#DesiBooks10QA: Mona Dash on what desi writers write or want to write about

About the author:

Mona Dash is the author of A Roll of the Dice (Linen Press, 2019), winner of an Eyelands International Book Award for memoir. Most recently, her story collection, Let Us Look Elsewhere (Dahlia Books, 2021), was released. Her other published books are A Certain Way, Untamed Heart, and Dawn-drops. Her work has been listed in leading competitions such as Novel London 20, SI Leeds literary award, Fish, Bath, Bristol, Leicester Writes, and Asian Writer (winner) and widely published in international journals and more than twenty anthologies. A graduate in telecoms engineering, she holds an MBA and a Masters in Creative Writing. She works with a global technology company and lives in London, England.

About the book:

Let Us Look Elsewhere is a collection of fourteen short stories set across the world in diverse places like Reykjavik, Prague, Vegas, London, Mumbai, and rural Odisha. These stories explore human frailties and triumph. Desire and disconnection go hand in hand as the characters are all searching for fulfilment in their own unique ways.

Let Us Look Elsewhere by Mona Dash is a 2021 story collection set across the world in diverse places like Reykjavik, Prague, Vegas, London, Mumbai, and rural Odisha. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

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

This may seem an expected answer, but if I have to point to one specific book, it has to be Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I read it when I was still living in India. First, it was such an eye-opener to see a book set in small-town India, by an Indian author who lived in India, make such a big wave in the international world. Then, there was her lyrical, poetic language, which did not follow any of the usual literary standards or the kind of books we had been reading until then. I had also seen a movie Arundhati Roy had directed and acted in. I knew she had trained to be an architect. So all of this added up to the fantastic possibility that someone with a non-literary background could win the Booker with a debut novel. The twins and their childlike wonder and adventure brought in a strong sense of nostalgia. It was such a refreshing book to read at the time that I can still remember the sense of wonder I felt. Suddenly, it felt as if there was space for different kinds of writing, whether in style or content. Suddenly, it felt as if I could be a writer too despite being an engineering and business student. Maybe the stories I wrote would also be read and liked. It brought so much possibility to life. There seemed to be a space for every kind of story.

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

This is slightly tricky to answer as my latest book is a collection of short stories. The themes are quite varied. While some of them are about themes of diaspora identity and belonging, many explore the interiority in women’s lives. Most of the women in my stories are strong protagonists but they are also in a search for love, intimacy, or a sense of identity, and they often find it through an element of sensuality or sexuality. So, in response, I’d say that there are several desi novels that each short story can be in conversation with. I’d like to mention the other desi story collections published by my publisher, Dahlia Books, such as Subjunctive Moods by Catherine Menon and Table Manners by Susmita Bhattacharya. Certain stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies—the title story, ‘Sexy’, and ‘Third and Final Continent’—are also stories that my collection is in conversation with.

“[The desi book that changed my life is] The God of Small Things. it was such an eye-opener to see a book set in small-town India, by an Indian author who lived in India, make such a big wave in the international world.” ~Mona Dash #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

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

That’s a great question. There are so many more themes desi books can explore and are, in fact, exploring. I would love to read a book set in the 1900s, when the Independence struggle was really beginning to take shape in India. But I’d like it to be set in the London of those times because the history and diversity of this city really fascinates me. I’d love to have a lot of ships in the story, that is, the sense of sailing and exploration and movement. At the heart of it, there needs to be a beautiful, unrequited love story, of course.

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

The desi book I finished reading last was Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. It’s a brave theme, to explore a very dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Traditionally, in Indian cultures, mothers are usually perfect or always forgiven. The relationship is toxic in both directions and yet both of them depend on each other so fully. The book doesn’t shy away from exploring some really dark sides of people. I just bought Awais Khan’s No Honor as well and plan to read it soon.

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

The thing with desi books is that only a few get great visibility and many just fall under the radar. There are several other authors who deserve to get more recognition. But how do we decide what is underappreciated? Some authors produce a sustained volume of work and somehow they get less recognition than a single work by another author. I’d like to mention Amit Chaudhuri and his sublime, gentle writing. Also Anuradha Roy, whose work I have always liked, especially Sleeping on Jupiter (although, it did win awards so we can’t say it was underappreciated but it should be read and known more, for sure.)

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

“Keep writing to find your own voice.” In the early days, when I’d just started writing and sending out things and getting rejected, I’d often thought of giving up. It took me a while to realize that there is really nothing like “giving up” when you are a writer. You will always write. Now, whether it gets published or not, and by a publisher you want—that’s another matter. And as you keep writing, keep reading, and just stay in that continuous discourse with yourself and, eventually, you will find your own voice. Once you’ve heard that voice, it doesn’t mean rejections won’t happen—they still will—but, at least, the acceptances will grow. Your voice will become more confident and your own drive will propel you to keep developing it further. The other advice is, of course, to read the kind of writing you are doing—whether poetry or novels or short stories—and read it like a writer.

#WritingTip from Mona Dash: “Keep writing to find your own voice. […] just stay in that continuous discourse with yourself and, eventually, you will find your own voice.” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

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

Since this is a selection of short stories, they were written separately over years. I wasn’t writing these individual stories with the purpose of turning them all into a collection eventually. The journey of each story in the collection is special. ‘Formations’, the last story in the collection, won the Asian Writer Short Story Prize. It had a swift, successful journey as I wrote it and sent it off to the competition. And it won! ‘The Sense of Skin’ was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Award but it took a while to write it and it also required some research into fur farming. ‘Natural Accents’ took me a few iterations and it got shortlisted in Leicester Writes, and it is also published in the May We Borrow Your Country anthology. All along this journey, there were often moments of dejection, when it felt like the story was not going anywhere or not achieving its full potential, but each little win along the way helped keep me motivated to keep going.

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

I would like people to know about and read the collection. I also like knowing which story appeals to whom. As this is a story collection, the advantage is that a writer can present variety and experimentation. If it can make a little mark in this busy world filled with writers and have readers empathize with the desires and disconnections of my characters, that will be enough.

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

I am a member of the British South Asian Writers Collective, The Whole Kahani. Several of these stories had been workshopped in our monthly writing workshops and benefited from the feedback. I’m indeed fortunate to have the support of some really good authors—some from The Whole Kahani and many outside it also—who have, for example, offered quotes for the book, tweeted about it, reviewed it and are trying to do their bit to help increase visibility.

I want to make a point here about independent presses, who are often quite invisible compared to larger publishers who have bigger budgets. In the desi writing community, as with everything in the world, external validation works more than anything else. Say a book wins a major award or is picked up by a leading publisher, then everyone steps up to support it. But what about the writing journey itself? What about supporting a writer simply because you like their work? I’m un-agented and, so far, have been published by some excellent independent presses. But this, added to being desi, means that the cloak of invisibility is thicker. Unless the validation comes from somewhere else, I’m not so sure that the desi writing community will chime in to talk about lesser-known presses and the authors they publish. Simply because it’s a crowded marketplace. This is why the Desi Books initiative is so good about being inclusive.

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

I hope that Let Us Look Elsewhere holds up a mirror to the discussion about what desi authors write about or want to write about. While a couple of the stories are about identity and belonging within a different culture, I would like readers to see that an exploration beyond this is possible as well. I would hope the stories appear universal, wherever they may be set or whatever the nationality of the characters. I was very happy to see some of the initial reviews mentioning the diversity of themes, characters, and places. This is important to me as I don’t like to see a narrow, exoticized focus or a different gaze that looks away from the core themes.

“I hope that Let Us Look Elsewhere holds up a mirror to the discussion about what desi authors write about or want to write about.” ~Mona Dash #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

Mona Dash’s Let Us Look Elsewhere is a story collection and out now. More on her website.

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