What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
When I was studying English and American literature, film, and Japanese in New Brunswick, I would make weekend trips into New York City to check out literary festivals and the writing scene there. One weekend, I stopped by St. Mark’s Bookshop, a favorite haunt, where I spotted Jen Benka’s beautifully hand-made, letter-pressed chapbook, A Revisioning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America (Brooklyn, 2003). The chapbook provided a meditative, satirical, and incisive analysis of the fifty-two words which constituted the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. The commentary of Benka’s chapbook was full of wit and keen insight into the emotional and social landscape of the US in the mid-2000s as American citizens, and in particular, a new post-Gen X generation, began to navigate through a very shaky and polarized political and economic climate. These poems would become the basis for Benka’s first full-length poetry collection, a box of longing with fifty drawers (Soft Skull Press, 2005), but Benka’s early chapbook, produced with the support of the Brooklyn Artist Alliance and illustrated by the artist Mark Wagner, was a stand-out collection. I was enchanted by Benka’s ability to blend lyricism with political satire, and capture the discontents of a generation just coming of age.
What are some of your favorite novellas? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a novella of your own?
Novellas seem to capture a magical middle ground between the poignancy and sharp edginess of the short story and the more decadent, sprawling ruminations available to novelists. Some of my favorite novellas include Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Leo Tolstoy’s Family Happiness, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. In Dostoevsky’s novella, the singular psychosis and at times, irredeemable actions of the narrator, an extremely likeable anti-hero, propel the narration forward. In Tolstoy and Goethe’s novellas, both authors emphasize and exploit the desires and emotional uncertainties of their central characters to hook in the reader. And Conrad and Pynchon excel at exploring how objects, symbols, and terrain can reflect and provide commentary on the psychology and motives of characters.
What’s the oldest part of your novella? Is there a section or passage that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the novella? What do you remember about writing it?
The first version of this novella started off as a ghost story, told over dinner in Kolkata, on an evening when the lights had cut out. The story itself is based on a true event or at least a lived-experience with some arsenic and old-lace added. But the curiosities of this story are their own.
The first version of this tale was typed at top-speed on a laptop. And then the entire manuscript was thrown out so the story could be retold by hand, paced by the flip of a page, illustrated, and re-crafted for the Brooklyn Art House Co-op’s The Fiction Project.
What’s your novella about?
A Night with Kali is at its core a coming-of-age ghost story. The novella is about a taxi-driver, Tamal-da, who explains why he left his fishing village near Krishnapur, West Bengal, to work on the dirty and crooked streets of Kolkata. Against an oddly purple mid-day sky, the narration opens on the rain-clogged streets of Kolkata, where Tamal’s car gets stuck in a flood. To pass the time and wait for help, he begins to tell his passenger of how he came to this city and his past, which is filled inexplicably with undead things.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your novella?
I had the pleasure of designing the illustrations for the novella, myself.
What have you done to promote and publicize your novella?
The Brooklyn Art House Co-op featured my novella, A Night with Kali, amongst a series of short story collections, fiction collages, and novellas for The Fiction Project 2011 Tour. The novella was promoted and featured at The Fiction Project 2011 Open Library & Reading Tour at the Form/Space Atelier in Seattle, Madrone Studios in San Francisco, the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, and at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.
At the end of The Fiction Project Tour, A Night with Kali, was digitized by the Brooklyn Art House Co-op. The novella is now housed in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Art Library at 103 North 3rd St., Brooklyn, NY 11249 and can be checked out and read at their library (Mon-Sun 11 am – 7 pm, Section: Nighttime Stories, Call Number 107.2-4). Or readers can access the digital print of A Night with Kali here and savor this coming-of-age ghost story on a rainy afternoon.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on my first novel project, a dystopian futuristic novel, which focuses on the trials and tribulations of a young female anti-hero, Mel Cassin. Her life is routine and mundane until one day her university-age brother, Lou, goes missing. This is the second person in her life who has disappeared. The first was her mother, who vanished from the Cassin family home when Mel was just a girl. Her younger brother, Lou, suspicious of the government’s involvement in the disappearance of his mother, attempted to join protests for social reform in college. It is in this moment of youthful rebellion, that Lou, too, disappears from sight, and Mel must find out what has happened to her mother and her brother, in order to understand the veils which disguise the machinations of her own government, the import of her own family and past, and the potential and ambiguity of her own individual agency.
What is your writing practice or process?
For both my fiction and poetry, I always try to write down the first draft of my work by hand (on paper, a receipt, or even a bar napkin). There is something about noting the rhythms—the rush and stop gaps in your own writing by hand that helps to develop and maintain a forward motion, an emotional authenticity, and a realistic portrayal of human foibles in poetry and prose.
Having hand-written a first draft, and revised and rewritten a few more, I move my work onto the computer, and then hammer away at it until I feel I have something of substance or that excites me every time I read it. For my fiction stories, I always try to interview my characters and figure out why they might have a certain kind of mindset or mannerisms. Finding a means to get inside a character’s head, her styles and rhythms of speech, her key formative experiences, and darkest secrets can be key to building well-paced, believable story.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring novella author?
First, read as much as you can, and don’t be ashamed to read those texts others may not consider “literature.” Look back at the stories, essays, films, poems, speeches, etc., that inspired you the most. Figure out what made them so effective. Did it have something to do with the structure of the story? The emotional authenticity and dynamism of certain characters? The comedy and turn of events? The ability of language to capture a lyrical moment persuasively and succinctly? Figure out why you are drawn to certain narrative and lyrical works, analyze these texts for elements of their style, structure, and content, and from what you’ve learned, see if you can do it. Go ahead and experiment, grab some coffee or brandy if you need it, and write, write, write until you get it right.
Rita Banerjee received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard. Her writing has been published in Poets for Living Waters, The New Renaissance, The Fiction Project, Catamaran, The Crab Creek Review, and Amethyst Arsenic. Her first collection of poems, Cracklers at Night, received First Honorable Mention for Best Poetry Book of 2011-2012 at the Los Angeles Book Festival and her novella, A Night with Kali, was digitized by the Brooklyn Art-house Co-op. She is Executive Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, and her writing has been featured on VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and on KBOO Radio’s APA Compass.
excerpt from A Night with Kali
By the time I reached the old Kali Mandir in the woods, I had lost sight of the shadowy white figure completely. Walking by the main gate to the temple, I stopped in front of the arched entrance way. The priest had not gotten up yet and had not opened the doors this early in the morning. But through the grilled gates, I could see into the main temple hall, which rose majestically in the middle of the forest canopy. Looking in, I saw the figure of Kali standing there, in the middle of the hall, with her wide and sinister grin. Her tongue was hanging out and in her hands, she carried a variety of weapons including a machete in one and a knot of severed heads in another. Across her lithe, blue naked body a garland of skulls draped lightly over her breasts. A short chain-mail skirt with links in the shape of human hands hiked up one of her hips as she stood with her legs parted wide on the body of her husband, Shiva. Her tongue, thus, rolled down of its own accord. Bracketed against the moonlight, she made a ferocious figure. But there was something protective and eternal about her, too. There was an air of mischief in her smile and the way her body posed provocatively for the spectator…
Watching the stationary figure watch me, I gave her a quick morning prayer… In the moonlight, the statue’s eyes glittered back at me.