Thursday, March 6, 2008

Manil Suri at Kepler's

In case you missed Manil Suri at Kepler's on March 3, the author was in town to talk about his book, The Age of Shiva: a Novel.
----
Terry's Notes:

Manil was an excellent speaker, successfully balancing - like his novels - the serious and the comedic. He spoke at length about the influence of his mathematical training/thinking on his fiction writing. Math theory is a process of estimation and re-iteration, a constant refining of equations, while working towards an approximate solution, where the range of error increasingly tightens (did I get this somewhat right?). Writing is, for Manil, similar; he does a ton of rewriting, and knows he is closing in on a "solution" when he finally finds himself putting in a word, taking it out, and then putting it back in.

Interestingly, his first novel,
The Death of Vishnu, he wrote with a certain concision (which he also attributes to his math background), paring his drafts to the point of near abstraction - hoping readers would project in a large way their own imaginations onto his characters and setting. Though looking back, he feels he did so at the expense of a richness of detail, a more vivid naturalism that he strives to evoke in the much longer, The Age of Shiva. Initially a story from three characters' points-of-view, Manil discovered (200 pages in) that the book was really about Meera, the eventual sole narrator. Of course, finding an authentic female voice was a challenge, one he more than meets and is evident in the opening scene: a sensuous depiction of Meera breastfeeding her newborn son, Ashvin.

Manil was particularly entertaining reading a passage involving narrator Meera's progressive, secular, "my daughter will be kissing the feet of NO man - ritual or no ritual" father, Paji. (I must say, his rendering did rather smack of campy, over-the-top "Bollywood".)


Because he was gunning for tenure, Manil did not want people to think he wasn't 100% committed to mathematics; so, initially, he wrote under the radar, "sneaking" off weekends to attend writing workshops taught by the likes of Vikram Chandra (
Sacred Games) and Michael Cunningham (The Hours) or, in the case of The Death of Vishnu, feverishly pounding out the final eight chapters while supposedly on a "math retreat" (gotta luv it). Most people, it turns out, were quite supportive of his literary success. Manil even mentioned that fellow professors came out of the woodwork announcing their own "creative" passions. (Though I can't seem to shake the image of some departmental colleague bounding after Manil in the faculty parking lot, lifting him by the lapels, and loudly confessing: "Mathematical proofs be DAMNED, Manil! I am an ACTOR, damn-it!!" and softly, humbly: "You have FREED me. And I thank you.")

Manil did mention that he has subsequently taught a couple of writing workshops at his University, but no more! (People are
...sooo sensitive! says a surprised Manil.) When it comes to teaching, Manil prefers the "black-and-white", "one 'right' answer" nature of math (though I had to point out that I would never have passed Calculus 1C had I not argued, and argued fiercely, for "partial credit".)~Terry

Keep checking our website for future Kepler's events.

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