Language Essay: On Nepal

 Vladimir Nabokov migrated from Russia to the United States and wrote his bestseller, Lolita. Arundhati Roy wrote The God of Small Things from the small town of Ayemenem. Fyodor Dostoevsky was translated from the Russian to English, and so was Anton Chekhov, while Melville and Fitzgerald both wrote the great American novels of their time.

The question: what does it take to be a great writer? Can Literature traverse the boundaries of language, and is all great Literature the same everywhere, regardless of the differences in language, or culture, or place? The answer is no, of course; while there have always been, and will continue to be, conventions that judge fiction to be good or bad, every piece of good fiction is intrinsically different from the other. In the 1800s, Dostoevsky was writing a different kind of fiction in Russian about Russia—informed by the place and the people, the kind of fiction that we now take to be the formative basis for much of the meta, existential Literature of modern times; in the twenty-first century, Arundhati Roy wrote about Marxism gone awry, love turned upside down, and lives destroyed, in the small town of Ayemenem, Kerala—but she wrote in English; and yet, she wrote in an English that was innately original. She wrote in an English that preserved the tiniest nuances of Kerala, and she wrote for an audience that knew what it meant to be a Keralite, as well as for an audience who somehow felt the need to experience that feeling.

Perhaps this is the biggest struggle for any international writer who intends to write in English—or indeed intends to write great fiction that will be translated to English—to learn how to preserve one’s culture and background in a language that does not belong to him. Coming from Nepal, I have grappled with this idea for as long as I can remember. I intend to write in English—primarily because it is one of the most common modes of communication in the world, but greatly because I have read Literature from a very small age in English, more than I have read in Nepali, which entitles me to a greater sense of rhythmic ease when I write in English. Yet when I write, my characters and my plot must scream to establish a Nepali existence in an otherwise English setting—which is a very difficult idea, because no single language can accurately describe the nuances of a culture it does not belong to. Perhaps this is most evident in one of the shorts that I have submitted, Death of a Fire, in which the central character is Baburam Bhattarai, a well-known Marxist leader of Nepal, who was a prominent figure in the People’s War that brought down monarchy. In my English-language short, I place Baburam Bhattarai in a twisted, intrinsically absurd Nepal, and in the degradation of his character and the setting, I intend to explore many things Nepali.

Hence while I want to write my fiction in English for the reasons I have stated above, the most important thing for my fictional universe remains the idea that it has to be Nepali. For the most part, I am personally interested in the sort of voice featured in Death of a Fire, in which the plot and the characters are so deeply rooted in Nepali society and politics. In the future, I hope that my creative writing instincts will set me on a path that builds on these ideas; at BTL, I hope that the creative writing workshops and peers will help me figure out in depth the intensity of the voice that I aim to feature in my fiction; and in turn, that my peers will learn of the absurd political and social spirals, and the struggle thereof, in which we spend our lives in Nepal.