Internationally renowned poet, Sudeep Sen’s first book of fiction, EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House), recently won the ‘Global Literary Festival Award for Literary Excellence & Best Book of the Year’ by the Asian Academy of Arts. Sen is an alumnus of Columbia University’s prestigious Graduate School of Journalism. He has lived and worked in the US and New York City for over half a decade. The following is an interview with the author regarding his new book:
Q1: Why is EroText a book of fiction?
SS: A novel is a meditation on existence . . . The form is unlimited freedom. — Milan Kundera
Kundera’s ‘unlimited freedom’; my own remoulding of the ekphrastic technique; Rodin’s passionate dictum where ‘the artist must be ready to be consumed by the fire of his own creation’ form the essential keystone for the soul and syntactical structure of the experimental fiction in Erotext. So, unsurprisingly, I use a highly wrought stylized mode of micro-fiction that overlaps with aspects of prose-poetry, and poetry that overlaps with aspects of fiction.
In Erotext, I have also experimented with language like one would in the rendition of classical Indian raga, where the same piece of song or text can be variously sung or interpreted by different practitioners, albeit in a highly controlled and dextrous manner. So an old poem may have been revived or reincarnated as a prose text to convey a different angle of the same story, a happenstance, or another hidden moment in time.
Changing the form without at all altering the textual content can be very rewarding, albeit risky at the same time. But then, what is cutting-edge avant-garde writing, if there is no risk-taking. What is the point if one is not willing to bend and push the conventional boundaries of genre to come up with an alternate score or a variation, much like the formal play in classical music and jazz improvisation.
EroText is an avant-garde experimental book. It attempts to redefine or extend the standard genre-classifications of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I can tell you, from what I can see from the early market and critical response, that as a book of micro-fiction it is generating interest from an entirely different set of audiences who see themselves as consumers of general, commercial and literary fiction, and not perhaps of poetry. So that is a very healthy and positive sign.
Q2: Tell us about the ‘Disease’ or ‘BodyText’ section of the book.
SS: In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing, about the dark times. — Bertolt Brecht
The ‘Disease’ or ‘BodyText’ section of this book contends with private and uncomfortable areas of pain, illness and disease — an example of how a prolonged anesthetic medical experience can give rise to lyrical writing, inspired by and in spite of its sterile surroundings. Commenting on this, literary critic Pramod Nayar, wrote, ‘While excavating a set of images from physics, chemistry and biology, Sen does an extraordinary job of imbricating the corporeal with the natural elements and processes [in] a brilliant formalizing of these themes . . . the images are startlingly fresh and extremely evocative.’
Q3: The ‘Downpur’ or ‘Rain’ section has been called a “word-perfect” collection. Tell us about this section of the book.
SS: ‘Downpour’ celebrates and reflects on rain as experienced in the Indian Subcontinent — its passion and politics, its beauty and fury, and its ability to ‘douse and arouse’. It explores the various moods that water and fluids inherently unravel.
As part of the Statesman’s ‘best books of the year’ picks, the novelist Amit Chaudhuri wrote: ‘I read Rain with considerable admiration and pleasure. It is a word-perfect collection and its subject matter is both the measure of the rain and the spoken line.’ While launching my book, Fractals, at Calcutta’s Oxford Bookstore, he further remarked, ‘Sen’s prose poems [or micro-fiction] are an important contribution that have added a new idiom to the history of English-language writing in India, [one that has] pushed its creative boundaries wider and higher.’
Q4: The eponymous section, ‘EroText’ is graceful and delicate. What is view on erotic writing?
SS: The philosophical, physical, textural and tonal aspects of desire have fascinated me for years. I find it truly baffling that in modern-day India, a country where the Kama Sutra was written and the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, Konark and others were celebrated once, the practice of erotic literature is largely kept under wraps.
Admittedly, it is a difficult space to write in, a thin area where one figuratively skates on a razor’s edge. If one pushes it too much, then one could enter the pornographic space; and if one undercooks it, it could turn out as callow love poetry as it so often does by amateur writers.
So I took it upon myself as a challenge to write within this sub-genre. As a result, many pieces in the sections — ‘Wo|man’, ‘Lines of Desire’ and ‘Gaayika’r Chithi: Notes from a Singer’s Scoresheet’ — obliquely take on the provocation to create contemporary literary erotica with grace and lyricism.
Q5: Your final words on this book?
SS: For me, Erotext is a considered meditation of the often publicly unexplored aspects and subtle grey areas of ‘desire, disease delusion, dream and downpour’. I desire for my readers — to peruse and rejoice — be moved, scarred and jolted — to feel, lust and celebrate — the finely calibrated text that is unrestrained and uncontained, devoid of boundaries, fully free in a map-less organic terrain.