Friday, April 01, 2016

U of Alberta writers-in-residence interviews: Ven Begamudré (1996-97)

For the sake of the fortieth anniversary of the writer-in-residence program (the longest lasting of its kind in Canada) at the University of Alberta, I have taken it upon myself to interview as many former University of Alberta writers-in-residence as possible [see the ongoing list of writers here]. See the link to the entire series of interviews (updating weekly) here.

Ven Begamudré [photo credit: Lynne Beclu] was born in South India and moved to Canada when he was six. He has an MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina. He has been writer-in-residence for the University of Calgary’s Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Programme, the Canada-Scotland Exchange, the University of Alberta’s Department of English, Regina Public Library, McMaster University’s Department of English, and the Yukon Public Libraries. He has also taught creative writing workshops at the Sage Hill Writing Experience; Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas; and Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

Begamudré’s book-length publications include three novels, The Phantom Queen, Van de Graaff Days and Vishnu Dreams; two story collections, Laterna Magika and A Planet of Eccentrics; a biography, Isaac Brock: Larger Than Life; and a poetry collection, The Lightness Which Is Our World, Seen from Afar. He has published dozens of shorter works in magazines and anthologies in North America, Europe, and Australia. He edited Lodestone: Stories by Regina Writers and co-edited Out of Place: Stories and Poems. He was an advisory editor for Tupelo Press, an independent American publisher, and was the founding president of the Sage Hill Writing Experience.

His awards include the F.G. Bressani Literary Prize for Prose, two City of Regina Writing Awards, and prizes for fiction and creative non-fiction from various literary magazines. His second story collection, Laterna Magika, was a finalist for best book in the Canada-Caribbean region for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

He was writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta during the 1996-97 academic year. 

Q: When you began your residency, you’d been publishing books for about ten years. Where did you feel you were in your writing? What did the opportunity mean to you? 

A: You’re right: by the time I began my residency at the U of A, I had been publishing books for about ten years; these were two novels and two story collections.

As a result, I considered myself in mid-career. Ironically, however, I had become fixated on—perhaps even obsessed with—finally studying creative writing in an academic or scholarly setting, and so I applied to the low-residency MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina. I chose this program for a number of reasons besides its sterling reputation. For one thing, I wanted to get away from the Canadian writing scene, of which I’d now been a member for some twenty years—given that I’d started writing seriously when I was 20 and was now 41 and a half.

Being the writer in residence at the U of A’s Dept. of English during 1996-97 gave me a number of opportunities. For one thing, since this is a town and gown residency, it meant that I could participate in both campus and off-campus literary activities—including a very well attended charity event that was held, I think, in Fort Edmonton. I had already been the Canadian writer in residence for The University of Calgary’s Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Programme and had recently returned to Canada after my posting as the final Canada-Scotland Exchange Writer in Residence. For another thing, the U of A residency allowed me to work with writers from the Edmonton area on their writing projects; these included fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, and even a letter that formed part of the writer’s application to law school. Finally, the residency allowed me to focus my attention on my family history manuscript, which was my most experimental project to date—including as it did journal entries, memoirs, unfinished short fiction, poems, retellings of Hindu myth, and family photographs. I had written and compiled this manuscript between 1983 and 1991 and, although many excerpts had appeared in magazines and anthologies, none of the large trade publishers I’d approached had been willing to take a chance on publishing it except for Penguin Canada, which wanted me turn the project into what we were calling a “conventional creative non-fiction book.” I had agreed to Penguin’s offer but, after having spent a year and a half on this new version—both in Canada and in Scotland—I found myself unable to continue, and so Penguin and I parted on amicable terms. (At any rate, I recently looked for, and found, this manuscript and have submitted it for possible publication to a regional literary press. We shall see what we shall see.) To finish with the question at hand, my ex-wife, Shelley Sopher, and I had an enjoyable and productive time while living in Edmonton—just as we’d had in Calgary and Edinburgh—and we made a number of new friends and colleagues as well as reconnecting with a number of old friends and colleagues.

Q: Given the fact that you aren’t an Alberta writer, were you influenced at all by the landscape, or the writing or writers you interacted with while in Edmonton? What was your sense of the literary community?

A: To directly address your question, and to do so briefly, I found the U of A residency to be just as interesting as my residency at the University of Calgary, and in both places I worked with fine writers—whether emerging or further along in their careers. And I found the same thing in all of the half dozen residencies that I have held between 1994 and 2002. Having said this, let me rephrase your question as follows:

Am I influenced by landscapes in general—in whatever province or territory I’ve held a post as writer in residence? The shortest answer is yes and no.

Yes, because I have to physically live in the landscape—or in the cityscape—and this means especially being aware of the weather and the environment. For example, I found that walking to work in Edmonton hurt my knees because I was walking into a west wind, and so I bought my second pair of wind pants, black ones. (I didn’t buy my first pair. They were white and were issued to me when I was doing my General Military Training [what Americans call Basic Training] as a guardsman in Ottawa while I was enlisted in the Governor General’s Foot Guards, a reserve military regiment. This was during 1973-74, when I was seventeen going on eighteen.)

No, because for many decades now, since my early twenties, I have lived in a mythical landscape that I call Bangalore, Saskatchewan—after the town of my birth in the mid-1950s in South India and after the province that I’ve called home for the past forty-some years. (In fact, I once published an essay called “Greetings from Bangalore, Saskatchewan,” sometime in the 1990s in Canadian Literature magazine.) What I’m trying to say is that in the mythical landscape I inhabit, the physical landscape might be, say, Scotland or Yukon or southwestern Ontario or western North Carolina, and the timeline might stretch for, say, five hundred years. But in the mythical landscape that I inhabit, there are animals and people, birds and fish, flowers and plants and trees, and, especially, there are any number of demons and gods because I am a Hindu, and this timeline stretches for some five thousand years.

What I’m trying to say is that for about 40 of my 60 years I have lived at the intersection of these two timelines. (Where I shall live in my next timeline is anyone’s guess, and, heck, there’s probably a story or a poem or another essay in this. Maybe even a play or a film script. Who knows? This is the beauty of being a writer—and an amateur artist and musician—here in the early 21st century in this Dominion we call Canada.)

You have only to look at my work to understand how all this can be—this yes and no. I am, after all, called a mystic realist writer (as opposed to a magic realist writer) and so you’ll find that the titles of my books range from A Planet of Eccentrics to Laterna Magika, from Van de Graaff Days to Vishnu Dreams. I’ll say no more about this (I’ve said quite a bit, as you can see) because, after all, I have spent the bulk of my career as a writer, editor, and teacher negotiating this mythical landscape and doing so every day. And so I hope that I’ve answered your question although, as you can see, I had to rephrase it to match my own circumstances as a South Asian, and as a Commonwealth, writer. (And did I ever write about my experiences in the Canadian army reserve? Yes, I did, in Vishnu Dreams, although in that short novel the soldier is a young woman named Durga Kumar—who remains one of the all-time favourite characters I’ve invented.

Q: Looking back on the experience now, how do you feel it impacted upon your work?

A: How do I feel that being writer in residence at the U of Alberta’s Dept. of English affected my work? Well, as I mentioned earlier, I went almost directly from this post into graduate school, which I had been thinking of attending ever since I took my gap year after undergrad—except that my first degree was in public administration, with a specialty in budgetary theory, and now my second degree was to be in creative writing. And, although the program, at Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina, asked us to specialize in either fiction or poetry, I attended the poetry classes as well as the fiction ones during each ten-day residency down there; but then I’m one of the many writers who write with the ear as well as the eye, and not one of the even more writers who write only with the eye. This is why such things matter to me as whether a sentence or a paragraph or any piece of writing—in whatever genre I happen to be working at the time, ends on a stressed syllable if I want it to end on a major key, and ends on an unstressed syllable if I want it to end on a minor key.

Don’t ask me whether this is a true way of crossing from writing into music (I’ve said elsewhere that I’m an amateur visual artist and an amateur musician [my specialty here is the piano—classical and jazz, and for many years I have been content to be at the early intermediate level). I only know that this crossing over works for me when I write and edit and when I discuss the writing of others, whatever level they happen to be working at.—other writers like the ones in my private South Asian mentorship program, in which I comment at length on a work (usually an ambitious work) every five years or so. And nowadays I specialize in commenting on South Asian work because I am, after all, as I’ve mentioned earlier, a South Asian and a Commonwealth writer.

But to get back to your question, which I’ve done in a rather roundabout manner, this post led me, via graduate school, from being a writer in mid-career to what we tend to call in this country a senior writer. By the time I retired from writing, editing, and teaching (this happened during 2008-09), I had published eight books and written a third of a ninth book and, thus, I had reached the lifetime quota that I’d set myself many years before, namely, to publish seven books of which I could be proud, or at least of which I could be glad I had published. Why seven? Well, it is a magical number (as are any other numbers magical; three comes to mind) and, as I’ve also written elsewhere during our exchanges, magic appears often in my work. The writer and scholar Daniel Coleman, who was finishing his PhD in literature during my posting at the U of Alberta said to me one day during one of our walks in the ravine north of the campus, “I’ve figured it out: writing is your way of reaching for enlightenment,” and at once I thought, “Yes, of course; he’s perfectly right.” Moreover, I can tell you that all of these seven books I set myself are really parts of one long book that summarizes my writing career, which spanned 1976, when I turned 20 to 2009, when I turned 53. Whether I shall actually reach enlightenment, I don’t know, and likely won’t know for another, oh, fifteen years at least, by which I shall turn 75. And so, let me end our enjoyable exchanges by saying that I was pleased and honoured to hold this post, and it will always be one of the many highlights with which my life—writerly and otherwise—has been blessed.

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