In 2009 Manjushree Thapa was a fast emerging as a significant Nepali writer in English. Ms. Thapa, well recognized author of Forget Kathmandu had just released her new book The Country Is Yours (2009). This interview is based upon Arun Sharma’s telephone conversation and written interview with her. The answers here are as they were originally shared! Mr Sharma even asked her what her favourite food is. She has an answer! This is the reproduction of the same conversation held in the year 2009.
Thus spake Manjushree:
“Freedom isn’t a luxury, it’s a basic need.”
“Literature is fundamentally about the sanctity of individual life, the value of each individual. When that value is trampled on, or demeaned, morality immediately becomes a concern.”
“What is frightening about brainwashed children and youth is that they can be very, very sure of themselves, based on very little actual knowledge of the world. I understand the motivation of the young Maoists I met in the fields, and their desire for change. I do not agree with all the changes that they want (for example, I would not like Nepal to turn into a Maoist state) but I can understand it. What troubles me more is how that desire is used by their leaders, who are older, and in a position to manipulate them”.
“I write because the world does not make sense to me if I don’t write.”
Rousseau says, “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains” and you talk of personal freedom. How will an individual exercise personal freedom within the social, political or moral chains s/he is shackled with?
Rousseau is philosophizing at an ultimate level—and ultimately, of course, we are indeed bound and limited. But we try to find personal freedom within those limits, and also to create societies with political freedom.
Manjushreeii, Congratulations! In a short time, you have accomplished a lot in creative writing. Tell us a about yourself.
I was born in Kathmandu in 1968, and I grew up there, in Ottawa, and in Washington DC.
The languages you speak?
Though Nepali is my mother tongue, I have always been more proficient in English, as my family lived in Ottawa when I was just learning to talk. In Ottawa I attended the General Vanier Public School. In Kathmandu I studied at St. Mary’s, and in DC I attended the National Cathedral School. I studied visual art in college, at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
I know you started with graphic/visual arts. How and when you decided to become a writer? What inspired you to choose this medium?
Visual art was my first love. When I returned to Nepal after college in 1989, though, I was more drawn to writing. I wrote my first book, Mustang Bhot in Fragments, in 1992. It is a travelogue to Lo Monthang in northern Mustang District, which was restricted to foreigners at the time.
At that point, I was not yet sure I wanted to be a writer. For a few years, worked at various non-government organizations, including in the Annapurna Conservation Area Project in northern Mustang. This experience—and the exposure to rural Nepal—has marked all my writing since.
Your formal education?
In 1996 I won a Fulbright fellowship to attend the creative writing program at the University of Washington. My thesis for that program became my first novel, The Tutor of History. It is set in a roadside town in Tanahun District during a post-1990 general election.
How about your works?
My following books have been a mix of fiction and nonfiction. These are: Forget Kathmandu, a personal exploration of Nepal’s history, with reportage on the Maoist insurgency; and Tilled Earth, a collection of micro-fictions and short stories about Nepalis and the Nepali diaspora.
I have also translated Nepali literature into English. Among my translations are A Leaf in a Begging Bowl, the stories of Ramesh Vikal; and a book I co-edited (along with Samrat Upadhyaya and Frank Stewart) called Secret Voices: New Writing from Nepal.
My upcoming books include a book of Nepali poems and stories in translation: The Country Is Yours: Contemporary Nepali Literature. It contains the work of 49 Nepali poets and writers, and it will be published in the summer of 2009. I have also written the biography of a charismatic and ground-breaking Nepali environmentalist, titled A Boy from Siklis: The Life and Times of Chandra Gurung. This is due out in the autumn of 2009.
These will be followed, in 2010, by two new books: a book of essays, The Lives We Have Lost; and a novel, Seasons of Flight.
I am currently working on a new novel.
Further details are available at my website: www.manjushreethapa.com
Is creativity real juice, the driver for an artist, a novel way of looking at things? Is it new or a renewed subjective perspective or a thundering experience for an artist? How do you view it?
My view of writing is quite modest. I write because the world does not make sense to me if I don’t write. That is how I am constituted mentally. (I often think I am a bit dense).
In one of our conversations you said, you chose a chaotic life in Nepal as compared to a possible comfortable life in the West. Is the attraction of chaos looking for an order, study, observe disorder, shape the order or just have fun in this chaotic turmoil in Nepal?
The order of the West is only on the surface. At a deeper level, chaos is inherent to life, whether that life be lived in the East or the West. Living in Nepal has kept me close to that chaos. It has allowed me to study it, and to try to shape it, at least in my writing if not in reality.
Does an artist have a social objective, a goal when s/he creates or it is an ache for expression is enough of a motivation?
It differs from artist to artist, I think. The need for expression is certainly enough of a motivation. To write a novel, though, there has to be more than that—there has to also be an outline, a plot, and lots of planning. It’s hard work.
You come from a privileged background in a poor and destitute nation with extreme poverty and hardship. Is that what drives you to activism; social or political?
The poverty of Nepal has driven most of the nation to activism, I think. It’s an impossible thing to accept, whether you’re personally affected or not. For me, the shock—and politicization—started when I first visited Mustang in 1991. I have written about this in Mustang Bhot in Fragments.
The royalty of Nepal as you have seen from close quarters and observed them from close quarters how sensitive you think they were to the needs of the common man- the poorest men, women and the children in the world? Did you notice a sense of responsibility and accountability or lack of it?
No one but members of the absolute inner core ever knew what the (former) royal family members were really like, I think. My family was in the courtier tradition; but my parents were not part of the palace’s inner core. What I learned from them corresponds to what public perception holds: that Birendra was relatively liberal but weak, and the rest were stronger, but not democratic-minded. I have had no first-hand interaction with the royal family to know if this is true. My own view is that the country is better off without them.
Many young Maoist cadres as you have described in your book “Forget Kathmandu” appear to be innocent, clueless children looking for something to do to get engaged in any mission. Did they know they were pawn in the killing machine? Or was it truly a struggle for better future, a dream to fulfil. Do you believe any of their aspirations is even partially fulfilled?
What is frightening about brainwashed children and youth is that they can be very, very sure of themselves, based on very little actual knowledge of the world. I understand the motivation of the young Maoists I met, and their desire for change. I do not agree with all the changes that they want (for example, I would not like Nepal to turn into a Maoist state) but I can understand it. What troubles me more is how that desire is used by their leaders, who are older, and in a position to manipulate them. I do not think the leaders are against change; I just think that is not their priority. Their priority is to gain, and hold onto, power. I mistrust them more.
Are the governments in Nepal a succession of failures one after the other? Do you think the revolutions have been totally incomplete in terms of equality, equity or social justice?
It is a genuinely difficult thing for a country to transition from a feudal kingship to a modern democracy. The governments since 1990 have been trying to do this, not very successfully. The political parties have not been as responsible as they should have been. But if we can only keep trying to complete the democratic revolution that began in the 1940’s—instead of having royal/military coups or Maoist revolutions—then we will figure it out eventually, I think. The important thing is to get the chance to complete the democratic revolution.
What can be done to have some light at the very end of tunnel of hope?
To be honest, I find it depressing that we are going through an experiment with Maoism at this stage in world history. Unlike many people I know, I don’t view the Maoists as simple agents of change. I view them as Maoists with an agenda to turn Nepal into a Maoist state. (Maybe this is because of my American upbringing—I believe firmly in the democratic left but cannot support the undemocratic, totalitarian left). Unless the Maoists come to a liberal democratic platform, I don’t see much light at the end of the tunnel, not for a few years yet.
As you talk of personal freedom, what do you mean in the context of social, political boundaries? Do you think people in the West have more freedom than in Nepal? If yes, is the factor material i.e., more consumption or political and social settings/freedoms?
Corporate rule, which took over the US and so much of the world economy, restricts people’s freedom. Politically, people in the US are freer than in Nepal; but they don’t exercise that freedom much. They have been shepherded into corporate rule by their leaders, and tend to be more passive than they should be.
At the personal level, freedom can come in any political system: I remember reading about a Tibetan monk who used his time in jail in occupied Tibet as a meditation retreat. But of course, we must not aim for a political system that is based on the suppression of individual freedoms.
What do you characterize an enlightened thinking? Which group, which nation you think possesses such trait? How do we build such traits?
I’m afraid I was speaking in a very narrow sense when I wrote of enlightenment thinking in Forget Kathmandu: I was referring to the European enlightenment, the rise of the age of science and reason and universal rights and justice. These values need not be associated only with Europe; but historically, that was the enlightenment that created democracy as we know it today.
Rousseau talks of man in chain and you talk of personal freedom how an individual will exercise personal freedom within the chains of social, political or moral chains?
Rousseau is philosophizing at an ultimate level—and ultimately, of course, we are indeed bound and limited. But we try to find personal freedom within those limits, and also to create societies with political freedom. In Nepal there is so much that binds us—not just a flawed political system, but also social prejudices and poverty.
Is the chaos in Nepal due to political instability, limited economic opportunities (lack thereof) or lack of basic needs such as electricity and water?
I feel that the core problem is the need for Nepalis to fight over resources: to fight for water, food, material security, and basic government services like education and health and electricity. The lack of this causes political instability and chaos in Nepal.
What is so wrong or right with the coterie class that you came from that you tend to shun as I observe?
I grew up in the US, very much in the mould of a rebellious teenager and a bohemian spirit. Maybe that is why I often have an allergic reaction to my own background. I am not a good, obedient daughter, I guess!
More seriously, I don’t have a problem with any class as long as it doesn’t monopolize power. That is what I have found so wrong with the class I was born into.
Is there any political party that has not disappointed you? Where is the hope for tomorrow?
It is our great misfortune that the democratic political parties have been so un-serious about governance. I regret that the Nepali Congress has lost its socialist roots and that the UML has been so socially illiberal. But they are paying for their mistakes (and so are the Nepali people as a whole). Of course, there it is possible to change and grow and improve. Many Nepalis, I think, are hoping for this.
Who, what (settings) provides you an inspiration in your writings?
Other books inspire me, as does visual art, which was my first love. (I studied art in college before switching to writing). Silence and meditation are really important to me, but I don’t get as much of these as I should. I can write anywhere, under any condition; but ideally, I prefer to have long hours of undisturbed time every day, at a desk near a window with a view, any view.
Your favourite authors: Nepali, Western and in Hindi or other Indian languages?
In English: Michael Ondaatje, JM Coetzee, Alice Munro, Don Delillo and others. In the South Asian languages: IB Rai, Parijat, Mahasweta Devi and others. In European languages in translation: David Grossman, Xavier Marias and others.
Does a writer owe any thing to society? Or s/he is driven by her/his own need. Do they have to match?
Writers owe nothing to society, and society owes them nothing (other than what all people owe to society and what society owes to all people). When a writer offers his/her creation to society, there is an equal exchange that happens. Those who find their lives enriched by art buy it; they sustain the writer materially, and the writer sustains them intellectually/emotionally.
Should morality and ethics be a concern for a writer? If yes then why so?
It doesn’t have to be, but it does tend to be. Literature is fundamentally about the sanctity of individual life, the value of each individual. When that value is trampled on, or demeaned, morality immediately becomes a concern. Of course, there are lots of writers who write purely to entertain. But literature of lasting value tends to take on—in however subtle a way—the ethics of being fully human.
Your favourite food?
Your favourite hobby?
I don’t have any hobbies, unfortunately. Things I love to do: go to art galleries, travel, be in nature, trek. I just don’t do them enough to call them hobbies.
Is freedom a luxury for a commoner? In Nepal and everywhere? Is s/he even free?
Freedom isn’t a luxury, it’s a need. Everyone strives for it, wherever they are and however faraway the possibility seems.
What is your concept of a utopian society? Do you think of a utopian society? How do we construct one?
I don’t know what a truly utopian society would be, but politically and economically, the Scandinavian model appeals to me, and seems realistically achievable.
Is civilization a boon or a burden? Why don’t we become cave men again? Was not Thoreau or Paul Gauguin closer to the natural cave man? Is this century compatible for such men — artists or thinkers?
I am so glad I’m not living in a state of nature. I don’t at all have a romantic view of nature. The harshness of nature is what we are striving to shelter ourselves from! Civilization is an immense boon, to my mind. We need more civilization, not less.
If there was one thing that you get to change in this world (and in your world) what will that be?
Only one thing? I would have equality between the sexes.
So, tell us as your final thoughts how do we insure people’s right what is the bare we must guarantee for the poor people especially in Nepal on the road a utopia. (Or something like this)
I would want economic rights–i.e., the right to food, shelter, and clothing–to be at par with political rights. So often, in liberal democracies, poverty is considered a misfortune rather than a crime. I believe the state should be liable for poverty, and that it should be considered a crime.
Secondly, I would want civil rights to be enshrined in law, and put into practice. Nepal is trying to do this right now, with the women’s, Dalit, Janajati, Madheshi, sexual minorities and differently-abled rights movements. For me, this is the most heartening part of the changes that have come over our society in the past few years.
Manjushreeji, now this is pretty loaded and it really was great to chat with you. Thank you so much for your time and focused attention. We will have to continue on There must be second time. It was fun!