#DesiBooks10QA: Torsa Ghosal on how the literary imagination influences thought and perception

About the author

Torsa Ghosal is the author of a book of literary criticism, Out of Mind: Mode, Mediation, and Cognition in Twenty-First-Century Narrative, and an experimental novella, Open Couplets. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Literary Hub, Bustle, Himal Southasian, and elsewhere. Her fiction was an honorable mention in Pigeon Pages flash contest and has been nominated for Best of the Net. A writer and professor of English based in California, Torsa grew up in Bengal, India. Follow her on Twitter @TorsaG.

About the book

What is the relationship between aesthetic presentation of thought and scientific conceptions of cognition? Torsa Ghosal’s Out of Mind: Mode, Mediation, and Cognition in Twenty-First-Century Narrative answers this question by offering incisive commentary on a range of contemporary fictions that combine language, maps, photographs, and other images to portray thought. Situating literature within groundbreaking debates on memory, perception, abstraction, and computation, Ghosal shows how stories not only reflect historical beliefs about how minds work but also participate in their reappraisal.

Out of Mind makes a compelling case for understanding narrative forms and cognitive-scientific frameworks as co-emergent and cross-pollinating. To this end, Ghosal harnesses narrative theory, multimodality studies, cognitive sciences, and disability studies to track competing perspectives on remembering, reading, and sense of place and self. Through new readings of the works of Kamila Shamsie, Aleksandar Hemon, Mark Haddon, Lance Olsen, Steve Tomasula, Jonathan Safran Foer, and others, Out of Mind generates unique insights into literary imagination’s influence on how we think and perceive amid twenty-first-century social, technological, and environmental changes.

Torsa Ghosal’s book, Out of Mind, is about the literary imagination’s influence on how we think and perceive amid twenty-first-century social, technological, and environmental changes. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

I cannot pinpoint one because I read and write across genres and languages. I wrote poetry before I understood what it meant to be a “writer.” I loved the Bengali poems by Jibanananda Das and Michael Madhusudan Dutta included in my school textbook. I remember buying books of poems and anthologies containing Das’s and Dutta’s poems at book fairs.

Then I read Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Panther Panchali and felt like I could see the world anew. A lot of people know Panther Panchali through Satyajit Ray’s film adaptation. Poverty and loss are ever palpable in the film. These are certainly not elided in the novel—it is an unflinching work of social realism—but the novel also belongs in the “bildungsroman” literary tradition. Panther Panchali reveals the familiar world, the society with all its pitfalls, through the eyes of two children (first Durga, then Apu) who find beauty in the most ordinary things. Bildung means ‘education’ and Panther Panchali is a story about how we learn to see, think, and feel.

Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things are the two Indian novels in English that resonated with me in my school and early college days, before I knew anything about writing as a career or the world of publishing. I suppose they are pivotal in my own ‘bildung’ as a person and writer. These books inspired me to write not only creatively but also critically. After all, I write literary critical essays and books because I enjoy literature and want to extend my conversation with a book after I’ve read it.

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

The most obvious answer would be Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography because a chapter in Out of Mind (Chapter 3: “Cartographic Minds”) is dedicated to thinking about the aesthetic treatment of space and mental maps in the novel.

My book also discusses representations of climate change—Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement helped me understand the challenges to narrative form and human perception climate change poses.

However, at an implicit level, my book and my work in literary criticism tends to be in dialogue with Nāṭyaśāstra. This is not to say I actually discuss Nāṭyaśāstra, but that my approach as a literary critic is first and foremost ‘formal’—that is, I think about form and structure of representations in relation to emotions and consciousness. I learned about Nāṭyaśāstra as a practitioner rather than a scholar since I trained in Indian performing arts (Kathak.) During my graduate studies, I concentrated on narrative theory as my area of interest because of my interest in the connection of stories with consciousness. Of course, my book is ultimately and at a much more explicit level grounded in Euro-American cognitive and aesthetic philosophies, but the questions I take up in my literary scholarship originate in my intimate relationship with desi aesthetic traditions and philosophy.

“. . . at an implicit level, my book and my work in literary criticism tends to be in dialogue with Natyasastra.” ~Torsa Ghosal on a desi book her own, Out of Mind, is in conversation with. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

This is a very difficult question. Desi books exist in so many different languages—maybe the book I want is already out there, but I haven’t heard of it. To the best of my knowledge though, there aren’t many books on how South Asian philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists influence narrative forms. The relationship of desi origin-science with desi poetics, let’s say.

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

I am reading Namrata Poddar’s Border Less—it comes out in March next year. I am admiring the novel’s fragmentary form. I just completed Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North. I love the way he scaffolds meditations on the human condition—relationships, love, aging—in a story grounded in contemporary political realities. Next up is Humayun Azad’s I Remember Abbu (translated by Arunava Sinha). I am drawn to stories that interweave the domestic with the political, and so, I am almost always reading desi books of this sort (of which there are many!)

5. The desi book that you believe should be read and known more and why.

Zulfikar Ghose’s books, particularly, Hulme’s Investigations into the Bogart Script. In my answer to your previous question, I mentioned how I am drawn to the mix of the domestic and the political—a lot of readers of South Asian literary fictions are also drawn to that mix, and there’s of course nothing wrong with that. The flip side, however, is that whoever writes in genres and styles that desi writers are not commonly known for falls through the cracks. Ghose’s books are experimental and have the traits of postmodernist fiction. They are not always centered on characters of South Asian origin—in fact, one might say, he undercuts ideas like authenticity, identity, and origin. A lot of white authors have been celebrated in American criticism and academia for undertaking these sorts of experiments but Ghose, a writer of South Asian origin, someone who writes inventive and bizarre prose, is largely forgotten. I teach Hulme’s Investigations in a graduate seminar on twentieth-century fictions and students often end up writing about the novel using all sorts of critical lenses. So the novel appeals to readers when they stumble upon it.

Also, Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column. Hosain’s work is not experimental in the way Ghose’s work is. It is, in fact, that blend of domestic and political I previously mentioned. But because of how Hosain rejected allegiance with either India or Pakistan following the Partition, I feel she gets skipped over or her contributions minimized in the history of the desi English novel.

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

To write everyday (or at least regularly). Writing improves through practice.

Another advice I follow: write a few drafts, then step away from the piece. The time away helps with revision and editing.

In case of literary critical or scholarly writing, I also think of something my PhD thesis advisor said to me. There is no reason for critical prose to be dense and puzzling unless the density and obfuscation are part of the argument. For example, a lot of literary critics in academia (at least for a few decades in the twentieth century) adopted the style of writing associated with someone like Jacques Derrida without attending to the fact that Derrida’s writing is performative—it performatively defers meaning, which is also his argument. Of course, I am oversimplifying here, but my point is, difficulty in prose needs to serve a purpose—that’s what my advisor taught me. In my writing, I neither turn away from nor idealize difficulty at the sentence-level. I try to convey my meaning as directly as possible.

#WritingTip from Torsa Ghosal: “There is no reason for critical prose to be dense and puzzling unless the density and obfuscation are part of the argument.” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

Since Out of Mind is a book of literary criticism, and more scholarly than trade (that’s the industry speak—to me these distinctions are not important), I knew it had to be published by one of the handful of university presses. I put in a lot of effort at the book proposal stage—I formed writing groups with friends and colleagues who helped me shape the proposal and eventually the book. These writing groups motivated me. I also think reading motivated me—whenever I felt exhausted and uncertain about what I had to say, I would read other scholarly books on the subject and feel like I was in conversation with a broader community.

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

It would mean finding a readership both inside and outside academia. I hope the book will be read not only by my academic colleagues in narrative and cognitive studies, but also anyone interested in literature and the aesthetic treatment of consciousness.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

Just knowing that there are others out there working their way through long, unwieldy, writing projects for years helped me work on mine. Because of my specific circumstances and interests, I look up to author-scholars like Viet Thanh Nguyen and Namwali Serpell. In US academia, the distinction between critical/scholarly and creative writing is sometimes rigid for various (often, political) reasons. Nguyen and Serpell successfully do both. I have friends from graduate school and my current university who are very accomplished creative and critical writers—Ayendy Bonifacio, Joey Kim, Colleen Morrissey, and Rosa Martínez, among others. So, writing Out of Mind while also working on creative projects did not feel like a solitary exercise.

Exchanging work with other writers and literary scholars kept me accountable. Some of my literary friends are also helping me with ideas of how to promote and publicize my book.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

I hope for readers to understand that stories not only base their representation of characters’ minds on existing cognitive-scientific theories but also significantly shape those theories. Stories direct approaches to thinking. And how we think about thinking, how we model and explain thought in both science and popular culture has real consequences for people. In both the sciences and storytelling, it is important to be open-minded, admit plural ways of making sense of the world, instead of diagnosing and pathologizing differences.

“. . . it is important to be open-minded, admit plural ways of making sense of the world, instead of diagnosing and pathologizing differences.” ~Torsa Ghosal on possible reader takeaways from her new book, Out of Mind #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

Torsa Ghosal has a new book of literary criticism, Out of Mind: Mode, Mediation, and Cognition in Twenty-First-Century Narrative. More at her website.

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