What is going on in a writer’s life as they work on a certain paragraph or a specific chapter? What are they thinking about? Who else passes through their days? Whom are they missing? In Meena Kandasamy’s new novella Exquisite Cadavers, she allows the reader a glimpse into the life that ran parallel to the writing of the book.
Alongside the story of a young married couple, Maya and Karim, living in London and navigating racism and Islamophobia, are the author’s notes in the margins. She shares what she’s thinking, how a particular idea came about, where she went that day, where her research leads her, what personal fears become (with some variation and adaptation) the character’s fears. She isn’t verbose in these notes. Nor are the notes written the way a writer may express themselves in an interview.
The notes are as much a product of craft, if not more, as the fiction. Experimentation in fiction can sometimes read like an exercise whose only intent is to be provocative, but Kandasamy’s dual narrative in Exquisite Cadavers is engaging. She spoke to Scroll.in about the unique structure of her novella, the rules she has for manuscripts-in-progress and the role of editors, political engagement as an immigrant, and the ways in which writers of colour and non-Brahmins have historically been excluded from laying claim to avant-garde writing and intellectual spaces. Excerpts from the interview:
When writing Exquisite Cadavers, which employs a unique format, how did you decide which notes would accompany which chapter? Some of the connections between Maya and Karim’s story and the marginalia are quite clear. In other places, the connections are less tenuous and surprising. The author’s voice in the margins is, of course, a work of art as well. Were the two kinds of text written at different moments?
Let me take a moment to explain how the writing was done. The marginalia, or the smaller column on the side, documents the various inspirations, they are like a diary of what is going on in my life at that moment of writing, and deal with where ideas, political contexts, preoccupations come from. The main text – the story of Karim and Maya – is something that is birthed out of this raw material.
So, there’s no question of deciding which notes accompany which chapter – because the notes are sometimes the concrete that goes into building the narrative of that chapter, sometimes they are a two-way mirror into what goes on in that chapter. As the story progresses, we see that the life and experiences and inspirations of the author begin to either find parallels, or inverse representations in the story of the characters as well. Sometimes, the margins remain silent (as during the portrayal of the fathers) – and allow the characters to forge a world all of their own.
Because I had taken it upon myself to painstakingly note down where the inspiration and raw material was coming from, or to chronicle my preoccupations at the time of writing a chapter – the book evolved in a series of chapters – and the next chapter (both texts) wouldn’t begin until there was a narrative resolution to the previous texts.
And to answer your last question – each chapter was worked on as an individual unit. Often the left-hand would be small notes, and then the right-hand fictional universe would unravel, and then I’d go and rewrite the left-hand material to tighten it up, make it sharper. They are very different in their style, as well, and that is helpful when working on them simultaneously. And of course, then the book itself would be read from beginning to end – and I wanted it to be an organic whole.
The writing was also done on InDesign which I first learnt to use about 15 years ago or something (when it was called PageMaker) – and writing on that sort of software makes you work with words with the intensity of a painter or an artist (each page/spread is tightly curated).
Will you tell us where the (various) inspirations for Maya and Karim’s relationship might have come from? It’s intricately portrayed.
Oh, thank you. A lot of the tensions on the relationship are a result of their individual idiosyncrasies, but they are also a couple under the pressure of living in an interracial, intercultural relationship. There is an Islamophobia that’s so prevalent in the west that they navigate – and Karim being an immigrant artist has to fight against the impulse to only self-commodify, or to feed into lazy stereotypes. These external factors play into the couple.
The other thing that one realises in the midst of writing is that even though we can dissect fiction as clinically as possible – and try to tabulate and mark every source of thought and imagination, a lot of it also does not lend itself to easy transparency. For me, Karim and Maya are deeply in love, share a passion for films, but are also vulnerable and susceptible to tensions within their coupledom, both as a result of external factors, and miscommunication and the baggage of previous experience.
I sometimes think editors are unsung heroes in the production of good writing. I was intrigued by these lines in the acknowledgements, “This book is dedicated to you, Poppy Mostyn-Owen, my editor. You showed me what was possible, and you did not suffer self-indulgence.” What role would you say your editor played in the evolution of the book?
I have a few rules on writing, and getting committed to books. I don’t show my work-in-progress to my editors (they work for the market and will end up modifying me for the market). I don’t get an advance on a book that I haven’t written (for the sheer fear that the money involved will take my book and its politics elsewhere). To consult an editor in the middle of writing a book of fiction makes me feel that it is an act of writing by committee, and I’m largely allergic to that. So, Poppy and James Roxburgh (my editor for my first two novels) at Atlantic saw the book after I had submitted a full manuscript to my agent.
Having said this, once the book was submitted, it was amazing to work with Poppy. I absolutely admire her. This was the first time we were working on something – and she would be so direct. If she thought there was too much lyricism seeping in, there’d be a comment in the margin (poet in the foreground!). And where she felt the book wasn’t making self-evident sense – she would point that out. And I like it because every writer needs to be saved from their own excesses. And more than all of this, she also had to put up with my absolutely unbearable element of control on things like pagination and format and fonts.
I think a good editor brings out the very best in you – and can push you into places that you even avoid thinking about, or mining for the experience to write about. I owe a lot to my editors. With James, I’ve been working with him for close to a decade – and there’s so much I’ve fought, and so much I’ve learnt.
London looms large in the text – both in the fictitious story and your own. Have you found that moving to and living in London has changed how you write? What are some of the ways?
The writing itself, no. I live in London, but I’m still nomadic, we are travelling all the time – uprooting ourselves and coming back. I write in snatches as always. It is not the most friendly city – and in the beginning I felt very sad, very lonely. Some mornings my only company would be my cigarette. To clutch at it and feel as if I was going for a smoke with something tangible. It can be very soul-crushing.
On the other hand, London lets you be. There’s no judgment, no small town trappings. And it is nice to wake up and feel, I won’t be judged. I won’t have to clarify anything to anyone.
One of the preoccupations of the novel, even if it is a quiet one, appears to be how a person living abroad and/or trying to establish roots abroad may still grapple with the pressing political reality in their land of original residence. In Karim’s case, he has moved to London from Tunisia. Would you take the reader through how you developed that aspect of Karim’s character and story?
That’s quite interesting to unpack, even for me to come to understand it myself. For instance the decision to make Karim an immigrant filmmaker in London came after I watched a short film (Absence, She Said) in a gallery in Glasgow and was googling for information about the directors (Breda Beban and Hrvoje Horvatic), who were lovers and artist-collaborators living in London. It felt like something I’d want to explore.
A lot of my initial preoccupation about Karim navigating the white art-film world, the institutional aspect of his work, was about stereotyping, about how he is only allowed to inhabit certain boxes, tell certain stories. It also involved learning much more about experimental filmmaking, Tunisian films, the history and landmarks of Arab films. If he is an artist, it was important to get his worldview pinned down in the way that would be most authentic.
Obviously the political climate under which we live directs our choices. Islamophobia is undeniable, and was something I wanted to dissect. Tunisia is a story of hope, of a successful revolution. Eventually I realised that for Karim his tension about creating art by working against what is expected of him (subverting the consumerism of a white audience + capitalism) was only one of his dilemmas, the other was the pull of the homeland and its political reality. Tunisia is a country with a strong diasporic presence in Europe, especially in France given the colonial history, and what Karim combats is something universal among those who emigrate.
I wrote my novel in real time – responding to what was happening around me, and I have to admit that the political juggernaut of the fascistic Hindutva right-wing – specifically the manner in which they have gone after political dissidents – has influenced the work. I moved to London because of my partner – it was on many levels a difficult and an easy decision. Everyone I worked with, or, was associated with, or learned from, was being thrown in jail, or had cases filed against them for the activist work they were doing. It did not matter which state they were in, or where on the left spectrum their political ideologies were.
Thirumurugan Gandhi of the May 17 movement with Tamil nationalist politics has UAPA cases on him, as does Rona Wilson who runs the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners. The form of the novel allows me to record both my real-world, real-time political preoccupations, even as it allows me the safe blanket of fiction to explore the emotional state of political displacement via Karim.
I was re-reading the second epigraph for the novella by M NourbeSe Philip which says, “The purpose of avant-garde writing for a writer of colour is to prove that you are human.” When did you first notice that writers of colour weren’t seen as artists so much as “diarists who survived” as you put it? Would you talk a little about how you might see the intersection between being innovative and being human?
All of us who read Anglophone literature are hyperaware that the literary canon is populated with Dead White Male writers. In terms of the particular form, say the novel, we (writers of the global south, etc) are at best seen as imitators of the form, but the form itself continues to not only be seen as an European innovation, but literary criticism has been so ring-fenced that the world of writers only sits up and notices when the avant-garde or innovation or adventure or experimentation comes from white writers.
As a person of colour, when we lay claim to avant-garde writing, we are laying claim to that intellectual space – to the space of saying, I’m breaking down structures, I’m breaking down your rules so that they will fit the story I’m trying to say, instead of trying to fit my story into a hand-me-down form. I think this aspiration or claim to space comes easily to me also because I have grown up in a caste-ridden society – where it is taken for granted that the realm of the intellectual belongs to the Brahmins, that all the others can fit themselves into various slots of manual labour. When you have tasted this bitterness, this exclusion, you know the pain of trying to prove yourself.