“There has to be a degree of self-awareness and the privilege that comes with being a western writer reporting on the East.”
The ‘Forgotten Lives’ event brought together Preti Taneja, an author and human rights activist writing her first novel, an adaptation of King Lear set in India; Mahesh Rao, an author who was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize; and Jonathan Tel, a writer whose work transcends geographical borders, with books on Israel and Palestine, as well as a new project focusing on Syrians in Germany. Jonathan’s most recent achievement was winning The Sunday Times Short Story Award.
Exploring the short-story form
Each author read excerpts from their works and explained what the short-story medium meant to them. To Preti Taneja, the genre and her own collection of short stories, “Kum Kum Malhota”, was a chance to focus on the relationships between women in India.
Preti writes about women “experiencing otherness” through growing up in London, but still being regarded as a foreigner.
This is an “otherness” that translates to India too, where you are seen as “a westerner”, and produces a disconnect that is part of never truly fitting into either place. As a way of documenting the economic development of the country, Preti praised the short story form, allowing her to express “different points of time”.
Mahesh Rao shared the same sentiment, saying that the short story form allows more freedom due to its intensity and fast-paced nature.
Mahesh referred to the short story as a “terrible intense fling”, explaining that the writing process does not drag on like a novel does.
Exploring Asian cities through literature
It was the fiscal environment of China that also interested Jonathan Tel to set his story in Beijing. Jonathan felt that corruption was the best way to explore the current situation of the city and noted that it was a “way of talking about the modernisation of China”.
The theme of corruption served as a means of closing the gap between China being the exotic “other”, and bringing it closer to issues relevant to people around the world.After the talk, the floor was opened up to the audience, who asked insightful questions on issues surrounding representation and reporting on subjects regarded as taboo. The authors concluded that there has to be a degree of self-awareness and the privilege that comes with being a western writer reporting on the East.
The event came to a close but the significance and importance of the short story genre lingered. Its ability to almost transcend time but carry such intensity and depth created a newfound respect for the medium.