VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Tania James

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Tania James’s latest novel The Tusk That Did the Damage features three narrators, including the Gravedigger, a murderous, orphaned elephant who buries the humans he kills. Set in South India, Tusk is a lyrical, mythical, man vs. nature tale that delves into the moral intricacies of poaching and the ivory trade. This masterful second novel follows Atlas of Unknowns, James’s acclaimed 2009 debut novel which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and a Best Book of 2009 for The San Francisco Chronicle and NPR.

James’s short story collection Aerogrammes was named a Best Book of 2012 for Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Two stories from the collection were finalists for Best American Short Stories in 2008 and 2013.

In 2011-2012, James lived in New Delhi, India as a Fulbright fellow. She has also received fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. She has been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Tania James about Tusk, the challenges of writing an elephant narrator, and the moment when she knew she could be a writer.

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The Rumpus: Your research for The Tusk That Did the Damage took you to Kerala, India, where your ancestors are from. In the course of your research, did you discover things that were personally illuminating or challenging?

Tania James: I’m partially fluent in Malayalam, the native language of Kerala, which [was] convenient because so much of my research involved interviews. I’d never written a book or a story that required meeting people, and that’s not necessarily my best skill, even in English. I prefer to do my research in books.

Also, [I researched] a very different side of Kerala than I had known. My people are from the coast, and the novel’s setting, Wayanad, is more inland. Kerala is a very narrow strip of land, but it is incredibly diverse. And even though I wasn’t that far from the coast, the terrain changes completely. Also, the population was different. There were a lot more tribal people, many more Muslims and Jains. I’d always associated Jainism with North India, but apparently Jain migrants came south hundreds of years ago.

So there [were] a lot of subtler differences that were new to me. And then also I was dealing with the governmental side of Kerala, interacting with them in a way I hadn’t before. I was meeting with forest officers and forest guards and trying to understand how they manage human/elephant conflict. Where I’m from in Kerala, you don’t really get elephant raids on farms because wild elephants aren’t native to those places. It’s a completely different ecological situation further inland.

Rumpus: And how many generations removed are you from the area where your family is from?

James: I was born in Chicago; my parents were born in Kerala.

Rumpus: Also for this latest book, you researched animal psychology to capture the perspective of the Gravedigger. What did you learn about elephants that you wanted to make sure to convey through this story? Because as writers we discover so much, but try and capture the essence. What did you think was essential?

James: I didn’t use all my research, not even close to all of it, but it was all essential in helping me gain the confidence to write those elephant sections. The most essential information was the stuff that helped me get closer to the way elephants experience the world. For example, elephants have poor eyesight, but they have a very strong sense of smell and mostly identify others through smell. And so that was something I could interpret through fiction. But then, there’s so much I don’t know and that humans can’t know. Like, I can’t know what it’s like when ants are running up my trunk.

Rumpus: (Laughs)

James: I’ve never had that experience. The trunk is such a bizarre organ, and it’s impossible for me to know what it’s really like to have one. So I tried to respect that gap between what we know and what we can’t know. But mostly, I just tried to absorb as much information as I could, which was also a way of building up my own internal sense of authority on the subject. I think of it the way that actors probably study their lines and memorize their lines and can say their lines in their sleep, and then that’s the point at which they can sort of let go and play and do something kind of dazzling. For me, the research process is sort of like that—trying to acquire as much as possible until the knowledge feels like something solid enough to build on.

Rumpus: And Gravedigger is what we all want. A character who is sympathetic—he’s orphaned—but then he’s also this homicidal creature.

James: I knew that most readers would come to this book with a level of empathy for an elephant, even when reading scenes in which an elephant is killing people. Not only in India but also in America, people regard elephants with awe and a level of respect. My sense was that it was the poacher who would be relegated to villainy from the outset. So that section was more challenging for me. I wanted to mess with that expectation that the poacher is the bad guy. It’s not that bad guys don’t exist—they’re far more common in life than in fiction—but I felt that most readers would already have that association and so I wanted to subvert it somehow.

Rumpus: Yes, you’re presenting poaching as a far more complex system than most of us understand from the outside looking in. Did the novel start with that idea of these complexities around poaching, or did the idea come from someplace else?

James: The novel began with the elephant, and quickly expanded to include a farmer, because it’s impossible to tell the story of an Indian elephant independent of the people living around it. The competition for space and resources is integral to the both sides of the story.

I chose to write from a poacher’s perspective because it takes the reader into murkier moral ground. Is the poacher after the Gravedigger for mercenary reasons? Is he trying to defend his family? His livelihood as a farmer? His own ego? It’s that shifting moral ground that makes him compelling to me.

Rumpus: You’ve said that, of your three books, The Tusk That Did the Damage is your favorite. What makes it stand out for you?

James: I think that “ambition” is a weird and often negatively used word. When I was [an undergraduate] film student, I remember we would watch each others’ films, and if the teacher said, “That was ambitious,” that didn’t necessarily mean that you had hit the mark. And I’m not saying I have hit the mark of what I intended to do. But with this book, I was trying to step outside of anything I had tried before and everything I’ve personally experienced. I was testing the boundaries of what I could do and what I had done.

Rumpus: Tusk is your favorite, but I’m assuming that each of your books challenged you or grew you in some way as a writer. Can you talk about each of your books in that respect?

James: I guess each book we write is responding to the last one we wrote. I’m probably paraphrasing someone else’s wisdom here, but I think it applies to me too. I feel a kind of squeamishness when I look at my first book, Atlas of Unknowns, because it has this over-stuffed quality—it contains everything I knew and had experienced up to that point—which characterizes a lot of first novels. At the same time, I associate that novel with a sense of exhilaration and fearlessness, which I’m probably projecting on it, in retrospect, because that’s how I remember feeling at the time.

With Aerogrammes, I had the advantage of distance. Some of those stories I wrote before the novel came out, in grad school actually, and then I put them away for a few years, so when I returned to them I could see their weak spots, I didn’t have the tunnel vision you get after working so closely on something, without a break. As a form, short stories also allow you take formal risks that you might not be able to pull of in a longer medium. So it was fun to move into different genres and experiment. There’s a story about a girl who marries a ghost. There’s a story about a guy who runs a literary journal devoted to handwriting analysis. A lot of times, I was maybe responding, indirectly, to the ways in which we talk about the Indian-American experience or the immigrant experience, and testing the boundaries of those definitions. That it’s not all identity politics, but ghosts and lit nerds and wrestlers too.

By the time I got to Tusk, I was relieved to be working on a broader canvas again.

Rumpus: You talked about being in graduate school as you were writing the stories for what would become Aerogrammes. Was that part of your MFA program, or have you had detours into freelancing?

James: Yes, for an MFA in fiction. And I did have a detour. I was a film major in college, and thought maybe I’d work in film. After graduate school, I worked as an assistant editor on a documentary film, and I was also writing on the side. At the same time, I was submitting to agents and that’s when I got my agent.

I sold my book while I was working on that film, about a year and a half into it. But filmmaking, similar to writing, is hard to do on the side. It’s hard to split between two different, very demanding forms of creativity.

I kind of feel nostalgic about working in film and studying film. Editing film feels more tactile and satisfying, in a way, than editing fiction. There’s a comfort with solitude that editors have in common with writers. But, yeah, that was one time where I considered doing something else entirely.

Rumpus: So you studied film as an undergrad and then went to graduate school for writing.

James: I applied to both film and writing [graduate] programs. I got into a program in California that seemed like the sort of place that produced big commercial movie-makers. I felt like it wasn’t really my cup of tea, mostly because I’m not as collaborative as you need to be in order to be a filmmaker.

So maybe it wasn’t the program itself, but it was more about me and how I prefer to be as solitary as possible for as long as possible when it comes to creating something. And I have a hard time explaining what I’m working on. When you work in film, you have to be pretty fluent in explaining your vision, especially when speaking to actors, and I found speaking to actors to be so challenging and intimidating on set.

My [undergraduate] film program at Harvard was very documentary film-based, and most of my time was spent in the editing room. But ultimately I didn’t have the kind of technological prowess that you need to have to be an editor. I felt like I was always behind on understanding the latest things in software and so on. I prefer the simplicity of an unmediated relationship with the page.

I chose to go to Columbia partly because [filmmaker] Mira Nair visited Harvard, and [she told us], “More important than going to a film program is going to a writing program because you’ve acquired the technical skills you need to acquire here at Harvard as a film major. It’s the skills about how to tell a story that you really need to hone.” And that made me think, “Well, even if I want to go back into film later, this path could still allow me that latitude.”

Rumpus: So, you mentioned editing which is an essential part of any kind of storytelling. But while working with some teen and early-college age writers, I’ve encountered resistance to the idea of writing as a process and editing as essential to that process. What is your editing process like? Some writers edit as they go. Others write in one big sweep and then go back. Do you hate it? Do you love it?

James: (Laughs) You know, I’m starting a [new] novel now and it’s great that you’re asking me this question. Because honestly, I feel like asking you this question! I am at that stage where I’m like, “How did I do this? I don’t remember how to do this.”

I remember that, if it was a short story, I liked getting to the end of it and then going back. And then, with novels, every twenty pages I’d stop and print it out and scrawl all over it and then keep going. But I wasn’t the sort of person who had to get every sentence and every word right. Now that I’m starting over, I’ve been doing things in a much more piecemeal manner. A sentence will occur to me at night, and I’ll scribble it down and hope it’ll find its way into whatever I’m writing, at some point. And I don’t know if it’s because my life has become more touch and go [because] I have a two-year-old now—but yeah, I feel like I’m more spontaneous than I used to be, in terms of how this new thing is coming together.

Rumpus: Thank you. That’s a good plug for editing because—I don’t want to be all, “Millennials, get off my lawn!” about the need to edit—but that’s the work.  I’ve had some really interesting conversations with young writers about that, so hopefully they’ll read what you said and see that it has to be done.

James: I remember that resistance very clearly. When I got to grad school, our workshop leader [asked everyone], “What is the thing you have a hard time with?” I couldn’t wrap my head around how, in interviews with writers, they would say they would do something like twenty or thirty drafts. I didn’t understand what’s happening in all those drafts! I was very unsure about editing. But the workshop actually helps you become a better editor more than a better writer. I came to graduate school with a certain vocabulary about how to talk about other people’s stories, but I couldn’t understand how to look at my own stories in that way. And that was what made editing such a challenge for me.

Rumpus: Let’s go back to what you said about how film wasn’t a good fit for you because you feel you’re not as collaborative as you would need to be there. This reminded me of a Publishers Weekly interview with Claire Messud from a few years ago. She was asked if she would be friends with her not-warm-and-fuzzy protagonist, and she chafed at the question. And that sparked a public conversation about the likability factor for women characters—and women writers themselves, in the case of nonfiction. This expectation that women are supposed to be likeable, congenial, collaborative, but the same is not expected of men. So it struck me that that’s something you observed about yourself, really unapologetically. You’re not collaborative by nature. What are your thoughts on this idea of women characters needing to be likable?

James: I teach an advanced undergraduate fiction workshop, and I hear female students ask this question far more than male students. Is this character I’m writing likable? It’s almost as if they’re asking, Am I? It’s a question that comes from some internal pressure that women and girls place upon themselves, which is of course programmed into us from toddlerhood. It has to do with the same software that makes us apologize when we shouldn’t, that makes us smile when don’t feel like it. You know that bit from Broad City, where some stranger tells Abby and Ilana to smile more? I’d bet my middle finger that exact scenario happened to almost every woman I know.

Yet I still think there are more and more writers attempting the difficult female, certainly more and more television shows that attempt those characters too. I’m thinking of Hausfrau, Bad Marie, Olive Kitteridge. Then there’s Girls, Broad City, Young Adult. Maybe those voices were there ten years ago, and I wasn’t paying attention.

Rumpus: And so, as far as your characters, do you think about whether the women characters need to be likeable, or is that not a factor at all?

James: No, but this question makes me wonder why I tend to write women who are on the more likeable side. I’ve written female characters who make ethically irresponsible choices, which have the potential to render them unlikeable to a reader. But they suffer for those decisions, and in the end they’re sort of redeemed by that suffering. I’m wondering—and I think this is what you and I are talking about—about the kind of character that isn’t so pretty and maybe makes an ugly choice but doesn’t suffer because of it. And doesn’t apologize for it.

Rumpus: Yes. No apologies. You just play with it.

James: Yeah, exactly. I guess it’d be hard for me to say, “Now I’m going to write an unlikable woman, a real pain in the ass.” Characters don’t emerge for me that way. At the same time, it’s interesting and troubling to consider why I haven’t.

Rumpus: You tackle tough topics in your books. Poaching, for example. Not things that, you know, immediately bring the laughs. But the books are infused with humor. Has that always been a part of your writing, or do you have particular models that impress upon you this balance of the heavy and the light?

James: My paternal grandmother is funny as hell. She could be telling a story about her epilectic cousin and make you spit up from laughing. I think humor is the way we cope with our stress, our hurts, and though I’m no expert, my sense is that this coping mechanism is a feature of Malayali culture in general, at least that’s the impression I got from the Malayali films I loved growing up. Some of the best actors could flex both the tragic and the comic muscles. That’s what made them great.

So when I got to graduate school and encountered writers who were doing that on the page, it felt like I was meeting people who spoke my language. One of those writers was also my teacher, Nathan Englander.  Reading him, trying to mimic him, badly, it enabled me somehow, it helped me see a way into my own territory.

Rumpus: Humor is tough. I’ve heard comedians talk about how smart you have to be to pull it off. There’s the storytelling, timing, and all of that. And you mentioned humor as coping mechanism for your family. How else has your family background influenced you as a writer? And I’m particularly interested in the fact that you grew up in Kentucky, as a woman of color.

James: I like to think that Kentucky, that my upbringing, did have some bearing on my becoming a writer. But I don’t know. Maybe if I was born and raised in DC I would have been drawn to the same thing.

Although, when I think about it, there was this sort of pivotal experience when I was sixteen which might not have happened anywhere else. My mother enrolled me in this arts camp, which she innocently thought would look good on my résumé. So I went to audition for the writing class in a room with two other kids. We each had a poem we were supposed to read. And the two people who were auditioning us were the teachers of the class. They were black, and they’re still my mentors to this day. And one of them told me much later that when I [walked] into that room, my whole face just lit up. They describe it as some kind of jaw-drop moment. [Because] the writers I had met before [that day] were through the pages of books I’d read for school, and they were all white and mostly dead and mostly men.

Yet here were these two black writers, a man and a woman—Frank X Walker and Kelly Norman Ellis—who were both working poets and teachers and alive. It was one of those stop-time moments.

And I proceeded to read this incredibly embarrassing poem that was like some kind of weird Edgar Allan Poe sonnet. I don’t even know what my intentions were there, but anyway, that was my Poe phase. The other two [kids] read these poems which I thought were so much more avant garde and personal, so much better. [So] I don’t think [Ellis and Walker] selected me because my poem was better. I think they selected me because they saw that I wanted and needed to be there at that time.

If I haven’t been in Kentucky, I wouldn’t have had that moment. It made me pivot in a certain way toward thinking about writing as an actual possibility in terms of where my life could go.

Rumpus: This need for representation runs so deep because we never know who’s watching us, and it just ripples through generations.

James: Yes. I mean, I don’t know how it was for you, Deesha, but I feel like most of your early life, if you’re inclined towards arts or writing, you’re looking for permission to do it. And especially, I think, for writers of color, that permission doesn’t come so easily. It’s just not assumed. And so you need those moments.

Rumpus: I’m hoping that, in part, that’s what this column can be.

James: Yes!

Rumpus: That there’s a young Tania and a young Deesha who see this, and it’s not a question about whether or not they can do it. They can write.

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Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Brevity; Stepmom, Essence, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author →