NAW Interview with Mishi Saran

Mishi Saran

Mishi Saran was born in India and spent the first ten years of her life in New Delhi. Since then, she has lived in Switzerland, Indonesia, the United States, China, Hong Kong and Korea. She is the author of the travel book-cum-memoir Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang.(Penguin, 2005). Her first novel, The Other Side of Light is published by HarperCollins India (June 2012). Ms. Saran writes in English and is also fluent in Mandarin, French and Hindi. Following an undergraduate degree in Chinese Studies from Wellesley College (USA), she worked in Hong Kong as a news reporter and as a freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in a variety of international publications including the Financial Times, The International Herald Tribune, the South China Morning Post and the Asian Wall Street Journal. Her short stories have won awards and been broadcast on the BBC. Visit her here.

NAW- Tell us about your book, The Other Side of Light. How did you get the idea for it. How long did it take to finish the book?

When I moved to Shanghai in the summer of 2006, I began writing a novel almost immediately, inspired by that majestic city, and the way history haunts each corner. I set my novel in Shanghai, in the 1930s and its direction seemed clear. Then, a funny thing happened. My story kept pulling away from Shanghai, the characters wanted to be different nationalities and they wanted to live elsewhere. It was a most unsettling experience. I had no choice but to follow along and the novel that emerged from that swerve was The Other Side of Light.

Since I didn’t grow up in India beyond the age of 10, The Other Side of Light allowed me to imagine what it might be like for a young woman coming of age in an Indian setting. It gave me an excuse to write more about India and an Indian context, which I apparently needed to do.

The story wrote itself quite quickly, but I took a long time to revise and rework the novel, until I felt the cadence, tone and language were right. I rewrote the entire novel from the beginning in the first person, after I decided the third person did not work at all.

NAW- Tell us about your other works.

Before I wrote books, I wrote a handful of short stories. One, for example, was about a retired British civil servant  who chose to stay on in Hong Kong after the colony was handed back to China in 1997. He’d been in love with a Chinese colleague’s wife for decades.

My first book was a travelogue-cum-memoir, with a hint of fiction. To research that book, I journeyed in the footsteps  of a 7th Century Chinese Buddhist monk who went from China to India on the Silk Road. It was great fun to write and research. I took 14-odd months off to travel through China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nepal. I wrote the book after I returned to Hong Kong.

Around the time Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang was published, we left Hong Kong and for a brief period (2005-2006) we lived in Korea. I tried to capture in some articles the seductive strangeness of Seoul, where I learned how to drive and studied Korean.

More recently, while researching my Shanghai novel, I stumbled on the extraordinary story of an Indian Parsi gentleman who was born in Shanghai, grew up there and left China after the Communists won the civil war in 1949. I am grateful to have been able to interview him extensively before he passed away in 2013, at the age of 94. I wrote his story here.

On June 4, 2014, it was 25 years since troops cracked down on the demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I was a foreign student there that spring, and I’ve tried to come to terms with history here.

NAW- I don’t think anybody can become a writer. You are either born one or not. Do you remember that pivotal moment for you, when you realized that writing was what you coveted?

From a very young age, in India, before I was a writer, I was a reader. During long hot afternoons in India, after school, there wasn’t much to do but read. At least, I didn’t do much but read, whether it was Russian fairy tales, or Enid Blyton or Indian mythology in comic form in a series called Amar Chitra Katha.

My nuclear family left India when I was ten years old and moved to Switzerland for my father’s corporate job. Our family embarked on an exciting adventure that I loved and it turned my world upside down. There wasn’t a conscious decision to “become a writer” back then, but writing things down helped me make sense of the world.  I began a journal when I was about 13 years old and when we left Switzerland in 1982 and moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, I wrote in my journal ever more steadily.

Later, I thought working as a journalist would allow me to write and make a living doing it, but I always knew I was just marking time until I figured out how and when to write fiction. But even at that stage, I was attracted to stories about unexpected people who land in unexpected places: A Chinese Imam in a mosque in Hong Kong’s Kowloon.  An Indian-origin tailor called Sam. A Chinese jazz artist.  Plus, I thought everybody in the newsroom was like me: Passing time till they could leave and write fiction.

NAW- Who are your favourite writers? Are there any who have influenced your writings?

I’m fickle. My current love is David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.” I love that big-hearted story, those flayed sentences, the intellectual drumbeat beneath. I’m not convinced he gets it right, but I don’t care. I’m convinced it’s right while I’m reading it. Oh goodness, I want to drop everything and go read it again. The Chinese poet Bei Dao lives close at hand, too. I dip into his work regularly, but it’s like prayer, so intense and so beautiful you can only handle a single verse at a time. When I first read Indian author Krishna Sobti, in the English translation, I was distraught. I thought “How have I lived this long without reading her.” It made me mourn all the mountains of literature written in all the languages I don’t know.

NAW- How do you write, do you formulate the entire plot beforehand or let the book decide its course? Take us through your writing process?

Each book is different. Presently, as a writer who is also mother to a pre-schooler, there are new challenges that I’ve described in a piece called “Split in Half Six Ways,” an anthology on women from the subcontinent, writing about their craft.

A part of the dilema is my constant inner argument:

Me: “Take a few years off, you fool, live simply, in the grace of this tiny, incandescent human.”

Me: “I can’t. My other child calls too, my spirit child, slowly gathering weight, materializing from nothing.”

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

My family this summer left Shanghai and relocated to Hong Kong. Leaving Shanghai after eight years nearly broke my heart. But maybe it means I have to stop gazing at Shanghai, my nose metaphorically pressed to the window, and start writing about it instead.

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