Madhuri Vijay was born and raised in Bangalore. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, and her writing has appeared in Best American Non-Required Reading, Narrative Magazine, and Elle India, among other publications. Her debut novel, The Far Field won the JCB Prize for Literature in 2019, and is longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from the US and has lived with Indian communities across the world – South Africa, Trinidad, and Tobago, Malaysia – writing short stories.
Your debut novel, The Far Field won the 2019 JCB Prize for Literature which is regarded as the richest literary accolade in the country. What was the idea behind the novel and how did it feel to be awarded?
There was no single idea behind the novel. It was the amalgamation of various interests, ideas, and questions that I had over the years. Writing the novel was a solitary, intimate experience, so whatever public recognition and scrutiny it has received since being published (including the JCB Prize) has been strange and gratifying in equal measure.
Please tell us about the time you spent living and working in Kashmir.
I spent a couple of years working as a teacher at Haji Public School, a wonderful institution in the Doda district of J&K. The students there are lucky enough to receive a rare kind of education, which focuses just as much on sports, music, and civic responsibility as it does on science, maths, and other traditional academic disciplines. Those were some of the best years of my life, and I am very eager to return.
For how long did you work on the novel and how has the experience shaped you?
From start to publication, the novel took six years. I learned a lot along the way, especially about the patience it takes to do this kind of work, and the dizzying unpredictability of both the writing and publishing processes.
How much of a role does fiction play in influencing people, for better or for worse?
I am a little more skeptical than some others about the supposedly miraculous power fiction has to transform all of us into better human beings. I believe that reading, like writing, is an art. And, as with all arts, one has to practice in order to do it well. Reading requires certain qualities: an openness of spirit, comfort with uncertainty, a distaste for simple morality, an ear for language, close attention to image, and detail. The people who cultivate these qualities are good readers, and, yes, I believe they are often transformed by the fiction they read. As for people who do not possess those qualities—or are not willing to develop them—I do not expect they will be much moved by fiction one way or another.
The novel embodies a multitude of controversial themes. Did you ever fear a backlash while writing your plots?
I tried only to focus on writing the novel as well and as honestly as I could, not about what effect it might have on potential readers. I think that’s the only sensible attitude to take. If one worries about things like backlash and controversy, one either ends up quitting the project or produces something so safe and tepid that it isn’t worth publishing in the end.