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Interview: Tania James

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Tania James is a novelist and short story writer whose ‘Lion and Panther in London’ is featured in Granta’s Britain. In her latest collection, Aerogrammes and Other Stories, out this May in the United States, James opens a window onto a world marked by loneliness, obsession and wild animals. Granta’s Saskia Vogel speaks to the author about writing from a child’s perspective, Mary Swann’s ‘The Deep’, and the author’s alleged anger issues.

SV: ‘Lion and Panther in London’ tells of two brothers from Lahore who come to London to seek their fortunes as wrestlers. They find themselves confronted by the oddities of life in London in 1910, including crowded living spaces and ‘the sort of fare that would render them leaden in body and mind’. Tell me a bit about the genesis of this story and how your idea of Britain influenced it.

TJ: I came across an old book called Strong Men Over the Years, a rare and remarkable account of Indian wrestlers around the turn of the century, including Gama the Great and his brother Imam. I was actually doing some very dry research on the Indian Students’ Movement, but that book was lively, comic, nostalgic and completely addictive in its illustration of these Indian superheroes.

I only had a vague idea of Britain, let alone London in 1910. But ‘Strong Men’ brought certain details to surface, such as the wrestlers’ total bafflement over the Western suit – why would anyone wear something so snug and restrictive? The more I understood about these wrestlers and their very rigorous way of life, the more freedom I felt in rendering their environment, and how they might be at odds with it.

Your story ‘What to do with Henry’ moves from the perspective of a young boy who finds a baby chimpanzee and sells it at a market to the mother who purchases it, then to chimpanzee and so on. In fact, each story in the collection unfolds in a striking and unexpected way. What is it about the short form that appeals to you?

I do love how the short form allows for some risky moves. For example a I like that children have their own way of seeing, their own elastic vocabulary for explaining the world story can be the perfect vessel for a particular voice, or a chorus of voices, which would be harder to sustain over the course of a novel (I’m thinking of Mary Swann’s ‘The Deep’, for example). Certainly novels can and should take risks but maybe I feel more freedom in the short story form because if it fails halfway in, I don’t feel an urge to toss myself out the window.

In the collection, many of the stories have a child as a protagonist. What is it about children’s perspectives that you find compelling?

There’s a Chekhov story ‘A Trifle from Life’, which follows the perspective of a little boy named Alyosha and ends by referring to the ‘great many things for which the language of children has no expression’. I like that children have their own way of seeing, their own elastic vocabulary for explaining the world, before their minds have been entrenched with other people’s perceptions.

Your stories often engage with South Asians in the United States and a dissonance between the two cultures. Why are these stories important?

These stories are important to me, not because they happen to be about South Asians, but because they’re circling around a certain strain of loneliness that goes deeper than cultural dissonance, that has to do with the yearning to connect with someone else, or with some unreachable vision of home. That experience isn’t uniquely specific to first – or second – generation immigrants; it’s universal, and thus compelling territory for fiction.

‘What to do with Henry’, ‘Lion and Panther in London’ and ‘The Scriptological Review’, a story about a boy who compulsively analyses handwriting: each of these explores a different world. What comes first – an encounter with scriptology or the story idea? And what kind of research is involved?

A handwriting analyst studied my signature and told me I had latent anger issues, as evidenced by the tiny hook in my T. That seemed a little nuts to me, but slightly possible, so of course my imagination began to wander in that direction. I started looking into handwriting analysis – the technical term is graphology – but I didn’t delve too deeply into any real study. I was more interested in a guy who makes up his own kind of convoluted logic. Explaining that logic, in his voice, was probably the most entertaining part of writing the story.

You’ve published Atlas of Unknowns, a novel, and Aerogrammes is published in May, as is your story in the Granta. What’s next in store?

It’s a long way off, but as of now, it’s a novel involving wild elephants and those who tangle with them.

What’s the best advice you’ve received as a writer?

Write the story that unsettles and excites you, that keeps you coming back to your desk. ■

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