For a reader who wants most of all to get lost in a book, the difficulty of reading short story collections is that after every several pages she and the author must dissolve the world they’ve summoned up together and start anew.
Even when a short story achieves that frictionless delight – and not many do – the glide doesn’t last long. Soon the end arrives, and then the climbing commences again. This is one reason why millions of readers will gobble up 1,000-page novels set in an imaginary kingdom but still regard slim collections of literary short stories as too much work.
The most gifted writers – and Malaysian author Sreedhevi Iyer, 39, is certainly one of them – have their tricks for conquering this inertia, and some of the best tricks are old ones.
Iyer’s new short story collection, Jungle Without Water And Other Stories, contains 10 tales. They begin with familiar words followed by mysterious findings, but there’s a reason why old wives have been using such a device for centuries: It works. Then there’s the utter confidence of Iyer’s voice and the way it dips into a conversational mode every now and then to make you feel as if you’ve been waved into a gossipy circle to get the real lowdown.
Iyer’s upcoming novel has taken 10 years to complete, and has a bearing on Jungle Without Water.
“The book happened quite suddenly. After completing a heavy draft of the novel, I needed a break. And since I’ve been writing these short stories that have been published here and there, it felt good to just compile some and write a few more into a book,” says the author, comparing the unreserved process to getting “khichdi from a kedai runcit”. (Khichdi is a simple Indian comfort-food dish of rice and dhal.)
“It gave me an opportunity to just go into a different way of writing with literary devices and language that were not as restrictive as the novel.”
Following a theme in migration, both books are heavily influenced by code switching. Mentored by Canadian author and specialist in diasporic histories of Asian communities, Madeleine Thien, the novel is set in the past, far, far away. Her short stories however, are closer to home and in time, being most comfortable in their multiplicity.
In Jungle Without Water, Iyer shows her flashes of lyricism, but they’re so fleeting that they leave you refreshed and yearning rather than drenched in verbiage; her stories are never mere set pieces for the display of exquisite prose.
“It is most obvious in my own life. Whether in my friendships or relationships, when I get comfortable with a person, somehow the ‘lah’ will come out. And when that does, you’re family already,” she quips during our Skype conversation on a recent lazy Friday afternoon.
Some of Iyer’s stories are the result of her MFA, obtained from City University Hong Kong. It is a programme that promises a myriad of surprises, boasting multi-lingual, multi-colloquial, multi-cultural workshops.
“I was not an odd one out, everyone was an odd one out. You will find that Malaysians are very hard to categorise. I naturally resist that, and when I say I’m Malaysian, people are usually surprised,” she divulges.
With the compilation, Iyer wanted to take a closer look at what happens to people who migrate from one place to another, living between places, living between languages.
“As Malaysians, we speak English but not standard English. We bring in all the elements of non-English as well. So what happens when you write between languages intrigues me.”
Born and bred in Malaysia, Iyer grew up in Alor Setar – “Sadly, a very odd place to grow up if you want to be writer.”
As with most writers, she first fell in love with reading, something her mother inculcated in her.
“I wrote a silly novel in light blue ink when I was 14, and my mother let me do it, let me live in a cave of my study, and bringing me my meals. You don’t see that kind of support from Malaysian parents for something like this.”
But the midnight oil didn’t work its magic, as she left for Brisbane, Australia, to study Law. It wasn’t until her final year when she aced an elective in creative writing that she decided to pursue the literary path.
Iyer’s fascination with the migratory voice began during a stint on a writing programme she undertook when she was Down Under. The programme had a critical component that required her to research post-colonial literary theories, and Iyer ended up looking at the works of Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and R.K. Narayanan. Their common link to “home” caught her attention.
“Because I was writing the novel, I was also looking at what happened to Indians who emigrate on their own but also are forced to emigrate to different parts of the world due to colonisation. As a part of that I had to look at the idea of home held by Indian authors writing in English.”
That opened up the idea of what kind of writing she would do.
Iyer cites Singaporean poet Edwin Thumboo, saying “South-East Asia was globalised before the term globalisation came about. I think people have been moving and mutating since the dawn of time, it’s just happening faster now, faster than we can process in a real way.”
She feels we are already borderless, as national borders are becoming like mirages.
“One does not have to stay in the same nation and work there as well. You can now live in one country and work in another, get married in another. The idea of borders becoming porous is quite real, and then by the same token, that idea is also a bit threatening.
“As some of us travel and move more, others want to restrict that movement. Moving affects our identity, and sometimes a static identity is very important to some people. So you have places like in Australia where they want to let refugees in, you have places like Malaysia that’s now struggling in new ways with what it means to be multicultural – these are old questions but we are now finding them new again.”
Iyer’s novel, which is set for a release sometime next year, is called The Tiniest House Of Time.