Writing about Nepal from afar


When asked how he balances writing about Kathmandu while living abroad, Samrat Upadhyay asks: “What do we mean by authenticity? According to whom?”

“I come here often enough,” he says. “I did spend my formative years here. I understand the ubiquitous Nepali character, if there is one. Authenticity is such a curious term that implies there is like this one Nepali culture.”

Upadhyay arrives at Himalayan Java in Thamel for the interview nursing a cold, a day after an award ceremony for a short story contest of La.Lit magazine, where Upadhyay was the sole judge.

Popularly known as the first Nepali-born writer to be published in the United States, Upadhyay is Nepal’s most accomplished English language novelist, with seven books and various accolades.

When Upadhyay started out, there were few people in Nepal writing in English. “There was no sense of community. There was nothing like La.Lit or Quixote's Cove.” Now, he says, there are not just more people writing, but more people serious about writing – going on retreats, winning fellowships and getting published both here and abroad.

We circle back to his depiction of Nepal and if he is afraid of missing something when he is away. “I don’t mean to say I don’t need to keep up at all, as if Nepal has remained ossified,” he adds, “but I am also not walking around with some mental diary saying ‘Okay, let me figure out what has changed and what has not.’ I just absorb things.”

Like many others who write about their home countries in English, Upadhyay is often criticised for catering to a western audience. His writing has also been characterised as one that injects sex where it doesn’t belong, with readers falling on both sides of the critique.

For his part, Upadhyay seems more concerned about pushing past what is publicly shunned in what he considers traditional culture. He says La.Lit’s Writing Nepal 2019 shortlist had two stories that explicitly explored sexual boundaries: “People are becoming braver and bolder, expanding the notion of what it means to be Nepali.”

Transcending language is an issue too. Writers try to overcome the barrier in their own way, whether it’s by publishing an entire chapter in their native script or by approximating their language’s syntax quite literally into English.

“That’s the craft of writing for those of us who write in English about a landscape where the majority of the people are not speaking English constantly,” Upadhyay says. “It is kind of a judicious thing you do. I believe language is fairly malleable.”

It may depend on your command over your language, but it also speaks to who your intended readership is. Upadhyay waves off pages of Nepali dialogue with footnotes (‘It’s so passé’) describing it as something that will not reach a wider audience. On the other hand, he does not have his work translated into Nepali – although he has received, and rejected, samples by other people, yet found his own attempt at translating to take too long.  

“I thought, ‘Do I want to spend like two years translating my own work or do I want to spend two years writing a new novel? Which would be more pleasurable for me?’ The answer was obvious.”

His latest novel? “It’s still a work in progress,” says Samrat Upadhyay, “I am working on, I guess you could call it some type of a dystopian novel set in Nepal … Not full fantasy. It has strange moments, which I have enjoyed writing.”