Ohio-based novelist, poet, translator, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist Amit Majmudar has served as Ohio’s first Poet Laureate. In a candid chat, he talks to us, among other things, about his latest book ‘Soar’, how he juggles multiple roles, his fourth poetry collection that is forthcoming in the US, and his favorite Indian American authors and poets.
A diagnostic nuclear radiologist, poet, novelist, and essayist, you were also the first Poet Laureate of Ohio. Tell us how you balance all these different personas.
It’s really just a question of time management. When the shift starts, I’m a radiologist. When the shift ends, I’m a dad. When I can sneak away or when everyone’s asleep, I’m a writer. As for the different kinds of writing, I regard them all as ways of sequencing words. You can accomplish some things with poetry that you can’t with fiction, some things with fiction that you can’t with an essay, and so on. I pick my form based on the effect I wish to have.
Your latest novel ‘Soar’ is about the friendship between a Hindu and Muslim soldier in the British Indian Army during World War I. How did you come up with the story?
I wrote it so long ago—2010, in fact—that I can scarcely recall the specific genesis of the story anymore. I have always been a World War I buff, and I remember the first time I read about Indian colonial soldiers being sent to theaters of war in places like Europe or Africa. How strange it all must have seemed to them! What innocents abroad they were! And yet sent there to shoot and be shot at; there to have their innocence stripped from them. That was probably the starting point for the novel.
Your earlier book ‘Partitions‘ is also about communal differences and harmonies. Is this a theme that you are particularly fond of?
‘Soar’ came immediately after ‘Partitions.’ They treat a similar topic in drastically different ways—one dark and tragic, the other light and tragicomic. I am very interested in the difference between person-to-person friendship and love; and the diametrically opposite group dynamics that can co-exist beside and behind that relationship. That contrast is the basis of so much in literature, going all the way back to Romeo and Juliet. Trust is built easier on the micro-level, person to person, than on the macro-level, group to group.
Your book ‘Sitayana‘, a retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective, focuses on Sita’s fierce resistance. How did you come up with the idea for the book?
The story is well known, but the kernel of the idea was to write the Ramayana epic in many different voices. So, it’s not just Sita’s perspective; her voice is central, but it is one of many. ‘Sitayana’ was a challenge of storytelling architecture that I set myself. From chapter to chapter, I jump, Hanuman-like, from perspective to perspective. Yet the book as a whole maintains a single, rapid, forward momentum.
Tell our readers more about your fourth poetry collection that is forthcoming in the US, ‘What He Did in Solitary’ (Knopf, 2020).
I write in a lot of styles and themes, and that book collects a large portion of my work written between ‘Dothead’ and now. There are poems about identity, love, loss, communal violence, politics, and the solitary nature of being. Everything under the sun.
Who are some of your favorite Indian American authors and poets?
I have one favorite Indian American author, and that is my wife, A. B. Majmudar. Her debut novel is coming out from Puffin Books India. It’s called ‘The Torchbearers’, and it’s a YA novel that’s an action-packed mythological romp that involves three kids (based on our own three kids) as well as Gods and Demons. It’s an astonishing story, but the back story is astonishing too: She had never written fiction before, submitted her first completed draft without an agent, and got a book deal on her first try. The book really is that good; she’s like an Indian-American J. K. Rowling. Between us, she is soon going to be the famous one, and I look forward to standing in her shadow!
What are your creative inspirations?
Other writers, usually dead ones. I am stirred to create my own work in the spirit of emulation and competition, yes, but above all, I am stirred by the ways in which other writers show me what can be done with the language. Shakespeare, Cormac McCarthy, Borges, Hilary Mantel, Ovid—countless others. Everything I read and love inspires me in some way.
What are you working on next?
I have a lot of works planned, and a few new books already completed and currently submitted to publishers. But I’m very superstitious, so I won’t be too specific—I want to avoid jinxing my chances. But I am always working on poems, even when I’m not physically writing them; that work is always ongoing. Language possesses infinite generativity, and I try to take advantage of that in the finite time I have.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.