Pranaya SJB Rana is sometimes a writer, sometimes an editor, oftentimes both. He has worked as a journalist and editor for The Kathmandu Post and Nepali Times. He lives in Kathmandu and listens to hip hop.
NAW- Tell us about your book, City of Dreams. What is it about? How did you get the idea for it?
I had a dream once, where I was wandering the narrow streets of Asan, which is old Kathmandu. I recall trying to find my way out of the maze of alleyways, where matchbox buildings stretch to the skies on either side. The alleys were dark and claustrophobic and I was lost but strangely exhilarated. That dream led to the title story in City of Dreams, which is a collection of stories set in Kathmandu, the city of my birth. Kathmandu – or rather, the city – is a connecting thread through all of the stories. The stories explore ideas of longing and desire, which I see the big city, the metropolis, as a repository of. Every city is a city of dreams. We dream the city into being, as much as it dreams us into being.
NAW- How much role has Nepal played in shaping your writing? What made you set City of Dreams in Kathmandu?
I’d like to believe that the romantic ideal of Nepal as a ‘Shangri-la’ has long been shattered in the global imagination. It is no longer the isolated hermit kingdom it once was. In City of Dreams, my Kathmandu is a city in transition, a schizophrenic city that has pursued modernity with vigor but still holds a deeply conservative centre, one that guards itself jealously against all forms of change. It is this dual state of being that interests and fascinates me. Certainly, this is not something that is unique to Kathmandu but here, the juxtaposition manifests in stark, unexpected ways. Living here has turned me into a being in-between, neither here nor there, neither Eastern nor Western. I could never have written this book and these stories had it not been for the experience of Kathmandu.
NAW- City of Dreams is as much about the city as its about the lives of its inhabitants. It must have involved a long process of research to get such stories. How did you research for the book?
I have a habit of picking up bits and pieces wherever I go. Mostly, my ideas come from the people I meet, where a small snatch of conversation will stick in my mind and slowly gestate, often turning into something unrecognizable. But of course, the stories will always be familiar to those who lived them. My work as a journalist has also brought me into contact with a host of interesting personalities. I am a gleaner, a scavenger, taking from everyone and everywhere.
NAW- What inspired you to become a writer?
I was never very good at painting or sketching and I couldn’t hold a tune. The only way I could ever really express myself was through writing. Ever since I was maybe 10 or 11, I knew I wanted to be a writer, all because it was the only medium through which I could adequately communicate without losing myself. That was also when I began to read Stephen King, most of which was way too mature for me. But I found in King a strange kind of familiarity, especially with his young characters. In books like IT and stories like The Body, I found a voice that echoed my own. I wished only to be able to say what King’s characters did. But even though I often felt what they felt, my own voice remained inaudible. I took up writing stories to try to find that voice.
NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey. How did City of Dreams find its publisher?
Publishing City of Dreams was really happenstance. An Indian journalist friend, Atul Thakur, suggested one day that I try my hand at finding a publisher. I had been writing stories for a long time but had not considered myself ready for publication at that point. On a whim, I sent out a rough unsolicited manuscript to a few publishers in India (after being rebuffed by publishers in Nepal). It was a quite a pleasant surprise to hear back from them in the positive. I chose to go with Rupa Publications and past that point, I progressed as if pushed forward. I reworked many of the stories and wrote a number of new ones especially with the book’s themes in mind. It was a long process, involving much back-and-forth with my editor at Rupa, but it was an enjoyable one.
NAW- Please name your favourite authors. Are there any you’d like to name as inspiration?
There is one book I turn to any time I need some inspiration – the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness. It is not a book of poems but it is filled with poetry. Written under siege in Lebanon, the book is a graceful but angry exploration of time, memory, history and war. Darwish’s prose is lyrical and beautiful, yet haunting and as wrenching as a punch to the gut. On idle evenings, it is this book I find myself turning towards most often.
Otherwise, I enjoy the works of Henry Miller, Roberto Bolano, Salman Rushdie, Junot Diaz, Paul Auster and Zadie Smith. Diaz inspires me with his inventive language and his brash male protagonists, Smith with her ear for pitch-perfect dialogue and her deeply-studied characters. Roberto Bolano has writing that flows impeccably and I am fascinated by his labyrinthine plots, his myriad characters and his brash humor. And of course, as I mentioned earlier, Stephen King, an unlikely choice perhaps given the nature of my own writing, but there is much that I admire about King and his stories.
NAW- What will you be working on next?
Currently, I am working on a longer piece that will hopefully become a novel. It will once again concern Kathmandu as a centrepiece. I am drawing heavily on the lives of those around me, friends and family whose lives have taken both expected and unexpected turns. It will detail much of my own youth growing up in Kathmandu. But it is still in its initial stages of conception and much remains to be seen on where this story will turn and what shape it will take.
NAW- What do you do when you are not writing?
Most evenings, if I am not writing, I am either reading or listening to music. I just finished with Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves and am now looking forward to completing Roberto Bolano’s 2666. I also enjoy rap and hip-hop immensely, especially the inventive playfulness of rap’s lyricism. It is an art form of contradiction and I enjoy its many tensions.