in conversation with Harshita Sethia
“Who are we without any boxes placed around us?
Aren't we a glorious, messy multitude?”
Writer & Educator
Published in October 2023
A lover of language, teller of tales, and a keen listener, Janice can hold your fleeting attention for hours. When she talks, one wants to listen.
“Listening is an infinitely rewarding activity because it makes you a better writer but also a better person. There's too little listening happening in the world. If you want to write about the world, about the stories of other people, you have to listen to other people, and absorb their experiences in a meaningful way,” she says.
Hailing from the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya, Janice’s earliest literary influences come from her childhood, and from the stories she heard growing up. Janice is a writer, poet, professor, editor, and an ardent lover of nature. And she does social media really well too.
Pariat’s work exists in multitudes. Over the past decade, her work has taken many forms. Thematically she has delved into questioning rigid gender identities, exploring our interconnectedness with nature, and written stories inspired by the supernatural, folklore, and magical realism, and so much more.
She lives between Delhi and Shillong. Currently, she is busy finishing her new home in Shillong, looking after her cat Vincent, and thinking about her new book.
Oral Storytelling & Early literary influences
“For those who told me stories” reads the dedication of Janice’s latest book, Everything the Light Touches."
Could you talk about your growing up years, early literary influences?
I was always immersed in some form of storytelling or the other through books, my grandparents , and my parents. More importantly, I was immersed in a vibrant oral storytelling culture and community. When I'm asked a question about early literary influences, it's very important for me to acknowledge this oral storytelling space because it doesn't quite get the attention that it deserves. So many communities in the Northeast were given script as a product of missionary intervention. But we've largely been oral storytelling communities. I wouldn't be a writer if I wasn't a listener to begin with. My storytelling influences also came from the women who would come and help my grandma in the house, strangers and extended family. They were wonderful storytellers and could keep you in rapt attention telling these fantastical tales that kept changing on every telling.
“The reading, the storytelling, all of these intertwined to instill in me a great love for storytelling in all its forms, whether it comes from a book, whether it comes from puppets, whether it comes from sitting around a fire and telling stories late into the night. And it's a love that has never diminished.”
A photograph of Janice with books she grew up reading.
How has storytelling shaped your perception of the world? How has it stayed with you?
I think what has definitely stayed with me is the notion that there are many realities, not one singular reality is the “correct” one. Storytelling in all its forms allows you to have the world open up to you in a multitude of ways which allows you to look at it for this immensely complicated and abundant place that it is. The more that we open up ourselves to various forms of storytelling, we become in some ways better human beings. We realize that our way of seeing something is not the only way to see something. This makes its way into my fiction - there's no sense that this is the only way to see the world. I'm offering you a number of ways by which you can inhabit the world, encouraging you to ask questions about what you believe in, what your certainties are, so that you move through the world with more compassion and space in your heart for stories.
Wearing many hats, juggling many callings
“I don’t have any formal training in writing,” says Janice. Janice teaches Creative Writing and History of Art at Ashoka University. She tread her path as a published author when her debut book, Boats on Land, a collection of short stories, came out in 2013. It was subsequently followed by four more books in the coming decade, each significantly different from another.
You're a writer and a professor. Does one help you with the other?
All of these vocations feed into each other endlessly. I love teaching and I love the discussions that erupt in classrooms. The learnings I receive from my students in class are abundant. I wonder if a teacher is someone who's just lucky enough to be in a space where they are learning from students who come from many different backgrounds. It allows me to take these learnings and allow these illuminations to feed into my own writing. So it's very much a duality. Editing other people's work allows you to turn that same constructively critical eye onto your own writing.
What's your process of teaching creative writing like?
I started teaching creative writing by strictly following these particular texts that had been written on creative writing. These texts come to us mostly from the West. For a few years it was a very meticulous and conscientious teaching. I was doing my best to include what these texts were saying in my classes. I took the syllabus templates and frameworks from colleagues who had studied in the US because I don't really have formal training in writing. Somehow it felt like a partial exercise.
I realized at some point after conversations with friends, discussions with colleagues, spending time with myself and thinking about how I started writing. What do I enjoy about writing? It came to me that what I really missed within the creative writing space was the spoken – oral storytelling.
The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing will tell you that there is a double helix to good writing: you read, you write and become a better writer. Yes, you read, you write, but you listen as well and I started bringing these oral storytelling elements into the classroom. And that to me was something so important to tap into because it returned language back to us, and returning language to us gives us a voice. We talk about voice so much in writing class, but how do we learn any of that without truly understanding what our own voices sound like.
“We don't emerge
into the world with
a pen and a notebook in
our hands. We don't know how to write. We emerge as listeners, as tellers
Janice at her workspace. “I write best when I'm alone. There's no music, there are no distractions,”
When we think about the spoken, we remind ourselves that language is born of a beating heart and a breath that you inhale and you exhale.”
What does your research process involve?
The research process comes from the kind of person and writer that you are. If you wish to write that book, if you wish to finish that story, there has to be that kind of rigorous discipline that comes along with it.
Everything looks lovely and Instagrammable in a writer's life – endless cups of tea, gazing outside windows and a beautiful workspace set-up. All of that fades when it's you and the page. It's you and the page every day. Sometimes it's you and the page for months, for years, working through that story. I like keeping research rigorous but messy. I prefer to read from everywhere to see what crazy resonances might come up compared to moving stringently through a linear process. But you do the research in whichever manner you choose to. Start with primary sources, move to secondary sources, sit in libraries, troll the internet.
Then at some point you have to start alchemizing that research into a story.
What would you say is your idea of good writing?
Good writing exists in multitudes, there are so many variations. There are many forms of storytelling that we must open ourselves up to. To become creators of any kind, storytellers of any kind, we need to be open to the world, we need to absorb stories from wherever they may arise. What concerns me is a certain kind of MFA pedagogy, or a publication that only looks for this kind of writing. They are paving the way for a narrative that says this is the only way to recognize good writing. A short story needs to look like a New Yorker short story to be a good short story and that's utter rubbish. While there are many good New Yorker short stories, but there are so many other forms of short stories that are also incredible.
“We need to learn to recognize that there are many forms of good writing.Good writing will transport you, engage you, make you rethink the world a little, rethink your place in the world a little, shake up your certainties, sometimes make you feel that the ground has really shifted beneath your feet.”
Creativity, Self, and Beliefs
Janice as the writer, poet, and author - all of these stem from Janice, the person. Nature as inspiration is a major part of her personhood. “Lessons from trees” reads one of her Instagram posts which explores her deep resonance with nature, and how observing its evolving form has made its way into her work. Whereas her creative process is sustained by accepting the uncertainty of her writing practice and defying the stereotype of creating in isolation.
What is your relationship with nature? How has it affected your perception of the world, how has it influenced your work?
I'd love to say that I've always been a child of nature. I grew up in wild Assam where my father worked in the tea estates. There were vast skies, paddy fields and rivers. Shillong is in the hills in Meghalaya, a different kind of beauty, filled with waterfalls, mist, forests and mountains. Then I went to study in Delhi and London where I was in very busy urban spaces. And I guess you forget, you’re caught up with paying rent, finding a job and going on dates. What really brought it all back to me was the pandemic years. During the lockdown I was very lucky to have access to a small little green space in front of my apartment in Delhi. It was growing and flowering. I had my study at the back where I was writing Everything the Light Touches. There was this potent connection between these two spaces that emerged. At a time of immense constriction, where we were stuck there were these green growing things in the garden. In the act of tending and nurturing the garden, there were some illuminations that came to me slowly.
Plants don't move around like animals do, but at the same time, are still deeply connected to the world.
They can sense a shift in seasons, a shift in the wind, they could sense rain. And it amazed me that in this stillness, there was so much transformation. That was the biggest lesson for me at that point that really renewed me. When I came back to Shillong to go back to a forest that I hadn't visited since I was a child, it allowed me to walk those paths and look at everything around me anew. That really peeled back the years
to something raw and innocent that I'd forgotten about.
The forest behind Janice’s house in Shillong where she takes long walks.
How do you deal with the isolation that comes with working on your own book?
The general narrative tends to say that writing is a very lonely, isolated experience. There's this incredible sculpture by an Italian artist, Giancarlo Neri. It's beautiful and poetic but I entirely disagree with it, it's called ‘The Writer’. I don't think we work in isolation, we are fed by the conversations that we have, with a close network of friends and family who support us, with colleagues, pets, strangers on trains, librarians, and with academics on emails. It's rather presumptuous to imagine that one is doing this alone. I don't think we ever do anything on our own. We are bolstered by a network that may seem invisible when we're sitting and writing at a desk. It's there all around us, working its magic and making us think about things that we've discussed with others, and they've given us ideas, or they pointed us towards books to read and TED talks to watch. I don't know if I'm really ever in a complete state of isolation. Books are collaborative, they don't just spring out of some kind of vacuum that you've created for yourself. No work of art is created in a vacuum.
“It's so important to acknowledge that because this idea of the solitary genius or the solitary artist working away in a studio is a deeply Western, masculine concept that needs to be utterly dismantled. We need to reclaim creation into a much more feminine space of collaboration and love and support.”
Do you have any creative rituals that are important to your work or writing?
I can't ever embark on a new literary project without having a title in mind. I know that for a lot of writers the title emerges at the end or halfway through the book, when a line stays with them or the meaning of the book, the thematic concerns of the book emerge at some point in the process. For me I must have a title on the page because that title offers me a portal into what lies behind it. And then in my head, I structure the shape of that manuscript. Apart from that, it's so unglamorous, when I'm working on a book it is a 9:00 to 5:00 job. I get up, it's breakfast, yoga, walk, at my desk, lunch, back at my desk, tea, back at my desk. On a good day, I'll wrap up by 7:00. On days, when I'm really stuck, a paragraph is just not working. I will sit and work at it till 10:00 - 11:00, and then I crash. So it's really just that kind of rigor. Rigor is a ritual, everything else to me is superfluous. You don't require coffee or anything external, it has to be a very internal, persistent drive to be at your desk. Every day you show up.
I'm sure you have had your moments of doubt about being a writer, how do you deal with the uncertainty?
Oh, it's a lifelong uncertainty. I wish I could tell you that it goes away once you have scaled some imaginary summit and you have planted your little “I am a writer” flag on the mountaintop. It doesn’t go away because there's another summit to climb. Every literary project that you embark on will bring along its own challenges. And then you in some ways also have to become a new writer to be able to meet those challenges. So you don't quite ever stop becoming a writer.
It's a lifelong process and you're hopefully always learning and in some ways challenging yourself a little bit to do something new. There will be bad days, when you want to throw your manuscript out of the window. And there will be days you ask yourself, why am I doing this? And those are the hardest days. But some craziness will keep you going. Some kindness, patience and the ability to forgive yourself goes a long way too. I read in an essay by Ann Patchett, who said that the reason why so many people fail to become writers is not because they're not good writers, but because they perhaps find it really difficult to forgive themselves.
What do you hope for your work to say?
I've written books that are wildly different from each other. So no one can quite draw a clean literary map of my work. Boats on land were short stories that were set in and around the areas that I grew up in. Seahorse was about queerness and the fluidity of gender. Nine Chambered Heart was looking at identity and what makes up a person, how do other people see you? What are the narratives that people craft about you? And Everything the Light Touches, was a book that asked questions about our relationship with the natural world.
The thing that truly links each of these books at the very heart of it is this wish to question categories, to challenge our proclivity at placing the world, people, and the natural world into boxes, and labeling them with little labels.
I have Portuguese, Scottish, British, and Khasi heritage, I am a child of colonialism in the most exuberant way. I'm a person of very mixed ethnic heritage who doesn't really fit in anywhere, many homes, but never quite one fixed geographical spot. My work stems from that space of negotiating with the categories that people often try to place on me. I've had to wrestle against these kinds of categories all my life, that it's really spilled into my fiction as an act of resistance to say who are we without any of these boxes placed around us?
What is your advice to aspiring writers?
If you just Google advice for aspiring writers there'll be a gazillion pages that come up. Honestly, the only piece of advice that I have found useful through all the years is the reminder that
“no one else can tell your story.
And to take strength, comfort and inspiration in that.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photos courtesy Janice Pariat.
Janice fills her bowl of musings, interests, suggestions and recommendations!
What have you been reading : Paul Murray's The Bee Sting
Eating : Wheat-free chocos
Watching : The Great
Visiting : Kyllang Rock
Questioning : Categories and thinking of my next book
What has caught your eye currently : The guava tree outside my window that has just begun to fruit!