Arts Desk

“Like a Hidden Track on a CD”: A Conversation With Tania James

More evidence of globalization at work: Novelist and short-story writer Tania James lives in D.C., but her most recent publication is a story about two brothers from Lahore, India, and it was published in the new, England-themed issue of Granta. That story, "Lion and Panther in London," is also included in her first story collection, Aerogrammes, the follow-up to her 2009 debut novel, Atlas of Unknowns. Like the novel, James' stories look at worlds in collision: between people, between cultures, and, in the case of the novel she's currently working on, "human-elephant conflict."

On Wednesday at the Busboys & Poets at 14th & V, James will participate in a panel on the new Granta issue with Gary Younge, another contributor; NPR books editor Parul Sehgal will moderate. (Disclosure: I recommended Sehgal as a moderator.) James answered a few questions about Aerogrammes via email.

Washington City Paper: Culture clashes define a number of the stories in the book. Sometimes the split is a broad one: An East-West divide becomes clear when Indian wrestlers visit England in "Lion and Panther in London.” But it can also be more intimate: You explore the divisions within an Indian community in Illinois, and how they're framed by skin tone, in "Light & Luminous." It's also one of the themes of your first novel, Atlas of Unknowns. What draws you to these stories, and what keeps them fresh for you?

Tania James: I suppose that sense of alienation and dislocation in one’s surroundings has always fascinated and unsettled me. I think most of us walk around with that feeling more than we realize, or at least that’s the sense I always got from the books and authors I loved best. When I was younger (and still now), reading books led me to believe that culture clash and loneliness weren’t simply specific to being a first or second generation immigrant; it’s an experience far more universal than that. Maybe I’m writing in response to those writers, those stories that so moved me.

WCP: What writers and stories in particular?

TJ: I guess Jane Eyre isn't commonly considered a story of culture clash, but there's fish-out-of-water loneliness that felt familiar to me in that book. I felt the same way about A House for Mr. Biswas, or discovering Emily Dickinson in English class.

WCP: Two of the stories in the book deal with relationships between people and (for want of a better word) non-humans. "What to Do About Henry" is about two women's bond with a chimpanzee, and "Girl Marries Ghost" imagines a society in which people can marry ghosts. How do the rules for storytelling change when you're writing about characters who aren't people?

TJ: That’s an interesting question. I guess everyone, whether human or nonhuman, has a particular way of communicating or feeling, a range of vocabulary that is specifically theirs. No two chimps—even twin chimps—think or express themselves exactly alike. So in the case of my non-human folk, it’s a matter of figuring out their language and their ticks and limitations, while still allowing them the depth to act out of character.

WCP: Many story collections these days seem to be conceived as cohesive works—they're linked stories about a set of characters or about a particular place. Aerogrammes, however, seems more characterized by its diversity of settings and themes. Did you have your own organizing structure in mind when you were assembling this collection, things that make this book cohere for you? Is the idea of a more overtly thematic story collection of interest to you?

TJ: When I was putting the collection together, I knew that some of the stories strayed from the rest in voice or tone, but I like collections that have a wild card or two, like a hidden track on a CD. I love surprises like that, the way they snag in the memory precisely because of the way they throw the whole slightly off-kilter. There are many excellent story collections that have an even frequency throughout, but I’d have trouble writing at one pitch for nine different stories. I have more fun when I can dip into other voices, other worlds. As I was writing these stories, I did keep circling back to the same themes and questions. I don’t know why; I guess they’re part of my writerly DNA. But I think those questions are what allow the collection to cohere.

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