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'Teachers in the US create own reading lists and assignments for syllabi'

Author, translator, poet and teacher Aruni Kashyap on Assam, America and the art of good writing
BY Tora Agarwala |   05-11-2014
Aruni Kashyap’s debut novel, A House with a Thousand Stories (Viking, June 2013), reminiscent of the volatile times he grew up in, tells the tale of a young boy living in one of the most turbulent phases of Assamese history. Born in Guwahati in the mid-eighties, Kashyap’s generation saw the separatist movement of Assam ripen, unleashing violence and terror in the region.

Kashyap started work on his novel when he was studying English Literature at St Stephen’s College, New Delhi. He later went on to do a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in Minnesota State University, Mankato. His works, which have appeared in a number of national and international publications including The Hindu, The Guardian and The New York Times, make him a resonant voice from India’s northeast.

Kashyap took out time from his demanding schedule to answer nine questions braingainmag.com had for him.

1. You spent a major chunk of your life growing up in the politically sensitive and volatile state of Assam. Have your early experiences played any role in your decision to become a writer?

I never “decided” to become a writer. I have always believed that I never chose writing but writing chose me. I mean, I used to write stories when I had no idea that “writers” are a species of people that you can “become” or aspire to be.

2. What made you consider going abroad for studies?

I really don’t know. I guess it is the same reason why so many students from different cities in India go to study in different cities in India. In my case, a creative writing degree wasn’t offered in any university in India so I had no choice.

3. You have done your Masters in an Indian University and in a foreign university. What was the most apparent difference you felt between the two experiences?

I studied in the US. The differences are numerous but I think the most fascinating aspect is that the teachers in the US have control over their syllabi. They create their own reading lists and generate assignments around them. Here, in India, we study the same syllabi for years and in some cases, even decades. When I was teaching in the US, I had the freedom to create my own syllabi for my courses and though I taught the same course many times, I would make significant changes to the reading list every semester. At Ashoka University – where I teach now – I am happy to say that I have this freedom and this is how it should be.

4. What is your opinion on creative writing courses? Having done a Master's in creative writing, how useful do you really think it is?

Creative writing courses are not meant to turn anyone into a writer. They are meant to help people who are already writers. Creative writing courses can teach you the tools of a good story, the craft of a good poem and create an environment for you to become a better writer provided you are already a practicing writer and a passionate reader. Most people who do creative writing courses don’t end up becoming professional or published writers. They use their skills in other disciplines and in that way, they have an edge over others.

5. How long did it take you to complete your novel, The House with a Thousand Stories? What, according to you, are the three most important traits for a writer to be successful?

It took me around six months to complete the first draft but another three years to revise and rewrite.

I don’t know about three most important traits but I think, to be able to be a writer, you should be able to view the world through the twin lenses of narratives and images with some delight, some disappointment and some cynicism. As a writer, my nature is to find beauty and coherence in the most hopeless and ugly situations. This is not something a creative writing course can teach you. This is something that you are born with: like being born with one kidney or having a sixth finger.

6.What is the one book you always carry when you go abroad?

I always carry a copy of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon with me. It is on my PC, my iPhone and my Kindle.

7.Any three tips for budding writers?

Read. And read. And then read some more.

8.What did you miss most about India when you were abroad?
Assamese food because it is so dependent on local herbs. I would crave for fish curry with xukloti leaves or modhusuleng leaves but they probably don’t grow anywhere else in the world apart from Assam!

9. What is the one thing you never leave India without?

Passport! … No, I really don’t know. May be my favorite books?

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