Saturday, September 14, 2013

Claire Scobie on writing a diary, reading books about travel and why she prefers historical fiction

Claire Scobie celebrates her beautiful first novel

Walter Mason writes: Claire Scobie has long been one of my literary heroes. Her travel book Last Seen in Lhasa is by now a classic of the genre, and people are always telling me it is one of their favourites. This year Claire has released her first novel, an exquisite piece of historical fiction set in India and dealing with the lives of the Devadasi, the scared temple dancers. I asked Claire a few questions about the book, and about reading and writing in general:

1.    Who was your imagined reader for The Pagoda Tree?

I didn’t have an imagined reader. I know for some writers it helps thinking of their audience and who they are writing for. I’ve never done that. The relationship I am trying to cultivate is between me and the story, me and the characters. Then I just pray that the book will resonate with readers.

2.    How did you stumble upon the story of the devadasi?

I read a newspaper article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the last courtesans who lived in a small town in southern India. The story introduced nineteen-year-old Durga and her mother, Kumari, who described how women like them were once ‘heroines, stars’. Without the patronage they once knew, this family had to turn to prostitution to make a living and Durga, the last of her generation, suffered from HIV AIDS. As soon as I read this, I wanted to discover why and how these women – once esteemed artists, dancers and scholars – now face a life of apparent abjection.

I then went to Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. On the walls of the eleventh-century ‘Big Temple’ the names and addresses of 400 devadasis is inscribed in Tamil. For me as a writer that was exciting. I wanted to find out where and how these women lived. Through my research I began to piece together their lives, retracing the steps that my fictional character Maya would have walked through the dusty streets. At their height to be a patron of one of these artists was like being the lover of a big star, like being the lover of Audrey Hepburn or Madonna. I deliberately chose to set my novel in this earlier period when the devadasi was an empowered and alluring figure.

3.    How has your spiritual life informed the writing of The Pagoda Tree?

Undoubtedly my numerous trips to India over the past 15 years provided the spiritual cradle of my novel. It’s well known that the sub-continent is a place of contradictions – particularly in the way women are treated in society. Despite having the longest tradition of goddess worship in the world, Indian women face daily harassment, abuse and, as we’ve seen recently, horrendous violence. While I’ve experienced intimidation there, I’ve also witnessed first-hand the strength of Indian women. I’ll never forget being invited by a group of female pilgrims to pray at a goddess temple in southern India. Here, the men had to wait and the women entered the innermost shrine first, chanting praises to the goddess Parvati. One woman took my hand and led me forward. As we walked past the busty stone statues of goddesses, she rubbed the red tikka powder gathering between the protruding breasts and rubbed it between her own. She motioned that I do the same. In that single gesture I sensed that this barefoot worshipper saw herself reflected back in the statue of the goddess. Afterwards, as the pilgrims gathered around me and offered food, I felt embraced by their practical spirituality and their earthy womanliness.

In The Pagoda Tree, I explore how the figure of the devadasi represents the sensual and the sacred. In the West there is no tradition of allowing these two apparent opposites to co-exist. Yet I’ve long believed that the marriage of sex and spirituality strikes at the heart of who we are – for both women and men. Honouring the body, rather than loathing or diminishing it, affects our entire wellbeing. It’s not just about the sex, it’s about how we treat ourselves, each other and the earth. It’s ultimately about a sense of empowerment. With my novel I wanted to bring to life the little known world of the Indian temple dancer, in all its complexity, sensuality and mystery. The more, I believe, that we can accept life’s so-called contradictions, the more we can fully embody the human experience.

4.    Do you keep a journal? If so, do you follow any method or have any particular rituals surrounding it?

I used to keep a diary religiously. I started aged nine and wrote every night for over a decade. Now I am much more erratic and don’t follow any particular rituals. I always tend to write more when I am travelling. At home, I write in my journal when the yen takes me. However I always carry a small notebook in my handbag and jot ideas down as they come.

5.    Who are the writers who have inspired you along the way? Who are you a fan of?

I tend to go through phases of different writers. Growing up I was drawn to classic travel writers like Alan Moorehead, Bruce Chatwin and the stark prose of Ernest Hemmingway. The South American writers loosely linked by magical realism informed my twenties – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende et al. I’ve had a splurge on Chinese writers and in more recent years, Indian authors. I love going to bookshops in India and usually bring back a stack of new books each time I visit. They all have a particular aromatic smell: dust, earth, woodsmoke – India. I deliberately don’t read the ‘popular book of the moment’. I tend to wait until a book draws me. In general I prefer historical fiction to contemporary fiction. Reading for me is a way to understand another world, another time, another place.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks with Claire about Last Seen in Lhasa
Bio: Claire Scobie is the author of Last Seen in Lhasa, a memoir based on her friendship with a Tibetan nun, which won the Dolman Best Travel Book Award in 2007.
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