The Stella Interview: Sanya Rushdi

Next in our 2024 Stella Prize Interview series, we chat with Sanya Rushdi, whose debut novel, Hospital, has been shortlisted for the 2024 Stella Prize.

Sanya Rushdi

You started writing Hospital back in 2016, how did you go about putting the book together?

It was a story and experience that was waiting to be told. It was just looking for the right medium, whether it be a journal article, film or novel.

A couple of months after returning home from the hospital, I became very eager to share my story with a caring ear. So I gave a few pages of writing to a friend of mine, Bratya Raisu, who is a renowned poet, publisher and editor for a couple of online magazines. Raisu asked me to develop my story into a novel, because he thought it could make a good one. I was hesitant to start writing a novel so he asked me to give him some chapter headings – just one or two lines of what can be expected in each chapter. I did that, and upon writing the first chapter, it was published in, and subsequently more chapters. Although I didn’t end up sticking to the chapter headings, they were a rough guide to start with. Each chapter just flowed from the last spontaneously and naturally afterwards.

What led you to decide to write Hospital as fiction and not as a memoir?

I think a memoir involves writing about something that has already happened, so, in a sense it is talking about something that is fixed. Whereas a novel is more flexible. It is not like we know the entire novel and then we sit down to write it! The story unfolds as we keep on writing. Also, a novel has a particular focus; you want the story to get to a point – or couple of points. A memoir doesn’t necessarily have that. I think it is this particular focus that you have that keeps a novel moving forward, rather than looking backwards like a memoir.

What can you tell us about your collaboration with translator Aruvana Sinha? How involved were you in the translation process?

The writer-translator collaboration between me and Arunava Sinha was a very warm one. Arunava is a renowned translator in India, but he never threw his weight around. He always asked me if I was happy with the translation, and I was free to comment and suggest changes. So in that way, he involved me in the translation process.

“I was not afraid of being honest, personal and emotional … I think language has the power of making things up-close and personal, and also objective and impersonal. In Hospital, I aimed to draw a balance between the two.”

Beautiful and thoughtful descriptions of mental illness as the ones we see in Hospital are rarely seen in fiction. How do you think writers, particularly those with a mental health condition, can continue to write about this experience in a manner that is not sensationalist or prescriptive?

I come from an academic and psychology background, which I suppose encourages didactic writing in that one must be objective, impersonal, unemotional, etc. However, there is a branch of psychology that focuses on the qualia — which encourages subjectivity along with objectivity, and tries to discover what makes us human and not just statistics. I was fortunate enough to have a PhD project and a supervisor from that discipline.

A lot of what I have poured into my novel comes from my PhD learning (which I did not complete due to illness). So I was not afraid of being honest, personal and emotional, if that would show my point to the reader instead of telling them to just read and understand without feeling it. I think language has the power of making things up-close and personal, and also objective and impersonal. In Hospital, I aimed to draw a balance between the two.

Can you share with us more about your academic writing and research?

The project that I undertook during my PhD was to investigate the role language plays in the emergence and development of pride and possibly other self-conscious emotions in children. I was convinced based on my research, that language should be taken into account when trying to understand human psychology. My academic writing helped me write the novel succinctly, but also, it helped me realise the power of writing.

Writing Hospital was more therapeutic than anything else. I was hospitalised in 2015, and upon my release, I was unable to think much about anything. I was quite confused about what just happened, and what was still happening around me. So, after a while, I started writing to make sense of things.

Writing Hospital was a very emotional journey. I did not structure it consciously. But, I think, what I learnt through my academic studies and the emotionality involved in the writing process, gave it some kind of structure automatically. As I kept writing, I remembered things that I would not remember otherwise. I think that’s also what language can do: it can open up and spread out our memories and events, so that we can see it happening in front of our very eyes; we can see what was wrong, what was right and what can make things better.

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