When did you decide that this story needed to be written?
There are two moments that are crucial: there was one point within my marriage when I knew that I had to write out what I was living through because it seemed so improbable, incredible and horrendous and above all, frightening. I knew that to write this story was going to be my way to write myself out of that story–almost as an escape. In that sense, the decision to write it came when I was inside the marriage, and because I had made this mental commitment that I would tell this as a story to the outside world, I also made a promise to myself to live accordingly–as a strong woman, as someone who could endure things so that she could eventually emerge unscathed. When you live life as a writer, I think writing feeds your life as much as your lived experiences feed your writing.I remember very clearly the moment when I actually started writing this novel. I was with my writer-friend Pilar Quintana, we were both on a residency in Hong Kong in 2012–and we had both walked out of marriages that we did not want to remember. We’d hunt down all these little cafes were smoking was still permitted and go and sit there and try to write. Pilar wrote on a computer, I just wore cheap and fancy sunglasses and pretended to write. I carried a thin red A5 notebook with me, in which I would record some fragment or the other, in a very, very stylized register and hope that eventually everything would make sense.
Why did you choose to tell the story using fiction rather than non-fiction?
To me, the divide between fiction/non-fiction is a marketing thing. So much of fiction is real, and so much of non-fiction (the memoirs of politicians) are huge, glossy, ghostwritten lies. The truth value–the more you lay a claim to it, the more others are going to dispute it. So it is best to leave it at the doorstep and get ahead with telling the story you want to say. The pertinent question would be: why a novel instead of a memoir–and I chose a novel because of its ability to hold literally anything, because of its flexibility, because it allows you a certain license.
I think it’s really important that your protagonist isn’t a subservient housewife. She’s an educated, middle class activist. And yet she finds herself in this abusive marriage. Was it important for you to dispel the notion that domestic violence only happens to a certain kind of woman?
Yes. The can of worms that the #MeToo campaign has opened up has shown that women are victimized and sexually preyed upon irrespective of the profession which they enter. I think it’s the same with domestic violence–you can be illiterate and beaten up because a man assumes he can discipline you; you can be a PhD and beaten up because he thinks that he’s delivering blows to your arrogance by being physical with you. Brute force does not look at which women is at the receiving end, just the same way in which brute force does not look in the mirror. There is no single prototype of victim, just as there is no single prototype of perpetrator.
Is it important for us as readers to be uncomfortable to learn certain truths? Stories of sexual assault and harassment have dominated headlines in recent weeks, and a #MeToo campaign on Twitter has highlighted the extent of the problem. Are you hopeful things will change as a result of these revelations?
Yes–I think squeamishness, taboo, politeness have all evolved in society for a variety of reasons but sometimes they can be double-edged swords–not allowing us to confront the demons that exist in our midst. So, yes, violence, rape, stigma–these are not easy things to talk about–but we need to have that conversation, sooner than later, before these things turn deadly. I personally believe that putting things out in the open, calling out oppression for what it is, and for the damage that it inflicts on women is crucial and necessary–and in the end, will certainly benefit women.
In the novel, your protagonist types words for herself without ever saving the document. Through the act of writing she feels stronger, and reclaims a sense of self. What do you make of writing as a form of self-help?
To me–writing this novel is not self-help. I’ve been through traumatic and painful episodes in the past–and the easiest and best response to me has been going on with life as if nothing has happened. I’ve learnt that the hard way, and I’ve perfected it to an art–and I think it’s a great coping mechanism. For me, writing is something else. There’s this implicit dualism where as a person I want to forget all the bad shite and move on, where I want to live gloriously as if nothing has ever hurt me–and then as a writer–I want to go over the wounds, open them up, let them bleed. Not just in this story of a violent marriage–but that is how I’m in general. Within a circle of friends, in social gatherings, I’d perhaps be the most chilled out person–and then when I write I try to be incisive and surgical. I think of that as compartmentalization. We need to forget and pretend nothing has happened to get over with the everyday–but we also owe it (not just to ourselves, but to society) to unmask and peel away the layers of social hypocrisy and cultures of violence.
How has writing this book affected your relationships with family and friends if at all?
No. And I’m not the type of person who would every write something that would wound anyone I love, or have ever loved. Which is why the liberty of the genre of a novel, and its implicit air of fictionality allow me to shelter precious people in my silences.
Finally what advice would you give to a writer who is writing experimental fiction?
I don’t know. For me, experimental fiction became the default because I was telling stories that are not easily told–stories where the workshop-novel, or the template-novel would be bound to fail because so much had to be told. Anything I do–fall (and stay) in love, write, read–is something to defeat boredom–so I could never ever write something staid and sedate. I would give it up.
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist who is based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch (2006) and Ms. Militancy (2010). She holds a PhD in socio-linguistics from Anna University Chennai, has represented India at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and was made the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow at the University of Kent, Canterbury. The Gypsy Goddess is her first novel.