Nostalgia holds little appeal for Anosh Irani. The notion that the past was better, after all, can turn joy to despair. “But longing, for me, is different because it leads to a search,” says the acclaimed author and playwright. “Longing for home—if you think about the search for home—it’s one of the most primitive and oldest instincts that we have.”
Home in Irani’s material occupies not only the geographical and physical, but the psychological as well. The outsiders who populate his fiction—orphans, beggars, prisoners of the sex trade—face disillusionment while seeking a place in an often hostile world.
Translated From the Gibberish: Seven Stories and One Half Truth, his debut collection of short stories, maintains key themes and demonstrates his command of the form. Drawing for the first time on Irani’s experience leaving India for Canada to pursue literary ambitions, the vignettes move beyond the subcontinent where Irani has set previous fiction, which includes his 2006 novel The Song of Kahunsha, an international bestseller.
Already among his five books are a hero’s quest, a coming-of-age tale, and a family saga. (Respec-tively, these are The Cripple and His Talismans, Irani’s 2004 debut novel; Kahunsha; and Dahanu Road, from 2010, which was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.) Though strategies change, what remain constant are imagination-searing moments of savagery and grace.
Operating in closer proximity to autobiography here wasn’t his intent. “That’s one of the things that I love about writing,” Irani says to the Straight at a downtown restaurant. “I have no idea what I’m going to find. You start with what you know and you end up with what you don’t know. I would say I always resisted when it came to writing about the immigrant experience with respect to myself, but this just came through me.”
After finishing his 2016 novel The Parcel, a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Irani found himself writing short stories. The publication of one of those pieces, “Swimming Coach”, in Granta was encouraging, but winning an award from the Alberta Magazine Publishers Association for another, “Circus Wedding”, about a doubt-riddled clown’s proposal, led to the start of the collection.
A sense of urgency, resulting in part from the then approaching 20th anniversary of Irani’s arrival in Vancouver from Mumbai, spurred introspection. “There are some people who are immigrants and you ask them about ‘home’, they’re extremely comfortable about it,” Irani says. “And there are others like myself—we don’t fit in anywhere now.”
This reflection helped produce Translated’s title story, told in two installments that bookend the volume and portray a solitary writer resembling Irani as he wryly contemplates dislocation and a life directed by artistic concerns.
“Perhaps, back then, I didn’t understand the seriousness of my undertaking—I was about to lock horns with something that was larger than me, more powerful, and completely dangerous,” the narrator observes. “I was on my way to becoming a flammable object. That’s what writers are.”
Ambiguity and trauma, which fuelled The Cripple and His Talismans, itself a bestseller, inform Translated’s “Mr. Molt”, where a gangster’s wife covets a penguin from a Mumbai zoo, believing it to be the reincarnation of her lost son. In “Behind the Moon”, Irani alters the fate of a character from his 2017 play The Men in White, a nominee for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, to broach dangers posed by language barriers, and to detail the alienation of an exploited cook at a Surrey restaurant.
Irani began writing the story a couple of weeks after completing the play, and repurposing the cast opened new avenues. “The form exerts a different kind of pressure on the character,” he says, “and squeezes that character in a different way. Each genre exerts its own claustrophobia.”
Irani’s writing thrives on the reveal, the sudden remark or action exposing absurdity as a means of survival and rapport as a cloak for malice. This is exemplified in “Swimming Coach”, which maps the eponymous protagonist as he makes his way across pools in Mumbai, a riff on John Cheever’s classic story “The Swimmer”, and “The Treasury of Sweetness”, a tour de force in which the owner of a Vancouver sweet shop discovers his customer service yields unforeseen returns.
Along with the concept of home, Irani wanted to explore iterations of grief and legacy and how individuals can be snared between free will and destiny. Commitment to truth and complexity, imbued with dark wit, guides his prose. Despite describing segments of the book as “very personal”, he says, “I wouldn’t necessarily call it autobiographical.”
A memoir may one day appear. For now, however, Irani plans to focus on other endeavours like Buffoon, his play about a clown, which premieres in Toronto this fall.
There’s no rush. Life and art, he notes, gain richness over time. “The depth that you get in your writing has so much to do with who you are as a person as well. At least for me it does. The more I’ve grown as a human being,” Irani says, “the more experiences I’ve had, I think my writing—if not better—it’s had more depth.”
Anosh Irani is scheduled to make two appearances on October 25 at this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest, which runs from October 21 to 27. See the festival’s program for details.