Author Interview - Susan Abraham

V have been waiting with baited breath for the launch of the new poetry collection 'Call the ships of Dar-es-Salaam' by Susan Abraham. Well the wait is over and the book is out there in the bookshops for readers to grab a copy for themselves. The title of the book itself raises enough curiosity to want to know a bit more about the author. We were told it was quite hard to get hold of Susan but hey who said V didn't like a bit of a challenge! So we worked hard and played hard and recently, we got a chance to chat to the beautiful reclusive author and here's the tasty tit-bits for all the readers.
VAANI: Your poetry collection has launched recently, how are you feeling right
Susan Abraham: It's actually a work of modern lyrical writing, featuring both poetry and prose. An inate joy rests within me.  I was far more restless before I was published. I'm  stunned at the idea of people buying my book from different regions and that online booksellers went to town with the title display.

VAANI: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Susan Abraham: I wanted to be a writer from when I was in school and was heartily encouraged  by three  First Form teachers in the Convent, Klang in Malaysia, who read my compositions out in class. They were Mrs. Suppiah, Mrs. Khoo and Miss Harriet Possible. All vouched for a talent I didn't think I had.

VAANI: How long does it take you to write a whole poetry collection?
Susan Abraham: Each piece of work has separate distinctions of claiming a varied timespan, destination and exclusive memories, from personal observations. I merely gathered them together and categorized the manuscript appropriately, for the publisher, Mr. Edward Smith.

VAANI: What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
Susan Abraham:
I could spend a good 2 hours perfecting a simple rhyme or an hour, scribbling a story. My free-spirited lifestyle accords for an erratic but enthralling writing routine.

VAANI: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Susan Abraham:
An assortment of colourful pencils, I lug with me as a symbol of  art and merriment. The idea serves as a nostalgic romantic element. And I was rather surprised to read while already engulfed in the habit, that one of my favourite classic novelists, the late Dame Iris Murdoch, had featured a principal character, John Robert Rozanov, in her famous comic novel, The Philosopher's Pupil, that was published to splendid acclaim in London in 1983 where the fictitious essayist had often mulled with thoughtful contemplation at a row of vibrant pencils, whenever he worked. I never quite got over that.

VAANI: When did you write your first poem and how old were you?
Susan Abraham: I wrote my first poem at 14, while still upset when my best friend, Jennifer, started following a popular clique in school. My confidences were betrayed and for added injury, my voice was mimicked during a school excursion by the said Jennifer who followed in a different bus.  The result  was a clumsy narration but sympathetic classmates snatched my journal and handed it to our ethics teacher, Miss Rajan who marvelling at the dramatics laid out before her, longed for some theatrics. She read it out in class. She praised my skills but what squabbles ensured afterwards...a group of 14 year old loyalists and Jennifer, now branded a bit of a traitor. It was my first smug moment of reckoning.

VAANI: What do you like to do when you're not writing?
Susan Abraham: I adore world literature and world cinema. I have a good collection of books and films. When I'm not travelling, I love the outdoors. Coffee in a cafe with character, that sort of thing.

VAANI: What does your family think of your writing?
Susan Abraham: My partner, close friends, my father and family on my father's side in Kerala,  would be full of oohs and aahs.  My parents are separated. My father sees my Art as a reflection of all the good things, he tried to teach me in life.  My mother and my brothers  are traditionalists and conservative Christians. They shy away from the thought that I would be so liberal with words. My mother has had her kinder moments but is a terribly private woman and from her own issues, used to stay wary of what I wrote.

VAANI: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
Susan Abraham: That I was truly in my element, basking in a great ease of spirit at doing what I loved. I didn't realise that preparing my manuscript for publication to meet a tight deadline, could trigger such enthusiasm.

VAANI: How many books have you written?
Susan Abraham: Call the Ships of Dar-es-Salaam is an accidental first book. It was chosen in an autumn publishing round by YourWriteOn in England. I also had another work of fiction selected.  The publisher has since waived the deadline and allowed me to take my time with the novel. I'll be mountaineering in January sometime. My aim is to reach Uhuru Peak on the Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and collect my certificate. I have made it up the summit twice already and at the last count was just two hours away from the Peak.  I had to pull back because of a sudden ankle injury. I am working on my memoirs for this climb. I would like the memoirs to serve as unusual travel literature.

VAANI: Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer? If so, what are they?
Susan Abraham: I think eloquence and articulation follows when a writer falls in love with the language and is allowed to become intimate with the fundamentals of a language's technical idiosyncrasies and to waltz a room  with it. There is vast depth to a vocabulary that befits the English Language for instance. I would say to read very good books not a few but several and to nourish one's subconscious, with excellent, challenging wordplay.  This over a subsequent period of time and not on a whim.
VAANI: What do you think makes a good poetry?
Susan Abraham:
I've never really thought about this in a lingering sense. I've always just been able to write poetry naturally, when a moment in time warrants it.   I would personally view good poetry as playacting mirrors or prisms, exhibited for the reader's soul, in a  bold manner that reflects different faces to a theme, a subject or an object being written about. That one, would view a leaf or a sparrow perhaps, as represented by an intriguing imagery that creates an abyss for introspection. An abyss that opens up different worlds for the reader of a poem and forms a meditation by default.

VAANI: How would you describe ''Call the ships of Dar E Salaam' to someone who has not read any of your previous poetry?
Susan Abraham: I'd describe Call the Ships of Dar-es-Salaam, as a work of modern - and not classical - lyrical writing  of various contemporary prose and poetry on Malaysia, Tanzania and Ireland. I would describe my work as pastoral where landscapes are concerned and sobering but uplifiting, as regards romantic odes and relationships. And that the entire collection would be fringed by a high-spirited childlike vigour, in parts.

VAANI: You are known to write all kinds of things. Does poetry come easy to you? What other things do you write? Do you have a specific writing style?
Susan Abraham:
Poetry comes naturally to me but at sporadic moments of my life, almost like a season that would come and go. Prose is my great enduring passion. It just happens that sometimes, even my serious prose has a habit of turning lyrical. I recently made a comeback to creative writing after travelling for some years. Before that, I worked as a professional magazine journalist for a Singapore fashion magazine and once before, even as a copywriter for an international advertising agency in Kuala Lumpur. In the past, I've had short stories plus children's and adult radio plays  aired over Radio Malaysia. I could write various styles but employing different forms of serious fiction, as I love the intricacies of language.

VAANI: How did you come up with the title?
Susan Abraham: The title stays beholden to me as a silent exhilaration that lures me back to one of my favourites cities; the bustling ancient port of Dar-es-Salaam... famous in Tanzania but still unclaimed by tourism.

VAANI: Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
Susan Abraham: I would love for readers to see the silver lining to every dark cloud in their own lives, to observe how optimism and a spirit of thanksgiving can lead to wonderful things. And that  when they read my book, to shed parochalism for the idea of embracing exuberant foreign lands, if only they would be courageous enough to seek them.

VAANI: Your poetry has a kind of ache in them even when they are sensual and erotic, has that got something to do with your own life experiences?
Susan Abraham: Perhaps. I'm not too sure here. I've always been a bold writer even at 13 and prodded the imagination to seek emotions outside the self.

VAANI: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
Susan Abraham: Anjali Joseph who recently published her novel, Saraswati Park. Such an elegant down-to-earth style. No pretentious superficiality. No hint of trying to impress the West. Also, Leela Soma who published her novel Twice Born after a life in teaching and produced a convincing plot that rested on the complications of an Indian immigrant family in Glasgow. And Wena Poon who is published by Salt in London.

VAANI:  What was the book that most influenced your life  and why?
Susan Abraham: Quite a few books influenced my life including Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and the biographies of Beatrix Potter that held lavish descriptions of the Lake District. One prominent example  would be Iris Murdoch's darkly comic novel, The Black Prince.  I was at a crossroads in my mid-twenties where I felt extremely unsettled in Malaysia where I was born and raised. I wanted to broaden my horizons and felt a great spiritual call to the West, even if I had to make my way alone. My writing was already universal in approach - I was never bound by ethnicity or personal cultural communities at the first instance - and I felt that a Western environment would give me the freedom to express my thoughts.  That I would be better accepted and that my audience would be clearly defined.  I wasn't sure if this was the right thing to do but on reading Murdoch who would paint such realistic, hilarious scenes with her characters that highlighted intellectual circles of misfits comprising writers and poets, I just knew that I wanted to be in England in that similar 'emotional' space. The Black Prince was a novel that showed me who I was. I never let go that vision.

VAANI:  What are your current projects after 'Call the ships of Dar E Salaam'?
Susan Abraham: I'm tying up the loose ends for my novel for the publisher who's waiting for it and also working on my Kilimanjaro memoirs, which I want to do in addition to past material; in real time while in Africa in January and February.

VAANI: Name one entity that you feel supported you i.e. family members/friends.
Susan Abraham: My best friend, Lidia in Melbourne.

VAANI: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Susan Abraham: My novel is made up of eccentric characters based on personalities I've met in real life, on a famous street in Tanzania. So it would be considered East African literature. My Kilimanjaro memoirs will be different as I plan to sketch out an insider's view of personal episodes with mountain guides, safari guides, mountain rangers and the odd dangerous  scammer that can crop up from nowhere. There are many haphazards. I've witnessed fights and arguments over tipping and the use of porters and cooks. I know the bars where freelance guides hang out with beers or a smoke, hoping to get clients. I am one of the very few foreigners especially that I'm a woman, who goes up the mountain alone or takes part in wildlife game drives, with an all-man crew of local guides who are friends. Most people come in the context of tourist groups...the tour schedule is laid out, everything is done.  They keep to themselves, get on with their paid holidays and leave.  But I know these guides and rangers on a personal level. I'm aware of their complexities on the Kilimanjaro and I've been to their homes, met their wives and children etc. I'm aware of the hardships of the Kilimanjaro's original inhabitants, the Chagga tribe.

VAANI:  Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Susan Abraham
: Not at the moment.

VAANI: Give us three "Good to Know" facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about  your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would  enliven your page.
Susan Abraham
: a)  It's been years since I wore anything close to a skirt or dress. And yet, I was extremely sophisticated while working as a fashion journalist. I was very timid as a little girl  but became extremely confident in later years. I turned sporty and was gregarious in the outdoors. I became a tomboy.

b) I hate filling in forms so I have a habit of collecting landing cards of my favourite countries and keeping them away till I need them. Recently,  I filled in mine for Dar-es-Salaam at the Emirates Lounge in Dubai airport, while in transit for my Tanzanian route. I had a coffee and sandwich and wrote out the form in my neatest handwriting.  The buxomy matronly immigration officer behind the chaotic counter was most impressed and showed my card to her surprised colleagues. 'Very clever girl," she said approvingly. This is exactly how a landing card should be filled. I can read your writing." She gazed at me with awe. She thought that I too, had huddled at the long crowded table with other jostling passengers. I held on to my secret.

c) Once my mountain guide told me I had to lose a little more weight, so as not to pick up any more ankle injuries. I was actually considered pretty fit. Well, it was midnight on the Kilimanjaro...there was a thunderstorm and the snow was falling heavily and there I stood in anger, not caring about boulders or ridges, but balancing most skillfully at a jagged precarious height. "You calling me fat?" I challenged. I had no fear of heights or the risky weather at all, but was more annoyed from my vanity. I am marvellous on mountains but can be accident-prone in everyday life.

What else do you want your readers to know? Consider here your likes and
 dislikes, your interests and hobbies, your favourite ways to unwind ‹
whatever comes to mind.
Susan Abraham: 
I have no fear about travelling to obscure regions alone. I am currently in love with translated Arabic literature. When I read something from the Arab world, I feel renewed in a splendoured way. In 2011, I plan to go exploring by myself in the Middle-East, to places with romantic names. I love flamingoes. I would fly to Tanzania sometimes, just to regale in a sea of pink flamingoes. I now love authentic cultures with a passion especially Iranian, African and the Middle-East. But I must always come back to find myself in the West. I feel most safe in the West. My plan is to live by the sea and to wake up to the waves every morning.  I love New Age music. My childhood dreams are easily renewed when I hear lively music like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass or Dave Brubeck's Take Five. I have my favourite rituals in airports especially pertaining to my favourite cafes and bookshops, even at departures. I'm always sad when an old airport is abandoned eg. Dubai and Abu Dhabi and new terminals take their place. I always feel that an airport loses its soul after renovation.

I dislike self-righteousness and the several quotes, that many Facebook people especially, tend to display with the subtle intention of preaching to others. I dislike the idea that someone should tell another how to live. Then why are these peoples' lives so safe and conventional? I actually go out and do things but I don't keep reminding people of what they should be saying, thinking or doing.  I also dislike exaggeration and the competitive spirit, I face with the commercial tourist on an annual budget, when I say I travel. How could they even compare my life to theirs? Yet they try. I also dislike false modesty and any kind of one-sided situation in a public domain where there is no mutual respect, especially when the only connection is virtual.

My favourite colours are indigo and cobalt blue.
My favourite flavours are vanilla and coconut.
My favourite bird is the flamingo.
My favourite flower is the rose.
V thanks Susan for her time and her kindness. It has been great talking to her and V promises, V will come back to the readers with a Book Review in a zippy. So just watch out for this space!

An interview by Smita Singh for VAANI.


Reena's Bollywood Dream by Jewel Kats - A book review

Reena's Bollywood Dream by Jewel Kats is a thought provoking book. The story is made stronger by the the simplicity of the words used to describe horrendous childhood experience of abuse.

Reena the main character tells her own story and that makes it easier for children to identify and understand the significance of the issue. Jewel has perfectly managed to bring out the strong emotions of the child character even in the restrictive space of a picture book. Her efforts to raise awareness among young people is commendable and there's no better medium then a picture book.

On the other hand Richa Kinra amazes the readers with her beautiful illustrations through out the book that enhances the story written by Jewel. The visual aid provided in the book by the talented Richa are immensely enjoyable and even though the theme is serious the pictures act as the positive harness for the story.

It would have been great if there was a little bit more on the feelings and emotions of a child after the incident.

Both Jewel and Richa have done a fantastic job of bringing up this tabooed issue and talking about it in a sensitive way as well as giving advice on how to deal with it. A must read for all young people and also adults as they need to know what a child could go through and also that they should trust their child more.

Smita Singh

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