Billed as Kerala’s answer to Zadie Smith, Tania James channels Malayali wit in a novel told through the eyes of an elephant, a poacher and a filmmaker.
While her debut novel Atlas of Unknowns earned Tania James an Editor’s Choice review in the New York Times, her second has established her as a writer from the Indian diaspora, climbing into the league of Jhumpa Lahiri or Kiran Desai. Born in Chicago but raised in the American south and now living in Washington DC, regular pilgrimages back to her ancestral home in Kottayam have provided rich inspiration for both of her novels, as well as short stories that have been published in a collection entitled Aerogrammes. Admitting that it feels ‘excellent’ to be compared to Zadie Smith, James, 34, admits that ‘those are big heels to fill’, as her novel The Tusk that Did the Damage releases this month. We catch up with the writer and creative writing professor on everything from elephant psychology to the advantages of growing up between two cultures.
“I’m always trying to write a book different to the last, but I tend to circle back to family relationships. Families are such a rich, wonderfully complicated theatre, with their dynamics simmering over many years,” begins James, quickly adding that the families she writes about ‘are always much more complicated than mine!’ Yet while the relationship between two brothers plays a prominent role in her latest book, the story actually explores the fragile balance between endangered animal populations and the people who live in and around their habitats. The unfolding drama is told through the eyes of three narrators – a young American film maker, a poacher involved in the ivory trade and a supposedly dangerous male elephant known as ‘the gravedigger’. “The more I read about elephant psychology, and how trauma can embed into an elephant psyche, the more obsessed I became by the idea that the term ‘anthropomorphism’ is outdated. I felt that I could dramatise an elephant character if I stuck to what was known about elephant behaviour. In that sense, he is just a character like other characters,” the author shares.
Perhaps due to the multiple narrative voices, the story James presents is incredibly balanced, allowing the reader a glimpse into the complexity of the ivory trade, rather than presenting the issue in black and white terms. “Fiction is not compelling when it just gives the author’s opinion, so I’ve tried to offer worlds and conversations through the characters,” says James, adding that this doesn’t mean that she lacks an opinion on the moral questions her novel raises. “There are certain things that deserve judgment. For example, I don’t believe that elephants should be kept in captivity, and I do believe an effort should be made to balance the needs of humans and wildlife.” Unlike the young American filmmakers in her book, she’s swift to point out that she is on ‘precarious territory’. “Your on-the-ground perspective is important – if your daily reality is that an elephant could wipe out your livelihood then your opinion will be different. That’s why in the book I felt the need to stand back a little and call the hypocrisy of Emma, the American filmmaker, a little,” James explains.
While research began through reading about elephant behaviour, James quickly realised that there was a limit to what she could glean from books, and spent an extended period of time at the IFAW Wildlife Rescue Center in Assam. Her time with veterinary surgeon Abhijit Bhawal inspired one of the book’s central characters. ‘‘There is no official wildlife rescue centre in Kerala, that I know of,’’James says. Yet she chose to shift her fictional account of the centre to the southern state, where she felt her Malayali roots stood her in better stead culturally. “My relationship with Kerala began as a place through family visits every couple of years. The place I used to see as a child is tinged with nostalgia. Travelling was magical and involved multiple planes, and long drives down bumpy roads, only to wake up in a place with a rooster crying. It felt like home, even though I never spent more than a month there at a stretch,” she recalls.
That being said, when her research took her into the Periyar National Park, where she interacted with poachers-turned-park-rangers as well as officials, she admits to still feeling like an outsider. “I was very much the visiting American writer, as my Malayalam is not fluent, and previous trips to Kerala had not taken me far beyond Kuzhimattom, a town in Kottayam district where my grandfather had a home,” she explains, adding “I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have strong regional roots like my friends in Kentucky, whose families had lived there for generations. But I’ve always liked being outside of things, watching.”
The writer’s craft
This precarious balance between cultures has helped shape James as a writer. “Growing up between two countries doesn’t influence everyone the same way, but it gave me the ability to make a home anywhere,” she explains. “I’ve moved around every few years since college (New York, Boston, Delhi, Washington), and this allows you to imagine yourself in different places and reinvent yourself, definitely beneficial if you work as a creative person.” James also attributes her appreciation of dark wit to her Malayali roots. “What draws me is the way that humour can be a way into painful and difficult subject matter. I stayed in touch with this Malayali wry wit through trips to the video store in the US as a child, where we’d pick up the latest movies,” she recalls, elaborating, “My favourite Malayali actor is Sreenivasan, and my favourite film, Chithram.”
While she laughingly admits that she’s always loved to perform (in her teenage years she and her elder sister had local fame as a tap dancing duo called ‘The James Sisters’), she’s happy that her work as an author allows for both introspection and engagement. “In the midst of releasing a new book, you do have put yourself forward. Because what you’ve written is so personal, it’s like selling your heart and it doesn’t always come naturally,” she says. Disconcerted by the idea of the author as ‘a brand’, she prefers to speak of sharing her personality on online forums like Facebook and Twitter, and through interviews such as this. “I guess I don’t like the term ‘brand’ because it gives the idea of turning out predictable products, and I don’t agree with that. I’d like to be able to retain a certain sense of mystery!” With two critically-acclaimed novels under her belt, and inevitable comparisons with Kerala’s most famous literary export, Arundhati Roy, it’s a mystery that many commentators are keenly watching unfold. But the author’s down-to-earth outlook and lack of self-consciousness is strong, and she lightly signs off by telling us that she’s not working on anything ‘except a few short stories’ at present, apart from losing sleep to her ‘nocturnal’ son, who is just a year old.
A book you have re-read multiple times
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander
A book that changed your life?
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
How do you order your bookshelf?
No rules, except that my own books have primacy over my husband’s!
What’s your writing schedule?
From 9.30 am to 2.30 pm, I try to write and read as much as possible (detached from the internet) before the rest of the world intrudes.
Authors you most admire?
Toni Morrison. Junot Diaz. Jonathan Safran Foer. Nathan Englander. George Saunders. Zadie Smith. Too many to name all at once, but humour goes a long way with me.
Beyond the books
Music to get my spirits up: Who is Jill Scott?
To get me dancing: Prince. To commiserate with: Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Most recent holiday: My husband and his family and I took our baby to the Shenandoah Mountains (West Virginia), which was where he proposed to me. The first thing you’d eat in Kerala: I’ve heard it called sadhya, but I know it as oona, a medley of curries and a mound of rice on a banana leaf. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! Life philosophy in a nutshell: I’m a big believer in going with the gut, in life and in art.
The Tusk that Did the Damage (Random House India, Rs 499) releases this week, available in stores
Maegan Dobson Sippy