Category: Interview

In Conversation with Pankaj Sekhsaria

In Conversation with Pankaj Sekhsaria

Pankaj Sekhsaria wears many hats. He is a scientist, a journalist, a writer, an environmentalist, a photographer.. the list goes on. He has been working in the field of environment for more than two decades. This kind of commitment to a cause is remarkable. I spoke to him to gain insight into his work, his philosophy.

Pankaj Sekhsaria
Pankaj Sekhsaria (right) at the release of his new book ‘Islands in Flux – the Andaman and Nicobar story’ in Delhi at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) with Shakti Sinha, former Chief Secretary of the A&N islands and currently, Director, NMML, and Air Marshal (Retd) AK Roy, former Commander in Chief, of the Defence Tri Command located in Port Blair.

Raj : Can you give us an introduction of the various activities that you are involved in?

Pankaj : I would say that a lot of work that I have done for a large number of years is around the field of environment and ecology. I work with this organization called Kalpavriksh where one of the key pillars of our work has been the issue of human rights and tribal rights, so in a sense it’s the intersection of work on the environment but also on the axis of environmental rights, human rights, social rights. And within that, very briefly, one of my main areas of interest for a long time has been the field communication, but broadly in the field of the environment. So I have been involved as a journalist, as a photographer, as a filmmaker, as an author. It’s not so much scientific communication although I do a little bit of that too. So that’s one broad area of work.

Within that there are two or three thematic areas of work. One has been the work in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – this is again done with Kalpavriksh and the other work has been in the line of communication. For the last twenty years the organization produces this little newsletter called the Protected Area Update, which is a compilation of existing news on wildlife in protected areas. I have been editing that for the almost two decades now. It goes out every two months, a 24 page newsletter that provides information for people who are interested in the areas of wildlife and conservation. The other body of work which also intersects at various levels is photography. It also connects with the writing and the communication work. I have been interested in photography for a long time, so wildlife photography and environmental photography has been one area of engagement.

The other broad area of engagement has been with the Hyderabad based NGO called Dastkar Andhra that works with traditional cotton handloom weavers in the united Andhra Pradesh or what is now Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. I have been, off and on, in an ad-hoc manner, working with that organization to do a photographic documentation of the weaver, of the handloom and of the weaving village. So this also I have doing for nearly twenty years now. It’s not been as intense and as consistent as the environment related work, but as and when I have gotten the opportunity I have traveled with members of this organization to document. Occasionally I have also written about those issues.

The really new area of work is related to my recently completed PhD which is in the field of science and technology studies or sometimes also called as science, technology and society studies, or STS in short. So these are basically sociological, anthropological, historical analyses of science and technology. So you look at science, the scientists, the technologists and the fields of science and technology but you investigate them, you analyse them, you study them with tools that come from the social sciences.

Raj : One thing that strikes me is that many of your activities are themed around environment, its protection and the consequences. So how did this engagement with environment start? What was the trigger?

Pankaj : Right. My younger brother had always been interested in wildlife and environment. I remember I used to kind of make fun of his interest…what is this bird that you are interested in? So those days we lived outside Poona, very close were farmlands, a small stream, a river that was not very far away and a good small patch of forest by the river. And even gardens. Gardens are great places for bird watching. I remember I went for bird watching once or twice and saw a couple of birds and kind of got hooked in some sense.

And by the time I was in class 10-12, I had developed an interest in wildlife but also interests in a more general and broader kind of – the broader environmental issues. So for instance, those days, the Narmada Bachao movement was at its prime – there was a lot of mobilization of people and the discussion in the media was also quite prominent. And I started to, in a very small way become part of the support of the Narmada Bachao movement in Poona. So that kind of interest started to pick up.

And in class 11, I think, if I remember right, there was this very interesting padayatra along the western ghats of the country. It was called the Paschim Ghat Bachao Mohim, the .. Paschim Ghat Bachao Yatra (The Save Western Ghats march). So these were a bunch of very diverse people including anthropologists, ecologists, activists, journalists, students who had come together because of the common interest in the Western Ghats. They decided to get a first hand account of what was happening and what better way than doing a march – a Yatra. So two groups of people started from the two extreme ends of the Western Ghats – one from the Maharashtra-Gujarat boarder in the North and one from the extreme southern tip of these Ghats. And they walked along the Western Ghats for 100 days from opposite directions.. basically getting a first hand sense of the ecological concerns, of the social concerns… And they met in Goa – roughly the middle point – after 100 days to have a kind of a conference and a discussion on what they had seen. And it was called a Yatra but it was also – taking a bus when required, taking a boat when required because you were crossing dam waters or rivers, whatever. And I had an opportunity then to be part of the march for 10 days. So I joined them in Mahabaleshwar for the march for about 10 days. And then I came home and again went to Goa to join the concluding meeting. And you can imagine, you know, for a class 11 student who is interested in these things, this had a huge impact on me, in terms of seeing what people can do, seeing what the issues are, seeing what the impact was on people and also seeing what the possibilities are. So that became quite an influence on me. That’s around the time when I decided that I definitely want to work in the field of the environment.

Now simultaneously around those days – I am talking of junior college and then my graduation – I also started to become interested in the process of writing and communication. So there was an interest and the commitment that developed towards environmental issues and I also started to like the process of writing and communicating and photography. So somewhere I kind of made up my mind that I will work at the intersection of these two. I want to work in the field of environment and I want to work in the field of communication but it will broadly be at the intersection. So after I did my engineering I did a course in communication in Delhi. So that’s how things panned out.

andaman
A full grown elephant in the timber hard of Hut Bay, Little Andaman Island which is the traditional home of the Onge tribal community. This is a 1998 picture. Logging that was started in the Andaman islands by the British over a century ago continues even today but is much reduced. Logging in Little Andaman was stopped about 20 years ago.

Raj : You have been involved in environment and your PhD is related to science and technology. And in many aspects you know, these two are sometimes contradictory. Wherever you have a new project for science and technology, there are some environmental concerns so what is your point of view of maintaining a balance between these two?

Pankaj : I think one saw the issues and one saw the kind of development happening, one saw the impact, with the people one was seeing, with the perspective that had developed, one clearly saw and felt that modern science and technology and industrial development is at the heart of the problem that we are facing. Now, that, in some sense, continues to be true. But as we grow older and understand more you realize that things are more complex. One realizes that it is not so straightforward, I mean the world is a lot more nuanced, there are many more areas of gray, there is more ambiguity in that sense.

It might well be very easy to criticize but I also started to realize that we are part of the problem and we can also be part of the solution. So, what I said in the beginning – the interest in wildlife, going into an environmental concern was also a journey into understanding the complexities and the power plays and the politics. And not politics in terms of party politics but politics in terms of power hierarchies – who takes the decision, who benefits and stuff like that. So, you know, its a very difficult question to answer straight off except to say that the inequities are very obvious. And in that sense the Narmada movement or the other movements raised those questions. Very basically, who benefits at whose cost because you know you are willing to sacrifice people and ecosystems and the environment in the name of the nation’s development. But who is this nation? What is this nation for? Is it not the environment, environmental and ecological context or livelihood? Is it not the person who has lost his livelihood, or even his life? Is that person not part of the nation? These questions have been central to the work that I have done and this is central to the work of Kalpavriksh and many other organizations. And obviously there is no black and white answer. And why I am saying this is because I don’t have an answer to your question in terms of A, B, C and the question for me has become – are we asking the right questions? Are we pointing to the right issues? Are we asking enough questions and enough kinds of questions?

So you have narratives of development, you have narratives of progress, you have narratives of economic growth which is all fine but I think environmental critics, even economic critics are now asking questions about those things. And I won’t deny that I am implicated in that larger process. But I think if you can ask questions, if you can challenge, then that’s one step towards perhaps finding solutions to some of the problems. Am I answering your question?

Raj : Yeah. Actually, when you said that there is no A, B, C that’s true. I mean because there is no black and white answer to that. So I just wanted to get your point of view since you are connected to both fields.

Pankaj : There is the issue of equities and inequities. Who is making the decisions, who has access… these are things that are very important to point out or to engage with to the extent that we can. That really is the point that I want to make. So what happens is this – in the middle class or upper middle class in urban India, we point fingers at one set of people as the source of the problem but increasingly I want to ask questions of this milieu and the communities that I am part of. So that is definitely an important thing that one needs to do.

Raj : Since you mentioned middle class, that sort of prompts me to go into the next question. What I see is that in general people are aware of the problems of environment – not in a deep sense but in general, through social media and news media, people are being made aware of it. But there is no clear-cut way to what they can do because everyone cannot be a full time activist. So what can a normal person do regarding these issues?

Pankaj : At one level, I am beginning to think if this is an issue of, I mean, is just knowing about it enough? We know, but what do we do? I think the real fundamental deep question is – how are we responsible? If we as individuals are able to engage with that question honestly, and ask for answers – how I am responsible for what is happening? Or is it a problem that somebody else creates and you are aware of it and do you want to do something about it? What happens if you are the person who has created the problem? I am basically asking for self-reflection, at whatever level because I see no point in me telling Rajendra – this is the problem and you have to do this. This is what you can do. I want to create a frame where you will ask the questions.

That’s the way I would want to do it. If I start to see how I am part of that whole thing then what I see as a larger problem or who I see as being responsible itself will change in the first case. Otherwise I can blame industrialists or I can blame the politicians or I can blame A, B, C, D whoever the person might be. So typically you will say, in a forest ecosystem, the tribal and local villager are responsible for wildlife decimation. In urban cities we are saying, you know, the political system is so corrupt – what’s the point? We can’t do anything about it so we are not responsible for anything as individuals. So in the city context for instance when I drive the vehicle I am creating a demand for road space or fuel for that matter, so I am also part of the problem. It’s not like the problem lies somewhere and I am a victim. I am not a victim alone; I am also part of creating the problem. I think if we need to see our own responsibility and understand what can be done about it. And how can I push that reality more? So can I use more public transport? Can I use less water? At one level it’s also about simplifying the life that we live. So you know, what will you simplify? What all will you give up, for instance, if it’s a question of giving up? But I think you will also realize that there is a difference in impact all of us have on the environment. So, what impact you and I may have is so much different than the impact of say, a person in rural India or a person in tribal community. Right? We can’t treat them all at par. So once you realize this kind of responsibility then the question may be – what can I do? How am I responsible? How can I try to do something about it? So that’s what I would urge people to do. So that’s how I have come around to looking at the issue now.

Konda Dora Tribal community
A member of the Konda Dora Tribal community in the Anantgiri Hills of current Andhra Pradesh.

Raj : I want to change the track a little bit. There are so many things that you are doing at the same time. You are involved in so many projects. Do you have a system for time management? How do you prioritize your tasks? So how can you achieve all this.. I mean it’s really amazing.  Do you have any tips?

Pankaj: Actually, quite kind of chaotic.. I mean I don’t have a set-out chart of the work that I do. I’ve never thought about this actually. So what I realize is I think, generally speaking, is I am doing little bit of different kinds of work at the same time.

Raj : Multitasking?

Pankaj : Yeah, so multitasking is one thing but it’s also like.. say if I have two or three major projects to do, then depending on the time of the day, I will spend one and a half hours, two hours doing this work. Then I leave it behind, leave it for another day and move on to some other work on some other project. And if there is time then I will kind of move on to the 3rd thing – polish up something else or finish something else on another project. Each piece of work, each project has also its own demands depending on where the project is located, what has to be delivered etc. Sometimes, of course, more priority or more attention is to be given to finishing one particular assignment and something else, kind of, gets left behind. That a very general kind of thing that is there.

So it’s about building upon things slowly over time, but consistently. That for me has been key. It might just suddenly look like this guy has done so much but it is actually the cumulative output of many years of work. So it looks like a lot of work, which it might be, but it also not that it has been done overnight or in two days or a year or whatever. It is a slow compilation and consolidation that then creates the larger body of work. It becomes visible. There could be multiple outputs, multiple products, multiple kinds of visibilities that the work then gets and it suddenly looks like a lot of work is happening. So there’s a kind of optimization, if I may use that word. I think the issue really is of engaging with something on a long term, with depth… This allows for two or three things – 1) you develop a newer understanding and a width of understanding and 2) You develop your own reputation, your own confidence in that particular area. The other thing is that when you have done so much work, then I think the investment that you need to make in terms of time or energy is only incremental but the results visible are of a substantially larger order. You know what I mean? So to get a book out does not take me as much time to write a new book because…

Raj : Because you have already done so much work, so it’s cumulative..

Pankaj : Yeah, it also allows you a flexibility. As a writer I can say that there is a requirement for certain discipline. Different people write differently, but I am referring to writing in an incremental kind of manner. You can’t write book in a day, it can take years. So here is a process where you have to engage daily to the extent that you can or engage on a regular basis – two hours or four hours a day depending on what’s available. So there’s kind of slow building up – brick by brick. For me writing works best in the early part of the day, early morning – before the world has really woken up. So I will try to the extent possible to work in the early part of the morning for one hour, two hours, three hours, depending on how much time I have that day and what else needs to be done. So that’s how the writing work happens. And then I leave it for the day. This is useful in the creative process too because I don’t get saturated with the idea. I can come back to it fresh the next day or two days later when I have the time. And for the rest of that day I am able to work on some other projects and commitments. And then suddenly after three years or four years one has completed three or four substantially interesting and different projects. And it looks like it’s a lot of work. I think that’s how it works for me.

Raj : Your new book, Islands in Flux, can you tell us what is it about?

Islands in Flux

Pankaj : So Islands in Flux – the subtitle of the book is The Andaman and Nicobar Story – is a book that tells the story of these islands along axes and intersections that are broadly unknown or broadly ignored in discussion, in the media and in policy planning.. And what do I mean when I say this? For instance, if you mention the Andaman and Nicobar islands to anybody there are four or five broad associations that come to mind. Today, increasingly, it’s a great place for tourism, a great place for a holiday. It has been associated with this tribal community known as the Jarawa for various interesting reasons. There is, of course, the 2004 tsunami that hit the islands very hard; that is when the islands became internationally prominent and then maybe the cellular jail and the association with the freedom struggle, particularly in the Poona context with Veer Savarkar because he was also imprisoned there. So this really is all we know about the Andamans. We don’t know much more about them. And even when you look at the four or five issues, there are many levels and layers of complexity and details which are not known in the contemporary context. I have been writing about those islands for twenty years. There is a certain depth and a certain width of issues in these writings that many people don’t know about. So that is what the Islands in Flux is. It’s a compilation of a selection of my writings, organized around three or four broad themes that want to tell the stories of the islands that are not being told or have been ignored and relegated to the margins. .

turtle tracks
The tracks left behind by a Giant Leatherback turtle female as she returns to the sea after laying her eggs, South Bay at the mouth of the River Galathea, Great Nicobar Island. A 2003 picture.

Raj : Final question. How do you see the future? I mean in the Indian context , the future of environmental related problems in India. Are you optimistic or do you prefer to be more realistic?

Pankaj : So you know the picture is bleak, no doubt about that. But having said that I think there is a lot of space for hope. In environmental work we always end up being doomsday and destruction kind of people, always telling stories of doom and end of the world. So there are two ways I would like to answer that question. You know issues, for eg., of gender rights becoming important which was never a concern. So on the one hand things are going bad and on the other there is also this thing that people are trying and fighting, there are new creative initiatives, and positive signs of hope or seeds of hope kind of thing. So it’s not like it’s only doomsday – there are lots of problems that people are trying to find solutions to – that’s one thing. The other is that the Indian context or the south Asia context is a very unique kind of context. It is both a challenge but also an opportunity. Because you know everybody is absolutely stunned at how India works as a country. If you look at the ecological diversity of this country, from the Himalayas to the oceans, the mangroves to the deserts, we have some of the most unique and richest ecosystems. These, in turn, support a huge amount of ecological wealth and biodiversity and different forms of life and on these are dependent a huge number of culturally, socially, politically different human communities. I mean the kind of diversity that we have in this country is phenomenal. And it has sustained itself. There are challenges of course.

So, you know, some very interesting mapping has been done – if you lay a map of India with say the mineral resources, on top of a map of forest India, and on that you overlay a map of say, tribal India, you will see that they will overlap. In our geography text books in school you will see significant parts of Central and Eastern India for instance, marked as the the mineral bank of India. Your best mining in terms of iron or bauxite or coal happen in that belt, right? Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, parts of Orissa, parts of Madhya Pradesh – it it here that we also find some of the best forests in India and this is also the land on which the tribal communities are still sustaining themselves. But they are all on one top of the other. Now, this is the main source for timber and increasingly for minerals that the modern state and the modern development are demanding. And also a very interesting thing is the so called red belt where the maoists have a very significant presence – it is roughly the same area. If you lay a map of what is called – I think – the red corridor is what it’s called, all of these things overlap. Mineral India, forest India, tribal India and say, the red corridor India – it’s a very, very interesting overlap that is happening. And we should ask why that is the case.

Raj : So that itself tells a story..

Pankaj : So you have today in India people living in multiple time frames – you have the nomadic hunting gatherer tribal communities in the forests, you also have subsistence agriculture around large parts of India, you have commercialized large scale agriculture in other parts, you have a very extensive industrial society, you also have what might be called post-industrial society, you know the tertiary activity society or economy with the IT industry, service industry etc. Anywhere else all this will actually be separated by so many generations, but in this landscape they all exist in parallel. And often they are in conflict over the same resources for different reasons. A forest dwelling community might require it for survival, but the industrial enterprise requires it for sending a rocket to the Moon or creating a missile or something of that kind.

Raj : Right..

Pankaj : The sociologist Shiv Visvanathan has articulated the concept of cognitive justice where, you know, we acknowledge and allow for what he calls the right to ‘ways of life’. How do we ensure that these conflicting ways of living, conflicting demands on resources on the planet – how are you going to reconcile that? That’s the challenge. That is our reality. The tribal section of India is a significant percentage of our population and if you look at the numbers, youi realize that that the numbers that are being marginalized in our country are more than the population of most countries on this planet.

Raj : That’s significant..

Pankaj : So I think the picture is grim and it’s becoming grimmer because of the ideas of what development are and the way we are pushing ourselves as a country. If our aspirations, our models are only western and if we believe that runaway economic growth is the solution to the problem, what we see is only the manifestation of that fundamental idea of growth and development and progress. And it’s not with just this government, it’s been happening for many years now. So it is a challenge. But on the other hand, as I mentioned, you have so many people resisting. There so many people saying we believe in a different way of living, that we have the right to think differently, the right to do things differently. That’s where the hope also comes because they are saying we don’t want a monoculture, there cannot be a monoculture. And India I think in some senses offers the best opportunity for fighting the idea of the monoculture. Diversity and resilience is key. Any system that has more modes of anchoring itself is going to be a more resilient system. So if all the people are only dependent on only one form of activity for livelihood, if that activity is for some reason destroyed then all these people are completely lost. But if that population has many kinds of livelihoods, and doing different things – it is a simple kind of analysis – then there is more security. If any one kind of activity is disturbed, it’s not that everybody loses a livelihood, even though the whole system is shaken up. A very simple example is of the Andamans,. In the Andamans, you know, tourism has been promoted as one of the main livelihoods and economic activities. And it’s like all the eggs are being laid in the tourism basket. But it’s a place that is hugely unstable in terms of geological activities – earthquakes, tsunamis, storms etc. and tourist arrivals can be significantly affected by that. Like in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004, the tourism industry collapsed almost completely and that is obvious because which tourist will want to come into such a disaster struck zone? So if all the livelihoods and all the economic activity rely only on one industry – tourism in this case, then they will be completely lost. So this diversity whether it’s the food being grown or eaten, the different ways that we do the things – all that matters and is very important. And it is this inherent diversity that we should value because this is what will help us, for various reasons – to survive and to thrive.

We are a country with a whole lot of problems, I mean cultural, social, political, ecological. Many of them are of our own making as societies and communities. But I mean it’s amazing how much diversity, wealth and knowledge we have. So that’s where the hope is in a sense. It’s in-built in some sense. How can we work with that, how can we mobilize that, I think these things are the opportunities. That is the challenge!


All images and captions kind courtesy of Pankaj. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.

In conversation with Itchy Feet Comic creator Malachi Ray Rempen

In conversation with Itchy Feet Comic creator Malachi Ray Rempen

MalachiRayRempen
Malachi Ray Rempen

I have always loved comics and comic strips and the post-internet era has created a wonderful platform for the webcomic.

I have many favourite webcomics like XKCD or The Oatmeal and the number is increasing everyday. One of these is the Itchy Feet Comic created by Malachi Ray Rempen.

Itchy Feet Comic deals with two very specific areas : language learning and travelling. One of the things I love about Itchy Feet Comic are the minute observations on the experiences that are so universal that you cannot help but say “That is so true!” For instance, here is one of my favourites, about how airlines decide their ticket prices.

Itchy Feet Comic
Reproduced with permission from Malachi Ray Rempen.

I was curious about various aspects of Itchy Feet Comic and Malachi was very kind to answer some questions. Here is our conversation.

Raj :  ItchyFeetComic has a very specialized field – language learning and travel. How did this come about?
Malachi : When I moved to France in 2011, I wanted to somehow record my experiences as a foreigner learning languages and traveling, but I didn’t want to write a blog or journal, so I made a comic. I do a lot of traveling so I figured I’d have lots of material…and I was right!
Raj : How many languages do you speak? Which approach or learning method do you use when you learn a new language?
Malachi : I speak German and Italian pretty well, French pretty not well, and Spanish very unwell. The only sure-fire method I’ve learned is complete immersion. It’s definitely the most expensive and time-consuming method, but it gets results.
Raj : Post-internet era has seen a steep rise in web-comics where you can connect directly with your readers. It has also gives rise to some comics that can be called quite specialized like the PHDComics. What are your thoughts on this?
Malachi : I’m not sure what PHDComics are, but I love that the internet has allowed people to enjoy my comic, which otherwise would just be photocopied and circulated among friends and family, I suppose. All hail the internet.
Raj : I think the Peanuts comic strip on “Kilroy was here” is as deep and poignant as any of the masterpieces on WWII. I always feel that comic strips do not get the critical attention that they deserve. Where do you see the place of comic strips in arts?
Malachi : I think comics are an integral part of the arts, and I’d say recently they’re getting the attention they deserve. The generation of people that were kids when the first superhero comic books came out are now much older, and have influenced several generations of new artists and audiences to appreciate graphic arts.
Raj : How do you create humor? Exaggeration is one of the elements that’s obvious. Or do you go more by instinct?
Malachi : Exaggeration is certainly one of the elements of humor, but I think another is the one-two-three method. Basically, you make a statement, you repeat the statement, then you invert the statement. My recent comic about Italian meals is a good example of this technique, though a lot of my comics follow that formula.
Raj : Could you tell us a little bit about your other projects?
Malachi : I’ve got lots of other projects! Chief on my creative mind right now is the Merry Mariner, a kids adventure book series I’m writing and illustrating. You can already read some short stories (with lots of fun drawings) on the site. I’m working on the first book now. Another project that I think Itchy Feet fans – and anyone who likes travel – can get excited about is an Itchy Feet-themed card game. I’ve been working with a game designer in Canada, and we’re nearly ready. I’ve just printed the prototype and it looks fantastic. It’s also really fun to play. Keep an eye out for our Kickstarter campaign coming soon!
Many thanks to Malachi for interesting conversation.
Interview with Lisa Brackmann

Interview with Lisa Brackmann

Lisa Brackmann is a bestselling author of four novels and she has also contributed to a noir short story collection about San Diego. In addition, she has worked as an executive at a major motion picture studio, an issues researcher in a presidential campaign, and she was the singer / songwriter / bassist in an LA rock band. Her latest novel, ‘Dragon Day‘, was published this summer. I had an opportunity to talk with Lisa soon after her debut novel, ‘Rock Paper Tiger’, was published. In this interview, Lisa talks about her writing process as well as issues faced by artists in the wake of suppression, especially in contemporary China.


Sustaining both physical and mental injuries in the Iraq war while serving as a vet, Ellie Cooper finds herself in the strange surroundings of Beijing. Scarred from the inhuman experiences during war, Ellie is uncertain what the future holds for her, when she meets a Uighur dissident at a friend’s place. This single incident proves a turning point when soon after Ellie is chased by American and Chinese Secret services and it becomes impossible to know who can be trusted. The story provides glimpses of contemporary art scene in Beijing as well as the restrictions imposed on the freedom of artists. People getting together for any reason whatsoever – it may be as simple as exchange of creative ideas between artists – causes frowns on the unseen, unknown face behind the curtain. When every move you make is being watched, phones tapped, e-mails monitored, an ingenious form of communication evolves. Ellie and her companions communicate through Avatars of an online game called The Sword of Ill Repute. Fighting with dragons becomes a secondary task to secret exchange of messages.

Lisa Brackmann’s debut novel ‘Rock Paper Tiger’ was amongst the top ten mystery/thrillers on Amazon and it was also nominated for the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best Debut Novel. “Be prepared for a wild ride,” is how the New York Times praised ‘Rock Paper Tiger’.

It is immensely satisfying to read a good book. And the opportunity to talk to the author about it only adds to it. It was great pleasure talking to Lisa about ‘Rock Paper Tiger’.

Raj : While writing RPT, did you try to adhere to the standard plot structures – like plot twist on page so and so? Or did you let your muse guide you, with the end point fixed?
Lisa : I usually describe my writing method as “Kids! Don’t try this at home!” I’m not very organized in how I approach it. I don’t outline, though I do at times have certain key scenes that I know I’m working toward. Generally I have a few major elements that I’m interested in exploring, and the challenge is how to fit them together.

For ROCK PAPER TIGER, I knew that I wanted to write something that takes place in modern China, a setting that I felt was underutilized by Western novelists. I wanted to explore the contemporary Chinese art scene, because I found it really interesting. I also was very much concerned about the American “War on Terror” and the invasion of Iraq. So how could I juggle these disparate elements and turn them into some kind of story? The linchpin was the main character, Ellie Cooper, an accidental Iraq War vet. Through her I realized that a lot of what I wanted to say was about how imperial powers and unchecked authority, be they American or Chinese, tend to act in similar ways.

So, I really didn’t know how I was going to end the book. I pretty much let Ellie and those concerns guide me through the story. And along the way I realized that the book was really about how to live a moral, meaningful life in the face of huge impersonal forces that don’t necessarily value an “ordinary” individual’s concerns.

Mostly though, I tried to write a fun thriller that would keep people turning the pages!

Raj : In RPT, Harrison has an interesting point of view about political art and personal expression. What is your view on this?

Lisa : I pretty much agree with Harrison — didactic art is rarely good art. That said, I’ve seen a lot of overtly political art that is really powerful—a lot of work coming out of China, for one. And a few years ago I saw a show of contemporary Cuban art that really resonated with me. So I personally like a lot of political art—it all depends on the execution.

In a way that whole discussion in RPT was a discussion I was having in my own mind about writing the book—obviously I’m concerned with politics and ideas, and I have a certain point of view. But I also wanted to write a book that people could read on an airplane and enjoy (I was thrilled when I made a couple of “Hot Summer Beach Reads!” lists). If the artistry doesn’t transcend the politics, your book is likely to be an annoying bore. And I really wanted to avoid that!

Raj : The city of Beijing with its cafes, game parlors and urbanized habitats plays an important role in RPT. What does the city mean to you?

Lisa : I first went to Beijing shortly after the Cultural Revolution, in 1979. I lived there for about half a year. I was quite young, and the experience had a tremendous impact on me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it completely transformed the course of my life.

Beijing has changed so much since then that most of the city is completely unrecognizable from that time. It’s not an easy city to get to know or to navigate, and there are things about it that are frustrating, that can actually make me angry (the wanton destruction of historic neighborhoods and the structures that have generally replaced them I find particularly painful). But I still have a sense of familiarity and homecoming when I go there. And it’s never boring. Plus, if you want to understand China today, Beijing is the epicenter of it all. There’s way more to China than Beijing, and a lot of short-term foreign visitors will drop in on Beijing and Shanghai and come away with a completely distorted perception of what China is about. But if you want to see the cutting edge of China, the center of political and cultural opinion—Beijing is the place to be.

Raj : When I was reading RPT, I had this feeling of that not much is being told about the bad guys. Suit #1 and Suit #2 are carrying out instructions from the top. And in the background there is always this unseen, unknown enemy, watching your every move. This ambiguity –  how did it come about?

Lisa : This hearkens back to what I touched on in my answer to your first question. A lot of what RPT is about is this idea that most people are not these geniuses who are able to outwit bad guys and forces that are way more powerful than they are. I mean, it’s a nice fantasy, but most of us are worried about our jobs, our futures, our ability to make a home for ourselves in the world. To a certain extent these are existential problems: everyone wrestles on some level with the question of “how am I to live?” But the things that have screwed up Ellie’s life are not things that she can really control. She can’t find a job and wants to get money for college, so she joins the National Guard. Maybe that was a bad decision, but it’s not an unreasonable one for someone in her situation. Then, the leaders of her country, people who are way more powerful than she is, decide to start a war, a war she ends up fighting. She has no say in this. At the time she doesn’t have the knowledge or the experience to even understand what she’s been dragged into.

Which is not to say that each of us isn’t in control of our own moral choices, and that’s what Ellie comes to terms with over the course of the book.

But you know, the whole Abu Ghraib scandal, all the other prisoner abuse scandals, the only people who were ever punished for those were low level functionaries. The approval of torture as a legitimate tool of state power was made by people at the very top. None of them have been called to account. They probably never will be. And those are the “unseen, unknown enemies.” The truth is, we know who they are. We know who they are in the US, and we know who they are in China. They are the people with the most money and the most power, who make the big decisions, and who benefit the most from the power structures that are in place and that they maintain.

Raj : You speak Chinese, which is in many ways different from Indo-European family of languages. Did it change your perspective in any way?

Lisa : I really love studying other languages, and if I weren’t such an intrinsically lazy person with a short attention span, I would study a lot more of them. I actually don’t think of Chinese as something that is segregated from the other languages I’ve studied. It’s just another linguistic system to figure out. I look at the way it’s pronounced, I mean, how you actually form the sounds in your mouth, and I see some similarities to German, of all things.

That said, yes, there are no (or few) cognates with English. And the system of characters is totally different, and highly significant culturally.

Which is really the important thing. Being able to speak some Chinese (I am not fluent) totally changes my experience when I go to China. It is like having a key that unlocks all kinds of things culturally that you just don’t have if you can’t talk to people in their own language. I haven’t studied linguistics, but the idea that languages have a profound impact on how different cultures are shaped and how people raised in them think seems pretty obvious.

Raj : Could you tell us a little about your upcoming novel?

Lisa : It’s a literary thriller set in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, another place where I’ve spent a fair amount of time, about an American woman whose real estate financier husband has died, and she discovers that he was running a financial scam and has lost all their money, so she’s at a crisis point in her life on multiple levels. She takes an already paid-for vacation in Puerto Vallarta to get her head together, meets an attractive guy on the beach, they go back to her hotel, and things go terribly wrong. The book is also about the intersection of drug cartels, political power, and corruption on both sides of the border. It’s called Getaway, and it will be published by Soho Press in May 2012, and by Harper UK under the title DAY OF THE DEAD. They are also publishing RPT as YEAR OF THE TIGER in April 2012 in the Commonwealth. I’m very excited about all of this.

Raj : Many thanks Lisa for this wonderful discussion.

If you have questions for Lisa, please leave them in the comments.

Lisa’s official site is here. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Image credit : Lisa Brackmann.