A portrait of the artist

Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker. Her book of short stories, ‘The End of the World’, was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award in 2009. Her second book, ‘The Prediction’, was published in 2014. A novel is forthcoming. She has a BA in International Relations from Brown University, and an MA in Cultural Anthropology from the New School for Social Research. She runs Sansar Media, a publishing and film production company. The Post spoke to Joshi about her career as a writer and Nepali writings in English.

Sushma Joshi

A portrait of the artist

As a woman writing in English in South Asia, how do you see the future of female writers writing in English in the sub-continent, including Nepal? Or is gender a non-issue?
I think the future holds lots of potential. India is the largest market for writers in English, and it is next door. China’s also coming up. The problem in Nepal is piracy. Bookstores own their own printing presses, and they don’t want to pay writers. This means even if your book sells very well, you are not going to get any royalties. This is a disincentive for writers. It takes a lot of time to write one book; if people don’t get paid, they are not going to do it. This is the major obstacle to the growth of publishing inside Nepal.
You are a writer writing in English in a nation whose primary language is not English; do you struggle to answer at times who you are writing for? Does this bother you?  
I don’t write for any specific audience in mind. I think there’s going to be an audience, no matter which language you write in, if the writing is good and the stories have a soul. It does bother me at times when I look at the bookstores and the booksellers will proudly display all the Western writers, but sell my book illegally under the counter. I also get a lot of underhand abuse from the market because they see me as someone causing trouble by raising the issue of royalty and copyright--they are getting books for free, why should they pay this pesky writer? This seems wrong to me. The government has to make book piracy illegal by making it mandatory for bookshops to document and record the number of books sold. People have to stop supporting the culture of piracy, if we are to allow our new generation to express themselves, and write our histories.   
You are a writer, a filmmaker and a critic of art. How has the multi-disciplinary approach worked for you?
I think it’s all connected. There were no genre boundaries during the Renaissance in Europe--the same people were scientists, engineers, inventors, healers, writers, poets, and alchemists!  Leonardo da Vinci is a favorite of mine because he did so many things, and did them well. He embodies these ideas of “sfumato”—without lines or borders.
In your two short-story collections, travel and movement appear to be the central themes? You are also currently working on a book on Nepali migrants in Thailand and Burma. Any particular reasons for this obsession, to put it strongly, with migration?
Travel is a way to explore your own inner world, by moving out of one’s comfort zone and entering other worlds. Nepali people are great world travelers. I have met them in every nook and cranny of the globe where I’ve traveled to. I wanted to document this, so that’s why I focused on the Nepali diaspora in Burma. I was also reading a book called “A Fortune-Teller told me”, by Tiziano Terzani. Terzani, an Italian journalist, goes around Asia documenting the changes he sees through the lenses of a prediction he received from a fortune-teller. The fortune-teller tells him he may die that year if he travels by air, so he spends the year travelling around Asia through land routes, and by boat. It’s a very good travel book. I wanted to write a similar book, since I am obsessed with jyotish astrology, and I wanted to bring together the cultural linkages between Nepal, Thailand and Burma. Interestingly, despite different history, politics and religions, South and South-East Asia are bridged by the same belief and tradition in astrology.  
Since the publication of your first short-story collection, End of the World, how have you evolved as a writer? What should we look forward to from you, particularly in fiction? Any novel in the offing?
I have published my second collection of short stories. It is titled “The Prediction” and it brings together eight short stories I wrote at various points in my life. I finished a novel in 2006--it was a love story set in Nepal’s civil conflict. I met people from literary agencies and publishers in England, but that did not work out because they wanted me to substantially revise my book to fit the market. It appeared to me the editors were swayed by hype, and weren’t as well-read as I expected them to be. There is little knowledge of Nepal and its history; so, it is considered an unimportant part of the subcontinent. It also appears to me the publishing industry equates demographical strength with talent. India and Pakistan are bigger markets; so, publishers are willing to bet on authors from there. They may even lift plots and ideas and recast them to be stories from these big-market countries. I’m not sure where this leaves Nepal—either we have to create our own domestic market, which is not possible in the current moment, where piracy reigns. Or we have to create our own international online market, which is what I’m trying to do with my company Sansar Media. Bypassing traditional bookstores and marketing directly on the web will be one option to new writers. But ultimately there has to be respect for the act of writing, and respect for the act of creation, which I find is missing not just in Nepal but also in the commercialised mass market ethos that runs Western publishing at present.

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