Benyamin on writing about migrant workers, and his belief in Kerala's return to progressive politics
Benyamin, the author of Goat Days and Jasmine Days, says that though writing may be a lonely task, he finds great pleasure in it
Benyamin, who wrote the critically acclaimed book Goat Days about an Indian labourer in Saudi Arabia, says there is not much of a difference in exile, migration or refuge.
He says that though writing seems like a lonely task, he enjoys it a lot, because he considers it an exercise in pleasure.
We have forgotten the progressive stories of the last two decades in Kerala, he said, in context of the recent controversies that have plagued the state.
A young Pakistani woman, Sameera, who works as a radio jockey in an unnamed West Asian country is witness to the Arab Spring in 2011. Sameera is the protagonist of Malayalam author Benyamin's latest book Jasmine Days. Translated into English by Shahnaz Habib, this book has won the inaugural JCB Prize, as well a 2019 Crossword Book Award in the translation category.
The novelist-short story writer will be at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival this year, to discuss Jasmine Days. In this interview he speaks about writing as an exercise in pleasure, and how the 'lost' progressiveness of Kerala can be regained.
You have previously said in an interview that you write to look for your ‘brethren’. Who are they, and what do you seek from these people? How does it affect your relationship with your characters?
Not just me, I believe every writer who approaches a novel is searching for his or her brethren. They ask questions, such as why is society like this? Why did so and so thing happen to him or her? Why does someone feel so lonely? Why did someone commit suicide? What happened to those who survived? Where did someone disappear to? So many questions haunt us in our daily lives. We have two choices, as I see it — we can forget it all and continue to live simply or, inquire. As a novelist, I try to look at the dark side of these lives. A side I feel it is my duty to reveal to the world. I am not too bothered about my relationships with characters. They are just a way to explore the darker side of society, which, if nothing else, might bring happiness to them.
What has your experience of living as an expat taught you? Why do you think it is important to write stories about the Gulf, or of the migrant labourers working there? And why has this subject remained largely under-explored?
Migration is not a single-layered experience. It has different faces and stages. As Victor Hugo said, ‘It is a long dream of home’.
There is not much of a difference in exile, migration or refuge. The feeling of alienation is the same in all three.
In the Gulf region, the situation is a little more complicated. Your experience isn’t defined by who you really are. Are you a migrant, expatriate or a labour slave? Questions about your social position in that region and how long you have been there aren’t as important as they may be elsewhere. With regards to identity, there is a dilemma.
Migrant labourers in this region have a history of more than 70 years. But it is never written by anyone. The only living history of their pain, loneliness and agony is the letters they have written home, not much else is left or recorded. We only learn of the brighter side of that story. There is a dark side to it that remains unrevealed. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, most of those labourers are illiterate and don’t know how to present their own story. Also, they come to earn a livelihood, not for stories. Secondly, the strict laws about writing in these countries make it difficult. They were watching every word coming out of the area. The era of globalisation and social media has broken this barrier. Thirdly, the readers were not ready for these stories. Only diaspora writing has changed the situation, somewhat.
What are the greatest challenges you have faced while writing a book like Jasmine Days, situated far from home? What did this experience of witnessing the Jasmine revolution do to you as a writer and your view of Bahrain?
The main challenge was telling the truth. If you try to lie in fiction, it can easily be caught. I was sure that I couldn't write the story from that country, although I wished to. I had that experience with Goat Days, as the novel was banned by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. So I took the decision to leave the country before I started writing Jasmine Days. As I had lived there for the last 21 years, it was not an easy decision. But for the sake of novel, I had to do it.
Secondly, about the perspective of the novel, I had questions such as who should become the protagonist? A local, or an expatriate? If it is an expatriate, from which part of the world should he or she be? A Malayalee, an Indian, an Asian or from any other part of the world? These are delicate choices.
The revolution in the country wasn’t that sudden or surprising. In my 21 years of life in the city, I experienced similar situations on more than one occasion. The revolution was just well-organised, with more participants. As a writer, it was a great resource for stories, but as an expatriate, it was a tense situation. Who to side with and questions of allegiance were tough to address in those days.
What is your writing process like? Do you write every day? Do you work on only one project at a time? And has writing ever felt like a lonely task?
I take many years for a project. It is very slow. If I become fond of a subject then I research for it as much as is possible. I travel, meet people and read documents and histories. Then I prepare small notes on it which I can then use in the novel. Then I start with chapters, not necessarily in a linear way; I can start anywhere in the story. From that part onward, I use the computer for writing. I prefer the machine; it gives me a lot of options and makes the re-drafting, editing process easier.
I am almost always working on two projects at a time. When I get stuck with one, I jump to the other. It is my way of dealing with writer’s block.
For me, writing is not at all a boring and lonely task. Even if it seems like a lonely task, I enjoy it a lot.
Probably because I write for my own pleasure. Everything else, even the book, is a by-product of this exercise in pleasure.
Do you believe in writing only what you know of or have experienced ? Or do you also want to experiment with the kind of stories you will pick up in the future? What does a story need to absolutely have for you to commit to it completely?
No fiction writer can possibly say that he or she writes only what they have experienced. A good story can come from any source or direction. We must be good listeners or keen watchers. Many of my stories are not my own personal experiences, but have been recorded from others' lives.
I seek rare experience, and if I like them, I always try to work with them. The story I wish to write must haunt me even in my sleep and dreams. It should be that rare life experience or social criticism that requires unpacking.
You are perhaps the first author writing in Malyalam who has received recognition at this level. Will that influence the way Malayali literature is looked at? We usually read so many Malayali writers who write in English. Do you think new writers in Malayalam will emerge?
Malayalam has a great literary history and we have many great writers. Unfortunately, many are not translated in time. But now, many from my generation are being translated and made available in English. My achievement may boost the translation process and push the world to read us more. There are so many talented young writers writing in Malayalam and English. It is only natural that the two come together.
Kerala has always been considered a progressive state. Why then has it now become the centre of so many controversies and regressive politics? Is it down to those in power alone, or are people also to blame?
The people have certainly played a significant role in this as well. We have forgotten the progressive stories of the last two decades, we have forgotten our history. We have become lazy. We are, I think, still at a juncture where we may realise this, so discussions on history, progressiveness and equality can return to a land that was best known for it. The success of ‘The Wall’ is evidence that most people still believe in these values. I have a lot of hope from students, as well as the next generations. In college unions in Kerala, 99 percent of elected members think progressively. I am sure that these setbacks will finally be overcome. Kerala is known for its progressive stance on issues, and it will soon be returned to us by the youth.
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