Author Chhimi Tenduf-la talks aboutt how he prefers dialogue to description in his stories, never facing writer’s block, being exposed to different cultures, and the characters in his wonderful anthology of stories that are based in Sri Lanka, Loyal Stalkers.
Chhimi Tenduf-La is half-Tibetan and half-English and has grown up and studied in places such as Sri Lanka, Eton, and Durham. No wonder such multiculturalism has lent him an insight into humanity’s various facets. Tenduf-la employs his discernment aptly in his collection of short stories, Loyal Stalkers. The author whose novel The Amazing Racist was published in 2015 bases his stories in Sri Lanka this time and makes the island nation come alive with its various social and cultural nuances for the Indian readers. In an interview, Tenduf-la divulges more.
Q: What was it like to be a half-English and half-Tibetan and to grow up in different cities in the world? Did that cultural diversity shape the storyteller in you?
It was, and continues to be, absolutely brilliant. It means I am not obsessed with borders, flags or stereotypes. It means I can be critical without being racist, observant without being nosey, supportive without being patronising. Or at least that is what I like to think. Others may well see me as the jackass I am, but at least I am a mixed-race jackass who has had access to different cultures through birth, schooling and marriage. Everything interests and excites me more because of it.
Q: What triggers an idea in you?
The other day my wife left her phone to charge in a restaurant while she went to a meeting. I couldn’t stop thinking about what could happen from there; how things could spiral out of control because her phone was unguarded. I got home to my laptop and in two hours I had a short story. So basically, anything triggers an idea in me. I struggle to control my imagination and see threats or get the giggles in the most mundane situations.
Q: Sri Lankan writers and poets, such as Michael Ondaatje and Shyam Selvadurai, are popular in India. Which Indian literary figures are popular in Sri Lanka?
Loyal Stalkers came out at the same time as The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Let’s just say Arundhati Roy was likely not as concerned about this as I was. She’s immensely popular here in Sri Lanka as are many of your superstar prize-winning authors. My favourite books are written by Indians or Sri Lankan writers, but the latter are yet to reach as wide an audience or garner as much recognition. Perhaps that is something people here with more talent than I have can aspire to.
Q: How do you associate with the characters in your stories? Do you wonder what happened to the raped teenager who had to give away her child? Will they ever meet, for example?
I am struggling to meet my friends because of my kids, day job and writing so I don’t have time to hang out and have a drink with my characters. I don’t dwell on my writing much; once I am done, I’m done and I want to move on and make up new people. Having said that, in this case I did write a much longer story about this character; how her son came back into her life to confront his father who was also his great uncle and his mother’s rapist.
Q: Your stories are simple with simpler twists that interestingly make the stories grimmer; like in the cases of Gayan’s and Anjali’s. Is it a conscious ploy to unsettle readers so calmly?
I try to reflect everyday life; the human elements, the natural conflicts and fears. My twists are meant to challenge people’s assumptions about gender, race and sexuality. To most people the girl is assumed to be the victim, the white man is the saviour, and in a relationship you expect the man to be abusing the woman. The idea is to counter preconceived notions of what should happen. But yes, you’re right; by basing the stories in simple settings I hope they are more relatable and thus creepier.
Q: Is it difficult to start a short story or finish it?
I find both easy because I think of writing as a hobby that I enjoy and find relaxing. I have never suffered from writer’s block, perhaps because I do not set very high standards and much of what I write is rubbish. Normally I just get to my computer and write. Once I have finished a story I will find a paragraph which would be a good place to start and one which is a good place to stop; like cropping a photo. Cutting a story before its original ending allows me to be subtler and leave some things to the reader’s imagination.
Q: What are the key elements for you while writing a story?
I want to get into and out of a story without too much fluff. If I can create strong characters it is much easier to do this. Also, as a reader, I often get put off a book if I can’t buy the dialogue; if it sounds unnatural, forced or too wordy. I am inspired more by movies than by books, to at least try to write snappier, more rhythmic dialogue. I may well fail miserably, but I think the way characters communicate with each other is a key element of writing. I feel if I get this right I am showing who the characters are through dialogue rather than telling the reader who they are through description.
Q: The titular story is gripping and very unpredictable even after it ends. If you were to extend it, how do you think it will end for the stalker gym trainer and his client?
The original version was longer, but I didn’t know how it should end. In it, the client fell in love with her gym trainer because she never knew that he stalked her. She was attracted to and comforted by his devotion to her, his loyalty, and the protection he provided. This made the story unsettling, but in my eyes it was not as unusual as it sounds. I have seen enough obsessive relationships in real life to know that they can be born out of insecurity, prior abandonment and possibly a warped sense of gender roles.
I am always baffled by how a topless man standing on the road, with his belly hanging over his sarong, can judge a woman for showing a little too much ankle. So, as much as I attempted to write this story as an unnerving thriller it also has a lot to do with the disturbing way many men look at women. I don’t know how to end that either.