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Tete-a-Tete With Sakoon Singh

The Wise Owl has a friendly chat with Sakoon Singh, the author of the acclaimed novel ‘In the Land of the Lovers: A Punjab Qissa’, which has been shortlisted for the Valley of Words Book Award 2021.

Sakoon Singh, an alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Panjab University, currently teaches Literature and Cultural Studies in Chandigarh. A recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin, she has published her academic writings extensively, and has served on the editorial team of prestigious journals, Dialog and E3W Review of Books. She writes regularly for The Tribune, Hindustan Times, DNA and The Quint. She has recently been selected as Associate Fellow at IIAS, Shimla. Sakoon's academic writings have been featured in Cultural Studies in India ( Routledge 2015)  Literature and Theory (Routledge 2021) and Reading India in a Transnational Era (Routledge 2021).When she is not indulging the written word, she is walking the wilds or listening to Jazz. She lives in Chandigarh with her husband and son. 

Q. Hi Sakoon. Please tell us a little about your creative journey and the call of your muse.

A. I was struck with the idea of this book in 2017. Before that I have been into academic writing for long, so I had training in writing, but then novel writing is a different ballgame. So I had to reorient myself. The story came to me like a vision, not so much plot oriented but more of a collage of images. Gradually when the voice of Nanaki presented itself with a certain amount of conviction I felt a near desperation to write. I used to be hands full with my lectures in the morning and my young son to take care of, so I took time off work for some time and dedicatedly worked on the novel. I felt that since the muse is nudging me, I might as well heed.

Q. Nanaki’s story straddles the Partition as well as the problems of contemporary India. This is a pretty large canvas. How did this idea come to you and how did you recreate such vastly divergent periods in your plot with authenticity?

A. I feel literature, especially novel, is rooted in a specific context. I wanted to give expression to the peculiar context of urban Punjab through the perspective of the protagonist Nanaki. She is a kind of character who has been influenced by the experience of Partition in very fundamental ways because she has been raised by the grandparents. At the same time she comes face to face with peculiar problems of today: whether it is corruption or nepotism. So at the centre of the novel is her own struggle as an artist against an insensitive bureaucracy. In traversing these range of themes, the novel aims to look at Punjab historically, through the vantage point of today. As for authenticity, that is for the readers to decide but my sources were mainly history, family anecdotes, but also, as is the case with fiction, good amount of imagination.

Q. How much of you is there in the characters you have sketched in your novel?

A. I think that is inevitable. Even if you create characters that are hugely divergent from what you think you are, it is based first on the understanding, of who are you. There is a screen/perspective through which everything passes and that is nothing if not the writer’s. And I think the writing is more self-conscious in the first work in which a writer is trying to establish his/her voice. A writerly identity is a crucial thing. Having said that, to find a one on one correspondence of fictitious characters with the real ones is fallacious because while a germ of that idea could exist in reality, it transforms when imagination is added. So reading a character like that becomes redundant and serves no purpose.

Q Neelam Mansingh, in a review of your book, has praised it as being very visual and cinematic. Did you consciously strive for this quality or is it a natural skill?

A. I took her feedback very seriously, and when she made this particular comment, it was probably her training as a performance artist that enabled her to see that quality more perceptibly. To your question, no, I wasn’t consciously striving for that quality. But I guess when there is intricacy in description; it does create more concrete images in the reader’s mind. That is what led to the overall quality of the book being visual. If I observe my writing more consciously, I would say it is part of my writing style.

Q. You are a teacher of English literature and cultural studies. How does a student of English literature view this subject today? I mean do you discern a genuine passion for the subject, or do you feel it is simply a means to an end (marriage or a job) for the students?

A.  A class always is a mixed bag. While some students are there for the course to be a kind of stepping stone to other non-academic goals like the ones you mentioned, there are other students who are genuinely inclined towards literature and have come with a clear intention to study and engage. I will go against popular perception to say that young people are not only more experimental with their reading today, they also are more conscious and critical, more awake, so they are a better fit for literature. They are in midst of thriving debates questioning all old notions: be they of gender, sexuality, community- what have you. Given this scenario, they are naturally able to reconcile to the complexity that exists in literature than perhaps students did, say a decade ago.

Q. Is another novel in the works? When do we expect to see it in the bookshops?

A. Yes, I am working on a historical novel. It might see the light of the day in the coming year sometime.

Thank you Sakoon for talking to The Wise Owl.

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