Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Wednesday February 21, 2024: Maximum Shelf: Provincials

Yale University Press: Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries by Sumana Roy

Yale University Press: Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries by Sumana Roy

Yale University Press: Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries by Sumana Roy

Yale University Press: Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries by Sumana Roy

Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries

by Sumana Roy

In Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries, Sumana Roy takes a contemplative literary stroll back through time and across continents, pondering the exceptional contributions to literature by writers whose rural and small-town upbringings were presumed to hold them at an intellectual disadvantage from their cosmopolitan, more sophisticated peers. While collecting these "unaired histories," she returns to her own childhood in Siliguri, a small West Bengal town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, and savors the unexpected benefits of a countrified life far from the temptations of the metropolis. Nestled within chapters titled "Postcards," "Place," "Pedigree," "Poetic," and "Pran" (the Sanskrit word for breath and life), are empirical gems on the spiritual climate of small-town life, one that affords its writers an altogether distinct energy and perspective on humanity and the natural world.

Roy (How I Became a Tree; My Mother's Lover and Other Stories) is a close observer of trees and plants. She teaches creative writing at Ashoka University in Sonipat, India, where she is also working to create a first-of-its-kind living archive of writing and art on plant life. She became alert to the concept of provinciality when a colleague referred to her as a "provincial." Unnerved by the use of a word she hadn't associated with herself, she was confused at the reference. Why was it a derogatory term? Until then, Roy had never considered herself any lesser than her city-dwelling contemporaries. That revelatory moment ignited in her a deep desire to connect with scholarly ancestors who, in their own eras, were spoken of condescendingly as provincials. What she discovered was a trove of talented global writers who were underestimated, just like she was, and yet who contributed remarkable bodies of work to the literary canon. Surveying the splendid imaginings of the country-dwelling Brontë sisters; the skillful, small-town aesthetic of Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore; and the "unlettered but philosophically minded" Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa's contribution to his country's literary heritage, Roy was thrilled to recognize in her literary predecessors a resourcefulness she summarizes thus: "When 'nothing happens,' invention happens."

Invention was essential to the worldly, cosmopolitan flair the author and her classmates yearned to cultivate during their boarding school years in Calcutta. Inspired by the Hallmark-style cards she eagerly pored over in stationary shops, Roy became the designated letter writer for peers with boyfriends to impress, fictionalizing their lives with romantic flourishes in English, the ultimate language of sophistication. It is here, early in the first chapter of the book, that one first encounters the delightful depths of Roy's brilliant yet understated humor, her ability to translate everyday life experiences into memorable anecdotes whose sparkling rendition draws readers in and makes them laugh. That letter-writing provincial hoping to capture a potential lover's attention, she observes, understood the "Viagra-like role" of English as the language of lovemaking, even if the recipient could not read English.

For a post-colonial provincial like herself who is fluent in the English language, there was still the hurdle of pronunciation, and she writes feelingly about the linguistic perils inherent in speaking a language one rarely heard spoken aloud. With a horror of mispronouncing words, Roy tries to learn from YouTube, but the sounds leave her immediately. Accepting that it's difficult to change "the habit of the tongue," she forbids herself from saying certain words out loud in public for fear of embarrassment.

The chapter "Pedigree" opens with a 16th-century provincial writer who cared not a whit what others thought of him. William Shakespeare, the son of a glove maker, lacked a proper education in Latin and Greek, the foundational languages of European culture. Born in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon in central England, he was a social and intellectual outsider when he arrived in London, an "upstart crow" according to fellow playwright Robert Greene, who accused Shakespeare of borrowing the "feathers" of his Oxbridge-educated peers. Without the benefits of class, education and place, Shakespeare adopted out of necessity an "ad hoc ethic, of letting the impress of whatever comes his way annotate his learning." Roy writes admiringly of his autodidactic tendencies, a skill set essential for the provincial to succeed in the metropolis. It was the same for the "bearded upstart" D.H. Lawrence, a boy from Nottingham, the son of a miner and a self-taught writer who found much success with, among other works, Lady Chatterley's Lover. The time period covered by Provincials extends well into the present day, with the contemporary voices of writer Amitav Ghosh and director Greta Gerwig, among others, included in Roy's narrative.

Provincials pays particular homage to Rabindranath Tagore, a writer who, despite being born in the city of Calcutta, spent his most impressionable years in small towns. In his work, Tagore champions the rural life, marveling at the way humans share their surroundings with "the elements, plants and animals," and associating it with a sense of freedom and "deep peace" unavailable to city dwellers. Even the deprivation of provincial life, where mail and newspapers rarely arrived on time, was essential to his creativity.

With praises already sung by writers like T.S. Eliot about the cosmopolitan life and the classics it nurtured, Provincials seeks to inaugurate an ongoing literary conversation about those who "lurk at the periphery" of city life. Throughout this insightful, impressively researched book, Roy holds the word "provincial" up to the light, examining it from multiple angles and merging poetic imagery of the natural world with an honest examination of her own heart. --Shahina Piyarali

Yale University Press, $26, hardcover, 352p., 9780300266139, March 26, 2024

Yale University Press: Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries by Sumana Roy

Sumana Roy: The Empowering of the Provincial

Sumana Roy
(photo: Tanita Abraham)

Sumana Roy is an Indian writer and poet. Her books include the nonfiction How I Became a Tree; the novel Missing; Out of Syllabus, a collection of poems; and My Mother's Lover and Other Stories, a story collection. Roy, an associate professor at India's Ashoka University, is from Siliguri, a city in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. Her work has been published in Granta and the Los Angeles Review of Books. In Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries (Yale University Press, March 26, 2024), Roy turns her attention to the literary life of global provincial writers.

You've studied the concept of provinciality for more than two decades, ever since someone used the term "provincial" to refer to you in a derogatory manner. What led you to author a book about the subject?

This was about 20 years ago. I was troubled by the word because I knew it to be a pejorative. When I reached home after an overnight train journey, I rushed to the dictionary to check whether I was right about the meaning. Yes, I was. It hurt me, to be called a provincial, just because of the circumstances of my birth and location. The hurt would soon turn into something more enabling and, hopefully, also ennobling. I was conscious that it was turning into a tic--like I was able to identify writers and musicians and painters from their styles [and] as provincials from their work. And suddenly the word "provincial" became empowering--how fortunate we were to have led this life of neglect that had produced this angular history. Soon I was assembling a cast of people who had been formed by provincial life in different continents. I wanted to write this book to reclaim the category so that provincials do not feel small when the word is used for them.

Shakespeare, the "upstart crow," is one of the most fascinating examples of a provincial. Do the perceived disadvantages of provinciality affect the prospects of writers today in the same way they did in the past?

The publishing centers are metropolitan locations--they are usually helmed by people who, in spite of their best intentions about diversity, often think of stories and histories of these unknown places as either "ordinary" or "exotic." In post-colonial cultures like the one I come from, this has meant the occlusion or neglect of literature that is not in service of the nation or other such serious categories. The pursuance of joy--ananda--as an unconscious life project, a subject that I find common to many provincial literatures, isn't considered serious enough. That is also the reason a writer like R.K. Narayan, who wrote about provincial life from the southern Indian provinces, has been neglected by the academy--they don't know how to read him, he's not a citizen novelist.

Provincials is rich with intriguing and tender personal stories that touch upon your parents' vastly different cultural backgrounds. How did this affect you growing up?

The difference in their caste and class backgrounds and the hostility of their families to their marriage meant that my brother and I grew up without any extended family. My mother's family had abandoned her; my father had had to move to Siliguri, away from his family, to be able to protect us. There was one thing that they shared though--it was their provincial origin, and though the differences in dialects and cuisine would confuse us and sometimes even hurt us, their joy in the small things, their open-hearted belief in the world, and their insistence on beauty as being as necessary as food and water and sleep and an income, have made us the people we are. In this they were not alone--they were part of a generation who lived on hope; also, they did not feel the urge to migrate to the city.

You write that provincials are not victims, that deprivation can bring its own type of joy. Can you expand on that?

I grew up with my father's tic for quoting proverbs in the unlikeliest circumstances. "Necessity is the mother of invention" was a slogan in our family--for everything my parents couldn't afford, for everything we wanted or needed but couldn't get, we were to invent alternatives. I never felt like a victim--the colloquial ethic was to make do with what was at hand, that deprivation could nurture unexpectedly artistic side-effects. That brought its delights--the joyous accidents, the hilarious failures, energetic experiments, somersaulting improvisations.... Though I often wished for a better education, for there are limits to autodidacticism, and though I sometimes wished for access to opportunities that metropolitan groups had, I never felt like a victim. Feeling like a victim might have robbed us of giving life--and ourselves--many chances.

How does your "abnormal obsession with language" impact your approach to writing?

Not having a lot of resources--toys or even books, for instance--as a child, I perhaps took to language as a toy. When I say language, I also include numbers--I am obsessed with playing with numbers inside my head all the time. Language has made me a lie detector--I'm able to say whether someone's words are borrowed, whether there's spin, whether it's just performance of correctness; the freedom to probe, to question, to imagine, to care and be inspired that language allows us, perhaps compelled me to become a writer.

The final chapter in Provincials is titled "Pran," the Sanskrit word for both breath and life. Here you describe your childhood dream of playing professional cricket. What role does cricket play in your adult life?

I was quite terrible at it, but that didn't prevent me from dreaming about playing professional cricket--I also wanted to be on the men's team! Sport was very important to the provincial imagination--we were addicted to cricket and also to football and lawn tennis. Since I couldn't play any of these sports, I compensated by knowing statistics and the rules of the game. T-20 [a shortened game format] took away a lot of joy from my cricket watching life--speed and its allies, arrogance and power and violence, took away the poetic mix of meditation and action that older forms of cricket had brought to lives like mine. I still know the statistics, by the way.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Like with almost everything else I've written, my hope always has been that it will inaugurate a conversation on a subject that has not been discussed theoretically for not being significant enough in the humanities. I've been told that the publication of my first book How I Became a Tree has led to a growing body of thought and curiosity about plant life in Indian art and literature, and I really hope that Provincials is only the first of many affectionate investigations about provincial life and culture, that this book becomes a baton in a relay race that involves many provincials, both my contemporaries and those who will come after us. --Shahina Piyarali


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