An Interview with Jaina Sanga

I met Jaina Sanga in 2009 when we were both associate artists at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. I remember hearing her read her work and being struck by how clearly I could visual the scene she had written. Jaina’s prose is vivid and sensory laden. In her recently released novel Silk Fish Opium, she conjures for the reader India in all its richness of colors, odors, textures and sounds.

Jaina grew up in Bombay and now lives in Dallas, Texas. She is an alumna of Hedgebrook, the women’s writing retreat north of Seattle. She will be back in Seattle to read from Silk Fish Opium at Elliott Bay Book Company on Saturday, April 20, at 5:00 p.m.

Here she answers a few questions about her work.

1. In your novel a young Hindu woman from a wealthy family falls in love with a Muslim musician of ordinary means. You set the story at the time of Indian Independence and Partition—a time of great upheaval. So you have class, religion, culture and politics, not to mention the history and effects of the Raj. How did you manage all of these sources of conflict in writing the novel?

The notion of conflict is integral to novels. Whether on a large scale such as the subcontinent’s Independence and Partition, or the subtler, internal struggle of a character, the depiction of conflict and its resolution generates the narrative arc of a novel. Yet, during the process of writing, I didn’t actively think about these issues of class, religion, politics, and history as conflict-generating blocks that should be inserted at certain points. The main thing I was concerned with was telling the story in an efficient, imaginative way, and, indeed, the trick was to posit these sources of conflict in a true and organic manner that would continuously propel the narrative forward.

2. How would you approach writing the story of Rohini and Hanif if it were set in today’s world?

The issues surrounding a Hindu-Muslim romance are complex even in today’s India. While there has been substantial advancement in people’s thinking, the sense of the ‘other’ still prevails among many families. It has been more than fifty years since Partition, yet India and Pakistan have not reconciled their differences. To set Rohini and Hanif’s story in today’s world would mean bringing these issues to bear on the narrative.

3. You started as an academician. What prompted you to turn to writing fiction?

I taught English and South Asian Studies at a university for a few years and although I enjoyed being in the classroom and interacting with students, I was frustrated with department politics. Having written academic articles and books, I thought it would be easy to make the switch to writing fiction. Of course, I was mistaken, and I soon discovered that writing fiction is much more difficult. At least, for me it is more difficult. But having made the turn, I’m fascinated and humbled by the creative process; I’m amazed at the stillness that I feel on those rare good days when I’m totally focused on the page and the words seem to flow.

4. You’ve taught and written about Salman Rushdie’s work. How has he influenced your own work in theme, style and story?

I read Salman Rushdie’s novels as a graduate student, and was immediately struck by his use of the English language. Moreover, his novels are all grand in vision and scope. I was born and raised in Bombay, and Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh, helped me identify with the city of my birth in protean ways. The main thing that I’ve learned from Rushdie is that politics and history matter. You can write a simple love story, but if you set it in a politically charged moment in history, it becomes more complicated, and ultimately more interesting.

5. What’s next for you in terms of your publication goals? Do you have another project in the works? How does it differ from Silk Fish Opium?

I’m working on two projects. A short story collection with seven stories, all set in Bombay. One of the stories is called “Train to Bombay,” and that will probably become the title of the collection. It’s refreshing in many ways to write short stories after having tackled a novel, which is such an all-consuming beast of an undertaking. Of course, writing a short story is draining, too, for you have to work on drawing large ideas in a much smaller space. I’m also working on another novel; unlike Silk Fish Opium, this one is set in contemporary India and focuses on environmental issues. It’s mapped out and I’ve written several drafts, but it’s not quite there yet. Hopefully, I can focus on it this summer.

Excerpt from Silk Fish Opium

After strolling for a while, Motilal found a bench on the edge of the beach. The sun had made its exit, leaving behind a gently lit sky. A breeze form the Arabian Sea moved the pleats of his dhoti between his ankles. He leaned back on the bench. He could hear the waves and seagulls, and behind him the low, familiar din of the city when he sensed someone approaching. Two men were moving purposefully toward him—a British naval officer, carrying his hat by its visor, his face pink and blotchy from the Bombay sun, and a slightly built Indian, barefoot, in baggy short pants and an oversized shirt. The officer stopped in front of Motilal and in one swift official motion put his hat on his head and gestured with his index finger for Motilal to stand.