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“We are all secondary characters in the lives of other people”: An Interview with Maithreyi Karnoor

By Shaniah Shields, Jia Wen Ho, Leanne Francis and Michelle Ye

About Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends

A glimpse into the urban lives in contemporary India, Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends is a kaleidoscope of stories detailing hope, loss, mental health and love.

The story begins with Bhaubaab, a well-travelled man who seeks to be rooted beside a baobab tree, with which he has an emotional, historical and spiritual connection. He finds one in Goa and builds a house near it. Though estranged from his family, one afternoon, his adult niece, Sylvia, knocks on his door and walks into his life.

As the novel progresses, it shifts to narrating the vibrant lives of those around Sylvia. The titular character, Sylvia, slips into the background and becomes the thread that connects all the different perspectives and stories. An experimental novel, Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends weaves both prose and poetry, creating an unapologetically Indian and thoughtful debut.

About Maithreyi Karnoor

Maithreyi Karnoor is an author, poet and award-winning translator who lives in Bangalore, India. She is the recipient of the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow in Creative Writing and Translation at Literature Across Frontiers, University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Her debut novel, Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends, was first published in 2021 and will be published in the UK in paperback on 2 May 2023 with Neem Tree Press. The novel, which experiments with structure, form and language, explores a myriad of themes and feelings against the backdrop of contemporary South India.

Maithreyi was shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for A Handful of Sesame, her translation of a Kannada novel. She is currently translating Tejo Tungabhadra, a novel by the Kannada author Vasudhendra. It is set in 15th century India and Portugal.

Maithreyi is a two-time finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize and, alongside her translation projects, is currently working on her first poetry collection.

Interview with Maithreyi Karnoor

In this interview with Maithreyi Karnoor, we discuss her novel Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends and its many interconnected storylines, each tale carefully woven to form a rich tapestry of colourful and memorable characters. Maithreyi talks to us about coincidences, her writing process, and her journey into the UK publishing scene as an Indian translator, poet and writer. It was a delight to learn about Maithreyi’s experience as a writer and her relationship with the fantastic independent publisher, Neem Tree Press.

What was your journey into publishing like and how was the publishing process with Neem Tree Press?

I started my publishing journey as a translator and had a fair idea of how publishing works. That spared me the initial wandering in the wild that debut authors are known to go through. I pitched it to my agent who got me a deal with Westland Books in India. The book was released in 2021 at the height of the pandemic and did not get a proper launch. It was reviewed favourably, however.

But as an unknown Indian writer, I found the doors of publishers in the UK quite “unknockable” and I was close to giving up on the desire for an international edition. But then, I ran into someone from Neem Tree Press at the London Book Fair last year where I was invited to speak on translation by the Charles Wallace India Trust and Literature Across Frontiers. We got talking and she asked to see my manuscript. I sent it to her and she liked it. Archna and I got on a call, and we had a deal. I returned to India soon after that, and although our interaction has been entirely virtual, I’m thrilled with the way it was produced. The editing process was rigorous but empathetic. I love the cover design. I’m looking forward to seeing it on shelves.

Part 1 is almost like a self-contained novella. What was the reason for placing Bhaubaab's story first and what tone does it set for the rest of the tales?

I’m intrigued by the idea of coincidences. Although I think I am a fairly rational person, I find larger coincidences to be mysterious in wonderful ways. My partner, the writer Rhys Hughes, says coincidences extend the metaphor of the world being a stage and people actors on it – he says characters outnumber the actors, hence people play more roles than one. That is why we encounter coincidences when their stories loop and meet. If you look closely, the glue that holds together the various strands of the plot of my book is coincidence (whose mystical imagination I leave to the reader). I wanted the first part to be that bigger coincidence of the character’s name sounding like the name of the tree that brings him to that part of the world and introduce the protagonist Sylvia through him – much like the large trunk of the baobab from which the twisted branches of later stories spring out to complete the picture.

Sylvia feels like an interconnected collection of short stories, with some ending in quite abrupt ways. It was very unique and the first time I have read a book like this. Why did you write Sylvia in many parts, told from the perspective of different characters?

I wrote the book at a time when I was not in a great place in my life. Sometimes I wished I could simply be allowed to vanish backstage and lick my wounds in peace and not be made to speak or be seen. My character Sylvia was undergoing several upheavals herself and I wanted to afford her the privacy and quietude I craved for myself – while not entirely exiting the consciousness of the reader. We are all secondary characters in the lives of other people and that is how I chose to write Sylvia and spare her of my voyeuristic gaze.

The abrupt endings, which I prefer to call “poetic denouements,” are perhaps representative of my fondness for brevity. I am bored by too much explanation and like to leave a little unsaid to trigger the imagination whose capabilities we greatly underestimate.

The novel as a form is essentially all about newness. It is ironic, therefore, that we have come to regard a certain definition of it as traditional. I chose to challenge that status quo with the way I structured Sylvia. Perhaps such an experiment may have been a big risk for an established writer, but I had little to lose with my first book and felt bold enough to play with it.

There are many narratives explored in Sylvia with characters from different backgrounds, but they all feel well-rounded. Why did you create such a complex range of characters and who inspired you to write them?

Sylvia is as much a story of our times as it is of the protagonist. It is, if I am allowed a cliché, a “slice of life” of contemporary India. It organically drew to itself all these characters from across backgrounds, and each one has equal significance in painting the picture of the world as I see it. A linear, plot-driven narrative with minimal characters would not have made justice to the chaos in my head as I wrote it. I chose to go wide rather than deep to put those voices to rest. The inspiration came from all around me.

I loved how many South Indian languages were referenced in Sylvia, especially this part: "Have you ever wondered how easy it is to say 'my husband' in English, but not in an Indian language?" As an award-winning translator, why did you choose to weave South Indian words into your story?

I grew up speaking Kannada, a South Indian language. Owing to historical reasons, the part of the state I come from speaks a beautiful hybrid with Marathi and Urdu words jingling musically alongside Kannada. I have a distaste for purist arguments for language. I also have a keen ear for linguistic idiosyncrasies and accents. As a translator I’m constantly looking for creative ways to bring the flavours of the original into the new language. I guess that instinct has enriched my pen. My English novel is very much an Indian work with a strong Indian sensibility. So, it was natural that words from languages the characters inhabit found their way into it.

I liked how you weaved elements of poetry into Sylvia. How has your background as a poet impacted the writing of Sylvia and do you have any poetry or other writing in the works?

I don’t think of poetry as separate from prose. At a fundamental level all great writing – clever thoughts presented in beautiful words full of wonder, intrigue and simplicity that lead the reader to a quiet spot in their own minds – reads like poetry. The generic difference is that the ones with line breaks are shorter and more self-contained. Poetry proved to be a great ligament to connect events and situations that I wanted to portray with minimal explanation.

I was shortlisted twice in a row for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. One of my poems was published in The Poetry Review in October last year. Some are forthcoming in PN Review and Poetry Wales. I have enough poems for two sizeable collections, in fact. I have been extremely choosy in finding a home for them. I am awaiting responses from a couple of UK-based poetry publishers for my pitches. Getting poetry out, unlike fiction, is a glacial process. I’m waiting for a change in the publishing climate to give it a thaw.

You can find out more about Maithreyi and her future work via her Twitter. Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends, will be published on 2 May 2023, and can be purchased here.

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