Zee JLF 2020: A reading by Lemn Sissay, varied ideas on writing fiction among highlights of Day 3
If Howard Jacobson came off as witty in yesterday's session [at the Jaipur Literature Festival], the man just absolutely let loose in this one. He talked about how his fiction comes from a place of shame and desperation, and described how if he ends up writing a bit too much on a particular day, he 'projectile vomits' it all next morning
The "big one" for the day was one featuring Elizabeth Gilbert, Leïla Slimani, Avni Doshi and Howard Jacobson, in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhary
While for Gilbert, fiction at times comes form the “mothership”, Slimani described waiting for in idea which makes for an interesting narrative and a 'page-turner'
There were, of course, other sessions of note, like the one discussing the Indian Constitution, featuring Madhav Khosla, Margaret Alva and Navin B Chawla, in conversation with Saif Mahmood on the eve of country's 70th Republic Day
If half the speakers had a quarter of the sense of humour and on the fly wit that Lemn Sissay and Howard Jacobson showcased on Day 3, the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2020 would be a much richer and attractive prospect.
Sissay began his session with a reading from his memoir (the moderator was missing), My Name is Why, which recounts how at the age of 17, after a childhood in an adopted family followed by six years in care homes, 'Norman Greenwood' was given his birth certificate. How he learned that his real name was not Norman, but was Lemn Sissay –a British and Ethiopian. How he learned that his mother had been pleading for his safe return to her since his birth, and how the government and authorities had deceived and failed him.
Cheered on by the audience, Sissay read for over half an hour, before jumping into a Q&A session to talk about his exceptional story and life experiences. It was quite heartening to see someone so stoked to be there and talking about his work (one of my session notes just reads, 'dude's pretty cool'). The author and poet touched upon tracking down his family across the globe after learning the truth about himself, how sensitive the issues related to adoptions and foster parenting can be, and how much further back in time Britain's practice of 'stealing babies' from their parents goes.
But laced in the harrowing tale was Sissay's gracefulness and sense of humour. Qualities many could do with on and off the stage.
The "big one" for the day was one featuring Elizabeth Gilbert, Leïla Slimani, Avni Doshi and Jacobson, in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhary. The session, despite breaking the rule of three, lived well up to the hype and expectations.
The topic for the discussion was 'Where Does Fiction Come From?' and the ideas floated were as varied as the panel itself.
While for Gilbert, fiction at times comes from the “mothership”, Slimani described waiting for an idea which makes for an interesting narrative and a 'page-turner' (the nanny in her book, The Perfect Nanny, kills the children, so you get the idea). Doshi talked about waiting for ideas to ferment in her head over long times and then going back to them to find a story.
If Jacobson came off as witty in yesterday's session, the man just absolutely let loose in this one. He talked about how his fiction comes from a place of shame and desperation, and described how if he ends up writing a bit too much on a particular day, he 'projectile vomits' it all next morning, just like the missing sick author from the panel did literally (that would be John Lanchester).
Talking about her first literary influence which inspired her to be a writer, Gilbert mentioned L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and how she related to it as she herself lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere and the fact that the book was one of the first major publications with a hero's arc featuring a female protagonist. Slimani said she was always attracted to a rockstar lifestyle (drinking, drugs and sex), and decided to be a literary one (ticking all the original boxes nonetheless while being at it).
Doshi bought up Lolita and how for her, the more uncomfortable the book made her, the more she discovered what ideas she needed to explore and write about. Jacobson said the first book that really did it for him was Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. The 77-year-old said he saw found himself in the character, and discovered that's who he was all along – an innocent little girl.
Next, the panel discussed the different methods they follow when working on a book. Slimani talked about how she likes to go in blind and just discover what she wants to say along the way. While Doshi said she felt more comfortable working on a micro level, moving ahead line by line and following sensibility and mood, Gilbert, on the other hand, described how the opposite suits her –researching for years at times, storing detailed notes in shoeboxes and preparing for the book even before she writes a single like.
Jacobson, as you might have guessed by this point, just ran with it. Ignoring the question, he described (this is an abridged version) in detail how his next novel will be about a failed writer who discovers that the only reason he is not successful is that he doesn't keep detailed notes and research material in shoeboxes. How he then goes on to buy fancy shoes in order to get a box and meets a woman there (if they will be romantically involved is yet to be decided), but how in the end he finds out he has nothing to put in the box, and, you know, dies. Yeah.
Coming back to the question, he said he doesn't like to know what will happen going in. How he likes to lose himself in the language and sharing the same medium used by the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens.
Discussing the importance of dialogues in her book, Slimani talked about how she doesn't like hers to be too realistic. A notion shared by Jacobson, who said he likes to elevate the "bus talk" to something more. While Gilbert described writing dialogues as the most fun part of her writing, Doshi said she likes to be more careful when it comes to it.
Jacobson further added that dialogues give breathing space to a book, and although the new trend of writing a '9,000 page book with one sentence' is good and all, he much prefers seeing some white space on the page.
The word they use (or abuse) the most while writing? Gilbert: 'very'. Doshi: 'in particular', and a lot of teeth descriptions. Jacobson: 'Jew' and 'turbulent'. Slimani: 'shame'. Jacobson: changes his to 'shame' as well on second thought.
Finally, where the does panel find ideas and inspirations from? Doshi described turning to dreams, while Slimani talked about taking long walks in Paris, where she lives. Gilbert pointed to listening to herself. Jacobson said he just steals ideas from Gilbert, adding how his wife told him to not forget to say the name of his new the book on stage, and went on to do the same, weaving 'Live a Little' over five times in a sentence.
There were, of course, other sessions of note, like the one discussing the Indian Constitution, featuring Madhav Khosla, Margaret Alva and Navin B Chawla, in conversation with Saif Mahmood on the eve of country's 70th Republic Day. Or one featuring Raj Kamal Jha and Rheea Mukherjee talking about their books. But like William Blake says, "Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome".
See you on Day 4.
Read updates from Day 2 of the 2020 edition of Zee JLF here.
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