlier, I could afford some solitude during my travels but now I have a child so travelling is rare. We grow up with the idea that writing is isolated or disconnected from real life or that the writer’s life is filled with intoxicants and stimulating, sensuous company… It’s time to change the idea of the writer – the image of a writer should include my life as it is, let’s put it that way. And for many writers, it is that difficult balance between solitude and co-working, groceries, and new ideas.
In what ways has your career as a journalist influenced your career as a novelist?
The biggest thing that a career in journalism taught me was to respect deadlines. It taught me discipline and to get things done no matter what. It also taught me to prepare in advance, be it in lining up interviews and jobs in a new place, or just making a plan for the coming week. Plan A is important and so are plans B and C. And while researching Latitudes, I was mostly down to Plan C, or just winging it.
Tell us a bit about your forthcoming novel [tentatively titled] Bardo.
The pandemic hit me really hard – everything was uncertain, I just had a child, being indoors was unusual for me, and death was as big a preoccupation as was nurturing this new, demanding life in my arms. The two years of the pandemic put me in an intense internal space and I’m trying to explore that in my new novel. It seems like I must use all those research skills and ideas that Latitudes of Longing helped me develop and apply them to the vast world inside each of us. Even nature, isn’t something outside my window but inside of me.
In my effort to do justice to other voices, other lands and other stories, I suspect I have ignored my own. While the premise and obsession behind my new work is not autobiographical, it is personal. The plot and characters and pages can be whoever they want to be, the story is a story after all, but I am trying to write with self-awareness, or an awareness of “me.”