Prajwal Parajuly: The next big thing in short fiction

As an avid reader of non-English writers who write in the English language, I’m convinced that it’s just a matter of months before the name of this 26-year-old Prajwal Parajuly will be on the tip of tongues around the world.

In fact, I daresay his name will be dropped in the same sentence as that of Prabal Gurung and Tshering Lama – as young folks who have achieved something spectacular, something unique to that of most Nepali aspirations, but something that can be appreciated by Nepalis and non-Nepalis alike.

From forcing The New York Times copy chief to acknowledge a grammatical error that passed the eyes of most readers to causing more than half a dozen literary agents at the London Book Fair – some as far as South Africa – to go on a scramble to sign him to getting accepted into Oxford University’s highly selective Master of Studies in Creative Writing, Parajuly has done it all.

Of course, those of us from or in the homeland will enjoy claiming him as one of ours, and how could we refrain? This Nepali-speaking Indian from Sikkim, with a father from Kalimpong and a mother from Nepal, has written a collection of short stories, chosen a literary agent – by no means an ordinary feat for a short story collection – and is currently picking out a publisher. The author of the tentatively titled Himalayan Sunset may still be toying with the title of his book and, yes, he’s young, but the sensitivity and experience emanating from his stories remind us of seasoned writers like Arundhati Roy and Chinua Achebe.

This will be the first time an author will have written a work of fiction in English combining both stories of Nepalis and Nepali-speaking Indians. However, even if the characters are Nepalis or Nepali-speaking Indians, the stories of traveling across oceans, migrating to new continents and searching for one’s identity will resonate with citizens around the world. After all, it’s not just middle-class girls from Kathmandu waiting for the arrival of their Green Cards, or young boys from Kalimpong delivering Chicken Tikka to tenants of apartments in Manhattan. Such tales of travel, tribulations and temptations surpass national boundaries and identities, yet they are some things citizens across the world can relate to.

Susan Yearwood, Prajwal’s UK-based literary agent, describes his writing as having a “strong authorial voice that is educated yet not stilted” and adds that he reminds her of “Jhumpa Lahiri and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, who are world renowned for writing about people in countries we hardly hear about unless there is some kind of conflict going on.”

Yearwood is right. Nepal is experiencing a turbulent transition period and Nepali-speaking Indians are fighting for the declaration of Gorkhaland. But like the works of Lahiri and Adichie, Prajwal’s work will resonate with readers from across nations.

Parajuly has come a long way, from being the youngest columnist at The Himalayan Times, all at the age 17, to working as the editor-in-chief of the award-winning magazine, Detours: An Explorer’s Guide to the Midwest. Early last year, he quit his enviable position as advertising executive of The Village Voice, America’s flagship alternative weekly, and gave up a life of celeb-studded and red-carpet events to hit the dusty backroads of eastern Nepal and Northeast India.

Here’s an exclusive with our very own Prajwal Parajuly:

Prajwal, when you wrote this book, you quit your job at The Village Voice. What compelled you to leave a high-paying jet-lifestyle career in NYC to travel to eastern Nepal, India and Bhutan?

I was in Jackson Heights, Queens, in early September two years ago, at the much loved Himalayan Yak Restaurant. Imagine my shock and confusion when I picked a Nepali paper and took more time than I ever had to read a paragraph. It had been close to ten years since I last thought of the three different types of “Sas” (the letter). I was forgetting my own language. It was a sad feeling – this realization that Nepali was gradually slithering into the background of my life. Couple that with not having written anything creatively for a long time, and you knew a book recipe had to be brewing in there somewhere (smiles).

The situation at the home front was a huge motivator, too. The Prashant Tamang [Indian Idol] victory had given the Gorkhaland movement a new impetus, and the Bhutanese refugee situation continued to nag me. There were so many stories out there that needed to be told that the world was unaware of. That’s where the serious idea to work on a book took birth. It took a few more weeks to incubate. My advertising executive job at The Village Voice was good, the money was decent, and the lifestyle it guaranteed was difficult to separate myself from. But making money and rubbing shoulders with folks whose names you enjoy dropping get old, as does steering away from having a conscience. And just like that, much to the chagrin of my parents, I quit. It was the best decision of my life, one that I haven’t regretted even in dreadful times like three weeks of perseverance yielding barely a hundred words of usable writing.

You are an English-trained student but a Nepali-speaking individual. Is this your only reason for choosing to write a story that’s distinctively “Nepali” in the English language? Or were you interested in catering to an English-speaking Nepali or altogether foreign audience?

I write in English because it’s a language I’m comfortable with. I like to believe that my written Nepali isn’t too shoddy, either, and am considering, with the help of family members, translating my work into Nepali.

When I wrote my book, I didn’t have a reader in mind. I wrote the book for myself, to unleash all these stories that had been marinating inside me for sometime. The first draft of the book received interest from several Indian publishing houses and foreign literary agents, and I’ve signed with Susan Yearwood at the Susan Yearwood Literary Agency to represent my book for a variety of reasons. Because she’s primarily based in the U.K., the book might first be published there. It’ll come to South Asia soon after that.

Your childhood and hometown seem to have greatly influenced the contents of your writing – of course, writers are to write what they know best – but why did you choose identities and the Bhutanese experience of it being wrapped in?

I write about what’s happening around me, what’s happening to people I know. I’ve had an inchoate sense of what was happening in Bhutan, what problems third-country settlement brings with it. I’ve spent time in the refugee camps of Khudanabari in Nepal, and among refugees in Denver, USA, and also with Bhutanese people, to understand an issue that has often vilified Bhutan. What’s strange is that there’s been no real solution to the refugee problem at all – and that’s pretty sad. Even if they do resettle down in Bhutan, two decades of their lives have been lost to doing nothing. It’s a heart-wrenching situation.

I’ve seen the way some people in these parts of the world have treated Muslims, so one of my stories deals with a Muslim Panwallah who’s done no wrong but still has to bear the brunt of being a minority. My stories are definitely loaded with such socio-political undertones. I try exploring caste/class/religion and identity dynamics while keeping the stories fresh and vibrant.

Stories of Bhutanese refugee aside, how much of reality do you incorporate into this collection? Are your characters, for instance, inspired or imagined?

Fiction in so many ways is inspired by reality. Most of my characters are people who’ve evolved from my own imagination, though. I concoct a character, create his or her Facebook page, decide what he or she likes, what his or her tastes in music, reading, hobbies are like. Often, I mix and match various people’s characteristics to come up with what I hope are believable and intriguing characters.

The issues are very real – like the doctoring of H1B visas in America and the plight of DV Lottery winners – but the people are often my own creation. A few similarities here and there are purely coincidental.

Your stories are works of fiction, but the settings are so real – from issues related to the plight of Nepali workers in the US to ethnic tensions in Gorkhaland and Nepal, to refugees being resettled. How did you arrive at these contexts and reconcile such backdrops with your stories?

As I said before, the issues described in the book are very real. Again, at the risk of sounding repetitive, I’ll say it’s easy to write about these issues when they are happening near you. I’ve noticed, for instance, in many Nepali-speaking – I use the term because it’s more inclusive, it includes Nepali-speaking Indians, too – households that a distance creeps in the relationship of fathers and daughters after the daughters reach puberty. To capture that in a story was the most natural thing to do.

I heard so many stories of rapes and molestations in the refugee camps of Khudanabari. If we think that domestic violence doesn’t exist in our society, we probably have been living on another planet. I’ve tried incorporating various aspects of what I see around me. Better still, I’ve tried incorporating into my stories various aspects of lives sometimes concealed.

Your characters are Nepalis and the setting relate to that of Nepalis – whether they are children of Gurkha soldiers living in Kathmandu, students in the Northeast hills, or servants in New York City. How do you think non-Nepalis will be able to grasp and appreciate the Nepalipan of such stories?

Because irrespective of what language the characters speak, what class or caste they belong to, where in northeast India or Nepal they are from, at the end of the day, my characters aren’t very different from other people. They struggle with love, hatred, jealousy and temptation, ambition and relationships like everyone else in the world. We also, like any other race, have our idiosyncrasies, our quirks, no doubt, but non-Nepali-speaking readers should be able to identify with universal emotions. Quirks like our not being able to roll our tongues when we pronounce words like “ship,” “international” and “shop” for them to be “sip”, “internasanal” and “sop” which should delight a reader not familiar with Nepalipan. The way we chew our khaini is another one. Nepali-speaking people in foreign lands craving momos is another.

Not being able to sleep because you are desperate for momos may be quintessentially Nepali, Nepali-speaking or Tibetan, but having a hankering for foods from your homeland is a universal thing. How could non-Nepali readers not be able to grasp that?

In recent years, we in South Asia have seen a bourgeoning of Nepali writers in the English language who write for the English-speaking South Asians, but also for the wider English speaking audience. Are there other language groups you hope to attract and translate the book into? If so, which ones and why?

I went into writing this book with a closed mind. I wrote it to satisfy myself, to fulfill an important dream. As the work progressed, I became relatively more open-minded. If the book attracts readers from all over the world, then so be it. In fact, there’s nothing like it (Smiles). To be honest, it might be too early at this publishing stage to consider translations, although I’ll be lying if I said if I didn’t think of Hindi and Nepali translations.

Are you familiar with books published by Nepali and Indian writers in the English language?

I recently read a book called “New Nepal, New Voices,” and I loved Sushma Joshi’s writing in it. Joshi’s was an amazing food-focused story. It was so well done. I thought Peter J. Karthak’s story was good, too. Among Indian authors, I think Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth are brilliant. I’ve just begun reading Rohinton Mistry. He does such a great job of writing about a closeted world.

You’re currently pursuing a Masters at Oxford. How has your undergraduate education, work experience and writing helped, or hindered, the learning process at the institute?

The program is a Master of Studies in Creative Writing. I’ve just started it and it’s fabulous. I have excellent, award-winning writers for tutors and a group of likeminded individuals for fellow students. My cohorts are so talented and helpful! The kind of productivity being in such a company engenders is amazing. It’s so invigorating. You’re constantly writing, constantly thinking, and constantly being creative. Since starting school here, I’ve devoted more than a dozen back-to-back sixteen-hour days to editing sessions and writing a ninth story (Himalayan Sunset consists of nine stories. The book is 70,000-words-long). My agent, editor and I are finally satisfied with the script.

Any advice to new – not just young! – writers who’re interested in writing works of fiction, short stories, novels?

Writing is hard. You need dedication – a lot of it. Often, you’ll sit in front of the computer for days, frustrated out of your mind because you haven’t been able to capture a father-daughter relationship effectively enough. However, if it’s what you really want to do, do it NOW because you’ll probably never do it if that sense of urgency is just not there. People have often asked me how I intend to monetize writing. My answer: I don’t care if I don’t make a penny out of it. I’ll be quick to admit that I’m not one of those people who think money is unimportant. It’s very important to me, but I don’t write to make money. I write because I’ll go crazy if I don’t. I can always make money from other avenues – real estate, business, investments, etc. – and if it comes out of writing, sure, I’ll take it.

Finally, any other works we can watch out for?

I’ll start a novel now, an idea that makes my agent happy. I have a faint idea of what it’ll be about, but that’s all you’ll get from me now (smiles). It should be done by the end of 2012.


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