"No Novel is Perfect" Anita Anand on Learning & Loving the Novel Form
In Anita Anand's A Convergence of Solitudes, the experience of separation, partition, and the longing that divisions can create spirals through multiple generations of a single family and the people they encounter.
First Sunil and Hima, two teens in love, defy convention to be together across the divide of a fracturing India. When they shift their lives to Montreal, their daughter Rani gets mixed up in the separatist movement through a connection to a charismatic singer. Her crush on the musician leads to Rani taking care of his daughter Mélanie, an adoptee from the infamous Operation Babylift at the end of the Vietnam War. Meeting later as adults, Rani witnesses Mélanie's search for her identity after being divided from her own country of birth.
An elegant, thoughtful, moving tale of how we connect to one another, to our roots, and how the longing for what has been separate to become whole can shape a life, A Convergence of Solitudes is a powerhouse offering from Anand, whose writing and translation have already been earning her a bevy of awards.
Today we speak with her about A Convergence of Solitudes, and she tells us how a chance encounter on a patio sparked the idea for the book, how dedicating the book to her mother offered a feeling of "tethering", and what she learned about the novel as a form from writing this book.
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
I began writing about an aged rock star after seeing one drinking alone on the patio of a restaurant. I was with my husband, who recognized him first. We whispered about him for a moment. When we returned home, I wrote a scene from the former star’s point of view, imagining how he felt about being scrutinized and discussed. Much later, I invented a whole fictional family for him, and then the book properly began.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
The novel travels quite a bit, for example, to Punjab during Partition, to England during the seventies and to Vietnam in the nineties. However, the main setting is Montreal. How did I choose it? That’s easy. The characters are Montrealers; I’m a Montrealer. However, I had my characters inhabit different neighbourhoods, areas I didn’t know very well. I think the idea there was to make it clear to myself that this was fiction. In other words, by putting them in unfamiliar houses, on unfamiliar streets, it freed me to write whatever I wanted.
Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts? If so, how?
My original ending was going to be a wedding that took place in India just after Partition. I remained attached to that ending for quite a while, but a couple of editors talked me out of it, saying that placing the wedding there was much too jarring. I think my default is to write in a jarring way. I need to be reined in.
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Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
I don’t have a favourite character, but I enjoyed writing about two little girls, Rita and Kira, who, unlike most of the people in this book, had easy, trauma-free childhoods. I enjoyed making up funny, innocent things for them to say. It was like taking a break from the difficulty of writing the rest of the book.
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
I have written a historical novel, one that spans about fifty years and takes place in different countries, so I had to do quite a bit of research to ground at least some of it in fact. To this end, I read first-person accounts of Partition in India, and spoke to some relatives, especially my mother, who had lived through it. I read the biography of an alcoholic musician who was important in Québec’s cultural history and watched old videos of his concerts. I don’t know if this counts as research, but I listened to his music as I wrote, and continued to walk around the neighbourhood where my husband and I had spotted him, imagining what a stalker might do in order to get closer to him. I also interviewed and watched musicians I know as they composed and played music, booked concerts, and made records.
One of my characters is a person who had a highly irregular adoption from Vietnam. While doing research on Operation Babylift, I came across a talk by an Australian journalist named Cath Turner in which she gave moving testimony about her own experience as a supposed orphan from Vietnam. She talked about being stolen. I contacted her and interviewed her over a few weeks. She was eager to contribute both her story and her feelings about it, to this novel.
As I was writing about a character who wanted to find her birth parents, I would occasionally go on online forums and read conversations between people on their own searches for their biological families. Around this time, I was gratified that when I reviewed what I’d already written, I’d see that I was beginning to understand my character, that my hunches were proving to be correct.
I’ve never been to Vietnam. I watched videos of busy streets in Ho Chi Minh. I also interviewed a woman of partly Vietnamese heritage, a young person who had grown up here, on her impressions of the country. This was because I wanted to write more precisely about what might strike a Québec tourist of her age and background.
Who did you dedicate your novel to, and why?
I dedicated the novel to my mother for two reasons. One is that many parts of this book were inspired by her. She helped me write big chunks of it by generously sharing her memories and insights. The other is that she is a very strong person, a symbol of resilience to my whole family. Dedicating my book to her felt like tethering it to a rock.
What if, anything, did you learn from writing this novel?
Writing a novel has demystified the process for me. I have learned that I can write a novel. On the other hand, I have learned exactly how hard it is. An author I know compares writing a novel to painting on an enormous canvas that spans many rooms in a multi-level house. It is that difficult to remember what you have already done, and where. It is just so hard to hold a picture of your whole book in your head at all times. Both my friend and I have been trying to hone our outlining skills, something that does not come naturally to us.
I also feel that I have a new appreciation of books I have already read. Again, I can see how difficult it is. I am also noticing imperfections for the first time, shortcuts the writers took, inconsistencies in the plot or in the characters, a failure to clarify motives. Bits of precious overwriting. I can see that novels I’d thought were perfectly polished, by authors I’d considered—still consider—geniuses, have all kinds of flaws. In other words, no novel is perfect. Believe it or not, this came as a surprise to me. And yet, novels still work, marvellously well. Thanks to readers’ imagination and discerning eyes, reading a novel, however imperfect, remains a wonderfully compelling, enriching, and transformative experience.
Anita Anand is an author, translator, and language teacher from Montreal. She is the winner of the 2015 QWF Concordia University First Book Prize for Swing in the House and Other Stories, which was also shortlisted for the 2016 Relit Award for Fiction and the Montreal Literary Diversity Prize. Her translation of Nirliit, by Juliana Léveillé-Trudel was nominated for the 2018 John Glassco Prize. She has also translated Fanie Demeule’s novel Déterrer les os, known in English as Lightness.