Thursday, October 17, 2013

Manil Suri

Manil Suri was born in Bombay and is a professor of mathematics and affiliate professor of Asian studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of the novels The Death of Vishnu, The Age of Shiva, and The City of Devi. His fiction has won several awards and honors and has been translated into twenty-seven languages. He was named by Time Magazine as a “Person to Watch” in 2000. He is a citizen of both the United States and India.

From Suri's Q & A with Nawaaz Ahmed at Fiction Writers Review:

Is it fair to say that in contrast it with your latest book, the structure and the nature of your first book remained pretty much the same from the first draft to your last?

The action was pretty much the same. That’s been true of all the books. It’s more so now. By the time I actually show it to anyone, I have worked through the characters and the actions and the scenes. I try not to anticipate too many changes. In the second book, The Age of Shiva, I did change the ending. In a previous incarnation, it was much more bleak: Meera, the mother, has invested all her chances of happiness in her son, almost like a romantic attachment, and it ended on this ambiguous note where’s she’s stuck. But in the version that I finally did, she comes out of it.

Why did you feel you needed to change the ending? Was the ending you originally had not satisfying to you?

The biggest problem with the second book was how to make Meera sympathetic, to allow readers to identify with her in some sense. I think I succeeded with Indian audiences. In India (and, incidentally, France), people were saying at readings that they understand perfectly what Meera went through. There is this attraction in South Asia for male children that mothers have. And one of my interviewers in France said, “I am Meera,” which was amazing. But many American readers found Meera completely unsympathetic. Several of them said they were disappointed when she didn’t kill herself—that’s the level of anger they had for her.

That was an awakening: I always thought she was a very sympathetic character, but women especially did not. They thought she made too many bad decisions, that she was self-destructive. They wanted a heroine that could overcome all odds and have this rousing climax where she emerges as a person to be emulated, and that is exactly what I didn’t want to do.

There were other tropes suggested to me. At one point, my editor suggested that Meera kill herself and end the book there. That she walks into the water and that’s it. She said that would be sure to get people’s sympathy. It was a real puzzle what to do with Meera. At some point, you have to be true to the vision that you have for a character. There was this gap between what I thought and what people from different cultures thought. There’s a cultural background to the way we read a book.

So as a writer, what do you do? Do you have a specific audience you write for?

That’s the hard part. As a writer you have to be true to yourself. I asked Michael Cunningham about this, and he said that when people say they can’t sympathize with a character what that usually means is that they haven’t...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Manil Suri's website.

Read about Manil Suri's top ten books about Mumbai.

The Page 69 Test: The City of Devi.

--Marshal Zeringue