Anunadha Roy is the iconic author of “An Atlas of Impossible Longing” and ”The Folded Earth,” “Sleeping on Jupiter,” which earned the DSC Prize for Fiction in 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015. Her most recent novel, “All the Lives We Never Lived,” was published worldwide last year and has won the Tata Book of the Year Award. This interview was conducted before Roy spoke at Cornell University last week.
Ithaca Times: As a writer, your books have been translated into 18 languages, but what was it that drew you to the writer-poet Rabindranath Tagore?
Anunadha Roy: What drew him to me was actually was an interesting part – when I started the book [All the Lives We Never Lived], I had a little boy who could enter paintings. And when I was in Bali on work-travel once, I was standing in front of the paintings of Walter Spies, who was a German artist, and you know at that time I was wondering this very imaginative, lonely little boy, who lived through paintings - which paintings is he going to inhabit and the paintings of Walter Spies drew me deeply – because, not only because they are wonderfully paintings but because of his life. He was a kind of genius of a kind who was fleeing Nazism in the ‘20s, he felt the start of it all and he left and came to Bali.
And there by-and-by, he started this community of artists that grew around him and in about 1927 I think, Tagore actually visited him. He visited Bali and Walter Spies was his guide in Bali. And at that point when I found this connection – my novel which was going to be set in the ‘20s and ‘30s’ – I felt a series of connections leading me to you know Tagore, Bali, and the themes of my book which the central theme in the book is freedom. And different kinds of freedom can cancel out each other. And the way nationalism today has become something very toxic, which is something Tagore wrote and spoke about a great deal.
IT: Philosophically and also political what can you share about your thinking now as you continue to write? How does the geopolitical affect your work now?
AR: You know, when I am responding to something quiet directly in my immediate political environment which has disturbed me very deeply for some reason – I don’t write regular journalism and I don’t respond to every single thing, but when I do feel the need – sometimes writing is a way for me to think through something. And then I feel that the need to do that something in my immediate political environment I write an article.
But when I’m writing fiction I think it comes from a different place and although it will reflect contemporary political and currents, fears and strangeness. I think my fiction comes from thinking over a long period of time and from somewhere deeper.
IT: What drives you in your writing? And is there a story now that is forming for you at this time?
AR: Okay. I think what drives me is really a need. It’s something I need to do – if I don’t write I feel restless, irritable, and incomplete. So that is the reason for me to write, and writing for me is really a sense of having an alternate universe inside me, which is sort of parallel, secret, fluid completely involving. It’s something that is going on all the time in me. And if I don’t and I am not doing that then I feel that there is a part of me that is not functioning.
IT: What gives you hope?
AR: Actually what gives me hope is really one of the figures in the book, the Walter Spies figure. He existed and was a real person. The reason he is in this book is that he is the hope – he was very young when he left Germany. He came from an aristocratic family and he had anything that anyone could want, a whole career, he knew Rachmaninov, he knew the artist Paul Klee, Otto Dix – these were his friends. But he saw the world closing in around him in Germany and he left. He stole away on a ship, came to Bali, never bothered to change his passport, so when World War II began he was in Dutch territory in Bali and was interned as a prisoner and was being sent to India on a ship to an internment camp, that ship got bombed and he died. Tragically, and by then he had spent six years of his very short life in jail for various things and they even put him in jail for being homosexual.
And I think in spite of all of this he remains really spiritually creative and he did things, he made things, he built houses, he cared for people and animals. And I thought his life was such an inspiration and hope that however hard the circumstances feel that maybe things can change at some point.