The author of The Gurka’s Daughter and The Land where I Flee, Prajwal Parajury had successfully entered France’s literary scene with “Fuir et Revenir”- the French translation of “Land where I flee” that was a finalist for Émile Guimet Prize for Asian Literature.
Born in Gangtok, in the Sikkim region of north-eastern India, to an Indian-Nepali father and a Nepali mother.Prajwal Parajuly make his way to global literary scene with his debut book, a collection of short stories entitled The Gurkha’s Daughter, exploring the lives of Nepali-speaking people in India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Manhattan. The book was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2013 and long-listed for The Story Prize that same year. Parajuly’s second book, the novel Land Where I Flee, came out in 2013. It was an Independent on Sunday book of the year and a Kansas City Star best book of 2015. It was translated and published in French in 2020 and was nominated the same year for the Debut Novel Prize and a finalist for the Émile Guimet Prize for Asian Literature.
Currently Prajwal is roaming around France signing hundreds of copies of his French translation: he says “I cant even pronounce the tile correctly”, then he go on FB live and try it for his French readership.
The Asian Review had the opportunity to have Prajwal Parajury for a short author interview amid his book signing tours in France for Fuir et Revenir.
Welcome to Literary Speaking Interview series of The Asian Review!
- Your well-renowned novel ‘Land Where I Flee’ has been the recipient of many accolades and is still relevant many years after it was first published: could you tell us more about it and what/who inspired you to write it?
I don’t understand the way books work. You write a book and send it out to the world and hope for a great reception. Land Where I Flee was well loved, but I didn’t think it would continue being talked about all these years. I didn’t think it would continue living and thriving in other languages. I am very grateful. I had a great time writing the book. I wanted to incorporate every South Asian taboo—caste, class, gender, sexuality, all the fun thing—I could think of and had a blast doing it.
- ‘Land Where I Flee’ has recently been translated into French – ‘Fuir et Revenir’ – by Benoîte Dauvergne. Your book was a finalist for two prizes. How has the entrance into the French literary scene been to you?
I will be stereotyping here, so forgive me. The French devour foreign literature like it’s the most important thing in the world. I haven’t seen a people more open in their readings. I meet a random person in the middle of the street, and in two days, they will have not just bought the book but also read it from cover to cover and have a dozen intelligent questions about it. It has happened so frequently, and it still floors me.
You then have the booksellers—a breed that deserves a book in itself. I love that one needs to have serious qualifications to become a bookseller here. Fuir et revenir was published when France went into lockdown. The way passionate booksellers rallied around the book was heartwarming. I am yet to encounter a single person in France who will order books from Amazon.
- The novel deals with topics like caste discrimination and homosexuality, which are quite contentious ones in South Asian societies. Is there any debate on social change you expected the novel to generate, and have these expectations been met at the national and/or global level?
You ask about literature and a writer’s commitment/engagement with the community. It’s a question my books have triggered seeing as they are filled with issues that plague South Asian society as a whole. I have often described Fuir et revenir as a novel in which I decided to incorporate every South Asian taboo I could think of and had a blast doing it. There’s class, there’s caste, there’s gender, there’s sexuality. There’s the Bhutanese-refugee situation—Bhutan practiced a form of ethnic cleansing by kicking out 106,000 Nepali-speaking citizens, like Ram Bahadur Damaai in my book, from within its borders—that few in the media talk about because Bhutan is so unimportant geopolitically. So, yes, whatever my goal, the novel addresses issues of importance. In the beginning, I always maintained that I wrote fiction with the primary purpose of telling a story. I distanced myself from the notion of writer as rioter, writer as change maker. I would cringe, for example, when reviews alluded to my shining light on an issue as under-reported as the treatment of Nepali people by the Bhutanese government. “But that wasn’t my objective, really,” I would splutter like a pretentious fool at literature festivals. “Writing as activism isn’t my thing.” And then I’d receive these heartfelt emails from Bhutanese refugees spread across the world—from Australia, America and Scotland—each one expressing gratitude for having addressed their plight in my fiction. So, my intention might have been to tell an unputdownable book, but it was doing more than that. And that wasn’t a bad thing. Now I accept that fiction perhaps has a bigger role than just entertaining. If my fiction can make the world a better place, shine light on important, ignored issues, teach compassion, all this is wonderful. I am not as uncomfortable with “writing as activism” as I was before.
Corruption in India is so all-pervasive that I can’t imagine an India without it. It’s perfectly acceptable for people to accumulate assets—obese buildings, dozens of plots of land the size of France—that they could never afford on their government salaries. There’s no stigma, no hiding. In fact, the rare non-corrupt person gets criticized for being odd. “That man—the secretary of the department of transportation?” people say, rolling their eyes. “He’s a Gandhi secretary.” What Chitralekha, the 84-year-old grandmother, does in the book isn’t anything out of the ordinary. To write about it seemed like the most natural thing to do. Was I hoping it would change the ways of my people? Absolutely not. Will it make people rethink corruption? Absolutely not. When something feels as natural as breathing, it will take more than a book to change people’s outlook.
But it can change other things. The acceptance of Agastaya’s sexuality, for example. In Fuir et revenir, a successful doctor living in New York in a relationship with a man doesn’t have the courage to come out to his family. I wrote the book in 2012. The Indian court had declared homosexuality illegal. Two years ago, it was legalized. Chances are that if I had written the book in 2020, Agastaya would have been out—uncomfortably perhaps—but out. It can teach people to be compassionate about his reasons for keeping his orientation a secret. There’s a Ram Bahadur Damaai in the book, a so-called lower-caste person who is actually a better person than all the Neupaneys combined. Perhaps people will see that caste is superficial, beauty fleeting, success difficult to attain. Reading makes one a more open, compassionate person.
- What was the last book you read that you enjoyed/had a significant impact on your outlook of life?
I absolutely loved A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I am now reading while I am in France.
- Aside from writing, what are your interests? What do you like to do to unwind?
I hike, trek. Anything that entails walking makes me happy. I play poker. I gamble. I travel.
Thank you so much Prajwal for enriching and interesting conversation, and on behalf of The Asian Review, we wish you all the best for your book tour in France.
Bonne Chance ! Aurevoir !