Home > Interviews > Beneath the Social Being: An Interview with Mahak Jain
author photo Mahak Jain

Mahak Jain is the author of the picture book Maya, which was a CBC Best Book of the Year, a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, and a Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Best Book for Kids and Teens starred selection. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in The Journey Prize Stories 28, The New Quarterly, Joyland Magazine, The Humber Literary Review, and Room Magazine. She has been longlisted for the Journey Prize and PRISM’s Short Fiction Contest, and placed second in the Humber Literary Review Emerging Writers Fiction Contest. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. Learn more at www.mahakjain.com and follow her @kveenly.

PRISM is proud to have published Mahak’s short story “Rohan, Rohan, Rohini!” is issue 55.2. She catches up with PRISM Prose Editor Christopher Evans below.

While we were working on copyedits of “Rohan, Rohan, Rohini!” you brought up something I don’t necessarily consider when reading fiction on the page—the use of sound and, more explicitly, the way strings of words sound together. Are cadence and tone and other aural qualities something you always consider when writing? Do you strive for musicality in your work?

It has been so long since I’ve had the chance to talk or even properly think about my love of sound. You’ve reminded me how important it was to me and still is, behind the scenes. My early writing started from sound, back when I was devoted more to language and not narrative like I am now. I had a real love affair with particular sounds. Poems with only the hard ‘t’ and ‘k’ sounds. Or slipping the ‘s’ and ‘sh’ sounds in between the lullaby of the ‘l’ sound. Instead of starting with a subject matter or even an image, I would make a list of words with particular sounds and then contrive to make them coexist in a poem. 

I found with narrative I couldn’t be as particular. Or, I haven’t yet figured out how I can be both particular and not draw away from what is happening at the narrative level. Now I think more about pauses and tempo within a sentence and between paragraphs. Are we arriving at something too quickly? Does something need to be more sudden? I’ll speed up, slow down, accordingly. Sometimes I still carve a sentence that is composed around individual sounds, but I have to be careful. Right now, I am focused on the first-person voice and musicality (or lack thereof) has to suit the voice of the character.

Grief, and ways of dealing with grief, is a major thread that runs through your work—it undercuts “Rohan, Rohan, Rohini!” and is central to your children’s book, Maya. Why is writing about this important to you? Has writing about it affected your own understanding of grieving and loss?

I write organically—without a plan or purpose—so I am not exploring grief or loss with any sort of intention, so the pattern is a coincidence; though, of course, nothing is a coincidence in art. I am not interested in grief or pain or loss per se, which to me are facts of life—unmoveable fixtures—but yes, I do think pretty regularly about ways of dealing with, living with, grief. How do we cope with the heaviness of the past, the loss of our hoped-for futures? How do we move forward, day after day, when as humans we are programmed to remember pain more acutely than we are programed to remember joy? I think about that every day. Writing about it has made a difference. I didn’t know until after I wrote Maya how truly valuable the imaginative realm was to coping with the tender ache of life. As a result, I am now interested in exploring how joy and hope can take shape in the context of inevitable grief.

How, if at all, does your process differ between writing for children and writing adult-oriented fiction?

It hasn’t differed for me. With the way I write and think, stories are stories are stories. I feel this way about short stories versus novels, too. I know for many writers those forms are very different, requiring different muscles or ways of perceiving, but my mind thinks in narrative, regardless of length or genre. I’d love to write a wordless story, for example, a narrative composed entirely of images.

In “Rohan, Rohan, Rohini!”, Rohini struggles against her family’s history, and in your story “The Origin of Jaanvi”, Santosh fights his upbringing in India in favour of a more orderly, “logical” life in Canada. In both pieces, the protagonists seem to want to distance themselves from their own genetics. What is it about the tension between what we can control and what we can’t that interests you?

It seems like the central struggle of life. The tension between free will and fate, in essence. We are born into circumstances not of our choosing, and there is something political and deterministic about that fact. I am interested in what Aimé Césaire called “the unknown flower of Self”: “a profound being, over whom all sorts of ancestral layers and alluviums [have] been deposited,” which lies “beneath the social being.” With both Rohini and Santosh, with all my characters, I am trying to write about that tension, the gulf between their profound and social beings, trying to uncover their profound selves.

Now that 2016 has finally screeched to a close, what art or entertainment stood out to you last year? Is there anything coming up this year that you’re particularly excited about?

The movie Moonlight. I am in awe. The movie is a celebration of empathy, an act of love, which I think all art should aspire to, or at least, I aspire to, with my art. But my mind and heart have been too distracted lately by what is going on in the political landscape to have had time to be excited about anything particular in the future. I am excited—or hopeful—about art, in general. If art can be an act of love, then we need more such acts.

What are you working on now?

I am working tentatively and distractedly. Pulling together my short stories into a collection, writing the first draft of a young adult novel, and behind the scenes, developing the bones of a picture book.

Christopher Evans is the Prose Editor of PRISM international. His fiction work has recently appeared in The Feathertale Review, The Lifted Brow, and Going Down Swinging, and the anthologies Rock is NOT Dead and A Mixtape of Words.