Thursday 12 July 2018

An Interview with Jocelyn Cullity

Jocelyn Cullity kicks off the 2018-19 season of the Final Thursday Reading Series at the Hearst Center for the Arts on August 30 (open mic at 7:15; Jocelyn Cullity at 8). Cullity directs the creative writing B.F.A. program at Truman State University, and she is the author of the new novel, Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons (Inanna Publications), a novel set in 1857 Luckow, India that Jay Parini calls “redolent of Indian life, its tastes and smells, its colors and textures.” In the following interview, Cullity talks about the process of writing this historical novel.

You write that your great-great-great aunt’s diary helped to inspire Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons. Can you discuss how you worked with the material from that original source to craft fiction?
JOCELYN CULLITY: Because of her diary, I was initially interested in a British character based on my great-great-great aunt. However, as I was working on early drafts, I realized that the character who seemed to be more central to the novel was Amah. Amah is based on the little-known fact that African women were a part of the (Indian) royal family’s “Rose Platoon” in Lucknow, India. She is drawn largely from my imagination. The diary, however, continued to give me insight into the events that occurred during the rebellion against English rule.

Historical fiction poses some unique challenges for a writer. What did you do to get into the mindset and to capture the language of characters whose experiences are so different from your own?
JC: I read no history later than 1858 for six years. Kind of crazy! But I wanted to get into the mindset of people living at that time as much as I could.  I found and read as many primary documents as I could about life in Lucknow between 1856-1858. I posted on the walls of my study all the sensory details I read about, along with anecdotes about people living in the city at that time. Two amazing historians helped a lot — Rosie Llewellyn-Jones and Abdul Haliim Sharar. Sharar lived in Lucknow around the time I was writing about, and he wrote down everything he could about customs, clothes, food, you name it, he recorded it. He made it clear to me that Lakhnavis in general were light-hearted, courteous, and deeply generous. I grew to love them very much.

The world of Lucknow that you present was such a richly diverse place, in terms of its inhabitants, its culture and its food. Was that something you discovered in your research and was it a surprise to you?
JC: It was so richly diverse and the more I researched, the more it seemed to me that that was entirely central to the city’s character. King Wajid ‘Ali Shah was largely responsible for the city’s makeup of people from all over India, from Europe, and from East Africa. He loved all sorts of art, music, theater, architecture —` and the city illustrated this. He was a Muslim but, from what I understand, he welcomed many different religions — which is something you find so often in India today, too. He was greatly misunderstood by the English, and greatly cheated by them.
The title character of the book, Amah, is fascinating. She is of East African ancestry, yet she plays a respected role as one of the Rose Platoon, an all-female group of royal bodyguards. How did you decide to make her your protagonist?
JC: The women of the Rose Platoon literally fought against the English, and joined Begam Hazrat Mahal, the African who led the revolt against the English — and there are so very, very few references to these women in the multiple textbooks on the subject that it became suddenly obvious to me that this had to be their story. I found it and continue to find it incredulous that they are absent from so many historical accounts when they were at the very center of the uprising against English rule. One really can’t help thinking that sexism and racism, as well as colonialism, must have had something to do with their significant absence from the English histories on 1857 Lucknow.

There was a moment about midway through the book that really caught my attention (and which I think I can ask about without revealing any spoilers). You write “The big gun above them rules the world like the English rule the world, like Red Man rules, like the Kotwal rules—like the hangman rules. The big gun watches. It tells the crowd to be afraid.” This is a novel that wrestles with questions about power and legitimacy. What does it ask readers to think about the process of colonialism?
JC: Of course many people have written about colonialism, about power and legitimacy. I hope that my book, like others, might remind people that because of the process of colonialism there is so much that we don’t know about the people who are being colonized — that we too often only get a colonizer’s story of a place and its people. I hope this book helps readers to reflect on our own lives today, too. What does the general public in the U.S. know about the people who live in countries like Iraq or Vietnam or other countries where the United States has been involved in conflict? What do we really know about the stories of those places from the point of view of the people who actually live there?

I appreciated the role of food in this book as well, particularly the insistence that even in the midst of turmoil and battles, people need to eat, and there is a wide array of food mentioned in the course of the novel. Was that something you consciously aimed to do or did it just turn out that way?
JC: Sharar (the man from Lucknow who I referred to earlier) wrote down tons of amazing details about what people ate and for what occasions they might eat a particular food. I did consciously aim for food to be a strong part of the setting because really good food and the art of putting on a great meal was clearly extremely important to Lucknow’s royal family — and it was also something that the English scorned the royal family for. The English liked to call the royal family decadent, for instance, because they liked to produce a lot of sugary delicacies. The research often made me hungry!

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