Comfortably familiar with the former self

Published: 03rd March 2013 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st March 2013 12:21 PM   |  A+A-

Tania James was born in Chicago, Illinois, and initiated her writing career with a series of “creepy sonnets” in honour of Edgar Allen Poe. As a child she thought she might be a doctor, lawyer or construction worker, but ended up studying filmmaking in college, as it seemed a more substantial pursuit than writing. She relented to her initial calling by publishing her acclaimed first novel, Atlas of Unknowns, in 2009.

Her latest book, Aerogrammes, is a remarkable collection of short stories—geographically wide-ranging, and filled with the most unexpected cast of characters, all marked by the need for transformation, the desire to be made anew. From Lion and Panther in London, a fictionalised story of real-life wrestling brothers, Imam and Gama, to the futuristic Girl Marries Ghost, where widows enter a lottery to marry ghost husbands armed with their Primer to Interlife Relationships—Tania picks deftly through territory that is familiar and unfamiliar, charting a map of human emotion that is at once humorous, compassionate, and consumed with longing.

Tania says she doesn’t think about themes when she writes as it makes her self-conscious, but she admits that the quest for redemption is central to her work. “I suppose what interests me is not whether redemption is achieved but how far a person is willing to go in order to get it.” Many of the stories in this collection, she says, are loosely tethered to settings that are familiar to her—“people floundering in American suburbia.” But triggers to other stories come from outside the borders of her life—from history, or a radio program, and they feel as personal to her as any other story she’s written. “Inspiration is 2% of what makes the story for me, the other 98% is the layers and layers of revisions you do to make the thing stand on its own legs. Sometimes the legs run off in wayward directions. But that mutability is also part of the pleasure in writing, to follow an unexpected turn, or to pursue whatever excites or intrigues you.”

Tania admits to being compulsive in her writerly habits. “I can get a little obsessive about research,” she says, “Regaling my husband with facts about chimpanzee mating rituals or the dietary habits of pehlwan wrestlers. I think obsession comes naturally to many writers, and usually that’s a good thing, until the research starts to get in the way of story.…. I was hoping, upon finishing my novel, that I’d have a cinematic moment where I’d type THE END and sit back and have a scotch or something. But I hate scotch. And every time I get to the end of a story, of any form or length, it looks so bloated and hideous it’s hard to celebrate. In other words, revision blurs the finish line again and again.”

With so much of Tania’s work dealing with characters who yearn for a former self or a former life, I ask Tania what her earlier self would make of her current occupation. “I think she would have been appalled by the fact that I do most of my work in pyjamas. My earlier self had a very clear vision of the kind of woman I’d someday be, and that vision involved blush and shoulder pads.”

The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist

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