literary life

In the age of litfests, this model of intimate literary exchange is a vastly different experience

An interview with Sharmistha Mohanty, founder-editor of Almost Island Dialogues, a series of literary readings and discussions.

Since 2008, the Almost Island Dialogues have offered a literary gathering that offers what expansive literary festivals cannot – intimacy and a meaningful exchange of ideas through the lens of literature. At this year’s conclave in New Delhi (December 15-17), they will celebrate a decade of the Dialogues, with writers like the Chinese poet Bei Dao, the Arabic poet Mohammed Bennis, the Argentinian novelist Sergio Chejfec, and, from India, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Allan Sealy, and Joy Goswami. Almost Island also publishes an online literary magazine as well as a small number of books. Sharmistha Mohanty, founder-editor of Almost Island, spoke to Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that keeping the Dialogues small and intimate is important to you. What would you say intimacy achieves in the literary space?
It is very difficult to have any meaningful discussion in a setting where there are hundreds of people and writers must speak as part of a panel for ten minutes on a very deep subject. This is what the big litfests have done.

Unlike a literary festival, which concentrates on a product, be it a book or a reading or a performance, Almost Island is concerned with process, with how things are learnt, explored, created, and created again. It is concerned with the unravelling of things, in a stretched time, in being within the labour of literature, and not in the end product of its presentation. Literature is not a performing art and it requires a certain degree of quietness and closeness for things to unfold, for writers to speak genuinely and slowly about their work and their lives. Intimacy and small gatherings allow that. I have seen it work repeatedly at our Dialogues. In our India-China dialogues our Chinese writer friends spoke with candour about everything – a father who commits suicide because he is pursued by the Party, how and why some of them were exiled – because trust could be established in the closeness of our meetings.

The great Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai spoke to us for over three hours about his life in Communist Hungary and how his novels emerged from his life in that context. He spoke about his work with the community in a small town and how the government retaliated by burning his library of thousands of books, a library he has never been able to rebuild. What he gave us was not a talk or a lecture – he was speaking to all of us who were there as if one to one. It was a very moving experience for all of us there.

The Dialogues complete a decade this year. How would you say they have evolved over the last ten years?
I would say that there has been a kind of lateral growth, a fullness that has been achieved with these meetings. Not a linear evolution. The fullness is in the wide register of voices we’ve had, in poetry and prose, and from many different parts of the world. What connects them is that they enlarge – through the innovativeness of their work – the spaces of prose and poetry. The wide register is rigorous and not merely there for the sake of diversity.

That said, I have been thinking of new ways to have these meetings. There may be other ways that I haven’t discovered yet. Ten years is a good watershed and I intend to give some time to thinking about that in the next year.

Could you share a memory from one of the Dialogues that is particularly meaningful to you?
Oh, there are many, but I’ll mention one or two here.

The Bengali poet Joy Goswami spoke to us about his life and work in 2010. He grew up in a very small town in Bengal and his parents died early. The story of his journey from near poverty to poetry and then finally to Kolkata was riveting. I will never forget him telling us about his mother dying in his arms and how the eyes of the dead remain open.

Raul Zurita read in 2015 with his translator Anna Deeny. Of course, Zurita is a luminous poet and as he read the intensity kept building. At one-point Deeny turned away and I realised she was crying. When Zurita finished the entire audience had tears in their eyes. Joy Goswami said to me, “What can I say to him after hearing this? Nothing. The only thing to do is touch his feet.” And he went forward to do exactly that. Zurita, unfamiliar with the gesture, was surprised, wondering what Goswami was doing.

For the cynical and for sceptics this may seem improbable. But the fact is that these things have happened at the Dialogues. We have had very, very deep, critical, sharp as well as moving conversations.

How do you decide whom you want to invite?
First and foremost, we are writers – Vivek Naryanan and myself and also Rahul Soni, our Associate Editor. We are reading all the time in prose and poetry. There are writers we admire deeply, and these are the ones we invite. They are writers whose work we know very well. It does not matter to us whether that person is well known or not, they may or may not be, what matters is that we ourselves know and admire the work. There are no people on the team who are only “organisers.” The Almost Island effort is an effort by writers and this makes all the difference.

Tell us what a day at the Dialogues looks like.
The day begins with all of us at breakfast in the India International Centre’s dining room where light floods in through the huge windows. Then the morning and afternoon discussions where the subject might be “The persistence of the personal lyric in poetry”,

or, “How does fact push the imagination further?”

After a short break in the early evening, the readings begin around six, outdoors on the lawns that border the Lodi Gardens. The poet or novelist stands under a tree, very gently lit by carefully placed lights. Once while the American writer Eliot Weinberger was reading a koel called out and flew across and as he read about stars, the stars in fact slowly appeared overhead. There are very few spaces where readings work well, and this outdoors space is near perfect.

After the readings have ended there is dinner, conversations about the readings and the discussions in the day, many thoughts and books are exchanged. And after its lights out at the IIC many of us still want to keep talking and gather on the lawn chairs outside to continue our conversation.

Who are the kind of people you are hoping are drawn to the events?
We hope to, and do draw, as an audience, students of literature, writers, critics, thinkers, artists from different fields, and really anyone who has a serious engagement with literature.

As participants we’ve also had people from different fields – Mani Kaul has been with us twice as a participant, as has musician Bahauddin Dagar, and Ashis Nandy has been with us for almost every single edition and played a key role in our India-China Dialogues.

The writers in attendance are serious practitioners of literature. Theirs is the kind of writing that not everyone knows of or can read with enjoyment. How do you deal with issues of accessibility?
Ah, that is a very fraught question.

You see, accessibility is of little interest to us. Great poetry and novels have never been written with an eye to “accessibility.” For those interested in what is easy there are plenty of lit fests around!

Enjoyment is also not universal, and I think people forget that. I simply don’t enjoy Bollywood films, I “enjoy” reading, for example, WG Sebald. So first we need to be very clear about what each person means by the term “enjoy.”

And if everyone doesn’t know these writers we invite, so much the better. Here’s a chance to get to know some great world writers and Indian ones.

What can someone who doesn’t read these attending writers (for example the poet Bei Dao, the Arabic poet Mohammed Bennis or the Argentinian novelist Sergio Chejfec) hope to learn from the Dialogues?
You don’t need to have read these writers. The whole point is that the readings at the Dialogues will introduce you to their work. Each reading is at least 45 minutes long and bilingual, so there is plenty of time for the audience to get an introductory acquaintance with the work.

Almost Island has put out a small number of books. Are there more books we can look forward to in the next year or so? Is there any intention of another manuscript competition?
We are bringing out a new book at the Almost Island Dialogues this time. It is a book by Argentinian writer Sergio Chejfec, a novel titled Baroni: A Journey. An extraordinary book and our first “international” publication. I am thrilled that its by someone from South America.

And yes, we hope to have another manuscript competition in the future.

“…books are written about many things, but most often with the same approach, without a realisation that every subject requires its own, perhaps revised, or new form.” Could you talk to us a little about a book that uses a revised or new form, perhaps one from Almost Island?
Well, I think Baroni is a very good example. There is hardly a narrative in the book. There are stories, so to speak, but not an overarching one. It is instead, the evolution of an ever-changing gaze whose centre perhaps is the Venezuelan artist Rafaela Baroni.

The journal is a place that harbours more difficult, more experimental (excuse the word) writing. Is one of your motivations for running the journal a desire to publish work that other literary magazines might not?
Yes, it is. I think that there are few journals in India (in English) taking risks. And few publishing writings in English and from Indian languages. The latter is a very difficult task as it involves locating good translators and translations. Of course, there may be other journals attempting the same thing which I may not know about.

The Almost Island Dialogues 2017 run from December 15 to 17.

  • December 15: Readings by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Mangalesh Dabral, Joy Goswami.
  • December 16: Book launch of Baroni: A Journey, by Sergio Chejfec. Readings by Sergio Chejfec and translator Margaret Carson, Sharmistha Mohanty, Mohammed Bennis.
  • December 17: Readings by Vivek Narayanan, Allan Sealy, Bei Dao.
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