Gayathri Prabhu’s memoir of unconventional grieving in the wake of an alcoholic parent’s demise is a book unlike any other we have seen in India. It questions, without excess sentiment, what it means to love and despise, admire and resent one’s father – all at the same time. The memoir opens in the immediate aftermath of his death and draws the reader in instantly. There are no diversions or lengthy preambles in this slim narrative that looks from varying angles at clinical depression, alcoholism, thwarted ambition, patriarchal family structures, and sibling relations in a troubled family.
Prabhu spoke to Scroll.in about the grief that fuelled the writing of If I Had to Tell It Again, the parts she respectfully left out, whom she’s been reading lately, how she almost pulled the book from publication, and a lot more. Excerpts from the interview:
Talk to us about the title of your memoir – If I Had to Tell It Again. How did you decide that these words would drape the cover?
When one is a hoarder of memories, one thinks of memory as telling, as narrative, and of every re-visiting of the memory as a retelling. One joins different dots, comes up with varied patterns to explain one’s life to others and to oneself. When I started writing the draft that eventually became this memoir, I knew I wanted to join the dots as I had never done before my father’s death – past anger, past regret – to have a sustained honest conversation with a dead parent. The opportunity that life would not give had to be made possible in literature. This was the title from the very first draft and I never changed it.
How long have you been writing this book?
I started writing this a few months after my father died in April 2014 (though I did not think I was writing a memoir or any kind of book back then, it was just an outpouring of grief.) Then I tinkered at it all the way till publication at the end of 2017 – so it took me three years.
With memoirs though, I think writers are crafting it in their heads for much longer, maybe all their lives? So, that would make it four decades.
You’ve previously written novels. Before your father’s death, did you imagine you would write a memoir?
I have written three novels before this, each very different from the other, and I have thought of myself primarily as a novelist. I never wanted to write a memoir – in fact, I explicitly said that I would not do it. But after my father’s death, when the writing surfaced with great force, I surrendered to it, without any intention of making it a memoir or publishing it. But now that it is in the world, I am glad it is a memoir.
The book isn’t a conventional memoir. Parts of it read like one, but parts of it are set as a father-daughter play, one section tells your story in the third-person, and another section imagines your father’s version of his story. Why did you choose so many different angles from which to tell this story?
Thank you for asking me about the craft – most readers read memoir as life arranged on a surgical table. But literature is life at its messy best, especially fiction. And an excellent literary memoir is as crafted as the finest of fiction. I haven’t seen the literary memoir attempted enough in this country, and I wanted to try.
The second chapter of If I Had to Tell It Again is a one-act play and flummoxes some readers – such a narrative device is admittedly out of place in a conventional memoir. But my father was a performer, a showman, and I am very much in conversation with him in this book, so we needed the stage. Also, I wanted to disrupt any straight voyeuristic consumption of my life, or to prevent it from appearing like a string of tragedies. I wanted to invite readers to examine (with me) the scaffolding of thought and emotion beneath.
When one writes about a dead person whom one has loved all of one’s life, it is important to try and tell their versions too. This book does not represent my entire life, only one specific strand – the chronic sadness that linked my father and me, and the two deaths that bookend the narrative (a beloved animal companion died during the writing). The memoir employs all three voices – first, second and third person – to remind us that everything is simultaneously straightforward and complex, self and other, revealed and concealed.
The only fair way, I think, to tell a complicated story (and all our stories are complicated) is to see it as a prism, to let the light flow through the different angles that make its emotional core luminous.
Was it difficult for you to send a deeply, deeply personal story into the world?
Yes, very, very difficult. I almost pulled it out of publication. But I decided to follow my conscience and I am glad for it.
You’ve mentioned a few times in the book that you don’t want to tell the story of your parents’ marriage because it’s not your story to tell. As a memoir writer, how did you decide where you would draw the line?
There is no way to know for sure. But some lines need to be drawn in any memoir if one wants to do it with integrity. Not all stories we know are ours to tell – one relies on intuition and experience to decide the narrative mapping. I wanted to make absolutely sure that I can stand by every line in the book, and that it is coming purely from my perspective – this, I know I have done.
What are some books you’ve enjoyed reading recently?
Malika Amar Shaikh’s I Want to Destroy Myself, Siri Hurstvedt’s The Shaking Woman, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, KR Meera’s And Slowly Forgetting the Tree, Kelly Grey Carlisle’s We Are All Shipwrecks, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Perumal Murugan’s Songs of a Coward, Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book. These are not necessarily books published recently, but books that I have settled into comfortably in recent weeks.
Were there memoirs or other literature you read on these subjects that you found revelatory or helpful?
I teach literary studies, particularly a course on Medical Humanities with a special emphasis on memoirs and mental health, so I have had an opportunity to think about the genre at length. I admire Linda Gray Sexton’s Searching for Mercy Street, Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, Amandeep Sandhu’s Sepia Leaves, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, HD’s Writing on the Wall, Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, Christopher Rush’s To Travel Hopefully.
What’s next for your writing?
Two or three books are simmering in my mind at the same time – I am not sure which one will come to a boil. But certainly not another memoir!
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