Samyukta Fiction asked our featured writers to reflect on the state of the short story, their creative journeys, and the world. Anupama Mohan brings them to the Samyukta RoundTable.
AM: As a writer, how do you understand the possibilities and limitations of the short story as a genre?
Florian Beauvallet: By now, the idea according to which the short story offers writers a space to experiment with has become cliché, but it does retain some truth still. Whether one envisions the short story as a laboratory or a workshop, I can’t deny the fact that writing short stories is one of the best ways to come to grips with technique. But the genre is much more than that. There is an immediacy to it, in the sense that short stories can be pure storytelling–a honest attempt at fiction-making. . . the genre provides a way to capture existence and experience in a dynamic way, much like an artist’s sketch; what it lacks in terms of scale and extensiveness is offset by the evocative concision and rough creativity it successfully seizes, hopefully.
Janet H Swinney: Writing short stories reminds me of Japanese Sumi-e painting, a technique of monochromatic drawing making use of India ink, where the artist supplies the essence of the subject, and the observer fills out the rest. A short story writer cuts away the superfluous detail to arrive at the heart of the matter. And it’s this sparseness of form that means a good short story can deliver a knife between the ribs, in a way that a longer form doesn’t. The best short stories leave you shocked and ruminating for the rest of your life.
Alex Barr: I think the main limitation of the short story is from the reader’s viewpoint. Whereas with a novel he or she can become immersed in the story and intimate with the characters at leisure, short fiction demands the effort of constantly starting afresh. For the writer, however, each story offers the possibility of experimentation—flirtation with an unfamiliar style, or an opportunity to make repeated attempts to nail an elusive idea or feeling.
Takbeer Salati: As stated by George Saunders, when you need a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you. I see in the short story a space to talk about a lot of different things happening in the microcosm of your daily life. I find the same after I weave a narration straight out from Kashmir which is my native place. It gives Kashmir its due representation, a voice, and a list of characters in the literary sphere who are otherwise lost in the abyss of unlimited desire and talent. The only limitation which I notice is the way they end too fast!
Brindley Hallam Dennis: I’ve given a lot of thought to the short story over the last decade and a half. It intrigues me far more than does the novel, with which I feel it has very little in common. I think of short stories as being tales that might be told by one person to another or to a group, and that they carry an implied context for that telling. I’m influenced by individual stories rather than by authors in a general sense, and often only two or three stories by a particular writer, but a few with as many a half dozen or even more! My favourite short stories bring us to a moment of realisation about what comes next, what has brought us to this point, or what the place we have come to really is.
AM: What drives your writing? That is, what is your fuel to continue to write?
Janet H Swinney: I took an objective look at myself in my early years and realised that writing was my strongest suit, but it wasn’t until later life that I had the means to pursue something that requires considerable personal subsidy. Now that I can afford to do it, I owe it to myself and my Maker to keep going, and I’m interested in developing my craft further.Plus, I’m very interested in the factors that shape the lives of marginalised individuals and communities, and until I feel I’ve done that subject justice, I’ll keep writing.
Brindley Hallam Dennis: That’s a hard question. It’s an irrational compulsion I sometimes think. V.S.Pritchett said short stories ‘spring from a poetic rather than a prosaic impulse’. Life prompts such impulses over and again, and drives me to write, and provides the fuel.
Alex Barr: I think of Socrates’ maxim: the unexamined life is not worth living. I use short fiction to put my messy existence into some kind of order, make sense of my decisions and actions, encapsulate reality as art, and put to rest my demons.
Florian Beauvallet: Figuring out why one writes may be the convoluted reason why anyone writes at all. I do think writing is an effort to explore one’s existence and to try to get a grasp, along the way, on what it means to be. Deep down, writing may be a way to probe one’s inability to come to terms with just being–we have to articulate what it’s like to be.
Takbeer Salati: The situation on ground for Kashmir has always been on edge. It has been imposed on several lockdowns, curfews, and other political restrictions which prompt one to ask for human rights. The only fuel for me is the desire to bring forth a canon or atleast works from a place like Kashmir so that the coming generations at least know what their elders have faced. As a literature student studying since B.A at places like Delhi and now in Hyderabad, I find a lack of literature coming from Kashmir contributing to the ‘Indian writings in English’ university syllabus. I am hopeful at least for now that many writers from Kashmir like me are coming up with their imaginative styles that will bring a change in the literary marketplace. Hope for such Kashmiri literature is my only fuel right now.
AM: What theme/s, in your opinion, are this century’s writings going to be all about?
Alex Barr: I see a divergence: on one hand, the threat of climate change might increase the desire—already apparent—for fantasy and escapism, but I also foresee an increasing examination of gender equality, the legacy of colonialism, and political freedom.
Florian Beauvallet: I’m not sure our century will distinguish itself from the previous ones. Of course, I’m in no position to predict what’s in store for us (as people, readers, and writers) but I would wager that life will keep on imitating art in ever surprising and sinister ways. Obviously, it is gradually becoming easier for technology to challenge our shared sense of reality – this siege may go on for decades to come – but I believe that fiction will, paradoxically, be the only buoy to help us keep afloat…
Janet H Swinney: COVID means, inevitably, that a lot of us will be writing about loss and dystopia for some time to come. But that can’t be all. In the Arts, in the interests of ‘diversity and inclusion’, there’s a lot of effort going into categorising artists according to a single criterion – race, gender, class, sexuality, or whatever – and showcasing their work. But many people are being sold short by this approach. In the modern world, many of us have complex identities and spend our lives navigating the the fault lines between these absolutes. Increasingly, people in this situation are demanding to heard.
Takbeer Salati: I think the global pandemic that hit us last March and which is still continuing to take a toll on human lives will remain a major part of literature throughout this year as well. The yearning for the dead, the mental imbalance found in every generation, the idea of ‘Home’ and displacement will find a space in the forthcoming literature.
Brindley Hallam Dennis: This is an even harder question! I suppose implicit in my view of the short story is the idea of realisation taking us by surprise in various contexts. That’s what interests me, and I’ll continue to explore it (even if no-one else wants to read about it!). I suspect we’re not as articulate in answering questions as we are in formulating our stories – which is perhaps as it should be?