The Chat with Madhur Anand

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Madhur headshot

Our first conversation this month is with writer Madhur Anand, whose brilliant experimental memoir This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart was recently published by PRH Canada’s new Strange Light imprint.

Writer Jane Urquhart calls the book “Wondrously and elegantly written in language that astonishes and moves the reader…This is an important book: an emotional and intellectual tour de force.” 

Madhur Anand is the author of A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes and several other literary works published in national and international literary magazines. She is a full professor of ecology and sustainability at The University of Guelph, where she was appointed the inaugural director of the Guelph Institute for Environmental Research.

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Trevor Corkum: The jacket cover for the memoir calls the book “an experimental memoir about Partition, immigration, and generation storytelling” and it is—though you also manage to pack in an incredible range of material, from poetry and ecological theory to detailed observations of nest building and the fraught exercise of map-making. Can you tell us more about how the project was conceived and eventually took form?

Madhur Anand: The project was originally conceived as a duty I assigned to myself. It brings to mind the very broad Hindu concept of dharma—from the Sanskrit root dhṛ, which means "to hold, maintain, keep”—but I’m not religious. My mother had had a heart attack and then a brutal fall and brain bleed which led to a stroke. I realized I couldn’t let my parents’ oral histories be lost in one generation. I didn’t think it was enough for them to tell us their stories. They needed to be written down. The first parts you mention (Partition, generational storytelling, etc.) were new to me. I knew so little about my parents’ lives and about how to write prose, so I had to learn about all that, and I did so by reading a ton of good writing on those topics. But the second parts you mention (ecological theory, observation of nests, etc.) are things that are floating around in my head all the time, because I’m a scientist (a professor of ecology) and a poet. It seems inevitable that those two sets of things would collide to make this book, but I didn’t know it for quite a while, years in fact.

TC: The conceptual idea of Partition weaves through the memoir, as do concepts of symmetry and asymmetry. On one level, you explore the impacts of intergenerational trauma and how historical social and political events continue to echo and shape our lives. But this idea of separation, of binaries, is one you complicate and trouble. Can you speak about these concepts more and why they are so important to the work?  

MA: What a beautiful question, thank you. I suppose as a daughter of immigrants from India I may have been pre-conditioned to certain binaries (culture, language), and to accept a co-existence of them, even while that co-existence complicated my paths. But the coexistence of binary states (a.k.a. alternative stable states) is also the subject of some of my ecological modelling research, at the frontiers of complex systems theory. I seem to not want to accept simple binaries, even though I may have flipped between them regularly to resolve some temporary complication in my life (like choosing what to major in in undergrad, choosing whom to marry). I have always felt a general tension between the head and heart. The line dividing things is one that I find irritating but also fascinating. I think that is why I like the idea of the fractal so much. When a line becomes so complex, so crooked, it starts to fill up a space. It lies in between dimensions. Separation, which you also refer to, also implies longing and belonging, though in my case I’m not sure what exactly I have been separated from.
 
TC: You are both a scientist and a poet, and we feel the impact of the work both through its highly conceptual questions but also in terms of beauty, structure, legibility. How do these two vocations interact and intersect in your life?

MA: I’m glad you call them both vocations and not professions. That already gives us a lot to think about and suggests that the interactions are manifold. My first book of poems, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, saw much of that interaction between art and science, which, I think, led to new poetic truths. I’d like to think this is also the case for my prose. It’s however less obvious to me how poetry manifests in my scientific work. It’s not that I don’t think that my scientific work is poetic, it’s just that it doesn’t very obviously manifest itself there. I don’t know why that asymmetry exists. Maybe because in the academy and in society the arts are more friendly towards the sciences than vice-versa. Or maybe because the products of science are so different —and also judged so differently— that we aren’t trained to see the effects of poetry in them.

TC: The structure of the book itself is unusual. On one side is an account of the lives of your father and mother told in their voices, and when you flip the book over many of the same historical moments, memories, and themes are revisited by you. The result is a hybrid, a series of competing narratives that defy clear or easy truth. Why did you choose to structure the book in this way?

MA: About a quarter of the way into writing my parents’ stories, I started to write some of my own. By the end I had two sets of stories. One thought was to entangle them completely, but I couldn’t see how that could work. When I realized I wanted everything to be written in the first person (another complicated decision) then the decision to divide the book in two parts was mostly to help the reader know who was speaking. The "flip" halfway through, however, was the key added structure. I realize only now, while answering your question, that it was needed to create a nonlinearity. Nonlinearities notoriously lead to interesting dynamics—like bistability and unpredictability—in complex systems, effects I wanted the reader to feel. I think that links back to your question of how to accept competing narratives or deny "easy truth."

TC: Finally, the memoir explores difficult memories in the lives of family members—chiefly, your mother and father. How did you approach writing their side of the memoir and how did you decide what to reveal and what to keep from the reader?

MA: That’s a very difficult question to answer. I did want to cover a certain period of time, and certain major events of their lives and of the world, as well as many, many historic, scientific, and personal details, because in the end those details carried and propelled the work. But beyond those parameters, it was simply taking what they chose to tell me (and not tell me) and working as much as possible with that material to turn those stories into art, into something that any reader could, in theory, connect to. All I can say is that my approach (the ‘how’) somehow would make it clear to me what to write and what not to, to allow the reader to enter the book, to have a unique relationship with it. Having said that, it’s true there are major things not in the book. Especially on my side. I think those are stories that will need more time. Or maybe those are stories that will lend themselves better to fiction. We’ll see.

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The Theorem of Friends and Strangers

Let me tell you something that is true, but you will not believe it. Take any group of six people, say, at a party. If you pick three within that group, they will turn out to be either mutual friends or mutual strangers. Another: In any big city, New Delhi let me say, or no, let me say Toronto, there must be at least two people with the same number of hairs on their heads.

Another: Mark five dots randomly on a piece of paper, and it will result in at least four of them being able to trace a four-sided figure.
Ramsey’s Theory, the larger theory to which the belongs, allows us to find structure in apparently random sets. Partition Regularity, more specifically, allows us to take a set, partition it into some finite number of pieces, and then try to say as much as possible about those pieces. I have hundreds of pieces, fragments of thoughts. I want to say as much as possible with them. I want to find some application of Ramsey’s Theory for that. So that everyone in the subset is either a friend or a stranger. I want to find that person in New Delhi or Toronto who has the same number of hairs on their head as me. I want to match every feeling in one partition with its mirror image in the second. I want to trace that four-sided figure: a country’s border drawn by connecting a number of arbitrary dots, the past meeting the future.

Excerpted from This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart by Madhur Anand. Copyright © 2020 Madhur Anand. Published by Strange Light/McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

August 5, 2020
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