The PEN Ten: An Interview with Suchitra Vijayan
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s Literary Programs and World Voices Festival Coordinator Viviane Eng speaks with Suchitra Vijayan, author of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India (Melville House 2021). Amazon, Bookshop
1. Midnight’s Borders is a people’s history of modern India, told through a seven-year, 9,000-mile journey along its many contested borders. The book especially focuses on the crisis of statelessness, in physical, cultural, and emotional senses of the word—to name a few. What was the moment when you decided you needed to write a book about India’s disputed border regions?
It wasn’t so much a moment as a sense that the world was churning again. Writing has always been a way to make sense of the world, hold still, and listen. I spent my 20s working as an attorney at the war crimes tribunals, running a legal aid clinic for Iraqi refugees in Cairo. I witnessed the hubris of war and imperial violence through my clients. In 2012, I had just returned from Afghanistan, having traveled along the Af-Pak border. It became evident that the border was no longer the end of a nation-state.
So, I began wondering what I would discover if I traveled along India’s border like I had in Afghanistan. I returned from the first leg of travels along India’s borders in 2013, less than a year before PM Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist government came to power. I knew that something irreversible had been set in motion, and I had to write about it meaningfully. In retrospect, the encounters foreshadowed the violence and upheavals to come.
2. The research you conducted for this book must have been an enormous undertaking that took enormous planning. Did the final product of your research and writing turn out the way you had originally envisioned?
The project I thought would take a few months took me over seven years. The book changed in multiple ways as I traveled, wrote, rewrote, edited, added, and discarded material. I initially envisioned this as a book of photographs. While the pictures remained the heart of this book, by the time I returned from the first leg of travel, it became clear that the format I had could not work for this book. The original vision of the book also had newspaper cuttings and found maps. I had to cut those out.
Two people who appeared in the book passed away, and one person disappeared. When the manuscript was ready, I had to rewrite huge sections when people chose not to have their stories published. Some were affected by the National Register of Citizens (NRC); others feared having their lives documented. So, I had to let many of the stories and encounters go.
In the India edition, we made the call to remove an image because it had identifying features. My editor GS Ajitha and I were worried that this might put them in danger. Thus, the book in front of you is not complete. It reflects the world we are in today. The book is not just a record of the stories but an indictment of untold stories. Absences and erasures scream louder.
“What is the moral question I am trying to answer? What am I trying to do by telling, narrating, gathering, archiving, and documenting these stories? Stories are not innocent, and neither are the storytellers.”
3. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your book?
Today, writing what you want and what is important is almost impossible. And it is infinitely easy to write about what is considered interesting. Unfortunately, difficult ideas seldom make it out into this world; if they do, it’s still a struggle to make them heard.
No writer is ever quite prepared for this realization that publishing still suffers from the tyranny of whiteness. By this, I mean that we are constantly required to justify that our stories, anger, and arguments are essential. So, we fight—first to be seen, heard, commissioned, then to write the book we want, and then fight to be acknowledged without being reduced to a symbol of brown experience or trauma symbol.
Year after year, survey after survey confirms that publishing still skews white. Skewing white is not just the racial composition of who writes, it is also about what gets published. What stories are brown and Black writers and those from working communities with no existing access to networks of privilege allowed to write?
4. The book opens with an introduction to a man who calls himself Ishmael. He has lived as a refugee for decades, having lost his family and home, which he would re-inscribe through hand-drawn maps—realistic and imaginary. You write that you have met “many Ishmaels,” individuals whose livelihoods have become reduced to memory because of war, exploitation, and violence. How do you make sure to honor the individuality of all the people you write about while acknowledging the shared ways in which state violence and colonialism have affected them?
Writing is never apolitical. We can’t simply write what is often called a “human interest” story without explicitly naming the structures of power that produced catastrophe in the first place. When we tell the stories of forced departures and returns, about homes destroyed, and lives uprooted, it’s easy to reduce these to catalog pain and suffering without naming who or what is responsible for this. We must be critical and aware of the dehumanizing and oppressive narratives that even the most well-meaning amongst us enable. The people I encountered and who appear in this book are eloquent voices of their history and clearly articulate their stories with clarity. Good writing, I believe, is letting their clarity and courage speak for themselves without inserting myself as the interlocutor or the interpreter. As I say in the book, I don’t intend to give “voice to the voiceless;” instead, these stories are a way to interrogate the powerful. Second, I repeatedly ask myself: What is the moral question I am trying to answer? What am I trying to do by telling, narrating, gathering, archiving, and documenting these stories? Stories are not innocent, and neither are the storytellers.
5. “For the maps of this world to make sense, many fictions have been put in place, and we have been taught to treat these fictions as fact,” you write, reflecting on how most of us interpret maps. Most people usually think about modern-day maps as “factual” primary sources, but you maintain that they are documents that should be subject to more critical interpretation. Can you expand on this? How can we better use geography to talk about dominant versus subjugated narratives?
The book opens with a black-white landscape image of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in Paktika Province, with a quote from Commander Mahmud—”It is the colonizer’s map, and they had no respect for our land. Why should we respect their borders?” The thread that connects everyone in the book is the arbitrary and violent ways their homes and histories were taken away.
There is an often-used phrase that geography is a destiny because it is a powerful weapon of control. Maps are never unimpeachable; they are produced by power and dictate how we encounter the world. Maps are like language; they mark territory and stake claims over who belongs and who is excluded. Above all, they justify the theft of land, murder of indigenous people, occupation, and reserve death of those who dare to breach these lines.
By the end of the journey, I felt that as a people formerly colonized and subjugated, we had been impregnated with dispossession. The legacy of loss shapes us in ways we are still coming to terms with 75 years after the partition. This is true of many communities across the world.
How do we detangle ourselves from the colonizer map and counter the ideology that produces dominant histories and narratives? These stories are told, remembered, and passed on. The question is, who refuses to hear them? To reclaim geography, we need to reclaim the histories of colonial plunder, conquest, and destruction of entire communities.
“The thread that connects everyone in the book is the arbitrary and violent ways their homes and histories were taken away.”
6. Did you always know you wanted to include photographs in Midnight’s Borders? What are some things that the photographs get across that would have been more difficult to convey solely through narrative writing?
A photograph can become an argument, memory, souvenirs of resistance, an object of mourning,
and sometimes the last challenge against oppressive history. There’s a lot of memory in
photographs and an important starting point for narrative meditations. A marriage between
writing and imagery is a central feature of the book. There is an ongoing dialogue between the
image, text, and cartography. Writing is always visual, and the photographs helped structure and
design the text and narrative.
7. You recently reported on India’s crackdown on press freedom in Kashmir. As a journalist working in India, were you ever personally concerned about facing retaliation about your own work?
India has become a dangerous place for journalists, writers, activists, lawyers, and students, and now almost anyone who dares to speak. For instance, writer and rights defender Teesta Setalvad and journalist Zubair Mohammad were arrested this week. Two weeks before, scholar and activist Afreen Fatima’s father was arrested under fabricated charges, and their house illegally bulldozed. Other journalists like Siddique Kapan, Aasif Sultan, Fahad Shah, and Sajad Gul
remain incarcerated for the crime of reporting. Others have been killed. The list is long, incomplete, and ongoing.
India and Kashmir have some of the most courageous journalists who do this work with extraordinary threats to their life. Death, intimidation, and, if you are a woman, rape threats have become ubiquitous. Traveling back and forth gives me more protection than most living and working in India. I am not a Muslim or Dalit journalist. If I were, the stakes would be very different.
8. How can writers affect resistance movements?
These are monstrous times, and I wake up each day with terror in my bones—the unending news of devastation, illegal arrests, violence, and legally sanctioned acts of oppression that don’t cease. It’s easy to retreat into despair, easier to forget. So now I write in anger, and I write not to surrender my rage. Writing confronts the lies we tell ourselves, militates against the need to normalize the catastrophe, and clearly articulates the inconsistencies in our empathy when we attribute dignity to one group while denying another their freedom.
Let’s not forget that writers can also write in support of those in power, obfuscate accountability, regularly indulge in false equivalence, and often equate the might of the state with those fighting its violence.
It’s easier to become an eloquent voice of the empire and oppression. For instance, many writers wrote in favor of the war on terror, invasion, torture, surveillance of Muslim communities, and extraordinary rendition. This moment is dire. We need writers who are cartographers of moral imagination, demanding consistently that we radically reimagine a better world.
“It’s easy to retreat into despair, easier to forget. So now I write in anger, and I write not to surrender my rage.”
9. Some writers write with a specific reader in mind. As someone born in India but now lives in the U.S., I was wondering if you could share with us who that reader might have been for you. Did you hope to share your research with folks who had no reference point regarding the border crisis in India or for those who might be experiencing it firsthand, too?
I have never had a specific reader in mind; if anything, I have always had to fight not to reduce my writing to an imaginary reader. Instead, the stories in this book are part of a greater, universal struggle over geography as individuals across the world navigate arbitrary borders, apartheid walls, and fences.
There is a constant demand on writers to shrink our work, flatten it out, or always write for a specific audience or a market. Growing up, I was taught a literary canon predominantly made of white, imperial, and Anglo-Saxon literary culture. So what does a child who had never set foot in Britain know of English summer or daffodils? Yet I was never asked if I was the right audience for it. So why are particular histories and geographies universal while others are not?
Kenyan literary stalwart Ngũgĩwa Thiong’o chronicles his experiences of being in prison. There is a telling line in the book, “The rituals of mystery and secrecy are calculated exercises in psychological terror aimed at the whole people—part of the culture of fear—and at the individual detainee—part of the strategy of eventually breaking him.” Detained was published in 1981 about a
young Kenyan writer’s illegal incarceration. Forty-one years later, these lines remain relevant today as I think and write about political prisoners in India.
There is a famous Baldwin quote—“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” I wish my books to be read in that vein, as universal, a slice of history connected to everyone.
10. What advice would you offer to young journalists who want to report on an issue dear to them, but don’t know where to begin?
There was never a golden age of writing and reporting. It’s painful, challenging, and has taken a turn for the worse. I am perhaps the worst person to advise others on how to do this. I have never had a traditional path to writing. I decided to become a writer when I was 29. I have been told that beginning a career as unstable as writing “this late in life” would be a disaster.
I started at the bottom, had no formal training in writing, no networks to rely on, and I was doing that in a country I barely knew. It took me eight years to write and report on this book. I was told repeatedly that a book like this was impossible to write, let alone publish. I still have a “spreadsheet of rejection and cruel words.” If there is anything I can distill from this experience,
it is this—never stop being unreasonable and never decide to quit based on other people’s opinions. Writing is an act of community; you can never do it alone. Finally, you will receive kindness and generosity; always remember to pass it on to others.
Suchitra Vijayan was born and raised in Madras, India. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, GQ, The Nation, The Boston Review, and Foreign Policy. A barrister by training, she previously worked for the United Nations war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda before co-founding the Resettlement Legal Aid Project in Cairo, which gives legal aid to Iraqi refugees. She is an award-winning photographer, the founder, and executive director of the Polis Project, a hybrid research and journalism organization. She lives in New York.