Novelist Amitav Ghosh’s entry into the world of literature began with his grandfather’s bookshelf. In his Pushcart Prizewinning essay ‘The Testimony of my Grandfather’s Bookcase’ Ghosh describes its contents as ranging from 19th century masterpieces (Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Hugo etc) to Joyce and Faulkner and the more obscure Knut Hamsun, Marie Corelli and Grazia Delgada. ‘Their names,’ Ghosh writes, ‘ have become a kind of secret incantation for me, a password that allows entry into the brotherhood of remembered bookcases.’
In thinking about theatre and audiences, I immediately recalled this essay – one that I’d first read as an undergraduate. I remember a phrase I must have coined myself to describe my own wonder-filled relationship to the books that lined my own grandfather’s bookcases (like Ghosh’s grandfather, mine was also Bengali-a fact that we’ll return to later). The egalitarianism of the bookshelf, I remember thinking. It’s a place where all books are equal. They have equally assigned space, equal amounts of dust gather on their sleeves and (here’s the leap) owing to their proximity to one another some grandfatherly type must have considered them equally worth reading. At the time, I was very pleased with this piece of literary analysis. Especially because it explained a condition I shared with Ghosh. Amidst the Russians, the American realists, 19th century Victorian novels and a smattering of Jeffrey Archer bestsellers, as a child in pre-cable television India, I found myself.
The summer of my twelfth year was the summer of Thackeray, Somerset Maugham (and Enid Blyton, a staple of many children of my generation in India). On the one hand, I’d like to think that the great and specific ways in which these books differ from each other allowed me the space to find myself in them. On the other hand, this is of course the legacy of colonization in action. I was raised in India with English as my first language and that being true, there was always a part of me that was going to live in a world that had nothing to do with the world around me and lived forever in Cornish scones and magic faraway trees. Ghosh did his precocious reading in the 60’s and I did mine in the 90’s. And yet-the similarity of our experiences and the contents of that bookshelf is striking and has made me wonder….
What is it that makes us feel welcome in art and literature?
What makes us feel at home?
What allows us to imagine we might have a relationship to literature?
Who holds the key to this sense of permission or access?
And what is it that encourages us to return to art? To come back even if we have, for a moment or several years, left it?
Are the answers different for the novel than for theatre?
So what does makes us feel welcome in art and literature?
I found myself thinking a great deal about proximity. I was at my own grandfather’s bookshelf every summer for much of my childhood.
And boredom. Over the summer, the length of my grandmother’s siestas added up to the length of a Victorian novel.
Leisure. Which, in childhood means boredom-but it has a place here because unlike the teenage girls who slept deeply on the floor beside my grandmother during her siestas, I had not spent the day cooking and cleaning like they had.
And about a tie to ownership. Ghosh discovered that the books on his grandfather’s bookshelf belonged to a mild mannered uncle. Mine belonged to my mother. When she married my father, she left her books at her mother’s house along with her old life. This tie was soothing-her notes always in the margins.
And displacement. Who doesn’t want to escape their own meager childhood life? I yearned for adulthood. And also in some way, for England.
Finally, location. I mean both the physical relationship with books and also where they’re set. I had a direct and tangible relationship to the physical books. I knew they’d always be there. I came to know the order of their spines against each other. I knew where they were and I knew where I was. Novels are nearly always set somewhere. And the process of projecting into these spaces is one that’s contingent on the imagination and little else.
Who holds the key to this sense of permission or access in theatre?
What makes us feel at home?
How much harder than with theatre!
Proximity. You had to be near the physical space. Or near-ish. Or near enough that some willful grown-up might take you.
Leisure. That same grown up someone had to have time not cleaning or cooking or working (not to mention the means) to scoop you up and take you.
Ownership/Inheritance. Unlike a book you can hold in your hand, your sense of ownership to the physical space is confined to your memory of your experience (playbills, I’d argue do not conjure up the kind of sense memory that books do).
Displacement. Most theatre artists report a moment of falling in love in the theatre. It’s often a physical moment, where the sense of recognition is corporal and not purely intellectual.
Location: This one’s tricky too. It’s much easier to fathom a relationship with a bookshelf than it is to a physical space where plays often happen without you.
The large difference between reading a novel and a play of course is that the experience of reading a play in no way equates to seeing it performed. Reading a play feels to me a bit like a promise deferred, the experience of finishing a novel like the fulfillment of a promise.
So of course, as a child I was doing more than staring at the spines, I was absorbing their order of categorization, I was absorbing the mind of the person who arranged them (my mother) and I was absorbing the greater cultural consciousness that led to their yellowed presence on the bookshelf (the grandfather = British Empire). So of course, there’s nothing remotely egalitarian about the bookshelf or its contents. The role of the English language in India, the immense influence of Western literary prizes, my mother’s quiet love of literature all contributed to that moment when I pulled Ibsen’s “Wild Duck” off the shelf and spent the afternoon weeping.
Theatre artists talk a lot about those formative experiences in the theatre, the moment that you fall in love. But what if the preparation for that moment has been a long time coming? And that it’s invisibly and inevitably stitched to thousands of moments before it? Carefully tended and waiting for your presence? I’m reminded of Carl Jung’s assertion about the strong influence of the unlived life of the parents on their children. When I think about my own yearning to write, I can’t help now but think about the yearning of my mother with her notes in the margins and my grandmother who didn’t have enough English to read Tolstoy in translation but kept the entirety of the Mahabharata in her head.
So why were the bookshelves of Ghosh’s family and mine alike? He concludes eventually that the connection between the odd assortment of writers is the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bengalis have a particular fetish for the Nobel Prize. In Calcutta of the 20’s and 30’s, “Not to be able to show at least one book by a Nobel Laureate” he writes “meant you were almost illiterate”. Although that obsession has dimmed, there’s been a kind homogenization of bookcases around the world. All ‘serious bookshelves,’ Ghosh reports, are sure to have Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondjaatje on them. But this, he says, isn’t a new phenomenon. For hundreds of years, stories have found their ways to far flung corners of the world. Writers have always sought one another from across oceans.
Just being around a bookshelf with novels creates a sensation that a conversation is happening. Sometimes just my proximity to books alone makes me feel a part of the conversation. But without immediate access to the physical space of theatre I have the experience that people somewhere else are having a conversation without me.
When we talk about theatre we talk a great deal about exclusion. About the barriers to access, both institutional and cultural. And while I agree that this is true, I feel that the conversation is a broader and bigger one. Institutions can’t make space for what they can’t imagine. And with increased access to literacy and education, women around the world are writing. And forging new worlds on the page. The world is often an inhospitable place for those of us who have not historically had power to inherit. I know for sure I would not be writing plays today if Paula Vogel had not encouraged me AND underwritten the entirety of my MFA in Playwriting first at Brown and then at the Yale School of Drama. Art is not accidental. Time, historical providence, the generosity of mentors and opportunity enable its possibility. But I am encouraged by the sensation that the conversation is ongoing; new webs are being spun around the world in the way that they have always been spun (except perhaps faster). Stories are alive and clamoring to be heard. If it is quieter in theatre it is perhaps because new forms are being born elsewhere. And it is our charge to follow our curiosity and build robust structures to support them. Or watch the ghost light dim.
Dipika Guha was born in Calcutta and raised in tea drinking countries. Her plays include I ENTER the VALLEY (Weissberger nom ’14), MECHANICS of LOVE (Upcoming Roundabout Underground Reading Series), BLOWN YOUTH (New Georges/Barnard) and THE RULES (SuperLab Playwrights Horizons/Clubbed Thumb, Joust Theatre). She is the inaugural Shakespeare’s Sister Fellowship recipient, a current Playwrights Foundation Resident, a Dramatists Guild Fellow, Time Warner Fellow at the Women’s Project Lab, Ars Nova Playgroup and Young Writers Program at the Royal Court Theatre alum. Her work has been developed at OSF, Old Vic New Voices, Fault Line Theatre, Naked Angels, Cutting Ball Theatre, the Flea, Hedgebrook Women’s Playwriting Festival, One Coast Collaboration and the Tobacco Factory (UK) amongst others. She has been awarded residencies at the Ucross Foundation, SPACE at Ryder Farm, the Rasmuson Foundation and the Djerassi Resident Artist Program. BA: English Literature (UCL) MFA Playwriting (Yale School of Drama) under Paula Vogel. Current work in progress: UNRELIABLE through the Soho Rep Writer Director Lab and LIFTED with Sarah Krohn. Despite a long run in the north east of the United States she still drinks tea. www.dipikaguha.com
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.