Anushka Jasraj on her short story collection Principles of Prediction, and fiction as a channel to transmit abstract ideas
The impossibility of communication, the beauty of mismatch, is probably one of the themes of the book, Anushka Jasraj tells Firstpost.
Author Anushka Jasraj’s debut short story collection Principles of Prediction lays bare her intrinsic view of fiction, which she sees not as a medium to communicate ideas, but as a way of transmitting moods, emotions, and other abstract concepts. “If I ever tried to communicate anything in my fiction, I would probably fail,” she tells Firstpost in an interview. “The impossibility of communication, the beauty of mismatch, is probably one of my themes.” This lack of boundaries seeps into her non-fiction as well, more a worldview than only an approach to fiction. “I completed a Master’s in Gender Studies (after my MFA) and wrote my thesis on Emily Dickinson – it was titled ‘Emily Dickinson in Vain’ because it ended up being about everything except her.”
Starting with a love for books as the “quiet kid sitting in the corner and reading” to being introduced to the world of writing by an inspiring teacher who had her entire sixth grade class write a novel together, Jasraj proceeded to complete an MFA in Creative Writing from the New Writers Project at Austin’s University of Texas. Here she found people who understood and appreciated her work, “which is really important,” and showed her that she wasn’t alone in her struggles, since most other writers shared similar concerns and insecurities. “I had a professor who said, if everyone likes your work then you’re doing something wrong. I’ve been thinking about that now, with my book out in the world, because I know it doesn’t have mass appeal.”
The 13 stories in the collection have been written over the past decade, with the first one completed in 2011 and the last in the collection written after this book deal was already confirmed with Westland. They cover a range of topics, from ‘Circus’ about a woman who leaves her husband and goes to live with the lion-tamer Rajan, to ‘Numerology’ in which a girl waits a year to open an envelope, and from ‘Elephant Maximus’ which follows Cassata as she details how she kidnapped an elephant, to ‘Entomology’ about Zena, who’s coping after a breakup. “Usually, I become obsessed with a topic and go down a rabbit hole of reading about it, without intending to write a story. I write my first drafts without an outline and do more research if I need to get particular details about a place or a time period.” For instance, when she started writing ‘Feline,’ about a private detective whose cat has just died, Jasraj had already been watching a lot of detective shows and decided she wanted to write a detective story. So she read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, a few short stories by Sue Grafton, and got to work.
A two-time winner of the Asia Regional Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Jasraj has also included the two winning stories in this collection. The first draft of the 2012 winner ‘Radio Story,’ which is inspired by the Secret Congress Radio, was a series of fragments that she had jotted down, snippets of characters’ voices and such. “I used a tedious revision strategy suggested by one of my screenwriting professors – I would print the draft, delete the file from my computer, and re-type the entire thing. I still do this and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It makes you pay attention to every sentence.”
The 2017 winner ‘Drawing Lessons’ was written following discussions she’d had about portraiture and female representation in art. At the time, she’d been reading Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, among other influences. In the story, her character also quotes Gertrude Stein, saying “All colours are hurt spectacles.” Translating all the theoretical ideas that were swimming around in her mind into fiction “didn’t offer any clarity, which is one of its appeals. It can be a space for working through ideas that cannot be resolved,” she says. Fiction can, however, broaden perspective. “I’d initially thought about portraiture in terms of power dynamics but it is also so much about generosity and exchange,” she says of her own experience.
Allowing herself this freedom to flow with her interests offers a sense of adventure and exploration to her readers. While her language has precision and the writing style is focused and detail-oriented, Jasraj’s stories revel in a sense of ambiguity. The twists and turns she takes readers on aren’t rooted in time and place but are wide wildernesses that she’s nudging readers along. When her stories end in unexpected ways, the last line isn’t the click of a final puzzle piece; it’s the flourish of the final stroke on a painting that offers a feeling, an epiphany, or anything the reader might care to find, except a solidly communicated idea.