Shifting Genres, Shifting Lands

A conversation with Anosh Irani
By Anosh Irani and Zool Suleman
Anosh Irani Image Credit: Nimal Shah.

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September 2018, Vancouver, BC
With Editorial Assistance by Rusaba Alam.
Zool Suleman: It's a pleasure to finally meet with you and interview you for Rungh. What are some of the projects you're up to?

Forms, Adaptations, and Mentors

Anosh Irani: So, I write plays, I write fiction, and I've just finished an adaptation of my novel, The Parcel, for the screen.

AI: So, it's – I've been doing a lot, sort of immersing myself in different forms, but it's mainly between theater, fiction, and screenwriting.

ZS: I noticed in the work that you do, there are clearly two genre shifts that happened: you're involved in the novel form and the theater form. Tell me a bit about how you approach your theatre work and how that differs from how you approach your novel writing.

I think that the story comes with a particular form. So I instantly know in its original state, whether it's – whether it's a novel, whether it's a short story, or whether it's a play

AI: I think that the story comes with a particular form. So I instantly know in its original state, whether it's – whether it's a novel, whether it's a short story, or whether it's a play. So for example, my first novel, [The Cripple and his Talismans], that came to me as a single image, the image of this very dark, claustrophobic, underground sort of dungeon-esque place, and they would have amputated limbs hanging from the ceiling, and they were in alphabetical order. Named according to the people from whom they were taken. And that image sort of stayed with me and refused to leave, which is really a gift for a writer when that happens, but I knew instantly that that was fiction, that was a novel, it wasn’t a scene from a movie, and it wasn’t a play.

ZS: And what is it about? How do you know that? Is it just an instinctual thing?

AI: It's completely instinctual. Let's say that it's theater, I almost see them on stage, and I detect the presence of an audience very quickly. If it's fiction, there is no reader, there is no audience.

ZS: When you adapt The Parcel, you're trying to turn it into a screenplay, what kind of process do you go through. If you’d envisioned it as a novel, and now you must turn it into something that can work as a film script?

AI: You go back to the original character. So I don't think of it as an adaptation. For me, I had stayed with this story for almost over a decade. So I knew the characters really well, and I just went back to what the character wants, to what the character feels, what the character’s trying to achieve, and I started the screenplay from the ground up, rather than looking at transferring what I had created as a novelist to something that was more catered to film. And it helped, because there were things that I had not discovered or explored enough in the novel that I ended up discovering in the screenplay. Now, I know that a lot of novelists feel that when I do an adaptation, that I lose quite a bit. I didn't feel that way. In fact, I gained as well, precisely because of what I just said, that there were things that I could not explore or did not explore in the novel, or I didn't realize somehow when it came to film these things reveal themselves.

ZS: When you're writing a play, do you have a sense of the audience and its reaction to it? Is that something you take into account?

AI: Not initially. So, when I'm creating the first draft, when the idea is just sort of forming itself, I never think of the audience. I almost write a couple of draft of the play, and then I think about an audience when it comes to theater. When I write novels, I almost never think of the reader at all.

ZS: For [Bombay Black], which has had several remounts, and in several locations, and has had different kinds of casting in terms of the male and female casting, tell me a bit about how audiences have received the play in the different locales.

AI: So one of the things that happened is when we did [Bombay Black] in India, in both Bombay and Delhi, the play was translated. We did not do an English production it was translated from English into Hindi. And what was incredible was when I heard it in a different language. Now, mind you, when I write dialogue, a lot of the dialogue I hear in Hindi.

ZS: Yes. Particularly in [Bombay Black], the relationship between the mother and the daughter, the kind of whip-snap dialogue between the two of them, I heard it in Hindi and I could tell the intonation you were getting at. So, was that more liberating when you did it in Hindi? Did those meanings come through more clearly?

AI: I don't think it's more liberating. I think what it did for me was– it helped me hear the play again, and I made a major change after the English production. So, in the premiere production in Toronto, Absera, who was the dancer, she goes blind as well, and when I ran to India to reopen the play with the same script, on opening night, I sort of just asked myself well, what if she doesn't go blind? And there was no need for me to make changes because the play had received a fantastic review, but it wasn't about that. It was just about hearing the play again in a different way, and it simplified things for me. And so, in the Indian production, even though we opened it, a couple of weeks later when we did it again, I had a new script, and I stayed with it. And so that was a huge change, but it happened only because I heard the play in Hindi. I don't think it would have happened if it had just been produced in English one more time. So, that was an unusual sort of discovery for me.

ZS: Does that happen with your other theater work, that a major shift happens on a future remount of the production?

AI: I think a production will always give you an insight, because that's what I'm hoping it does. Now you have to be open as a writer, if you're afraid to make changes. And the change doesn't necessarily mean that the premiere production wasn't good. Theater is a living, breathing thing, and it continues to change shape. And, again, with [The Men in White], which is my latest play, which was being premiered at the Arts Club, I think last year, now it's being done at the Factory Theater in Toronto in October. One of the changes I made was, there was one character, and I realized that he is not required in the play. It didn't weaken the original production, at all, but I think it's just made this script even stronger. And that's not something you realize until you see it again, and again, and again on stage. Not just during workshops, but as an actual production. Somehow the audience being there, somehow your being there – and it's not about listening to the audience, it's a broad alignment. I think it’s one of those things where everything has to be in alignment: the performances, the writing, the sound, the sets, the lighting, all of that. And once that happens, anything that's out of place can easily be detected.

ZS: In terms of you being open as a playwright, and being open to different sorts of responses…, what is the role of reviews and criticism for your work in the playwriting arena?

AI: I think the writer must sort of remain outside of reviews and criticism. It's not something I look at when I'm trying to write another play, it's not something I'd really listen to. Now, having said that, I appreciate a sort of deep exploration of the work. The fact that people are exploring my work, I think that's a huge compliment. Whether it's in – let's say, it's an academic essay on my novel, or it's a really well written, thoughtful review, or as you say it's an essay about a play like [Bombay Black], or my other work, and how it fits into a certain type of theater, whether it doesn't. I enjoyed reading that, because it puts things into context in a thoughtful, intelligent way, and I think that's extremely valuable. But I don't really go looking for suggestions based on what other people write. I think a writer has inner voice, and you know when you've created something, and you've put it out there into the world, whether it rings true or not. And that element of truthfulness is what I keep going for.

ZS: So then, as a playwright, what is your set of markers for what we call "success"? If audience is not what drives you, what is it that drives you around the work?

But what I'm really looking for is, am I doing something new? Am I creating a dent in consciousness? By putting this story out there, by putting this play out there in the world, how am I causing a shift?

AI: I'm not saying that reviews don't matter. I think they do matter because they make a dent in the box office. And I have to be honest and say that I do get affected by reviews. I wouldn’t say that if I get a bad review, that I'm sort of impervious to it. No, it does affect you. And an audience responds when you get a standing ovation on opening night, that's fantastic too. It's, of course, it's what I live for, in the sense of when I'm writing plays. But what I'm really looking for is, am I doing something new? Am I creating a dent in consciousness? By putting this story out there, by putting this play out there in the world, how am I causing a shift? And it can be in a very subtle way, sometimes if it's this dark humor in your work, just that change of perspective of having the ability to make an audience laugh at something that might be a bit taboo. That itself, in a way it can be healing, it can also be political, it can be subversive. So those are the things I'm looking for. Of course, I love the feeling when a play is sold out, absolutely. Do I want commercial success? Of course. Is that my sole reason for creating? Not at all. Because nobody really knows what's going to work. It's not possible to tell. What I really aim for is what I said earlier: is this moving, is it truthful? Is it powerful? Am I doing something – if I'm spending two or three years working on a play, it has to be worth my time, as a human being, not as a businessman.

ZS: Do you find that audiences that are more South Asian in orientation, or who come from the kinds of locations that you're writing about, have a broader or deeper understanding of your work than say audiences that are born here or not South Asian, more mainstream audiences, do you see any kind of differentiation in the audience in terms of the receptivity of your work?

AI: Not necessarily. I’ll give you an example: a lot of the people that I've worked with, whether it's – I've worked with three outstanding dramaturges in my time as a playwright so far. One is Rachel Ditor [dramaturg at Arts Club Theatre]. Also, Brian Quirt [Artistic Director, NIghtswimming Theatre] who helped me sort of create [Bombay Black], he commissioned for Nightswimming, and Iris Tucker who was very close, too, she passed away last year - none of these people has been to India. And yet, they had an incredible understanding of my work, in the sense that they knew exactly what I was trying to do. In some cases, they helped me get there. And that's what a really good dramaturge does. For example, if you're talking about a director or someone like Peter Hinton, I don't think he's ever been to India, but the way he took [Bombay Black] and sort of put a spin on it by casting a man in the role of a woman, you know, that was incredibly satisfying to see, a completely different kind of production.

The Men in White (2017), Arts Club Theatre Image Credit: Emily Cooper.

So, you're really looking at a level of sophistication in the audience, and they can be South Asian, they might not have ever been to India, it doesn't matter. Yes, in some cases, let's say, I'm writing about Bombay, the detailing, they might recognize it. So, they might recognize a joke or a reference that someone else might not recognize, or they might understand the reality of the place that you are writing about. Sometimes an actor might not understand a very small move or very small shift by a character in a very dangerous locality. So, for example, if it's [The Men in White], there's only one woman in the entire cast, the character of Haseena. She lives in Dongri, which is a predominantly Muslim neighborhood. It can be also quite conservative and strict in that sense when it comes to a sort of interaction with men. And, so for her to make even a very small advance towards a man is a huge thing, but someone who doesn't know that might not understand the significance of that small movement. So, in that sense, yes, it does matter when they have –

ZS: So when you're workshopping a play or you're preparing a production, do you find yourself sort of culturally coding and decoding things for people?

AI: At times, yes, and good directors and good dramaturges will always be open and they will ask the playwright, so what does this mean, why is she doing that, or why is she saying that, or why is someone not being offended when that happens? So, in that sense, you sort of present the reality to them. And then it must make theatrical sense, right? Everything must make sense on stage, I mean, there's a reality that happens in a city like Bombay, but then there is a presentation of that reality on a stage. And it has to ring true on stage, it doesn't matter if it happened or didn't happen in real life, facts are very different from truth. And like I said, you're going for truth on stage or on the page.

ZS: You've now been writing plays for quite a while. What have you noticed over the timeframe in which you've been doing this work in terms of how your work is presented, how the audiences are reacting? Are you noticing any change or trajectory in the kind of work that you're doing? Some of it, clearly, is you're more recognizable as a playwright, and so people will go because it's your production, or your script. But are you noticing any general trends around work that, for lack of a better term, we'll call South Asian located or based, over the last decade or so? Are you noticing any shifts in the production and presentation of this work?

I've never really considered myself from an identity point of view, because I guess it's so embedded within me that I don't need to think about it.

AI: I think that there is a shift in the sense that when I first wrote [The Matka King], which was my first play, and this was way back in 2001, Bill Millerd, who was the artistic director of the Arts Club Theatre, read the play. He took a huge risk by saying, okay, I'd like to program this, because there were hardly any South Asian playwrights –there was Rahul Varma – there was no record of South Asian plays in Canada in that sense, apart from Rahul’s work. And plus, my play was set in a brothel, it wasn't your living room reality play. This was set in a brothel, you had a transgender person as the main character, you had a cage and there was a 10-year-old girl in that cage. He obviously saw the strength in the writing, which enabled him to program it, and take the risk. What I'm seeing is that more artistic directors are taking those risks with South Asian content, with South Asian playwrights. So, but it's taking time, and it also has to do with the quality of the writing as well, so there might be a desire to do South Asian work, but again, I don’t like being termed as only a "South Asian" playwright, because I find it very limiting. I've never really considered myself from an identity point of view, because I guess it's so embedded within me that I don't need to think about it. What I'm interested in doing is creating work that is sort of very specific in the sense that it's set in India, and now some of it in Canada as well, but through my lens, through my perspective. But stories that resonate with every audience that are universal. So, I think things are shifting, but it's still slow.

Taking Risks

ZS: You used the word earlier on, risks, the risks the producers are taking, theater companies are taking, directors are taking. Tell me a bit more about what you think those risks are.

AI: The risk is that, if I do a play, that's thankfully not about one more wedding in India, you know? Or let's take the Arts Club and what they did with [The Matka King], there was no reference point for the audience. They had not seen anything like this. They were wondering, is this true, is this magic realism, does that mean it is fantasy? And magic realism is very different from fantasy. So in a way, you're trying to not educate the audience, but you're trying not to displace them so much that they aren’t invested in the work anymore. And plus, Bill Millerd [former Artistic Managing Director of Arts Club Theatre Company], put it on the main stage, it wasn't in a small theater, it wasn’t a 400-seat theater, and it ran for a month. So, you're investing a lot of money in that, and you're sort of standing behind a writer, and you're standing behind work that did not have any previous track record. So, I admire that. And there are certain plays that I find are safe bets. They might have South Asian content, but they don't really push boundaries, they don't challenge anyone, there's no new perspective. It's a perspective that already exists that makes the audience feel comfortable. I'm not interested in writing those plays.

The Matka King, Arts Club Theatre (2003) Image Credit: David Cooper Photography.
The Matka King, Arts Club Theatre (2003) Image Credit: David Cooper Photography.

ZS: In a play like [Bombay Black], what I found interesting in terms of the relationship to the audience, it's a story that takes place in a city and harks back to a village life. Also, of course, it is very sensory, because one of the main characters is blind. So, it's a play that's about fragrance, and it's a play a that's about sound, when you have a dancer involved. It's a play that's about light and dark. But what I found intriguing between all those kinds of crosscurrents is the role of myth. You named the dancer Apsara, and the blind man is named Kamal. And as becomes apparent through the play, Kamal is a mythical lotus name and Apsara is a water-figure. There is this deep mythical connection between the water that nourishes the lotus, and how the lotus brings beauty on the surface of the water. This theme of beauty, reflection, nourishment, you can find it in all kinds of Indian mythology, poetry, classical dance. Tell me about the role of classical Indian motifs and mythology, particularly in this play and perhaps the other work you do?

AI: Sure. So, I like the idea of beauty, and what you said about, poetry and how beauty is reflected through this mythology, and that's precisely why it's there, because in the present day, it's all ugliness, right? There's beauty and there's ugliness – I love the idea of how mythology can affect us in the present day. I don't like period pieces, because I don't find a connection to them.

ZS: So you're not a big fan of historical drama?

AI: No. Not really, now, I mean, if it's in film, maybe I'll be interested in a mythical film show, but that's the movies. On stage, even something that is set many years ago can ring through in present day, but it has to have that resonance. With [Bombay Black] – there's all this beauty, but then there's this underbelly, this ugliness. And it's a love story, but it's really a revenge story. So, there’s two sides of the same coin, love and hate, love and revenge, love and then once you get through the range, you touch forgiveness. So all of these things I discovered, that's what I was using the mythology for, to make sense of all of these. And India is so mythological, it's so superstitious, even today. So, it's part of the reality. And the thing is that might make the place seem exotic, but it's not. Exotic is a word that people who might not understand that particular culture and will use what it. Is it exotic to someone else? Sure, and I'm okay if they see it through that lens, that's fine. That's their entry point. But once you get through that, you're touching a very ugly, hard reality, and that's what I wanted to do with [Bombay Black].

ZS: What's interesting about [Bombay Black] also is the way you deal with the urban fabric. Bombay is also a character in your play. There's a sense of the cityscape as being threatening, especially to a young woman, or to a blind man. There's a sense of privacy and no privacy. I noticed that in an interview you referred to [Maximum City], the book by –

AI: Right, Suketu Mehta. Yes.

ZS: Yes. And you speak quite rhapsodically about that book. And I agree with you, it's an amazing book. What is the role of that city, and your location coming out of that city, in your work? Do you have some kind of love relationship with Bombay, and is that still with you?

AI: Absolutely. I think Bombay doesn't allow you to have a choice.

In a sense [Bombay} exerts a kind of pressure on you, the city itself exerts this tremendous pressure on you as a human being, and it shapes you. You can leave, but by then the damage has been done, I think.

Bombay Black (2006), Cahoots Theatre Image Credit: John Lauener.

ZS: What do you mean by that?

AI: In a sense [Bombay] exerts a kind of pressure on you, the city itself exerts this tremendous pressure on you as a human being, and it shapes you. You can leave, but by then the damage has been done, I think.

ZS: So in that sense, you’re an expatriate who has been damaged but also perhaps healed by the city?

AI: Yes. I don't know if it's healed me in any way, but it's given me a lot of perspective, and for that I'm grateful. I don't think it's healing, but it's definitely helped me sort of realize things; it's also given me my stories. I don't think I would have been a writer. Who knows? But I'm definitely a writer because of Bombay, for sure.

Home as Mythical Space

ZS: You speak about how when you came to Canada, you'd set these goals for yourself, that you wanted to be published before you went back. But also that you had not read a great deal before you came here. So, tell us about the education of Anosh Irani., How do you traverse through the canon to come up with the stuff that starts to influence you?

AI: Well, that was the fun part of my being here, in the sense that I did not really have anyone to tell me read Camus, he's a brilliant writer, or read Nabokov, or read Rohinton Mistry, although I had read Mistry when I was in India, so I absolutely loved his work. But there were certainly ones like Hampson and Charles Bukowski, or the plays of Tennessee Williams, or Arthur Miller, of course, now you look at them and say, well, obviously. But I had no one to tell me that. I would just go to a secondhand bookstore, when it came to novels, I would just read opening lines, you know, so one of my favorite novels is Camus’s [The Stranger]: "Mother died today, or maybe it was yesterday, I don't know." And when I read that, I thought that is incredible. Just the simplicity of the language, but such a terrifying displacing perspective, and I immediately bought that book. And, of course then, once you read it, you sort of stay within its power, and you let that work on you.

You know, I feel books– literature has this incredible ability to work on you long after you've read it. It is the same with watching a play or watching a movie that's really well made, it gets deep inside your DNA, and it sort of makes a change without you really knowing, which is why I love – that's the power of art. So, my education really was reading novels, it was when I worked at the Arts Club as an intern, I had Bill who sort of, you know, introduced me to a playwright named Morris Panych who was one of Canada’s – in my opinion – best playwrights. I love his work. At the same time I started reading [Eugene] Ionesco and Harold Pinter, Pinter’s one of my favorites. So, I just discovered these writers on my own without really, I mean, I had Bill to guide me in that sense when it came to theater, but not in a – in a very directional way, it just happened by accident. And something either resonated with me, it either made sense for me to read it, or I just didn't find it interesting at all.

ZS: That’s a fascinating journey, because you've said previously that you thought your ideas come out of Bombay, but Vancouver, or Canada, is the canvas. Tell me more about that.

AI: Just the space, I think, the ability to reflect, the distance, the fact that you can hear, it's so quiet that you can hear several voices in your head all at once, which is quite disturbing in the beginning, because in Bombay you can’t really hear yourself. You're just – you're going, going, going and it's a – it has a great push. Vancouver, you find stillness, but when you become still, there's all this – there's the past, there’s present, there’s the future, there's all this noise, these questions, these images, and as time went by things started settling down. And I was left with the images of Bombay, the stories that I wanted to tell I realized were already inside my body, I just hadn't realized that. And being still and being in Canada help me sort of understand, become more and more aware of what kinds of stories I wanted to tell as a writer. And, of course, this was in a very early stage, I was still adjusting to a new country, a new city, new continent, it was all very difficult and isolating, and yet I found a perspective.

Anosh Irani Image Credit: Nimal Shah.
Anosh Irani Image Credit: Nimal Shah

ZS: And as you grow into your identity in Canada, do you find it gives you certain freedoms that you might not have had initially?

AI: People always ask me, or I sometimes find I was freer in India.

ZS: How so?

AI: I don't know, I can't explain it.

ZS: But you felt freer there?

AI: In certain ways, I felt freer in India.

ZS: Is it that there were no expectations of you to perform in a certain manner, or you were younger then and therefore the journey was different?

AI: Maybe, I don't think there's any expectations now, and if they are, I ignore them. I don't really buy into if you're a writer, then you have to be a particular way. I resist that anyway naturally. But it's hard to say, I mean, here there’s a different kind of freedom, but it's very difficult to put it into words, I am unable to – even after 20 years, now I've been in Canada for 20 years. I'm unable to completely express what this place, it's all mixed, and so is Bombay. I think existence is like that, no matter where you go you have mixed feelings about a place, unless you go to a beach for three days in which case you absolutely love it.

Well, for me, I've realized that the problem is that I'm constantly trying to find home. That's the problem. And if I just stopped finding it, the question would disappear, you know?

ZS: This reminds me of a roundtable conversation that was held in the first issue of Rungh when we first published [in 1992]. I think the title of the piece was [Home as Mythical Space]. And the idea of where is home? Home is a geography, home is a psychology, home is a heritage. So, I ask that same age-old question of you: what does home evoke for you?

AI: Well, for me, I've realized that the problem is that I'm constantly trying to find home. That's the problem. And if I just stopped finding it, the question would disappear, you know?

ZS: But it seems to be the challenge for all immigrants. Immigrants or migrants.

AI: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's a sense of – it's a deep sense of loss, even though I've been successful in Canada, I'm grateful to be here and all of that, but I can’t help but think of that better life that I might have had when I go back. I look at my family, my cousins, I always think of those things, and it's not healthy, but it's not the same place, I'm not going back to the same place. The place that I left does not exist, and I can never touch it again. And that’s the problem.

ZS: A bit of an echo, to reference V. S. Naipaul, who recent passed away.

AI: Right.

ZS: There's this idea of those who left home, wherever home was, in the diaspora, and largely of empires, whether they’re British, French, German, or Portuguese - they became deeply Anglophile or Francophile. Is some of your sense of home and displacement tied to that– you can't go back, and you can’t stay?

AI: Yes, it is. And the thing is, do I want to go back? Some days I want to go back, some days I don't. And it's, again, a push and pull. It's like the theatre, and I always say that in a play, as a writer, you're inviting the audience in, and you make them feel at home in the first 10 minutes of the play, and then when they're comfortable you punch them in the stomach. And then they're out of it again. And they catch their breath and then you say, no, no, it's okay, I'm sorry, just come back in again. And then you repeat. And that's what seems to be happening, when I go back to Bombay I'm comfortable until I sort of feel this punch or I feel this pain, and it's – I don't think it will ever go and maybe it's not meant too. The idea should be that one needs to be comfortable whoever one is, especially if you're a writer, you have – I feel the best position to be in is both as insider and outsider. That's the ideal position, and that's where I'm placed. I keep going back to India every year, and yet I don't fit in there, I come to Canada, I don't fit in here, but it's a great position to be in.

ZS: The insider/ outsider space, and the tension and the effort it takes to hold, if one can even ever hold that space, it's quite fatiguing. It can be invigorating, in that, there's the possibility for discovery in that kind of middle space. But it seems to me that when I speak to writers who are defined as "multicultural," or "ethnic," or "from different geographies," that holding the space is a constant tension that they face, and you seem to be echoing that.

AI: Yeah, absolutely. It is – fatigue is the right word. And every novel or play that I've written, I feel has taken something out of me.

ZS: And so, is there more left of you? [laughing]

AI: Yes, because you keep discovering, right? So, it takes something away and then it gives you something as well. And I think the idea is to not get drained out, and to somehow get recharged, but I haven't figured that out yet, so.

ZS: Well, I think it's a constant quest for all writers.

AI: Absolutely. Absolutely.

ZS: And it's a part of the journey as you’ve said. I thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with Rungh and some of your journey. I look forward to more conversations.

AI: Thank you so much.

Anosh Irani
Anosh Irani was born and brought up in Bombay and moved to Vancouver in 1998. He is a critically acclaimed novelist and playwright. His work has been translated into eleven languages, and he teaches Creative Writing in the World Literature Program at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. He recently published Translated from the Gibberish (2019), a collection of short stories.
Zool Suleman
Zool Suleman is an advocate, writer, journalist, and cultural collaborator.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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