Stories already written by nature

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Award-winning contemporary Malayalam writer VJ James has been writing for over two decades, while juggling a full-time job as an engineer at Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, Thiruvananthapuram.

From his award-winning debut novel Purappadinte Pustakam (The Book of Exodus) to his seventh novel Anti-Clock, James’s books have extensively dealt with the struggles of the marginalized as well as folklore, myths and stories of birds, animals, seas, forests and mountains he encountered on his travels.

He is also the author of five collections of short stories and four children’s books. Two of his novels have been translated into English and more are in preparation. James has won several awards for his books including Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, Muhammad Basheer Award and Vayalar Award. Her seventh novel, Anti-Clock, which confronts puzzling ancient enigmas such as birth, life and death, has been shortlisted for the 2021 JCB Prize for Literature.

Excerpts from an interview

How would you describe your journey from your first novel Purappadinte Pustakam to your seventh novel Anti-Clock?

Each novel is an inscription of a writer’s philosophical journey and one finds oneself traveling simultaneously through scientific and philosophical pathways to understand life, time, and the “great knowledge” called Nature. Writing is also for me a kind of self-exploration, a journey towards oneself. Over the years, while writing, I have seen new ideas arise, some of which I had never considered before. So writing was really a transformative process.

Nature and its relationship with man is a recurring theme…

A writer never creates a story. It only finds stories that nature has already written. Just as we access television programs by tuning into the frequency of channels, stories written by nature are discovered by the writer. To unravel these hidden stories, you have to be in tune with nature. I have always had an affinity for nature and travel and this continues. It’s part of my existence and I’m waiting for nature’s signal to start writing.

Were you satisfied with the quality of the English translation of your acclaimed novel Anti-Clock?

The translator, Ministhy S (who is also a bureaucrat) has extensive knowledge of Malayalam literature and is fluent in English. We had regular discussions at each stage of the translation. I was happy that it captured the essence without losing the authenticity of the original, a view held by many.

Your thoughts on translations of regional literature?

The peculiarity of our time is that books in regional languages ​​attract more attention than before. Having translated books appearing in the Long Lists, Short Lists and Final Lists of India Literary Awards will no doubt pave the way for many more translations from the regional languages. There is certainly also a renewed interest in Malayalam literature. This is also due to the efforts of writers, translators and publishers, not to mention social media and literature festivals.

Isn’t it very difficult to juggle a full-time job and writing a novel?

The most renowned Malayalam authors have juggled creative writing with hectic professional jobs – Sethu, OV Vijayan and M Mukundan, to name a few. Paradoxically, the brain acquires acuity and is forced to learn to concentrate because we are already caught up in the throes of work and its ramifications. In fact, I would say that the likelihood of engaging in creative writing decreases due to too much free time and the resulting lethargy. The engineer in me has helped me enormously in assessing the accuracy and conciseness of a story or a novel. For me, writing and engineering complement each other.

Your next book?

I can’t predict when my next work will come out. Writing, for me, is an unpredictable activity and finishing a piece of writing within a certain time is difficult. A few months ago, a short story collection ‘B Nilavara’ (Temple Vault) was released. I now mainly focus on translations.

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