In this third edition of the ‘Five Questions for…’ series, featuring conversations with QWF Members about their practice and community, our Communications Assistant Audrey Meubus had questions for Rana Bose, who is an author, playwright, professional engineer and founding editor of Montreal Serai. Bose has written twelve plays, eleven of which have been performed, and has just released his third novel, Fog.
First, congratulations on the publication of your latest novel, Fog! In an interview, you spoke of how “We live between two aspirations. One that we really wish we could live by and what we actually live. This novel is about that conflict. About crossing over to the other side. It is not easy.” What do you think makes it so difficult to cross over to that “other side,” lift that smokescreen and reconcile our private self with our public identity?
Thank you very much for having me and yes, the launch of Fog was quite satisfactory in many ways. Over one hundred people attended, and the Q&A from the stage and the floor was quite interesting. I am grateful to the QWF for spreading the word. Also, I was quite pleased to break new ground by having the launch at the very spacious and elegant Espace Knox in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. Because of my theatre background, I have a preference for the ambiance of a stage, especially when it is inside a converted church!
Yes, about the two aspirations! I like your choice of the word smokescreen and the dichotomy between the private and the public identity. I have been conflicted myself. I increasingly feel impeded and even imprisoned by the notion of being labelled only as a writer, or a poet, or a playwright or an engineer. There is an all-encompassing person in there, inside all of us, from whom the truth should be outed, by any art form. The craft and art of writing should not be separated from our personal opinions about the world we live in. So, when we say one thing and hide a lot of the rest (behind a smokescreen!) we are kind of living two aspirations. One aspiration is to write a book that is read and sold – we are exercising restraint here. We are marketing.
The second aspiration is to bleed from the heart and capture other hearts in the process. The two must come closer. When James Baldwin says to write “clean to the bone,” he means one must write distilled. Walk the mind, so as to speak. So, we must write what is in the deepest recesses of our mind and in great detail. I feel no amount of wordplay or story crafting is going to let us off the hook. We can’t hide any longer. Every sentence we write, we must ensure that it is true to the character we are developing and in the end, the story is true. That is how we can cross over.
For those of us who may not have heard of or read Montreal Serai – which has just recently celebrated 32 years! – tell us a bit about the webzine.
In November of 1986, the very first issue of Montreal Serai emerged out of an era that saw the release of Hanif Kureishi’s film My Beautiful Laundrette and the killing of Anthony Griffin by Constable Allan Gosset within the perimeter of the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce police station in Montreal. Griffin was fleeing in panic. He was Black, Gosset was White. Gosset was charged with manslaughter and eventually acquitted. In the 1980s, racism was shamelessly epidemic, intolerance for diversity was rampant, and LGBTQ and two-spirit realities were patriarchally and culturally made taboo.
Montreal Serai had announced itself as a magazine whose moniker was New Arts, New Communities, and in 1987, a theatre group of the same name staged its first play at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre: Baba Jacques Das and Turmoil at Côte-des-Neiges Cemetery. As a founding group, we were significantly South Asian, but also White, African-Canadian, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and atheist. Aside from French and English, we spoke Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Chinese, Spanish, Persian, Tamil and several other languages. We were the original incubating spirit of cultural and social diversity, openness, tolerance, and experimentation, in a province that was still struggling with the “Révolution tranquille.”
In the ensuing years, the hard-copy magazine continued to come out ten times a year, partially funding itself through subscriptions, donations, and advertisements from local travel agencies, jewelry shops, and restaurants. Multiculturalism as a concept was already somewhat maimed, disfigured and replaced by inter-culturalism. Visible minorities or “communautés culturelles” had just been invented. We were unable to publish frequently due to a paucity of funds, and the magazine dwindled to six issues per year and sometimes even just four. We continued with our theatre performances at the Théâtre Calixa Lavallée, La Chapelle, D. B. Clarke Concordia, MAI, McGill Players, Moyse Hall, Marianopolis College, and in clubs, cafés, and festivals across Canada, from Guelph and Toronto to Vancouver.
Sometime in early 1995, Montreal Serai, which by now had the moniker “Bringing the margins to the Centre,” had become a fully digital online magazine – perhaps the first arts, culture, and politics webzine in Canada. Somewhere in that period we also began the excruciating battle for securing funds from arts councils and other sources. By 2010 we had published over 400 writers, artists, and poets; reviewed or displayed the works of several installation artists, filmmakers, poets, musicians, and painters; and interviewed some very significant local and international personalities. Today in 2019, we feel that the margins – the “ruelles” and back alleys we operated out of in the 1980s – are behind us. We are on the stage – in the centre – and diversity and acceptance are no longer matters of lip service. This centre is not a stage requiring occupation or capture, but space where we can co-habit with the larger community with dignity. At the same time, it would be illusory to believe that intolerance and economic disparity have subsided, or that funding for the arts is equitably available to Indigenous people and people of colour. The law 21 in Quebec is such an atrocious display of phobia about others! Our current editorial board continues to reflect a motley mix of ethnicities and languages. We stay alive as a platform for poets and writers, especially from Montreal, to exhibit their works.
In your career as a writer in Quebec, what are some of the significant changes you’ve observed in the literary landscape of this province? What are your thoughts about where we’re heading?
I can say that I have had the good fortune of being a part of a few book clubs and writers’ groups here in Montreal, even while I was working as an engineer. I retired from a full-time position in 2005.
Almost all the writers in the groups I participated in were well known Quebec Anglophone writers. They were primarily women and a majority of them had a very profound knowledge of writers from across the globe. My source of reading good books by good authors was them. They are the ones who exposed me to Didion, Silone, Roth, Balzac, Calvino, El Saadawi and many others, even Proust. I had been reading Baldwin, Auster, Le Carre, Hemingway, Rushdie, Desai, Mahfouz and others on my own. I am saying this because I do not think when I first came to Quebec in the mid-seventies, there was such a proliferation of creative writing courses, as there are now. I do not know what they read. Because I have never taken any writing courses myself. My background is in playscripts and dialogue. Some of my well-known writer friends teach courses on writing novels. Like me, quite a few of them do not have any formal background in writing. Something has changed and I come across more and more resumes of writers who have had certificates and degrees in writing. Once again, I also notice that many of these writing programs are channelled towards careers in professional writing, running blogs for agencies, content development, etc. So, there is a certain marketability built into these courses.
One thing I can say is that it is no longer necessary to be certified as a writer. Social media connects you to a plethora of writing styles and writing has changed drastically in the last several years. There is no “bard” category in writing. More and more, I see exhilarating writing coming from Indigenous and immigrant writers. They do not exoticize their past or present – which is something I tend to associate with. They write with a certain rhythm, and you can feel a certain pulse in their writing. A certain blend has emerged, and I see that as an important development. The QWF has played a significant role in that.
The other side of the coin is that there are quite a few self-indulgent and covetous folks, desperate to establish their credentials as writers, and they are allowed to do so, by reviews that are essentially run by a very centrist editorial direction. That is not always good. This is a result of the farming of writers through these proliferating courses. Writing is a lonely thing.
In the opening of your blog article “An Engineer’s Stalemate about Writing Fiction,” you paint a very relatable portrait of someone perceived as a writer undercover in engineering school. What do you think of this dichotomy that exists surrounding art and applied science? As a society, why do you think we’re so quick to separate them?
Someone who recently read my book Fog said that two things stand out. One, that I am deeply interested in art as in paintings (My second novel, The Fourth Canvas, was all about paintings) and two, that I am an engineer, because I was very explanatory, technically, about how a bomb had exploded in a plane.
I maintain that engineers, in general, tend to be poor writers. They often write terrible investigation reports. At the same time, I feel Arts and Humanities folks slink away from technical discussions or lose interest very quickly. There is a philosophical problem here. Engineers are trained to seek solutions to problems within certain design constraints imposed upon them. These are physical constraints. Like that of pressure, temperature, material strength, and nowadays more in relation to the environment. They have a tendency to seek a priori formulations as a basis for supporting their hypotheses. Their training does not consider Human Affairs adequately. Yes, there are some discussions on social ethics etc. But it is not enough. Arts majors and artists in general, are more geared towards their immediate surroundings. They are not constrained, relatively speaking, except when they hide from their own minds! If they see inequality, social stresses – they tend to be motivated to express themselves often. The folks in the Applied Sciences tend to be engrossed in nanoparticles and mathematical logic. In reality, there is no such thing as a straight line. It is part of a geodesic arc! That is a good thing to come to grips with. So, if artists and scientists can dance together, the 1% are in big trouble!
What advice would you have for any young writers today that are straddling these two different worlds and may be struggling to reconcile them?
I am not really in any position to advise young writers, because I am still struggling to find my own voice. It is only lately that I have realized that I cannot confine myself to a box when I come up with a story to write. I am talking about fiction here. When you create a story, the story should not be confining. I also feel that the details are important. Details reveal more than explicit statements. This is what I have learnt also. As strange as it may sound, it is sometimes better to describe the people living in a house by describing the mouldings on the ceiling in the rooms they live in, the curtains that sweep out of their windows when there is a cross-wind, and the furniture they use. But, as I said, I wish I had started out much earlier in my life – this business of writing fiction. I have much to learn.
Thank you, Rana Bose, for participating in this interview.