History Is an Anchor

Kanishk Tharoor and John Wray
In Conversation

Earlier this month at Powerhouse Books in Brooklyn, Kanishk Tharoor was joined by fellow FSG author John Wray to celebrate the launch of Tharoor’s debut short story collection, Swimmer Among the Stars. As trains crossing the Manhattan Bridge rumbled overhead, Tharoor and Wray discussed the short story form, literary influences, and the generative possibilities of history. Below is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.


Swimmer Among the Stars
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John Wray: It’s really fun for me to be here, mainly just because this book is so unusual—at least it seems to be that way in the spectrum of collections of short fiction. And that’s something I really want to talk to you about: Why is it one encounters so many historical novels, but there’s so little short fiction that is set in anything but the contemporary moment? Obviously it has something to do with the preferences that literary magazines have. But some of the stories in this book are set in the present day, some are set in an unspecified future—one of my favorite stories is set in the maybe not-too-distant future. How is it that you came to cultivate this interest in setting pieces of short fiction in another time, and why don’t more people do that?

Kanishk Tharoor: Well, I have to say that I wrote these short stories not out of any ideological allegiance to the short story form, but because that was the writing I was doing. I’m working on a novel right now, but I was working on short stories—honing my craft—and it just so happens that the subjects I’m interested in often have to do with the past. There are some writers—Jim Shepard comes to mind as, very specifically, a writer of historical fiction who writes short stories. I also don’t know if I necessarily was thinking about the writing I was doing as historical fiction. I don’t know if, when I was writing the historic pieces, I was trying to be comprehensive and detailed and faithful to a vision of the past, as I think a lot of historical motives go.

JW: There’s a great spirit of play in these stories. You seem very fearless in terms of the choices you make, the type of stories you choose to write. Is that because you weren’t necessarily thinking in terms of the end result of these stories?

KT: Yeah, I confess I’m not all that strategic. These stories came out of my churning imagination, my love for all sorts of historical anecdotes, my interests in questions of the future and change, and the ways certain kinds of stories get lost in the dominant narratives we seem to struggle with. And maybe my interest in excavating those moments didn’t always dovetail with what counts as conventional fiction published in literature journals in the United States, but that’s also maybe because I’m not always reading that kind of fiction. I feel very blessed that I was raised with that kind of exposure, in the sense of belonging and attachment to all sorts of kinds of prose and fiction, not only geographically but also in terms of time period. So I never really felt that there was anything odd in reading historical epics or dwelling in ancient poetry or whatever it is; I never really felt that that was somehow less relevant or less contemporary or more obscure than reading contemporary fiction.

JW: I think really what I’m talking about is a curiosity, and an interest in a very wide and heterogeneous sort of constellation of text and influences. I think that’s another way in which this collection, and perhaps you as an author, might stand out, because sometimes I think that, in the current moment in American literature, there’s this insecurity about whether literature is something for the elite or for the masses, and so you have this phenomenon of writers who receive probably very expensive education not really wanting to completely show that in their writing. As opposed to contemporary writing from Latin America, for example, in which that is really not the case: erudition, reference to earlier text, and wearing your literary influences on your sleeve is in some ways a badge of honor. And that’s just not the case here. Did you have any sort of sense as you were developing as a writer that you were distinct from most of your peers in any way? I know that you went to a writing program. Did you have that feeling there?

KT: Well, I don’t want to say that I felt distinct from my peers. But I did get the sense that sometimes the kinds of work I was interested in or the kind of work I was doing were not necessarily most at home within the context of a writing program. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I do read a lot of South American literature, and in general I read a lot of literature in translation. Probably almost as much if not more than the amount of literature I read in English.

JW: Well that’s positively un-American. [laughter]

KT: Well, if that is, then it’s a shame. When this book came out in India, I was very grateful for how well-received it was there, and I think part of the reason that happened was—my sense is that Indians who read English are used to reading the literatures of other places. Maybe this is less true now than it was ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, but Indians are okay with being brought into the unfamiliar, and feeling estranged, and not immediately relating to the characters and situations and plots and themes as they come across in fiction. I have this kind of goal, often because I don’t necessarily name characters or places or languages, as it were, that if you’re reading this book that, no matter where you’re from, you’re equally able to feel familiar with the narratives and to also feel, I think in a good way, estranged from the stories themselves. That nobody in particular, from any particular place, is necessarily privileged by the telling of the story.

JW: You have a story in your collection, “Cultural Property,” that plays with this very idea, that one could put together, for example, a museum of relics that have universal appeal and can be extracted from their cultural specificity.

KT: I suppose it is a preoccupation of mine. I grew up in New York City; I am Indian by passport and by cultural upbringing. But I really do feel like I belong to many places and none at the same time—traditional rootless cosmopolitan syndrome I suppose. But I think a lot of the aesthetic of the book—the frame of reference of the book—comes out of that. And it’s not necessarily pegged to a nation. It’s not even necessarily pegged to a city—it is a bit floating.

JW: I really think this collection is cosmopolitan in the very best sense. Which is also something that makes it very unusual: this particular era of identity politics in which the biography of the author is sometimes discussed at greater length than the work of the author, even in book reviews. It’s very daring and very exciting that you gave yourself permission to write about anything and everything that you found interesting rather than focusing on things that might be more directly connected to your personal biography. Did you think of the stories as unified by tone at all? Was there a kind of general zone you enjoyed spending time in?

KT: I think they’re unified by style. Only a few of the stories are written in my early days of experimenting with trying to write. The oldest story in this collection was written when I was eighteen, and since then it’s probably undergone many transformations, but apart from that the bulk of these stories were written in the last five years. So I think they came from a time when I reached a sort of coherent and consistent voice and tone and temperament. Obviously they spring from many different points of origin and they go to many different destinations, but I think there is a stylistic unity among much of them.

JW: In the cases in which you were writing something that had a precedent or point of reference in history, did you intentionally keep yourself at a bit of a remove in order to allow yourself to imagine more than to feel that you had to adhere to what actually happened?

KT: Well, the most recently written story in the collection is a cycle of vignettes which reimagines episodes from what’s called the Alexander romance. It’s a story in the collection called “The Mirrors of Iskandar.” And that was probably the most research-intensive of the stories in the collection. The Alexander romance was a cycle of legends that spread from about the fourth century into the medieval period around the world, from Scotland to what’s now Malaysia, fabulous stories about Alexander the Great. I’ve been fascinated by this for a long time. Specifically, I was really struck by a sequence of miniatures from the Mughal court in India, and that’s what sent me in a deep dive into the larger set of tales. And so I have a cycle here in which each of these episodes is based on actual textual source, whether it’s Armenian or Turkic. But obviously after a point, I really believe in fiction as fiction, so I don’t really feel accountable to those texts. History is this kind of anchor from which you can float a bit freely, and so I suppose historical material, for me, is fun because of the imaginative possibilities it contains. I’m not always trying to build a very believable, historically accurate world.

JW: I do think that this sweep of very short stories in “The Mirrors of Iskandar” is kind of, in the sense of synecdoche or something, allows one to understand the whole collection in a certain way—it’s a collection within a collection that kind of describes the collection. Not to get too Borgesian on you, here—he must have been an influence on you.

KT: Uh, yes.

JW: There’s a phrase, “the novel of ideas,” that was tossed around for a while and you still hear occasionally. This seems to me like a story collection of ideas. More than most short fiction that you read nowadays, it seems that you allowed yourself to think about what the theme of the pieces might be as you worked on them. Would you say that’s important because of your extensive experience in writing nonfiction, in which politics and other themes are more of a concern?

KT: I think a lot of the themes, the situations, the setting, the worlds that these stories take you to, are very much framed often by my political concerns, my cultural concerns, my interest in the ways people see the world, the ways power works in the world. I suppose I’m most interested, though, in writing these stories, in bringing people into little bubbles. I do think there’s a kind of intimacy that you can find even when there are big themes at play: climate change or cultural appropriation or representation. And some of these stories deal with migration and displacement. I think what I’ve tried to achieve is a kind of intimacy beyond the level of psychology. And I do think the form of the short story lends itself to that kind of work.

Swimmer Among the Stars

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Kanishk Tharoor’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, VQR, and elsewhere. His short story “Tale of the Teahouse” was nominated for a National Magazine Award. He is the presenter of the BBC radio series Museum of Lost Objects. Born in Singapore and raised in Geneva, Kolkata, and New York, he now lives with his wife in Brooklyn.

John Wrayis the author of the critically acclaimed novels, The Lost Time Accidents, Lowboy, The Right Hand of Sleep, and Canaan’s Tongue. He was named one of Granta‘s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007. The recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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