5 Questions with Sreedhevi Iyer
Sreedhevi Iyer was shortlisted for the Penang Monthly Book Award in 2017, and has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Her work has appeared in journals around the world, including Hotel Amerika, Drunken Boat, The Free Word Centre, Asian American Literary Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Ginosko Literary Journal.
Iyer’s debut collection, Jungle Without Water delves into the shifting boundaries and human displacement of our era. The stories range from simple riffs on backyard suburbia to the magic realism of a narrative told by a ‘divine’ coconut, along with stories of refugees, interracial tension and prejudice.
What was the impetus for writing Jungle Without Water ?
This collection is the result of many stories written over a period of time, along with the places I’ve lived in, visited, engaged with, and consider or reconsider as home. I observe a world where people are many things, and have many voices, and can shift and mutate according to their contexts. I wanted a collection that reflected that polyvocality. We are linguistically and culturally myriad, in this globalised era. A collection of that era should also be of the myriad.
Tell us about the title of the collection.
It’s a transliterated phrase, meaning a place that is remote and pointless, as mentioned in the title story. It is usually used as a threat, to force someone into submission – that if they do not obey, they will be sent away, to this inhospitable, hostile place. It was punishment to be sent there. The analogy to Australia just wrote itself. But the story is also about finding alternative ways of survival within the hostile environment. And alternative ways of regaining self. Jogi in the title story regains his original capabilities, thought lost, when he accepts certain things and begins to process things differently. It’s by giving up, that he gets himself back.
What would you like readers to take away from Jungle Without Water?
That people are people are people. We are more alike than different, but we highlight the differences because we prefer the familiar. Getting used to something different is challenging, but worth it in the end. And as we globalize further, move more, and encounter more strangeness, this becomes a deeper and deeper truth.
The UK synopsis of Jungle Without Water notes, ‘People in these stories inhabit different stages of movement—those who have emigrated, those who want to, and those who regret it.’ You describe yourself as ‘an Indian-Malaysian-Australian who no longer knows what to call herself.’ Has your own narrative of movement impacted Jungle Without Water?
My movement choices can read like little narratives of interruption – a sense that just as you think everything is going to settle, you’re uprooting again. Sometimes I think I’ve moved too many times, other times I feel most of my movements across nations were forced rather than by choice. There is a big difference, uprooting by choice vs by external forces. The characters in these stories sometimes do not know the difference between the two, and I think that is the result of my observations on movement – sometimes you want it so much, to move, that life would be so much better once you did move. Other times it is external factors – job, spouse, education, freedom – that forces a move that you think you want. I suppose in that sense these stories also examine desire – what is this want for movement, and what does it mean to someone who does not know if they really want it?
I’ve lived in Malaysia, Australia, and Hong Kong. I’ve travelled quite a bit. I cannot see myself as being solely of one place, or another, anymore. That is no longer a truth about myself. Other people like to label – I find it limiting, untruthful. But it also means battling cultures, languages, class, global hierarchies – things that my characters go through – and not all those battles are won.
As a teacher of creative writing at RMIT and the University of Melbourne, do you have any advice for fellow writers in publishing their first book?
My students are all pretty awesome. I love them—it’s something that I guess not many teachers are supposed to say in public. But I really do. I take this very seriously. So many mentors have taught me to open up my reading choices. That’s what I’d tell my own students. I feel that in Australia, we don’t read enough of the outside world because we are so afraid it might take something away from our local authors. I find that fascinating, but perhaps unfounded. Read outside Australia. Read outside the US, the UK, Europe. Read translations – stories that were not meant for you as the initial audience, and therefore not sieved through the net of identity politics. That’s where the real original stories are. Read Kawabata’s Palm of The Hand stories – they’re like reading a Twitter feed, for a Twitter generation. Read old Japanese stories. They’re very post-modern. Read those nobody has ever heard of, instead of the prize-winners. You might hit upon gold.
Also, if you’re publishing your first book—don’t be afraid to disagree with your editor. And be kind to yourself. A book now exists in the world because you put your imagination to use. That is a huge thing to be proud of. Lets not ruin it with nerves and anxiety surrounding the release. Hm. I might do well to take this advice myself!