A Writer’s World That Doesn’t Exist: Master Class with Léonora Miano

Pooja Sharma

French Cameroonian author Léonora Miano, whose novel Season of the Shadow (translated from the French by Gila Walker) has been recently published by Seagull Books, spoke with the students of the Seagull School of Publishing on 31 January 2018. Pooja Sharma, student of editing at the school, shares her experience of the master class—in English and in French.

For someone who is trained to deal with the minutiae of finance—what is a master class by an author? For someone who devours literary non-fiction—what is a discussion over imaginary, built-up stories? I was just excited to be attending a class by a francophone author, occasion my French and, gradually, discover my fit in the publishing sphere. For all of that, I found my answers when I learnt about Léonora Miano.

A Cameroonian author, she told us about how she started writing at the age of eight. She wanted to become a singer following her inclination towards poetry and music, which doesn’t fail to leave its trace in her writing. The titles of her novels were enough to intrigue me: Season of the Shadow, Dark Heart of the Night, Soulfood Équatoriale—to begin with. The premise of her novels—conjured realities (if I may say so)—is so reflective, I wanted nothing but to dive in.

Her oeuvres are fictional adaptations to understand the African and Afro-diasporic identities. And yet, she describes feelings that are universal. While she read an excerpt from her novel Season of the Shadow that unearths the lives and enslavement of the people of sub-Saharan Africa, lost in the folds of history, I formed a mental image of her poems, written as a child only to be burnt later, floating in the shadows—enclosed in their could-have-been form.

She writes of emotions plucked from people’s lives, holds them aloft and onto the foreground—I prefer to see it as an infusion of reality and narrative in thin air, and at the core of this mélange, there exists nothing. However, beyond this abyss, we find a surreal partake in one’s life, witnessed by another; one that traverses years, frontiers and the line between fabrication and reality.

It was interesting to see that her style of writing mirrors her personality (nothing obscure— everything on the surface and yet overpowering) or vice versa. When enquired whether she’s narrating true stories and how does one collect material, she opened the first gate into the realm of fiction for me and asserted, ‘It’s a writer’s world; it doesn’t exist.’

I couldn’t have come across a better way to fall in love with the world of publication: of languages, of translations, of people’s lives and the privilege of reliving them.


Le Monde D’un Auteur N’existe Nulle Part

Pour quelqu’un qui a étudié le finance—c’est quoi un cours avec un auteur? Pour quelqu’un qui préfère la littérature non romanesque—c’est quoi l’échange sur des histoires imaginaires? J’en avais hâte uniquement d’assister un cours avec une auteure francophone, profiter d’une conversation en français et graduellement, découvrir ma place dans la sphère de publication. Mais voilà, j’en ai trouvé les réponses en me familiarisant avec le monde de Léonora Miano.

Une romancière Camerounaise, elle s’est consacrée à la poésie et la musique dès qu’elle avait huit ans. Grace à ce gout inné, la musique faire des traces et des empreintes dans sa l’écriture. Il me fallait connaitre juste les titres de ses romans pour m’intriguer: La Saison de l’ombre, Contours du jour qui vient, L’intérieure de la nuit—pour constituer un point de départ. Les prémisses de ses romans—la vérité monter de toutes pièces—si profondes, je ne voulais que plonger.

Ses œuvres sont l’adaptation romanesque dans le dessein d’entendre des identités Africaines et Afro-diasporiques et en même temps le démontage des sentiments universelles. Quand elle a lu un extrait de son roman La Saison de l’ombre qui déniche le vécu intime et l’asservissement des gens de L’Afrique Subsaharienne, perdu dans la péripétie; J’imaginais ses poèmes, celles qui avaient écrits dans son adolescence et brulés plus tard, flottant dans la silhouette—clos dans la forme qui n’existait guère.

Les émotions retirées par le vécu des gens, enlever et relever dans un œuvre—je préfère le regarder comme une imprégnation de la réalité et l’histoire en l’air devant nos yeux et tout au fond de ce mélange, il n’existe rien. Toutefois, au-delà de cet abysse, on y trouve une transmission géniale du vécu d’un, témoigné par d’autre ; une telle transmission qui traverse des années, des frontières et la ligne entre le mirage et la véracité.

Ce qui était intéressant à voir c’était que son style d’écriture est bien animé dans sa personnalité (pas d’obscurité—tout clair et encore pénétrant)—ou inversement. Quand on a demandé des renseignements sur ses documents des recherches et si les récits sont des vraies histoires, elle a ouvert la première porte vers la fiction pour moi, en disant que c’est le monde d’un auteur—ça n’existe nulle part.

Je n’aurais pas pu trouver un meilleur moyen pour me susciter de tomber amoureuse avec ce monde de publication: les langues, les traductions, le vécu des gens et le privilège de le revivre.

Joseph Schreiber’s Art of Book Reviewing and Publishing

Mihika Agarwal

After an array of different poets, authors, editors and translators, we had a fun, exciting master class taught by Joseph Schreiber. Schreiber is a writer, blogger, critic from Calgary, Canada and maintains a literary blog called roughghosts, where he reviews books.

All of us probably looked exhausted with all the master classes; however, when Schreiber started the conversation as to how he got into writing and blogging, we were all immediately drawn in. His first piece, ‘Your Body Will Betray You’, was the starting point of his career. He spoke about how he became an experienced storyteller. He introduced us to different websites where aspiring bloggers and book reviewers can publish their work for free! Being a blogger myself, I found the session enlightening; I got to learn about the how the industry works. He not only gave us simple tips, such as writing and reading without fear, but also more complex ones, such as how to create one’s own blog through WordPress.

One thing that really struck to me was the concept of book reviews. Personally, I find book reviews difficult to write—because when I am writing them, I end up talking more about the story and often give away the ending of the book. If I was reading my review, I would probably find this really frustrating. Schreiber told us about his ideology—a review should not give away the end and it does not have to be entirely about the story. The review should be about what you liked about the book and it should be an interesting piece in itself, whether or not the reader actually wants to read the book.

One of my peers raised the question of whether we should write a review of a genre we are not familiar with or do not like. Schreiber replied, Absolutely not! I found this interesting. If we find a book boring, we should not take it up, as we would not to justice to the text; we would also torture ourselves doing something we do not like. Furthermore, he said, life is too short for that. That brought me back to reality as it made me think how I should always do something I love and only then would I be satisfied.

Schreiber also brought up the subject of self-publishing. Being aspiring editors, authors and designers, who dream of working in a publishing house or publish our own books, we found this discussion enlightening. He mentioned how one of his friends started his own publishing house called Inside the Castle and published a book called F Text. This fascinated me, since I have majored in English (poetry) and my senior writing project was a book of poems in which I used a variety of voices and stories with the help of visual effects­—blackouts, erasures, caesuras and white space. Schreiber was kind enough to gift me the book, for which I was extremely grateful and excited. I recommend it to everyone!

And to wrap up this piece, here is an excerpt from Schreiber’s piece on ‘Your Body Will Betray You’ which I have used to create an erasure poem.

Your Body Will Betray You — Joseph Schreiber

’Cause Everything Is Design: A Conversation

Shashank Bhargava

After multiple failed attempts of trying to come up with something for this blog post, which is meant to be about my ‘experience of grappling with the nitty-gritty of learning design’ at the Seagull School of Publishing, I ended up having the following conversation with my girlfriend, Swati, trying to figure out how I should be going about it.

Swati. I think you first have to figure out what are the issues that you faced. You can’t gloss over them because otherwise it becomes just any other design student’s account. It has to be personal enough—why did you have those problems?

Shashank. Personal? Hmmm. Well, for some time I thought since I had only paid Rs 10,000 out of the Rs 50,000 for the course and I could still back out from the course. Because I’m not a designer, I have no background in design and that I don’t fit in. There are people in the class who paint or draw or have studied in Srishti and I have not done either, so that used to be quite intimidating. Plus the decision to join the course was kind of impulsive. So I’d think about leaving every day. I don’t know how serious I was about that because I don’t know if I would have actually left.

Swati. Did you not leave because you thought you’d get to learn or because of inertia? As in, now that you’re there you might as well do it.

Shashank. Learning, yes. But also because it reflects poorly on you when . . .

Swati. . . . you leave something.

Shashank. Yeah. Then you’re a quitter. You didn’t even give this a fair shot. But, when I designed the first cover and I compared it with the others’, I thought it wasn’t that bad.

Swati. You were thinking about leaving even before the first cover?!

Shashank. I did think about it. And I thought that even after the first one, but that first one had given me a slight confidence.

Swati. What is the cover that makes you feel like—I can do this?

Shashank. Maybe the Panchtantra cover.

01 Panchatantra Cover Shaskank

Swati. That is actually pretty professional.

Shashank. Well, yeah, it does look professional but this is exactly what I didn’t want to do. Because this leafy pattern has been done to death in books like Aesop’s Fables or Penguin Classics. But it still looks alright.

Swati. What about the Jeet Thayil one?

02 Jeet Thayil Cover Shashank

Shashank. I like the idea of it, but I don’t think it can go for print.

Swati. Yeah, I think so too. It looks like a draft right now.

Shashank. I think the colours need to darken a little, the outline needs to be highlighted more and I think another element needs to be placed here. I was thinking of adding circles here . . .

Swati. What about textures? You haven’t worked with textures yet.

Shashank. Yeah, not at all. All my covers—and I was also telling this to Sunandini [Banerjee] today—that all my covers are two-colour. And she said, ‘Great! You’ll be saving someone incredible amounts of money!’ And in fact even for today’s assignment, we had to bring a textile from home, scan it and use it to design a cover. So I borrowed my landlady’s sari for it. So now the image that I’ve used obviously has a texture but again I’ve reduced it to two colours.

Swati. Yeah, maybe this can be your thing but this can’t become your limitation. The reason you’re doing this can’t be because you can’t work with more than two colours.

Shashank. Yeah. I think for the next cover I have an idea where I will be using more than two colours.

Swati. Hmm, that’s also part of your growth, I guess. Earlier you couldn’t do it and now you can or at least that there is potential.

Shashank. I think another reason that I didn’t leave or didn’t want to leave is because this is a cool place. Plus it’s been a long time since I’ve been a student. That’s something I’ve not experienced since college. So learning something with other students or hanging out after classes and the school itself is a great place to be. You enjoy spending time there and look forward to coming to it everyday. Plus, I’m staying in Kolkata which is something I always wanted to do. Actually experiencing Kolkata.

Swati. So what are you finding the toughest about designing a cover right now? It is the font? I see you’re using similar kind of fonts.

Shashank. Yeah, I have a preference for sans-serif fonts. And Sunandini also noticed this and told me that I should branch out. And for Panchtantra I used a serif font because it can do with a decorative sort of font, but I don’t like serif fonts because they look old for some reason.

Swati. Any other aspect?

Shashank. I think we will get a collage assignment and I have no idea how I’ll fare in that. For me I think it’ll be putting a lot of things together in a cohesive way—that’s what I would find really hard. My covers right now are relatively minimalist and so, for example, the cover of Indica by Pranay Lal (designed by Gunjan Ahlawat)—that’ll be really hard for me to do. Those are a lot of different elements coming together and beautifully so. Those images were provided to him by the author but the way they’ve been put together—that I think would really hard for me to even reconstruct.

INDICA Cover correction.indd

Swati. That I think will come with a lot of technical knowhow.

Shashank. Yeah. Like for Panchtantra I wanted to use different animals but they were all illustrated by different people. So if you put them together, they clearly seemed like they are from different places. So I’m sure there’s a way in Photoshop to make it seem like they are from the same place. I think that’s what Sunandini did with the cover of The Open-Winged Scorpion. Hmm, maybe I should try to construct that cover.

04 bashar openwinged scorpion Sunandini Banerjee

Swati. So you started with being interested in covers and generally a little interested in design. Where are you now?

Shashank. Hmm, maybe it’s not very ambitious but right now I feel I can design a cover for a small place. Like for small regional publishing houses. A lot of them don’t have good covers. Or company brochures. A lot of them are very sad.

And one thing that has definitely changed is how I look at design. Like earlier, I’d like a cover but now I find myself deconstructing it, trying to figure out how it was made, which is also something we do a lot in class. And I love that part. Those are times I wish the class didn’t end. And also colour. In every cover, you have to take the decision of what colours to use—so just keeping a lookout for them.

So now when I’ll be watching a movie and I’ll look at a wall or a couch, I’ll be like, ‘Oooh, that’s a very interesting green.’ So I’ll screenshot it and see if I can use it somewhere. Or you come across some font . . .

Swati. Oh, that’s a big change.

Shashank. Yeah, ’cause everything is design.

Swati. And it makes you appreciate the world a little more, doesn’t it? And now to be able to look at something and be like, ‘Oh I think they should have used another font’ or ‘They shouldn’t have put that there.’

Shashank. That’s something that I would always do I think. But this course gives the answer to those questions. About what are the different kinds of things that can be done.

Swati. But do you think anyone can do design? Or, rather, do you think design can be taught?

Shashank. I think techniques could be taught.

Swati. So what can’t be taught?

Shashank. I think . . . aesthetics can’t be taught. Your cover can be technically good. Title is clearly visible, crop marks are in place, images that you’ve used are of good resolution but still it doesn’t look pleasant. I don’t know how that can be taught. You can have some broad rules. Like, say, in fonts, Sunandini would tell us not to use Helvetica. Apart from the fact that it does not look great on covers, it’s also the default font that QuarkXpress gives you. Using it means you didn’t put any effort at all. And sure you can be told not to use Comic Sans or Arial for that matter, but I’m not sure how one will teach how to use a font that matches the overall design of the cover. But we are yet to have a class on typography—so let’s see.

Swati. I think design course is a tough place to know if you’re good or if you’re good as per lots of people.

Shashank. I mean, even in art, if a large number of people find something good, then it’s considered good. Or if critics, whose opinions are respected, think it’s good, then it is considered so. And the difference between a painting and book cover is that a painting is an artist’s expression while a book cover is supposed to visually represent another artist’s work and make it marketable.

Swati. Yeah, a cover is representing a content while a painting is the content.

Shashank. It’s like how Sunandini says that as designers you are problem solvers. That she’d rather we don’t have a style so that we can design for any kind of book or project. Designing a cover is an artistic solution to a marketing problem.

The problem that I also struggle with right now are meeting deadlines. For me it’s like, I’ll design something and it won’t work out and only then I’ll come up with something else. And that for me takes a fair amount of time right now. Like the first Rupi Kaur cover I designed for an assignment was absolutely shit. Now when I open the cover I’m really embarrassed. We had a deadline for it and I had submitted it in a panic but then Sunandini didn’t end up seeing my cover on that day. But the idea that Sunandini was going to open that cover and it’s going to be projected on the screen for everyone to see . . . I was shaking! And then the next day I came to class early and I think within 10 mins or so I designed something much better. And then I requested her to take this file instead. The worst part was that I think that cover was problematic and the idea that everyone is going to see it . . . my hands were shaking while holding the mouse.

Swati. It’s interesting that you are so passionate about this.

Shashank. Passionate? I don’t know.

Swati. You can call it whatever you want. But hands shaking is a very . . .

Shashank. I think I’m just nervous in general.

Swati. That’s not true. And you know even nervousness requires a lot of investment, right?

Shashank. Yeah, I guess. But that I am. And I think the impression that people in general have of me in class is that I’m always fretting. And in the end Sunandini will open my cover and say, ‘Arré, why were you fretting? This is fine.’ I think it’s the idea that your cover is being judged. And I know that it’s just your cover that’s being judged and not you, but it’s hard to distance yourself from that.

Swati. Yeah, I think very few people would have. And apart from overconfidence, maybe it would show that you’re not much invested in what you are doing.

Shashank. Yeah, but it’s different when you relate it to your self-esteem.

Swati. People react in their own ways but very few people don’t feel anything. Others are just better at hiding it.

Shashank. Yeah for me it shows. Because even now when I think about what if Sunandini would have opened that cover and ‘Oh God, what would she think of me?!’

Swati. It’s interesting that in the Rupi Kaur cover assignment, you set yourself your own deadline—the actual deadline you had already missed—but you had to come up with something before Sunandini could open your cover.

Shashank. Yeah, a lot of things happen when you’re just trying to avoid falling flat on your face. That’s kind of motivational.

Also, I think this point could come at the end of the blog post.

Swati. Yeah, I think so too.

Master Class by Jeet Thayil, (Un)forgotten Poet

In the middle of a week filled with dissecting the virtues of the comma and hyphens, we finally had our first master class. Before applying to the editing course at Seagull, I religiously read through all the blog posts by past students describing the many master classes conducted over the years. It was all so exciting! That was one of the many reasons that prompted me to apply and after my own master class experience, I am truly glad I did. And if I’d known I had to write this, I would’ve taken notes!

Jeet Thayil is not your usual run-of-the-mill author. Not only has he written two novels, he is also a well-known performance poet and an accomplished musician. His new book, The Book of Chocolate Saints, is a wonderfully rich novel about the forgotten poets of Bombay, which seems to be a point of contention for him. While reading up on him, I realized that Jeet is a fierce believer in bringing ‘undeservedly little-known literature’ to light, which I found very interesting. His new novel does exactly that—it blends fact with fiction and introduces the reader to a previously overlooked world.

The session itself was quite enlightening. Jeet was incredibly friendly and made an effort to answer all of our questions until he was ‘all talked out’ at the end. He spoke to us about his thought processes while writing, which was fascinating to hear. For instance, I would never have guessed it takes 15 drafts before he’s satisfied with a poem. He told us about how he carved out two whole novels from his initial draft of Narcopolis, his first novel. He apparently still has some of that original material left, which he unfortunately doesn’t plan on making into a new book.

Like all authors, Jeet is an ardent reader. He spoke passionately about his favorite poems, books and his least favourite word—discourse. Poetry, of course, holds a special place in his heart. There’s a chapter in Chocolate Saints titled ‘Of What Use Is a Poem That Cannot Pick Up a Gun?’, a line I simply cannot get out of my head. We discussed all aspects of poetry, and he gave us a few examples of great poems that he loves, including the nine-line poem by A. K. Ramanujan titled ‘Self-Portrait’. He knows that poems cannot always bring about tangible change in the world, but that doesn’t stop him from writing.

One interesting point raised was his relationship with his editor David Davidar, who helped shape Chocolate Saints into its current form. As an aspiring editor, this was invaluable insight into the process of enhancing the value of an already good book. He believes that a writer who refuses the advice of their editor is just plain stupid (his words!). Davidar’s suggestion of including more background on the novel’s main character led to Jeet introducing an ‘oral history’ section that derived its style from his 23 years of experience as a journalist. He was surprised by the fact that Davidar approved two controversial bits in Chocolate Saints, which he was sure was going to be cut or at least modified in some way, which I personally thought were the most interesting parts of the book. He also mentioned how lucky he was to find editors as crazy as he was. In fact, the prologue of Narcopolis is just one continuous sentence lasting almost six pages. A beautifully poetic sentence, but one which most editors would’ve rejected outright just for the sheer unconventionality of it.

Talking about designing his book covers, he told us about how no one noticed the mistake on the original hardcover edition of Narcopolis until after it was published—the designer had clearly never smoked a pipe before and the smoke was coming out of the wrong place!

Jeet’s advice to all of us was simple: Read. A lot. He stressed on the importance of understanding the author’s themes and the style, which is something he hopes that all the reviewers in this country, regardless of tight deadlines, would do.

Although we missed the opportunity to see him perform his poems (I regret not asking), my consolation was he signed our books with the coolest signature ever.

03 Jeet Thayil Autograph

My first master class was better than I’d imagined. Looking forward to the ones to come!

Deepti Ganesh