A faith like an axe. As heavy, as light.

— Franz Kafka

Book One was my very first work. I was a fiction writer and had graduated some years ago with an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I did not yet see myself as a poet. After attempts at short stories which were realist narratives I felt I needed a different path. I wanted a way that took me straight to the condensation and immediate depth of poetry, while remaining within prose, and a way that had movement and saturation at the same time. The tentative answer seemed to be in composing through brief sections that were related. The form of Book One emerged as I began to write and I saw that the form could not be linear, its growth would be from the centre outward, slowly forming a whole. To help achieve this I also wanted to work with a certain distillation of language the way poets did.

Book One was seeded from the coming together of all these elements.

I composed the book with the human and the non-human equally in my consciousness, without hierarchy. I did not think of foreground or background, each thing had its own place. I composed with light, a person, a tree, a landscape, a ritual. The biographical and the nonbiographical emerged with equal force.

As I wrote, the connections between things, over them, around them, beneath them, began to show, and each element gave off its texture and feeling and form, till they no longer remained grounded in their own particularities. As if they were not people or things, but formations, breathing their own breath, in a landscape of continuity.

In this continuous landscape, things recurred and returned people, rituals, the subcontinent. Each time the attempt was to explore a new aspect of what had returned. The book’s unity emerged partly from this and partly from the nature of the gaze, a tone and a voice, the writer’s disposition.

The writers who were very important to me at the time, and still are, and from whom I received the most, were Marcel Proust with his singular dilation of time and memory; Hermann Broch, whose The Death of Virgil, a “novel” of five hundred pages, has been called a prose poem; Juan Rulfo, who wrote of the living and the dead in the same tone and without referring to past and present; Virginia Woolf in The Waves, building up her characters only through their inner worlds; Rainer Maria Rilke in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a “novel” which took the form of a diary, fragmented and divergent but always seeing into people and things.

They were all writers for whom plot was not important nor the psychological building of a character. Each one of them had a singular style and language and vision. They transformed, radically, the art of the classical novel.

I was also reading the great poets René Char, Rilke, Walt Whitman, alongside the Bhakti poets and Chinese classical poetry.

Book One turned out to be crucial in the formation of my own ideas. Since then I have almost never worked with a given form. Each time it is a discovery and one begins in a precarious position, entirely in the unknown.

There are wounds that I write from, wounds that are impossible to heal, that may be rooted in my own circumstances and self but have taken on a life of their own, or are wounds that have always existed without any cause. And the tone and texture of one’s work is a response to that, in some inexplicable way, and each work is an impossible attempt at wholeness.

The only problem that arose then was in “naming” Book One. Was it poetry or a novel? If a novel, why did it not have a plot? At the time I was also in conversation with my mentor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the great writer James Alan McPherson, and with the filmmaker Mani Kaul. They had both, in their own way, been moving away from the realist narrative form. They strengthened my conviction in a unity that did not come from plot and that the novel could go in any direction that its writer wanted it to go. In the end, I decided to call it a novel.

Perhaps we in India are excessively under the influence of the English or American realist tradition. Latin America and Europe, for example, have taken the novel in many other, very rich, directions. How does the novel remain a mode of discovery? If literature is to be a quest for understanding the self and its world it must have multiple ways of being, endless possibilities.

The problem of genre, I have found, is not a problem that stops readers, it is a problem of a market anxious to name things, it is a problem for most publishers who are apprehensive about selling a work outside a known genre. But over the years I have seen that readers of this book rarely have a problem with the “form”.

Today, I no longer think of Book One as a novel. I don’t feel the need to name it. Perhaps these are connected prose poems or prose texts that form a whole.

There is too much of the rational in our world. Poetry and fiction give voice to things outside it. And the opposite of the word rational is not irrational, it is imagination and poetic truth, a truth which is always provisional, but which allows us to live more completely.

I remember Tukaram:

“We are here
To reveal
We do not waste Words.”

Excerpted with permission from Book One, Sharmistha Mohanty, Context/Westland.