Sunny Singh was born in Varanasi, India. She read English and American Literature at Brandeis University, USA. She has a Masters in Spanish Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi and a PhD from the Universitat de Barcelona. She is head lecturer in creative writing at the London Metropolitan University. She founded the Jhalak Foundation, which funds and organises paediatric cardiac surgery for under-privileged children in India. She has contributed to a collection selected by Khushwant Singh, stories in honour of Ruskin Bond, American anthologies, Drawbridge Magazine, International PEN etc. An expert on Bollywood, her book on Amitabh Bachchan is scheduled to be published by BFI/Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Sunny. You have a PhD in Spanish. Did the exploration of different languages and cultures instill in you the desire to become a writer?
Sunny Singh: Actually, my PhD is from a Spanish university, but focused on Sanskrit aesthetic theory and its application to contemporary Indian cinema. I do speak Spanish along with other languages, but that is more out of choice than a course of study.
My interest in writing began in a simpler way: I have always loved hearing and reading stories and wanted from the very start to tell my own. Over the years, personal and political interests have grown and enmeshed with my creative process, but the basic instinct to tell a good story remains the same.
Vinita Kinra: What does the art of weaving words do for you on a personal level?
Sunny Singh: Words are the air my soul breathes. As a child, I would read everything, including the labels on cans and boxes. I still do. Just seeing words soothes my spirit. And being able to weave them together is exhilarating, exciting.
Vinita Kinra: You are a prolific writer delving into many genres. What comes easier to you — work of fiction where imagination rules or non-fiction?
Sunny Singh: I am quite a restless person and easily bored. This means that I have a range of interests and I am constantly reading and researching a whole host of things, often simultaneously. In this process, some ideas lend themselves to non-fiction while others to fiction. Often the ethical or ideological reasoning translates to both fiction and non-fiction in different ways and at different times.
Vinita Kinra: Tell us about your latest book Hotel Arcadia. Did you set out to write a thriller?
Sunny Singh: I still believe I wrote a love story rather than a thriller, for the book is about two damaged and lonely people finding themselves, and each other. The circumstances of the terrorist siege are really superficial to that essential loves story.
Vinita Kinra: Your debut novel, Nani’s Book of Suicides, explores the cultural identity of an Indian woman in a rather fantastical and haunting way. What inspired the theme of your first book?
Sunny Singh: Actually, that was an experimental novel in terms of form. As for inspiration, I think early works by most authors are about finding and defining oneself. They are often meditations of who we are, on identity and its formation. My first novel was very much the same. It was about how to be an Indian woman at the end of the second millennium, where traditions and modernity overlap, collide and coexist.
Vinita Kinra: How much of your books are autobiographical where characters and incidents reflect your personal experiences?
Sunny Singh: My books are autobiographical solely to the point that they are products of my imagination. Sometimes, I use places I know as settings, or I find a story that resonates during my reading or travels that I want to explore further. But beyond that, I find the idea that my fiction being autobiographical a bit absurd as well as insulting as it seems to imply that I have no imagination. I also feel that it is limiting for the reader to consider any work of fiction as autobiographical – it limits both imagination and critical thinking and it limits how much a reader can own any work of fiction.
Vinita Kinra: How important is the commercial side of writing and promoting your books as opposed to the sheer joy of the creative art of expression?
Sunny Singh: We live in a time that writers are expected to promote their work. I do what is required of me and I enjoy literary discussions – whether online or in real life. But frankly, I would prefer to do less of the promotions and more reading and writing.
Vinita Kinra: How has teaching creative writing refined your skills as a writer?
Sunny Singh: I can’t say teaching creative writing has refined my skill. I had published three books before I started teaching and was quite clear on how I wanted to develop my craft. At the same time, working with new writers is always exciting and fascinating. I learn a great deal about the zeitgeist from my students. I get access to interesting and very varied ways of seeing and experiencing our shared reality and that is always educational.
Vinita Kinra: You have lived and experienced diverse countries and cultures. How important is traveling and discovering new lands in shaping a writer’s work?
Sunny Singh: I think this varies from one writer to another. There are many writers who never left home but produced great work. Others travelled far and wide. As I said before, I am a restless person and for me travel is very much a form of research and learning. The world is my library, and travel merely reminds me that there are stacks I have not yet begun exploring.
Vinita Kinra: Do you feel satiated by your life journey so far, or are there more milestones to achieve in your personal context?
Sunny Singh: I am happy with what I have lived so far. It is a privilege and amazing good fortune to be able to live a full, happy, loved life and to create works that bring me pleasure and pride. However, there is much more that I would like to experience, imagine and create.
Vinita Kinra: What is your life philosophy?
Sunny Singh: To leave the world a little better, kinder, and more just than when I inherited it. This extends to my personal social, political as well as environmental interests and interactions.
THE ARCADIA. 67 HOURS AGO:
Sam thought that the first shots were in her nightmares.
She had been dreaming again of places she had consciously forgotten, of people she had chosen to deliberately erase, incidents she had buried deep, never to be dug up again, unmarked even by ephemeral tombstones. No, that isn’t quite true. Her photographs are tombstones for those unnumbered, nameless dead. But she files away the negatives and memory cards, never looks at the newspapers that print them, chooses to ignore the payments for them that eventually show up in her bank account, and crams the commendations, critiques and prizes in an ancient, creaking Ikea cabinet in the far corner of her studio.
No, she never thought of bullets, except in her dreams. Perhaps that is why she felt so disorientated when she finally awoke to the screeching of the phone. She had been expecting the sharp cracks, the muffled thudding explosions, to fade as always when she regained consciousness. Instead, as she shook the drowsiness from her mind, the bullet pops continued, punctuated by other more, animalistic sounds: shrieks, screams cut off abruptly, snuffling sounds of herds moving beyond her door, dull thuds of bodies, or something else, hitting the heavily carpeted floors.
‘Ma’am,’ the voice on the phone whispered urgently, ‘I am calling from reception. We have a problem. Please stay in your room. Lock the door please. And please turn off all lights. You cannot let them know you are there. Do not open the door for anyone. Please.’
‘What…’ she began, but a click had ended the conversation.
Vinita Kinra, featured among 150 most remarkable Canadians, is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. She is also a contributor for India’s largest English daily, The Times of India.