Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sameer Pandya on the Intimacy of “I”

In the 12th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Sameer Pandya, author of The Blind Writer (The University of Hawaii Press), appears in his fiction.

“I” is such an intimate pronoun. Yes, of course, the use of it in fiction does not signal the instant appearance of autobiography. And yet, for me at least, the use of it has always felt intimate.

I am still amazed when I read the first pages of a memoir or a personal essay where the writer reveals something alarmingly personal. It isn’t the detail that surprises me anymore, but rather the act of telling. It’s not the confession that shocks, but the act of confessing.

It is no surprise that my discomfort with confession has something to do with my own background, which I have been trying to dissect for a good long time. And I suspect I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But I seem to have inherited some combination of Hemingwayesque reticence, Brahmanical puritanism, and Gandhian self-denial. Translation? Reveal nothing. This might be a good formula for living for some, but it’s not so useful for writing fiction.

The first story in this collection was published ten years ago. In the time that has passed since, I wrote more stories, tossed some, wrote some more. Sometimes, I thought the collection was done and ready. Many other times, I was prepared to toss the whole thing out. The collection only began to take shape when I started writing the novella anchoring the book. I imagined another short story. It started with five pages, and then fifteen. At some point it was fifty, and now it is over one hundred manuscript pages. As I worked through draft after draft, I had some readers along the way who helped give it shape.

One comment particularly struck me. “You finally seem to appear in this story.” Appear? Had I disappeared all this time while I wrote, published, and trashed other stories? Had I been hidden away somewhere? This was a particularly interesting comment because in terms of plot, much of what happens in the novella—a love triangle between a 24-year old man, an aging blind writer, and his younger beautiful wife—never happened to me. And yet, it did feel like I appeared emotionally in the story in a deeper kind of way than I had before. Why was this? Did I suddenly become more comfortable with the public act of confession? Did the death of my father release me in a certain way? I don't know. What I do know is that I was simply lucky enough to find a story that allowed me to be more forthcoming and intimate with the themes embedded within it—on the complication of real and literary fathers, on failure and success, on the elusive idea of happiness.

I teach literature and creative writing at a university, and in any given quarter, I somehow end up in my classes on the last line of Ralph Ellison’s magnetic Invisible Man. “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” There is just so much here. But for this context, I think becoming really intimate with the I—fictional and otherwise—was the key to making a connection with the you, the reader.