Anosh Irani’s latest novel, The Parcel, was a finalist for the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award, and was longlisted for the 2017 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. We featured his story ‘Swimming Coach’ in Granta 141: Canada. In this new series, we give authors a space to discuss the way they write – from technique and style to inspirations that inform their craft.
One of my favorite films is Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Set in Peru in the early twentieth century during the rubber boom, it’s the story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, known as Fitzcarraldo, who dreams of building an opera house in the small city of Iquitos. To earn money for his project, Fitzcarraldo seeks help from his lover, a brothel madam, and buys a steamship hoping to cash in on the rubber business. However, the only untapped area is by the Ucayali River, deep in the heart of the Amazon, impossible to access on account of vicious river rapids. So Fitzcarraldo comes up with a plan – with the help of the local indigenous people, he physically transports his mammoth steamship over a hill in order to reach his rubber treasure.
While I watched this marvelous film, I thought to myself, ‘This is what it’s like to write a novel.’ You start out as a pathetic dreamer; you take off on an adventure where the odds are stacked against you. In the beginning, the excitement of this undertaking keeps you going. It’s never been done before, you tell yourself – at least not the way you plan on doing it. You embark on this journey with hope, a song perhaps, a writing grant (that might have induced the song). A year or so later, the song starts to fade away, in surprising correlation with the money, and you realize that you’re faced with transporting a massive ship over a mountain. Only, there’s no one to help you. No cast, no crew, no more free meals from friends because ‘you’re a huge eater for someone who sits at a desk all day.’ And you’ve tried to get in touch Werner Herzog more than once.
Truly, there’s no help in sight.
Except for one singular being, both familiar and strange, who refuses to leave, who remains standing there alone, staring at your mountain, barely breathing: the main character of your novel or short story. She is the one I turn to every single time. When it came to my most recent novel, The Parcel, that person was Madhu, a retired transgendered sex worker in Bombay’s red light district, who is forced with the task of training a ‘Parcel’, code for a young girl who has been trafficked into the brothels. For years I simply observed Madhu, as one would a fragile body in a jungle, or a decaying bird. I moved towards her, getting closer with every step, so that I might get a glimpse of the one aspect of her being that would be my guiding light – her wound.
As human beings, all of us have a wound, a point of deep pain, and whether we are aware of this point or not, many of the decisions we make in life arise from this wound. What we think of as choices are, many a time, reactions. And if it is true in life, it is perhaps even truer in fiction. What is destiny if not a long string of choices, a reaction to the things that have happened to us? Destiny in life becomes plot in fiction.
In John Cheever’s masterful short story, ‘The Swimmer’, Neddy Merrill is at a pool party in an upper-class New York suburb, when he suddenly decides to swim all the way home through private pools in people’s backyards (and a dirty public one). On a drunken whim, he gives this winding tributary a name, calls it the Lucinda River, after his wife.
Now I don’t know how Cheever saw Merrill, but when I read the story, I did not see a human being swimming home. I saw a singular wound, at first hopeful and tipsy and energized, all muscular and rhythmic, then slowly worming, wriggling its way upstream, leaving behind a long trail of disillusionment. As the story progresses, the beautiful day – and the resulting swim that would only ‘enlarge and celebrate its beauty’ – becomes more and more ominous, as the cover of cumulous cloud grows darker, along with the water. In other words, the character’s wound gets more and more acute as the story moves forward. Rising action is rising pain.
The interiority that we keep speaking of in fiction is built on pain – and the character’s resulting search thereof. The story’s movement is toward healing (not redemption), some small offering of light that one hopes to find at the end. Follow the wound and you will make your way across the mountain. Neddy Merrill finally reaches home, totally exhausted, only to discover that no one’s there – the place is locked, the house empty. Have his wife and daughters left him? Why is his home in a state of disrepair? Why is the door handle so rusty? Is there no one he can truly call his own?
Sometimes, after the completion of a novel, a writer might feel that way too.
But he must take strength in the fact that he managed to swim home to begin with. Like in Herzog’s film, the writer does everything manually. There are no special effects; only a wound and an ineffable dream.
Photograph still from Fitzcarraldo, 1982, dir. Werner Herzog