There is magic in Boats on Land, Janice Pariat’s debut collection of short stories set in the beautiful and troubled Northeast India. She has brought all of nature into her awareness. You can hear the wind, breathe the fragrance of the hills, and sense the hopes, emotions and beliefs of the people there. Effortlessly combining the natural world with the supernatural, Pariat draws out the interdependence of all things. Evocative and descriptive, Boats on Land is surely one of the best English writing to come out from the region in the recent years. She tells DNA it was simply her way of understanding the world.
Why do you write?
I have a feeling it’s the only thing I’m halfway good at. I have no choice, to be honest. People have different ways of understanding and making sense of the world—for me, it’s through writing. Words shape my universe.
Your stories express your impressions and perceptions of nature instead of creating mirror images of the world. How did you develop this style?
Every story is told through a character who sees the word differently—even though the geographical setting is often in and around Shillong. It’s about reimagining spaces, evocatively and effectively for the reader. I think writing poetry in the past has helped me infuse my prose with a certain lyricism and ambiguity.
What makes a good short story?
Alice Munro calls the short story “worlds seen in a quick, glancing light.” They should be complete within themselves, follow their own rationale and logic while also containing, often, a moment of quiet, intense revelation.
Northeast India comes alive in your book. What do you think is the role of place in short fiction?
As important as for a novel. Place infuses a story with context, centering them, anchoring the characters to a certain time and space.
While writing short stories, what do you start with?
Like with poetry, an image. That grows into something larger and is fleshed out like a painting. According to Edgar Allen Poe, the short story is about the pursuit of an emotion, and that, eventually, is what I want to achieve—to tell a story with emotional weight.
Did you have a reader in mind while writing Boats on Land?
Anyone. Everyone. Or rather no. I’d like for the book to touch whoever happens to pick it up.
What did you find most challenging?
Balancing evocative description—the landscape needed to be as important to the story as the characters and not serve merely as embellishment.
Who or what are your literary influences? And how?
Too many to ever recount! But Virginia Woolf for her lyricism, Philip Larkin for his quotidian brilliance, Philip Pullman for his vast imagination. For this book in particular though, Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, which helped show me how to infuse prose with poetry.
As a writer, your life is defined by words. Yet you use them sparingly. Is there an essential writer’s contradiction here?
I’d like to think I use enough, no more no less. Words are powerful—you must use them carefully and delight in their aesthetic arrangement.
There is myth, lore and magic in your stories. Is it an attempt to go beyond the screen of language to find some sort of truth that lay on the other side?
The myth, magic and folklore in my stories are part of life in the places where I come from. Like South American magic realism, many different “realities” reside comfortably with each other. Through the unexplainable and unknowable we learn something of the human condition.
You’re read as poignant, sober writer. There’s hardly any humour. Why?
Oh dear, and here I was thinking that some parts of a lot of stories were quite funny. Like everything else, the humour in my writing is understated.
If there is one thing that you think we should, as readers, take away from your work, what would that be?
As a storyteller, I’m not setting out to spread a message. Each story in the collection is open-ended, they offer no easy interpretations or resolutions. This was deliberate—so that each reader takes away what they will, depending on the kind of person they are.