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PLU interview with Hazel Manuel

PLU interview with Hazel Manuel

By Amruta Prabhu

On a cold, rainy evening I headed to the literal and figurative warmth of a tiny Indian restaurant tucked away in one of the by lanes of Rue du Faubourg St. Denis in the Indian quarter of Paris to interview Hazel Manuel, an upcoming writer whose last novel ‘Kanyakumari’ – published by Cinnamon Press – is set in India. Intrigued by the perspective of a foreigner on my home country, I engaged her in a chat about writing and cultures over shiny steel tumblers of piping hot chai.

Tell us a little about yourself – where you’re from, your formative years, your influences in terms of writing?

I grew up in London, but spent most of my adult life living in rural North Wales. Both places are very special to me and have influenced my writing considerably. I always wanted to write, and in the past I’ve written educational textbooks and business and social issues articles – but I’d wanted to write novels from a young age.

Could you pinpoint the beginning of your fascination with India? What about it draws you in particular?

I don’t know precisely. I’d had a fascination for the country since a young age and one of my ‘bucket-list’ things to do in life was to watch the sun setting behind the Indian Ocean. I’m drawn to cultures that are less consumerist and materialist than mine, and I appreciate the collective nature of the way of life in many eastern countries. I feel that here, we have a very western-centric world view which ignores other cultures, religions and philosophies. I am fascinated by learning about these differences, and spending time, travelling and working in India was a way to learn.

Tell us a little about how you had the idea for this novel and how it took shape.

The book began as notes in my journal after the first time I visited India, and evolved into a novel. It isn’t autobiographical, but is influenced by the people I met in India and the places I saw. I’m interested in the space between religious and cultural differences, in what makes us the same and what makes us different, in what we don’t understand and in what we recognise. I wanted to write to explore intellectually, what I had experienced emotionally. Whilst I love India – I’ve been four times now – some of what I saw and experienced there disturbed me – the poverty and the rubbish for example, and I needed a way to process the emotions I was left with. Using a literary form enabled me to explore my own feelings through those of my characters.

Rachel and Gina are characters which seem closer to your own milieu. How did you create Sandrine? What kind of research went into creating her character and her journey?

Sandrine came to me in a dream I had in a hotel in Delhi. I’d gone back to India because I knew my novel lacked something and I wanted to once again immerse myself there, to find what it was that was missing from the story. It worked and I spent the next two months travelling, working and writing. One friend I met in India helped me a lot with the development of that character and her story arc, and helped to fill in some of the details of her back-story. I think the novel is better for it, and for Sandrine. I did a lot of research regarding Sandrine’s journey, which included spending a month in an Ashram in Kerala, where I learned about Vedanta, attending lectures, reading and talking with the devotees. I spent another month learning from a yogi in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. I credit both in my acknowledgements.

Sandrine’s character provides texture and depth to the narrative. As a reader, I personally found her the most fleshed-out and intriguing. Are you a spiritual person yourself? What about that thread of the story made it so compelling to you?

I’m not spiritual in the way that Sandrine is. She is running, seeking, she doesn’t feel whole. I think a lot of westerners go to India to ‘find themselves’ and I wanted Sandrine to represent that idea. It isn’t why I was drawn to India though, and although there are certain values by which I live my life, I didn’t find them in the way that Sandrine did, and I don’t follow a strict set of spiritual or religious practices.

Indians, as a people, tend to be sensitive about depictions of their culture and their surroundings. Speaking of spirituality, there is always the danger of exoticising the East in the imagination of the Western reader. Were you apprehensive about this? If so, how did you handle it? What do you think the reception of this book in India will say about the authenticity of its description?

Yes, I was very aware of that. The book is very much a set of western perspectives, and it’s why I wanted the three female characters to have very different approaches to India, to what they expected, why they were there, what they experienced and how they rationalised this. It’s also why I wanted to present a ‘warts and all’ view. India is clearly more than yoga and Bollywood, and I was very grateful to spend time there living with an Indian famly, working as journalist, going to work, coming home, living a life, having a tiny insight into a ore ‘every-day’ India, rather than running from place to place as a sight see-er or spiritual seeker. It was important to me in the book to describe not only what I as a westerner found beautiful and fascinating, but also what I found challenging, disturbing and even shocking sometimes.

As an Indian, I found some of the transcriptions of Indian words “incorrect”, in other words, not how one would spell them in India. What was your method? Did you prefer transcribing them as per your Western ear, for the benefit of your professed target audience?

I’ve found that, perhaps because there are so many languages in India, Indian words are variously spelt in English. Certainly, as a foreigner, I needed help with all sorts of aspects not just the language and how best to transcribe Indian words, but making sure that I wasn’t misrepresenting the culture, the beliefs or the people. I worked closely with Indian friends (who I credit in my acknowledgements) who helped me with all of this, correcting me, offering suggestions, explaining what I didn’t understand. I really am indebted to them. I see my primary readership as being western people interested in India, or travel, or in reading suspense novels, but I did a month-long book tour for Kanyakumari in India last year, including having it featured at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, and I am honoured to say that it has been very well received. I think Indians are interested in foreign perceptions of their country. I think perhaps we are all interested in how others perceive us.

The book brings out the fear of travelling alone as a woman in India. In light of recent events and all the debate about the safety of women in India, what is your opinion? You have travelled to India yourself, what would your advice be? Would you still recommend it?

Yes, I’ve travelled alone in India. The first thing I’d say is that the vast majority of people in India as in elsewhere don’t want to hurt you. Having said that, there are different layers of precautions that it is only sensible to take. Firstly – and these go for men as well as women – not carrying around loads of cash, using a hidden wallet, having a fake wallet to hand over in case you are robbed, being careful where you walk alone, especially at night time, being careful about who you trust, not getting drunk. A second layer of precautions exists for women because rape is a very real possibility. It is important to dress modestly, not to make eye contact or smile at men you don’t know, to be wary about being out alone after dark, to be sensible about accepting drinks from a man you don’t know. Then again, most of that is true in the west, and I don’t want to overstate the dangers. There are plenty of websites that give excellent advice for solo women travellers, and I recommend doing plenty of research before setting off. I like travelling alone, I like the freedom and the adventure, but I never lose sight of what the dangers might be.

Lastly, what other projects are in the pipeline? Will they be set in India too? What themes will you be exploring; would you like to explore as a writer?

I have a chapter in an Anthology piece called ‘Take Me There’ which will be published by Cinnamon Press in July, which is aimed at writers and explores creating a sense of place. That piece talks a lot about how India influenced my work. The novel I am currently working on is called ‘The Geranium Woman’ and will also be published by Cinnamon Press. That novel is set in Paris and in Mumbai, and it explores the challenges faced by a female CEO, recently bereaved and struggling to find meaning in her increasingly dysfunctional life. It explores the challenges inherent in creating an ethically sound business, plus the challenges faced by women in business.

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