This summer, there have been three high-profile book launches in Kathmandu. The season kicked off with the release of Manjushree Thapa’s Seasons of Flight, followed by Samrat Upadhyay’s Buddha’s Orphans and Sheeba Shah’s Facing my Phantoms. All events were well attended and heavily publicised in the Kathmandu press. A quieter launch, that of 19-year-old Pradeep Swar’s Beautiful People, capped off the literary season in mid-July. Readings and creative writing sessions in the English language, if restricted to a fairly small group, are now a feature of the capital’s cultural circuit rather than the exclusively expatriate activity of the past. Furthermore, there are rumblings in the air of a literary festival in Kathmandu next year.
Are they long gone, those days when your uncle (hobby: writing) would sidle up to your father at a family gathering, and press on him two copies of his latest literary effort? When English-language literature was the Hardy Boys, then the latest pulp from Stephen King, and eventually Gabriel Garcia Márquez? As the Salman Rushdies and the Vikram Seths burst onto the global scene, the Nepali reader could hardly claim ownership, and homegrown English-language prose fiction was limited to children’s books and the aforementioned vanity ventures. The odd novel, such as D B Gurung’s Echoes of the Himalayas and P J Karthak’s EveryPlace: EveryPerson were anomalies at a time when Nepal was slowly but surely moving into the slipstream of globalisation, but had yet to find its voice on the international literary stage.
Then along came Samrat Upadhyay. With the 2001 publication of his first collection of short stories, Arresting God in Kathmandu, the Indiana-based creative writing professor became the first Nepali writer to be published in the West. Accolades flowed even as some Nepalis feigned horror at his earthy descriptions of small-town love and despair, and he soon became an overnight celebrity in the country he had left at the age of 21. Earlier that year, to a little less fanfare, Manjushree Thapa had published her first novel, The Tutor of History. Local compilations such as Crow and An Other Voice seemed to hint at the talent bubbling below the surface. For young aspiring writers in Nepal, it was as if the floodgates had opened.
It was something of a false dawn, despite the assertions of the increasingly assertive Nepali media and arts scene. Both Thapa and Upadhyay continued to publish, but their success was largely limited to the Subcontinent, Nepal and India in particular. In most of the decade that followed their breakthrough publications, very few other Nepalis writing in English (NWEs) emulated their success. International publishing houses remained fascinated by Indian and other Southasian sources more familiar with English due to their colonial past; Indian publishers were happy to release local editions of globally acclaimed Indian novelists and bestselling local phenomena such as Chetan Bhagat; and Nepali publishers mostly failed to materialise at all, with distributor-retailers such as Pilgrims Publishing dominating the market.
Not that the scene was dormant. NWEs strove to make their mark, and if international publishers failed to welcome them with open arms, they went ahead and published locally anyway. Sheeba Shah brought out two novels with Pilgrims Publishing before securing a contract with Indian publisher Rupa & Co for the 2010 publication of her third novel. Sushma Joshi co-edited with Ajit Baral a collection of shorts for Rupa, New Nepal, New Voices (2008). She then published with Baral’s Fineprint her own collection of short stories, The End of the World (2008). Baral, for his part, released The Lazy Conman and Other Stories with Penguin India. Further afield, Manan Karki published his first novel, The Memory of Leaves (2009), with Ireland’s Pillar Press. Nepali-language literature, too, was undergoing something of a renaissance, most obviously in the production and marketing values behind novels such as Narayan Wagle’s Palpasa Café and Sanjeev Uprety’s Ghanachakkar, both with the publisher nepa-laya. The former was even translated into English in Nepal, then re-issued by Random House India in 2010.
The combined impact of this late flurry at the end of the decade was not, however, in the same league as the debuts by Thapa and Upadhyay. Rupa’s championing of Nepali authors improved on what Pilgrims had been doing only in terms of distribution. The lack of editing was starkly evident in the highly uneven New Nepal, New Voices, which could have done so much to market the emerging literary talent of Nepal to the wider world. And a dispute over sales of Joshi’s collection of shorts led to the eruption of a feud between the author and the publisher, putting a dampener on what might have been a productive partnership for Nepali publishing.
Rupa’s long-running neglect of the fundamentals showed up this year, too, in the novels from Shah and Upadhyay. The latter, in particular, would have been pained, given he is also published by US-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Buddha’s Orphans, an epic tale spanning generations in Kathmandu after the fall of the Rana regime, is marred by typos. But the editorial problem extends into the structuring and content of the novel as well, just as with Karki’s Ireland-published novel. The Memory of Leaves is a three-part tale in three voices, but only the first, delivered by a dying man, really impresses in its prose and narrative. It might also be added that the more hyped Nepali-language novels from the same period did little more than acquire a sheen of production and marketing professionalism, while editorial standards remained low. Only Thapa’s Seasons of Flight, which describes the migratory arc of a fiercely independent Nepali woman, avoids these pitfalls, even if the novel comes across as a little ‘flighty’.
It’s clear that NWEs face formidable obstacles to reaching out to an international readership. Equally, there is little doubt this international readership, through the proxy of publishers based in India, is slowly discovering NWEs. If Rupa’s approach has been flawed, at least it is based on a genuine belief that NWEs are marketable, with CEO Kapish Mehra admitting as much during his recent visit to Kathmandu to launch the new works by Shah and Upadhyay. Publisher at Penguin India, Ravi Singh, echoes Mehra’s sentiments. Along with Random House, Penguin India has expressed interest in both fiction and non-fiction from Nepal. According to Singh, it’s not just Nepali writers and the places they write about that are attractive to Indian publishers – it’s also the economics, stupid. Big Indian authors can be very big, but midlist Indian authors, says Singh, are comparable to Nepali authors in terms of how they sell. In fact, given a captive readership in Nepal keen to sample writing in English from one of their own, as well as significant sales to tourists, publishers are more likely to make their money back on a Nepali author.
The economics go a long way to explaining the sudden interest in NWEs. This is extremely encouraging news for the latter, who will certainly grasp the opportunity to address an international readership. As Namita Gokhale, writer and co-founder/director of the Jaipur Literature Festival and Yatra Books, puts it, ‘Kathmandu has loyal friends and visitors internationally, and is the eye of the storm in a powerful cycle of change. Nepali writing does not carry the baggage of postcolonial pretensions and relates dynamically to the changes in Nepali society.’ If Upadhyay and Thapa led the way, there are now more than a few NWEs waiting to tread in their footsteps – and Indian publishers are lining up to take them by the hand, and lead them out of the insularity of vanity publishing.
But are we jumping the gun to say that NWEs have come of age? The next few years will be crucial. Nepali readers, and to some degree Southasian readers, might be more forgiving of poorly edited works. This has as much to do with a lack of experience with high-quality English-language writing (also reflected in the poor content of most English-language newspapers and magazines in Nepal) as it is to do with a hunger for Nepali prose fiction in English. International readers will be less patient, especially since there is a ready supply of polished fiction at hand from elsewhere in the region. So while a push to publish NWEs at minimal cost and effort might have immediate benefits for publishers, writers and local readers alike, in the long term it will stymie the growth of the industry and limit the development and global reach of literature from Nepal.
After all, it’s not as simple as hiring an editor or two, or convincing Indian publishers to make better use of the editors to whom they undoubtedly have access. There is a serious dearth of top-quality editors in Nepal, at all levels. Until the media and publishers of fiction and non-fiction understand how a lack of content editing, copyediting and proofreading can completely undermine the integrity of a project, authors will continue to fall short of the best they can be.
Nepal’s literary circles, in both Nepali and English, compound this problem by all too often refusing to take or provide constructive feedback. The wholesale exaltation of patently mediocre works, often justified with a ‘it deserves our support’ from readers and peers who really should know better, has only reinforced this pattern. If the energy and imagination of Nepali writing, in any language, is to get the attention it deserves, it has to earn it through the hard graft of editing.
Perhaps exposure to the wider world of not only English-language authors, but also those working in Nepali languages (through translation), will compel a more reflexive attitude towards one’s own work – and thereon, that of others. But there will also have to be a conscious attitudinal shift, whereby healthy competition becomes the order of the day, both within and outside of Kathmandu’s small English and Nepali literary clique. Only then will the promise hinted at in the novels of Upadhyay and Thapa come to fruition.
~ Rabi Thapa is a writer in Kathmandu and editor of the Nepali Times.