Q & A with novelist Phillip Ernest, part II

Phillip Ernest lives in Bengaluru, India, but was in New Liskeard, Ontario, last fall when he and I had this email exchange, which we are publishing now in the lead-up to the publication of his first novel, The Vetala, which must surely be the only Sanskrit vampire novel in Canadian literature. Part I can be found here

November 4 - 19, 2017 

Linda Leith: What made you think that going to university was such a big error?

Phillip Ernest: I went back to university at the age of thirty chiefly because I thought that working as a professor of Sanskrit would be altogether the best way for me to make a living: I would be getting paid to read, write about, and teach a language and literature I loved. Initially, I vaguely assumed that I would also be able to pursue my first and true vocation of writing poetry. It somehow never occurred to me that I might instead continue in the lifestyle I had followed for so many years – working with my hands by day while pursuing my intellectual life before and after hours: after all, following my epiphany, during six months of passionate solitary study I managed to work through the book Teach Yourself Sanskrit and begin reading the Mahabharata in the original, so I didn't even need university for that. Without really knowing anything about academia, and without stopping to consider that I should find out something about it before dedicating my life to it, I hazily imagined a rich life of study, contemplation, writing, discussion with likeminded colleagues, and frequent travel to and residence in India, that unknown but presumably superior civilization. Somehow, I never fantasized much about teaching, or thought much about whether I would like it, or even be capable of it if I didn’t. Nor did I ask myself, in those early years, why academic writing never became any less arduous and unrewarding for me, and why I found academic literature so oppressively boring to read. By the time I was in the fourth year of my South Asian Studies BA at the University of Toronto, it had begun to dawn on me that I'd taken a disastrously wrong path, but I still thought that staying the course would be better than abandoning it: I thought I could learn to take a cynical, using attitude towards academia, to be in it but not of it, while pursuing my poetic vocation on my own time - increasingly distant and ideal though that vocation had now become. So I proceeded to the next stage, an MPhil and PhD in Sanskrit at Cambridge University. Cambridge led to my working at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, India, the global centre of Mahabharata studies, with which my Cambridge Sanskrit professor had close ties. I got married in Pune to a native Punekar I had met at Cambridge. So I stayed. And here I am. 

LL: It was the Chinese-English translator Darryl Sterk who introduced you to me and suggested I might be interested in your novel. How did you get to know Darryl?

PE: I remember first seeing Darryl in Professor Arti Dhand's Introduction to Hinduism course in September 2001, at the beginning of my second undergraduate year at the University of Toronto. Later, when I met and talked with him for the first time in the East Asian Studies department, he told me he had only been auditing Arti's course. He had just begun his PhD in Chinese literature, and accordingly had his own little office in the department, on the fourteenth floor of the Robarts library. I listened with great interest as he talked about himself and his work. Since my non-guru Jiva Das introduced me to Asian literature when I was sixteen, I had always wanted to learn not only Sanskrit, but Chinese and Japanese as well, and at the time I met Darryl, I was still not at peace with having learned Sanskrit and not Chinese, because I had actually always been more moved by Chinese lyric poetry than by anything I knew in Sanskrit literature, and had always felt drawn to what I knew of Chinese culture. Darryl's fluency in Mandarin, and the fact that he had married a Taiwanese woman and was at home in Taiwanese society, were deeply, fatally fascinating to me, as I was already determined to attain the highest degree of authenticity in my engagement with India: to eventually study Sanskrit with native experts, earn my graduate degrees in Indian rather than Western universities, learn modern Indian languages, and even settle in India (whatever that would mean, whatever India was). During that first meeting, I mentioned to him that I had not been to high school, and had been impoverished, homeless, and alcoholic in an earlier phase of my life. It was clear that he was fascinated in his turn, and an intimacy quickly developed between us which has lasted without intermission until this day, though I would not see him in person between his return to Taipei in 2004 (I helped him carry his luggage from the department to the subway) and 2014, when he and his wife flew from Taipei for the sole purpose of visiting me in Pune for three weeks. During this visit, I told him of a still very inchoate idea for an Indian vampire novel that I had been brooding on for a little while. Just before he flew back to Taipei, he bought me a laptop at an electronics shop in Pune. I began to write the novel immediately after he left. Months later, when it had been rejected or ignored by ten Indian publishers, he quietly sent the manuscript, on his own initiative, to the Montreal publisher of his translations of Mandarin fiction.

LL: You say you had written poetry. When did you start writing fiction? And when did the idea for this novel come to you?

PE: I've always read fiction, even though my focus until recent years was poetry of one kind or another. But except for a single page of an abortive Mahabharata-inspired novel in 2010, I somehow never got the idea to write fiction until 2013, when I was forty-three. I had begun to write poetry again (as I had done for longer or shorter periods since I discovered poetry at sixteen), and the thought came to me that I might start submitting poems to Canadian literary journals. At this point, I was reading nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian fiction (besides the Mahabharata in Sanskrit, which I have read continuously since I was thirty-two). One day, walking home from the preparation academy where I worked in Pune, I happened to stop at a raddi depot (raddi means waste paper in Marathi) to check out their used books. Among the English books, there were many belonging to the new generation of vampire fiction that I vaguely knew to have developed since I had left Canada in 2004. I also saw Bram Stoker's Dracula, which I had never read: in fact, even though I was fascinated by vampires during my illiterate boyhood, the only vampire novel I had ever read was Steven King's Salem's Lot, along with a few of his other novels, during a brief burst of literacy when I was thirteen. I left the shop without buying anything, but I soon found myself wondering if vampire fiction was popular amongst English-reading Indians, and whether anyone had yet written an Indian vampire novel. My academic ambitions had failed, my literary ambitions had failed, my life was going nowhere, I was a disappointment to myself and others. The thought occurred to me that maybe I could write an Indian vampire novel that would appeal to an Indian audience. Maybe I could, after all, despite so much failure, finally achieve something. This was when my friend Darryl and his wife visited me from Taipei. I shared my thoughts - still very vague and inchoate - about the novel with him, and just before he flew back to Taipei from Mumbai, he bought me a laptop (the same one I am writing on now) at an electronics shop on Pune’s Tilak Road, expressly so that I could write this novel. I went back to the raddi depot and bought Dracula, and began to read it in spare moments at work in the academy. One day, after reading a few pages of Dracula, the essential plot of the novel came to me within a few minutes, almost automatically. I was surprised that it appeared to owe nothing to Dracula: at the time, I thought the only influence I could detect was Lee Siegel's Love in a Dead Language, which I had read more than a decade earlier. But months later, my publisher remarked that the novel reminded her in some ways of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and I then remembered that I had in fact read this novel in the original Italian more than a year before I began to write my own, so maybe there had been an unconscious influence.

After the novel was rejected or ignored by about ten Indian publishers, I gave up the idea of publishing it, but found that I had become addicted to writing fiction. I briefly returned to writing lyric poetry, but now found it lacking: it didn't offer me the same refuge that I had discovered in narrative, in the creation of minds and lives not my own - in fact, the solipsistic tendency of lyric poetry now seemed to me to be positively dangerous to my brooding, melancholic nature. However, a result of my no longer expecting that anyone but my intimates would ever read what I was writing, has been a different kind of solipsism: the novels I have written since The Vetala are much more immediately informed by my real history, what I have called "autobiographical what-if fantasies."

LL: You thought you were writing your novel for an Indian readership; what responses to it have you had from Indians — publishers or other readers?

PE: Many of my colleagues at the academy read the novel, and praised it, but this was not really the kind of situation in which objective literary judgments can be passed: friendship may well have biased them. While I was writing the novel, immediately after I finished the second chapter I wrote (the eventual chapter four), I emailed it to a friend of mine from my Cambridge Sanskrit days (himself a serious unpublished novelist), who was staying in northern India at the time. He was very enthusiastic about it, and in turn emailed it to a novelist friend of his in Delhi who knows the Indian publishing scene well. She was also very impressed, and suggested that after completing the novel, I submit it, mentioning her name, to the Indian branch of a certain British publishing house. This I did, and this publisher became the first of about ten in India to reject or ignore the novel. The answers I received, when I received answers at all, were probable form letters: "Your novel, while interesting, does not suit our catalogue at this time," that kind of thing. 

LL: What are your thoughts about it now that it’s ready for publication? And what’s next for you?

PE: Often I can scarcely believe that I've been given this opportunity, and that I was capable of writing a first novel - at such a late age, and knowing so little about contemporary English fiction - that was deemed worthy of being developed for publication. I hope that it finds enough success that I will be able to publish other novels in the future. As I’ve said, in the three years since I finished the original version of The Vetala, writing fiction has become a way of life for me, an essential part of my personal life. I have to continue writing in any case, but I would prefer to have an audience, and since my subsequent novels also concern non-Indian Westerners engaging with India and Indians, I think that some of The Vetala’s readers may find them interesting too.

LL: What appeals to you about Sanskrit?

PE: It's hard to avoid banality in talking about this: I love Sanskrit because it's beautiful to me in every aspect, grammar, phonology, script, literature. It's true that I tend to find languages in general beautiful, but then, alienness is an aesthetic value for me, so that the beauties of German, Italian, Latin, Greek are less beautiful to me for being more familiar linguistically and culturally. Yet at the same time, alienness also limits appreciation of the beauty it adorns: a page of Italian fiction read with a high degree of understanding is in this sense more beautiful than a page of Sanskrit epic that presents long patches of near incomprehensibility, which can still happen to me on a bad day; and on any day, Sanskrit is far more difficult for me, more for cultural than for linguistic reasons, than Ancient Greek, for example, which is linguistically closely related to Sanskrit, but immeasurably closer and more comprehensible to a Western reader in vocabulary and the content of its literature. This difficulty, and the sense that I can never own Sanskrit in the way that I could own a Western language, is a sadness that is constantly in the background of my devotion to it, and reflects a broader cultural homelessness.

© 2018, Linda Leith

Montreal writer Linda Leith is the owner of LLP and publisher of Salon .ll.



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