Indira Chandrasekhar, Out of Print: Stories that compel us tend to ask questions
The writer and literary curator talks about the 12-year-old online platform for short fiction, the publishing ecosystem, and what she looks for in a story
Out of Print carries “short fiction with a connection to the Indian subcontinent”. A number of writers who appeared in the magazine have gone on to publish well received books. What do you look for in stories sent to you?
We have seen some remarkable successes – Tanuj Solanki, Tashan Mehta, Nisha Susan, for example. I like to think we have played a part in their development – both by providing a platform and by investing in their work with our editorial input.
Stories which compel us at Out of Print tend to ask questions that examine conflicts driven by the interior imbalance that destabilises a character. This, often in the presence of external tensions that may be some mix of familial, societal, political, or environmental anxiety. Frequently set in a present tainted by post-colonial angst or the many bizarre sheering layers of twenty-first century reality, the stories, that may span a range of styles and genres, make use of the complexity and nuance that fiction and the short form offer to explore their work.
You also publish a number of translations from other languages into English. What do you look for in translated works?
Yes, we have published translations of writers ranging from Munshi Premchand, UR Ananthamurthy, Salma and Paul Zacharaiah to contemporary voices. In terms of a story, we are excited by precisely what we would be in a story written in English. The assessment of a translation requires an additional filter. Once I get over a sense of gratitude at being able to read a great story in a language one does not know, I start to enter the story with my editor’s lens – and where that additional filter comes in is in assessing whether the translation is conscious of the verbal tones and textures of the original and, at the same time, reads well in English. For example, we once received a translation of a story by Manto which was very flowery and sentimental sounding in English. Some research and consultation convinced us that the translator had put their own sentiments into the text. We have had the most interesting translators, Daisy Rockwell translating from both Hindi and Urdu, Meena Kandasamy from Tamil, Keerti Ramachandra from Marathi… I cannot list them all but will conclude by commenting with delight at the rash of younger translators from different languages who are beginning to send in work.
In your observation, are short stories about India published in fewer places compared to poems and novels? If so, why might that be?
I couldn’t comment on that with any statistical certainty, but rather, rely on impressions and anecdotal observations. In India, there are an increasing number of interesting platforms for publishing short stories. In the rest of the world, literary magazines, particularly in the US, appear to feature more and more short story writers from the subcontinental diaspora. These writers are perhaps accessible to their editorial filters because they often pass through creative writing systems that are familiar to them. Few writers, placed in the subcontinent, whose stories are battered by the shabby brutalities and societal complexities of life here seem to be comprehensible to such platforms. As regards the mainstream, it feels as if marketing preferences focus on the novel. Which is, to my mind, quite short sighted. The short story seems to me to be a most suitable way to offer a window into the many subcultures that layer a society – and in the societies and cultures as complex and multilayered as those on the subcontinent, a short story while concise, may range from spare and sharp to full-bodied and rich, driving a reader to laugh, cry and think.
You edited an anthology called Out of Print: Ten Years; An Anthology of Stories. What does the anthology seek to showcase?
We wanted to mark the tenth anniversary with something radical. What better way than to take Out of Print to print. As Sampurna Chattarji said in her endorsement to the volume, “For 10 years now, Out of Print has cheekily turned the notion of obsolescence into its opposite by leveraging the benefits of the digital domain – access, reach, sustainability, cost-effectiveness. A print anthology to celebrate this decade-long online dedication seems befitting.”
We put together a fantastic collection of 30 stories that appeared in the journal over the 10 years. I wish we could have included many more. They are a tribute to the power, strength and splendour of the form and its particular resonance on the subcontinent. The anthology reflects how the short story raises a nuanced critical lens to those 10 years in the history of the nation and the world.
Please elaborate on the nuanced critical lens and what a few stories looked at?
The decade of Out of Print featured in the anthology culminated in the pandemic when we were confronted, as a species, with the possibility of oblivion. At such a moment, the relevance, of a collection of works chronicling ways of living and thinking and interacting could not have been more important.
Altaf Tyrewala’s Mischief in Netanagar opens with the lines, “They say this is a democracy. Full freedom. Do what you want. Live, piss, eat, sleep wherever you wish.” Drawing attention to the ironies of a so-called freedom, the story demonstrates the power of fiction in elucidating the manipulations and tension points that cause fracture lines within communities.
The anthology features a section on what former Out of Print editor, Samhita Arni says in her introductory comment, is “a testament to the enduring nature of myth to continue to shape our narratives”. A section that seemed particularly relevant as diverse and subversive interpretations of mythology were being subsumed. Seven Little Rooms by Mridula Garg, who translated her own work from Hindi to English, is a sharp retelling of the story of the consort of Shiva that highlights the anxiety of the patriarchy and the attendant conservatism that attempts to stifle female agency.
In 2018, section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that uses the terrifying phrases like “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” was revoked, decriminalising homosexuality. The activism of that period resulted in a significant increase in submissions of queer writing. Vasudhendra’s Bed Bug, published a few years earlier, in 2015, reveals the cruelty and fear that pervaded that idea of going “against the order of nature” as also, the boldness and courage and sheer thundering living of reality.
Even as one breathed the air of the sexual freedoms that came in 2018, the instances of unspeakably violent attacks on women, carried out with impunity, emphasised how insidious and entrenched the disease of misogyny and the criminal use of sexual power is in the region. Annie Zaidi’s Sujata finds a way to survive, while Annam Manthiram’s character who faces the pressure of bride viewing in The Reincarnation of Chamunda barely does so and Shabnam Nadiya’s Do It by the Numbers comments, “The heat of memory burns fiercest just under the skin.”
What motivated you to launch Out of Print when you did?
This is something I have often spoken about – I had begun writing and was seeking to publish and found that there were very few places to do so in India. Editors from many of the magazines I approached outside the subcontinent sought either the exotic, or were, as I said earlier, more comfortable with writing validated by programmes they were familiar with. Yet, through my entry as a novice into the world of literature in India, it was evident that there was just a huge number of people exploring the world we were in, in most interesting literary ways. The idea gestated, I discussed it with trusted people and… well here we are, 12 years later.
What themes do you want to see in upcoming issues?
I have grown to marvel at how the concerns that occupy our writers come together in seamless coherence in every issue. It is an exciting moment when that happens. Almost as if the stories direct the theme. We have, of course, run the occasional themed issue – most significantly the sexual and gender violence issue suggested by returning editor Samhita Arni with guest editor Meena Kandasamy – but more often than not, the stories respond to what is happening in the world – the pandemic, Kashmir and the North East, gender, the legalisation of homosexuality, mental health… I expect the vote will be part of the stories that will come our way going forward.
How do you as Out of Print editor handle the tricky job of offering feedback and asking for changes?
That is a subtle and complex aspect of being a proactive editing team. Whenever I question how a writer or a translator may respond to our editorial suggestions, I remind myself that as a writer I deeply value careful, considered feedback from someone who not only cares about the work, but also has the perspective to positively impact my writing. Another thing to keep in mind is that we do not dictate, but offer suggestions for changes (some of which are rather uncompromising, I must admit), and engage in an often protracted discussion with the writer or translator, giving ourselves enough time to fully understand what the story dictates.
Suhit Bombaywala is an independent journalist. He lives in Mumbai.
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