Historical Fiction with a Global Sensibility
Kanishk Tharoor talks about modernity, cosmopolitanism, and meeting his characters in real life
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
This week, the writer and broadcaster Kanishk Tharoor published Swimmer Among the Stars (FSG, 2017), his debut collection of short stories. Tharoor is the presenter of “Museum of Lost Objects,” a BBC radio series on cultural destruction in Iraq and Syria. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, and elsewhere.
You can open Swimmer to any page and find a sentence worth quoting, a scenario worth remembering. Though the stories span the Battle of Magnesia, in which Rome defeated the Seleucid Empire, to a dystopian future in which the United Nations has been chased to a near-Earth orbit, Tharoor wears his erudition lightly, privileging poetry over political messaging. Lush, playful, and intoxicated by history, the book stuck with me long after I closed it.
I sat down with Tharoor to talk about his process and the historical episodes that inspired him.
David Busis: Tell me about the genesis of this collection.
Kanishk Tharoor: It is a collection of short stories that’s been accumulated over a long period of time. I wrote the oldest story, “Loss of Muzaffar,” when I was eighteen. The pieces often have very separate points of origin, but when I had a certain number of short stories that I liked, and when I put them together and sifted some out, it became clear to me that they were united by a tone and, I don’t want to say a melancholy, but an unsentimental and cold-eyed look at the way things are lost and recovered in the world.
DB: If you wrote the first story when you were eighteen, and you’re in your early thirties now, did you change as a writer in the course of composing the book?
KT: I think so. The vast majority of these stories were written recently, in the last five years or so. I did an MFA, for our sins, and I think that made me slightly more restrained as a writer. I have a better sense of tone and control. But I do feel that I’m still learning and growing.
DB: What’s the most recent story?
KT: The stories about Alexander the Great, under the title “The Mirrors of Iskandar.”
DB: I don’t have a large sample size, but to me, one of the differences between “Loss of Muzaffar” and the Alexander stories is that you got more sly. The Alexander stories are really funny.
KT: I’m glad to hear that, and I hope it’s true, but it’s also because the material from which I was drawing those stories — even though we think of it as stony-faced old history — is hilarious. There’s a lot of freedom and a lot of license in the way I reimagine them, but each one of them is based on something I actually read — an Oghuz Turkic version of an Alexander story, or an Armenian version or whatever. These old texts have more of a satirical, ludicrous, modern sensibility than we might imagine when thinking about panegyrics to ancient autocrats. So I think I was channeling that too, but yeah, I was bound to be more earnest and breathless as an eighteen-year-old than I am now.
DB: You’re not trying to kill us with poetry anymore.
KT: (Laughs.) But I am drawn to lyrical writing. If you put a gun to my head and said Faulkner or Hemingway, it would be Faulkner every day. I’ve been forced to think about this a bit, because I’ve been talking about my book in India, and I’ve often been asked, “What is the point of writing in the modern age?” And as a vehicle of delivering narrative, fiction is limited compared to so many other mediums, but one of the things that makes it unique is the possibility of experiencing good lyrical prose. I don’t want to kill you with poetry — I don’t think I could anyway — but I can’t imagine a time when I’d be a terribly austere writer.
DB: The times you came closest to killing me with poetry in a good way are your endings. I love the last sentence of the book: “Drunk under the aurora one night, the communications officer and the first mate go out onto the frozen deck and dance like lovers from another country.” I like how you make a leap. You’re not trying to wrap everything up. It feels a little counter-intuitive. Maybe you can talk to me about how you found a way to shut these stories down.
KT: I wrestle with endings. I’m sure everyone does. I think that sentence that you read was somewhere closer to the middle of the story in an earlier version. You asked about how I changed as a writer, and one of the ways I’ve changed is becoming slightly more, I don’t want to say evasive, but slightly better with my endings. A good ending isn’t necessarily a rounded completion. It’s something that brings you to a rest but opens a door.
“A good ending isn’t necessarily a rounded completion. It’s something that brings you to a rest but opens a door.”
DB: Let’s go back to “What’s the point of writing in these modern days?” Do you consider yourself a political writer?
KT: If I were in college I’d say, “All writing is political.” I guess I still kind of believe that. I’m an essayist, journalist, and occasional broadcaster in my other life where I am writing very overtly about political and cultural issues. These pieces of fiction may not be intervening in a contemporary policy debate, but I do think every piece in my collection is exploring what we could call a political issue, whether it’s notions of identity, notions of power relations, or ways of seeing in the world.
DB: “Portrait with Coal Fire” felt the closest to being reducible to a message. I was wondering when I read that, and when I read “A United Nations in Space,” if you started with a message or if you found a message later.
KT: I don’t know if there was a specific message for “A United Nations in Space.” I grew up in a United Nations family, so I enjoyed playing with that material. The story was sparked by the news a few years ago that the Libyan parliament was meeting on a Greek luxury car ferry off the coast of Libya in the Mediterranean. They were trying to administer the affairs of Libya on this slightly preposterous vessel full of Greek bow-tied waiters. I found that image at once comic and tragic, a Kapuściński-esque commentary on the political world. I took it to its logical extreme, and I imagined a similar United Nations General Assembly stuck in near-Earth orbit because it’s been chased from the planet. I don’t know if there’s a particular message I wanted to ram home there, I suppose the message is a little embedded in the conceit. I just wanted to make a world. With “Portrait with Coal Fire,” this is a bit literal, but I did see this photograph in a magazine, so it had a very clear source, and I suppose there is something more telegraphed about the main relationship I explore, between the photographer and his subject. But I think it’s still worth dramatizing. And the way I ended, I’m not necessarily trying to draw some triumphal anti-colonial line.
DB: You hit us with poetry again. “Phytoplankton, Nebula, Carbon, Tuna.” I love that ending. Speaking of poetry — your stories have amazing details, but they also have a poetic vagueness. In the title story, you withhold the name of the dying language and the characters. Tell me about your use of vagueness, and the decision to hold back proper nouns.
KT: I’m not the first writer to do that — lots of writers do — but I think my aversion to naming things came in part from a hope that if you were reading these stories in the English language, no matter where you were and how you were in the world, you’d be equally estranged and equally able to find something familiar. I didn’t want to privilege people in a particular place. That wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision; it just came out in the way I wrote these stories.
DB: What do you hope that you leave your reader with?
KT: First and foremost, I want people to experience a sense of wonder, but I don’t mean that in a starry-eyed way. A wonder that lifts off the page and is directed at the world in a meaningful way, because these stories may be whimsical sometimes, they may be, on occasion — though rarely, I feel — fantastical, but they’re about the world. There are of course political issues tucked into the book. There’s stuff about refugees, there’s stuff about displacement, there’s stuff about destruction and war. There’s stuff about climate change. I don’t necessarily hope that people will come away feeling motivated for action. But if people think about those real world themes in a more concerted or even slightly different way, that would be good too. And also, I just want people to enjoy the prose.
DB: Which story gave you the most trouble?
KT: I have to confess that I’m a fairly directed writer when it comes to short stories — the novel I’m working on is a different matter! When I struggle, I just go back to the top and try again or discard. I’m suspicious of the stories that I’m really having difficulty with. In my limited experience, the best writing is writing that I’m enjoying. I probably struggled with the oldest story, “The Loss of Muzaffar,” the story I wrote when I was eighteen. It now feels a bit remote to me. It was the first real aspirational short story that I’d ever written, and the experience of writing it at that young age was full of uncertainty and a kind of stress, which I don’t know if I have so much now. I’m not some kind of grizzled artisan yet; I’m not a blacksmith, so muscled and used to doing what he does in a routine way. But I think Salman Rushdie said that if carpenters aren’t allowed to have carpenter’s block, writers aren’t allowed to have writer’s block. Writing is always some form of struggle, but I don’t experience the process as struggle. I try to be industrious; I try to muscle through things.
“Writing is always some form of struggle, but I don’t experience the process as struggle. I try to be industrious; I try to muscle through things.”
DB: Do you know where you’re going before the end?
KT: Sometimes. I’m writing a novel now, so it’s a totally different question for that, but with stories, I do my best thinking as I write. Sometimes the purpose of writing a story is to figure out why I had an image or conceit in the first place. I find that as I’m writing a novel, I can’t afford to be so loose. There is much more premeditation, scaffolding, and so forth.
DB: My strategy with a novel is to outline it and then immediately throw out the entire outline when I start writing.
KT: That has happened to me over the last couple years in so many ways.
DB: It’s obsolete as soon as you type a word.
KT: You can say you’ve been working on a novel for a few years or whatever, but the truth is that what you were working on a couple years ago and what you’re working on now, in my experience, is so 180 degrees different that it’s not even worth calling it the same book.
DB: Totally. Going back to the genesis of the book — tell me the origin of “Elephant at Sea.”
KT: That’s based on a real story that was told to my brother and me by a family friend who worked in the Indian Foreign Service. A Moroccan princess actually asked an Indian ambassador for an elephant. He submitted the request, and predictably, the gears of Indian bureaucracy moved slowly, so only many years later is the elephant actually shipped off. It gets to Morocco at a time when the princess (A) has completely forgotten asking for it and (B) is not interested, and then it’s sent to Casablanca, and the Moroccans didn’t really have a means to transport it from Casablanca to Rabat, so it was walked along this partly coastal road. I loved the story as a kid, and then years later, in 2007, I went to Morocco and I remembered the story as I traveled around the country. But what was amazing was last year, at my book launch in Delhi, there was this lovely woman in the audience who revealed that she was the daughter of the Indian ambassador in Morocco at the time this all happened. She brought a picture of her sitting next to the Moroccan princess. She was incredibly moved by the story. She said that I described this world in a way that she understood, and that I described her father and his mannerisms in a way that was like her father, even though I had completely invented those details. I made it all up, and she was still very affected. There was also a man from the Cochin Port Trust who brought a photo that he says is in the museum of the Cochin Port Trust of that elephant being lifted into the boat to be sent to Morocco. I said in my story that it was taken from Cochin. I had not corroborated these details, I just imagined them. It was really remarkable to take something out of my imagination with some very meager basis in reality and put it out into the world, and then see it come back to me in real life.
DB: That’s amazing. You write from all of these lovely little anecdotes that I imagine you hoarding and mulling over. Are you afraid of spoiling them when you’re out with your friends? Are you like, I want to tell this entertaining story but I don’t want to ruin it?
KT: I don’t know about that, but I’m always a sponge for these kinds of anecdotes, both from the present and from the past. I am interested in unlikely connections. We have this idea that in our modernity, the world is becoming a tighter place and barriers are falling and we’re going to get to know each other. Obviously, in the Trump age, there’s a new wrinkle to that narrative. But I’ve always felt that we privilege our modern moment too much. A story like “Letters Home” explores the ways in which there have always been these astonishing links between disparate peoples and places, and these, dare I say, cosmopolitan ways of looking at the world, before we imagine that we were cosmopolitan. So I enjoyed writing about Sogdian traders in ancient China, or Polish soldiers fighting alongside Haitians in their revolution. Those are the kinds of stories that I often pick up and hoard.