What do we write about when we write about love, asks Janice Pariat
It is easy to see why writers write about love. In particular, love of a romantic nature. As Tishani Doshi, dancer, poet, novelist, told me, “Love is central…it enters all equations.” Because central to literature is relationships—with others, with ourselves. (In fact, the latter determining how all others play out.) Drama, real or “fictional” springs from this. The ties that bind, or weigh, or elevate.
What might not be as simple to explain is how writers write about love. For Manu Joseph, novelist, editor and columnist, “It is always autobiographical.” He explained, “The most underrated literary element is conjecture, a writer’s ability to guess an emotion or an experience that he has not been through. This is totally useless in writing love.” I find that this is true for me too.
Everything I’ve written has been about love.
The short stories, the novel, and, now, a novella. Not intentionally. But when I think about it, I see it’s true. At the heart of almost every story in Boats on Land is a love returned or unrequited, mostly young and filled with yearning, filled with promise. In the title story, an adolescent girl falls in love with an older, troubled teenager on a tea estate in Assam, by the wide Brahmaputra. In “Dream of the Golden Mahseer”, a man is abducted time and again by amorous water fairies. Teiskem, in “Embassy”, broken-hearted and lonely, listens to another story of woe and betrayal in a dingy Shillong bar. The young protagonist in “Laittlum” finds herself in love with her elder sister’s rock-star, motorbike-riding boyfriend. In the wake of heartbreak, Barisha, in “Pilgrimage”, wanders the streets of her hometown looking for a lost childhood love.
In the other stories, love dances around the edges, glimpsed in fleeting, tangential moments. The Muslim tailor in “19/87” secretly, forbiddenly lusts after his Khasi neighbour. In “A Waterfall of Horses”, a British officer is enamoured by Haphida, a local girl from a nearby village.
My novel Seahorse, themed around art and beauty, is also a love story. It attempts to reimagine a tale of desire and abduction that’s over two thousand years old. Borrowed from Greek mythology, this retelling of Poseidon and Pelops is set between 1990s Delhi and contemporary London. We follow our protagonist Nem on a search for his lover, the charismatic Nicholas, a professor he met and fell in love with while still at university.
My forthcoming novella, The Nine–Chambered Heart, also places love at the centre. It’s a fictional “biography” told through love. Nine characters recall their relationship with a woman—the same woman—whom they have loved or who has loved them. We piece her together, in slivers, seeing how her identity—like all identity—shifts and changes through their eyes, depending on who they are and why they’re with her.
Despite holding the belief that love is love regardless of gender or sexual preference, I am less certain that the writing of those loves I haven’t experienced is as easily transferrable onto paper. Seahorse was a novel steeped in queerness, with the central relationship being between two men, and other peripheral ties drifting in unlabelled waters. But I feel that where my writing on love rings true, or truer, in “fiction”, both to me and to readers, is when I have mined my own life. Taken from what I have felt and experienced, filching from the vast dramatic range—emotional and otherwise—that romantic relationships have to offer. This doesn’t mean that every passionate encounter I write about is “true”. And yet it is.
There lies a danger, as we know, in holding up stringent demarcations between the “real” and “fictional”. Writing, in a sense, is alchemy. A playful, sometimes joyful, blending of the so-called actual (because even in this aren’t there slippages?) and imagined. The hard nuggets of “truth” that writers work their craft around. Particularly with writing about love—because of the intensity of emotion, its directness—I think it is inescapable. Occasionally, this motivates authors to revel in meta-fiction. Amitava Kumar’s The Lovers, for instance, about young Kailash studying in New York and “looking to fall in love”, riotously defies genres through text interspersed with imagistic inserts—photographs, sketches, postcards—as well as footnotes, letters, diary entries. The writing too swerves through histories both political and personal. (To anyone who’s asked a writer “how much of this is autobiography?”, Kumar holds up a gleeful middle finger.) For me, drawing from life to write about love seems to garner greater clarity of emotion, because I’ve lived through and thought through each romantic experience—as we all mostly tend to do—so many times. (Sometimes, with the writing itself comes this clarity. And, perhaps not too dissimilar in nature, also catharsis.) The prose is charged with a stronger underlying urgency because it is linked directly to the lifeblood of experience. There is a beating heart behind the words, tender or harsh, and it is my own.
This is not to say that sourcing from autobiography makes it in any way easy to write about love. In fact, with greater intimacy comes greater vulnerability. Daniel Jones, writer and long-time editor of “Modern Love”, a New York Times column of reader-submitted essays “exploring the joys and tribulations of love”, made this point in an article titled “How We Write About Love”: “Writing about love can be similar to falling in love in that we must be as vulnerable on the page as we are in person when revealing ourselves to someone we hope will love us back. That means exposing our flaws and weaknesses and trusting we will be seen as more appealing, not less, for having done so.” It is a tricky, raw thing. Which might explain why Jeet Thayil, poet and novelist, sent a one-line reply to my question, “How do you write about love?” “Very carefully.”
Yet I find the rewards of mining autobiography manifold. Writing from my experiences of love helps lend greater psychological insight to my characters. As Joseph says, it is an exercise in understanding, and then translating, and to an extent even regurgitating, onto paper, “how you perceived and how you were told you were perceived”. The challenge in writing is to accommodate this, and to recognise how it is the same for the other person, in that in any romantic relationship there are at least two points of view at play at all times. In life, for a relationship to thrive, there needs to be space for these points of view to be voiced, listened to, taken into consideration. Since we all have our own versions of things—situations, others, our own selves—the battle is between equally valid truths. How much of our time is spent with those we love, lamenting “but that’s not what I meant” or asking “what did you mean?”
Love, then, is explanation. A quest to try and comprehend another’s meaning as well as to make yourself understood.
Writers mine the spaces between. The jostle and clash between perceptions. If you were to ask, for instance, the protagonist of my novella for her version of each of the nine relationships she was involved in, they would be unsurprisingly different from those of her partners. And, of course, this isn’t new. Innumerable stories have played with this Rashomon-like offering of multiple coexisting versions of reality, of many truths, many lies, and the inherent slipperiness of memory. Yet what The Nine-Chambered Heart also seeks to explore is how, with each relationship, romantic or not, we exist to others as a narrative they tell themselves, and impose on you. How much of our time is spent with those we love saying “you always do this” or “I knew this would happen”.
Love, then, is narrative. And writers write the stories we tell ourselves about those we love.
Most often these stories spring from fear. More specifically, a fear of loss. Borne from the past experience of loss. The elation and joy of romantic love is followed closely by the shadow of its demise—from the falling out of love, the abandoning for another, or the actual physical passing of the lover. Since life will always end, so must love. It is as John Donne writes in “Song: Sweetest love I do not go” that his beloved mustn’t be sad when he leaves for short lengths of time because “I must die at last” and so “’tis best / To use myself in jest / Thus by feign’d deaths to die.” Every parting is a little death, practice for the one that’s final and inevitable.
Hegelian dialectic, when applied to linguistics, presupposes that a word inherently carries within it its opposite. In life is death. In war is peace. The old in new. Love, I think, would coexist not with hate but loss. Because we tend to align the finding of love with gain and proliferation, and the losing of it with diminishment. If the eventuality of loss always exists when we feel love—for a person, an experience—it inevitably reflects so in fiction. One is so inextricably linked to the other that Doshi admits she “writes about love or the loss of love with an equal intensity”. Kumar, too: “Love is a four-letter word. So is lack. Also, lust. And more important, loss. I write about all of them when I write about love.” In Seahorse, love is interwoven with apprenticeship—in the way that we learn how to love largely from the people we are with when we are young. But it’s more so about what happens to that love once they choose to leave us. In this case, Nicholas’s absence becomes the hollow centre around which Nem builds, or unbuilds, his life. The perpetual quest, to find him and also understand why he suddenly, without a word, disappears. Loss is what keeps Nem’s love alive. Paradoxically, just as loss is the culler of potential it is also the conjurer of infinite possibilities—What if we had not split up? What if she had not left? What if I did not let him go?
Love, then, is loss. And writers mine that rich emptiness for their own.
They hold those decisions—the ones motivated by fear of loss and abandonment—under a microscope. The moment one chooses to leave, to stay, to betray, and everything leading up to it. Or not. Because in literature closest to life one does not always understand, and clarity remains unguaranteed. At best, we revel in ambiguity.
The kind of love stories we tell also change. Mainly because of age. As Avtar Singh, novelist and former managing editor of this magazine, told me, “It depends on how old you are. I haven’t written a story about longing and yearning since I was in my 20s.” This is echoed by Jones, who noted that the young overwhelmingly “write with a mixture of anxiety and hope. Their stories ask: What is it going to be for me?” While the middle-aged are “more often driven to their keyboards by feelings of malaise and disillusionment. Their stories ask: Is this really what it is for me?” For Singh, who most youthfully falls into the second category, love is also largely turned toward his son, to the experience of being a parent. Even when he does write “romantic” stories, they are set, he explained, beyond the first flush of sexual attraction, when things have settled into routine.
It’s an admission that reminds me of what writer Alain de Botton had to say about his novel The Course of Love. Interviewed alongside novelists AL Kennedy and Tahmima Anam, on Free Thinking for BBC Radio 3 in a session on writing about love, de Botton said that he “wanted to look at what happens to love over time because most of the love stories we tell one another are still based on the beginning of love. What we call love stories are [answers to] ‘how did you meet?’ And it tends to come to an end once the characters are together…while I was curious to show what happens to people once they’ve decided, yes, they do want to be together and they’re facing no external impediments…it’s looking very deliberately at the pedestrian side of life because that’s the fate of most of our loves.” (It might be worth noting that de Botton was 46 when this book was published in 2016.)
When it comes to older people’s love stories, Jones observes that they “almost always write from a place of appreciation, regardless of how difficult things may be. Their message: All things considered, I feel pretty lucky.” What comes to mind is the late Kent Haruf’s last novel, Our Souls at Night, a tender, moving story about love in the “twilight years”. Two neighbours in a small town unexpectedly find companionship, and love. It is a novel written as the author was dying (Haruf didn’t survive to see it published). As the Guardian review of the book announces, “many novels have been about the pursuit of happiness, but this one is luminous with its actual presence”. It’s true. There is a gentleness to the story, a core of calm. This despite the interference and judgement launched at the neighbours for their behaviour—Addie, an elderly widow, walks across to Louis’s house one evening with a request: Might he come and sleep in her bed with her at night so they can talk? He acquiesces. And what unfurls is a love story of sweet, stripped-down poignancy. Perhaps Our Souls at Night could have only been written by Haruf at 70. Perhaps Wuthering Heights, with its raging jealousies and tumultuous passion, could have only been written by Emily Brontë at 28.
Sometimes, though, I feel uneasy with the division between writing about love and, well, writing. There are writers who do not distinguish between the two. For them the “writer’s eye” is always one of love. In the BBC Radio 3 programme, Kennedy explains that she goes back to Shakespeare for this, to what he calls the “lover’s eye” and the “poet’s eye”, which she reckons is the same thing. “As a writer you’re always looking at something in the manner of someone looking at the thing that they love.” Just as you look and look at the face of a lover, because it’s endlessly fascinating, she continues, you are supposed to look at the world in the same way, otherwise you can’t write about it. It’s also the way, she says, we’re supposed to look at the world we’ve made up or we can’t write about that either. This finds resonance with what novelist Amit Chaudhuri had to say about not often writing about romantic love between man and woman: “[Rather] what became the focus of my love by the time I was 24 years old [was] life’s surprising incompleteness, its stillness and succession of moments.” That is to look at the world as one would look at a lover. To gaze at everything we wish to write about with love. Which means that we are observant, yet also compassionate, critical, and forgiving all at once. We delight and review. We are intimate and distant. Our obsessions grow and wither. Lines blur, distinctions fade. And to write, then, is to love.
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly. This issue marked 5th anniversary of the magazine, and is based on the theme “Love”.