Toronto-based author-academic-editor, Sunil Sharma has published 23 creative and critical books— joint and solo. He edits the Setu journal: https://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html
For details, please visit the website: https://sunil-sharma.com
1. When and why did you start writing poetry and fiction?
Some 12-13 years ago, poetry happened as a way of expressing the mood, idea/s and the world in words and imagery.
Fiction preceded the beginner- poetry phase by a few years.
I was freelancing for a top daily of India, apart from being a regular college professor. Teaching, freelance journalism and then creative writing and editing—these happened in a day’s work, so to say, and were all tools of processing the immediate contexts in language codes, specific to the fields.
Teaching undergrads the essentials of communication, for example, tutorials on writing and speaking—thus guiding the learners about the grammar and rules of written and spoken English for a young audience for whom it was a second language; then, composing short poems on certain ideas or a striking image seen in Mumbai—or elsewhere; filing news reports; working on a short fiction or a novel—these things were mutually reinforcing and dealt basically with communication as a creative process in a linguistic medium that was the legacy of the Raj and subsequently, nativized as as an official form of social conversation on daily basis in a multilingual nation.
Ultimately, you were dealing with the complex realities of a developing economy through a language not your own, yet your own through usage.
If journalism reported about the news-worthy incidents through news stories, the same prosaic realities were conveyed imaginatively by fiction and poetry for different audiences.
The former carries an expiry date.
The latter did not have any such deadlines.
So, deep down, it was all about communication only—conveying of various truths and facts through varied forms of narration and genre, within their own rules and limitations.
In brief, about your place in history—about human condition.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
Life ! A middle-class loving home. My parents were teachers. Father taught Hindi Lit. and introduced me to the uplifting worlds of art and culture of the world in Hindi, English, Urdu, Punjabi and translations. Ma was a drawing teacher and taught me the value of colours.
Rest was a continual discovery— a personal life-long odyssey; a ceaseless quest for new continents and regions—spirit homes; realms; kingdoms—visual and verbal; totalizing aesthetic units, wholesome, nutritious, enriching.
Forging new alliances.
Finding fresh epistemes and meanings in a dialectical process.
Witnessing summits on clear sunny mornings.
Life—revealed in its complete mystery and splendour.
One encounter with the Bard on a stormy afternoon in the monsoon-soaked Mumbai or with Tolstoy or Gorky or Picasso or Brecht or Prem Chand or Ghalib—enough for many life times!
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
I inherited a liberal background. The seventies and eighties were open, democratic and pluralistic in orientation—the pre-globalization, pre-Brexit times. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The mood was celebratory everywhere.
We were born into certain dreams nourished by democracy and its sister—art.
As a nation, the alert public was largely aware, among others, of deep impact of the Classics and Neo-classics; Romantics, Symbolists, Impressionists, Expressionists, and Modernists and Postmodernists; Wagner and Bach; the Beatles; Elvis and Dylan Thomas and Thomas Mann, not in this order but these movements and names were appreciated for their lasting cultural influence across the world.
As a student of literature, I, too, followed the arts and updated my knowledge, keeping current.
Learning a lot from Charles Simic or Les Murrey or Constantin Cavafy or Seamus Heany or Derek Wacott—to name randomly influences, of looking at the world in a certain way.
We were, as the children of the liberal humanism, eager to consume culture in those innocent times without the turbulence of social media and Internet-induced, Internet-mediated landscapes of viral celeb status and subsequent drowning in chatter—and toxic wars.
Print media was respected and radio was a good medium.
We learned a lot from the print medium. From the magazines and journals.
Everything changed post-nineties.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
—Not fixed. Earlier in Mumbai, when working as a principal, two-three hours in the evenings, after returning from college.
These days, in Toronto, often in the mornings and late afternoons.
A lot depends on the inspiration and genre—poetry can be finished easily, while a short story or a novel is spread out over many sessions across months. Most demanding is the short-and long-form fiction. If a poem is sometimes done in one sitting— later revisions apart— short fiction takes weeks. The big-canvas novel requires more attention, concentration and thinking.
Currently I am engaged with my second political novel and it has taken me almost two years to finish 280 pages–hiatus apart.
Still, it is not complete and might take a 100 or so pages.
It is a kind of deep meditation.
The challenge is more for writers who are obscure and do not have big-name agents or publishers rooting for them. It is a lonely journey and rejections make it painful and tough.
You keep on working in the dark—surprising, this tenacity! —but your brain, it seems, is wired for that creative job; an occupation that does not pay in a mercenary culture and renders you as suspect in a reified world!
I raise these issues in my humble way.
And then the self-doubts!
Are you headed in the right direction?
5. What motivates you to write?
The same compulsions that make organic creatures communicate in a group or collective; a well-regulated and ordered collective or social formation. Communication is sine qua non of living breathing acting moving as a whole, a unit; a state of being; producing complexes of productive meanings and relationships; a signing system of being alive—writing/singing/painting/sculpting/movie-making, these are all code creations and necessary for existence and sense of animation. Silence, coma, speechlessness—all worrying symptoms of withdrawal, decay, of a retreat into a shell…and final cessation, this embracing of the condition being incommunicado. Anti-social.
Lack of communication signifies being comatose.
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
Writing is a stance against stasis; impending death; a strategy of resisting stagnation and atrophy in a homogenizing culture. it is coming alive in the storms of life, and singing eloquently about the logic, absurdity, beauty of certain feelings, situations, moods that continue to haunt the succeeding generations:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
It is writing life into art. Documenting the Unsaid and the Unseen and Seen.
It is like breathing. Lucky, if it is pure air.
Unlucky, if it is damp and stinking on a smoggy day—but breathe you have to.
Writing is about living…and beyond.
Great writers and artists are high summits of civilizations that guide humankind forever.
In their shadows, plebeians like me continue to slog, joining the long caravans with their small and humble gifts… .
6. What is your writing work ethic?
Not a fixed one. More of a gardening style—you go out on an urge to work the yard, feel the earth, smell the soil and flowers and the grass including the sheared weeds and see the insects and butterflies—a brief labour, outdoors, that rejuvenates and re-connects you with the mother earth.
Working full time earlier left little scope for a dedicated schedule of writing. Two-three hours a day for creativity, whenever the urge overtook. Fallow period.
Being an unsolicited writer (generally) has its own charm and autonomy.
Like planting roses and trimming them as per your wish.
Commercially successful writers or celeb ones keep on following a work ethic— as I read some place: Stephen King producing 2,000 words a day; Haruki Murakami, up at three in the morning or so and working six-seven hours; Hemingway getting up at the first light and writing till mid-day and many others.
For anonymous writers like me, it is not a grilling regimen but an avocation and its attendant freedom is liberating.
Often, now, I will say—three-four hours a day, followed by a long hiatus sometimes, as you have no pressures of the market and can afford to go by your heart.
For that to happen, an idea must compel you to write on.
It gives you joy!
That is enough!
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?
Not exactly an influence but some of them continue to be fellow-travelers on a complex journey called Life and make me understand its richness, paradoxes and contradictions, and finding hope in bleak landscapes. The most enduring is the Bard whose work is a complete encyclopedia of human actions, motives, emotions and relationships; about power, loyalty, family, friendship, betrayal; darkness and light; islands, kingdoms,tempests and magical resolutions, both tragic-comedic—and so many other aspects of human condition. You go back to Tolstoy for moral growth and resurrection; Gorki for finding hope and optimistic humanism, even in the lower depths; Dostoevsky for an inner illumination and outstanding religious and political debates essential for civilizations; Turgenev for understanding hypocrisy of the landed aristocracy of feudal Russia and prose lyricism;Chekhov for the psychological understanding and creating art in the mundane; O’Henry or Mauspassant for surprises that stay on for decades, despite the time-lines being Other; Hemingway for a heroic code in war-ravaged lands, bull-figting, big-game hunting and climbing our own Kilimanjaroes and finding some clean well-lit places there, even though you are neither an ambulance-driver, boxer, climber or hunter; these are but some icons, in a long career as a learner and apprentice to the canonical artists and life, with its myriad challenges and beauties and surprises; its suns and moons, rains and summers, winters and springs.
Writers. Not all. But some, as the souls of cultures.
They are the source of glorious light.
You come to find echoes of your own times and stories in them—so forward-looking their vision is!
Influence can lead to a copy, a bad copy, a fan moment only: Who can copy a Kafka, Gogol, Pushkin, Faubert or Lu Hsun?
They are the Eternal Masters: the bright stars guiding their devoted seekers on the long and tortuous paths of right action and conduct.
They are an integral part of your organic whole, irrigating arid-scapes of Homo-cultura.
You discover your own masters and choose to learn from them—assimilation and synthesis in a dialectical form and thereby, out of this intertextuality, further evolution and growth, leading to your own distinct voice, in a din of the market.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
To name a few for a reader in a hurry:
—Elena Ferrante for writing Neopolitan realities into her by-now cult books that are not only about Italy but also about us as a society; her resistance to the literary markets; refusal to become a commodity as an author by adopting anonymity; not to seek any celeb status in mass culture—much like J.D.Salinger avoiding unwanted publicity. Very few writers have this courage these days, when every writer wants to be on the best-selling lists and a celeb. Here, listen to this unique voice: “You see? In the fairy tales one does as one wants, and in reality one does what one can.”
—Toni Morrison for exposing grim facts about the American experience and what it means to be black and a woman amid poverty and violence—things that resonate across other cultural geographies, and a quick reality check: “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
—Maya Angelou for giving hope for the broken caged birds: “…for the caged bird
sings of freedom.”
—Margaret Atwood for dystopias that look familiar in pandemics and totalitarian times: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
—Haruki Murakami for making real other worlds plausible, including talking cats for an age seeking parallel worlds, and finding meanings in struggles and storms: “When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
The list can go on…
9 What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
f I am lucky enough!
If a reader cares to ask, after stumbling across one of my humble offerings, I will quote Flannery O’Connor: “I write to discover what I know.”
If the reader still insists on amplification, I would say: “Well, to express some compelling ideas, I write. By chance. Rest, not on chance!”
Humans are born as writers—some work on that faculty. Deep down, we all are storytellers!
10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
Trying to finish my second political novel. Fifth book of short fiction being published soon. Revising my eighth poetry collection. Editing of Setu goes on …Looking for a publisher for my novel.
And dreaming of equitable worlds…