Culture

Interview: Annie Zaidi on the Nine Dots Prize and Chasing 'The Call of Blood'

A prolific author, journalist and playwright, Annie Zaidi's forte since her first book has been the personal essay – a fact now recognised with the prize and $100,000 award.

On Wednesday, Annie Zaidi was announced the winner of the 2019 Nine Dots Prize, with a financial award and a book-deal to develop her essay ‘Bread, Cement Cactus’. 

In a brief interview, Zaidi told The Wire about her about the origins of her essay, the kind of long-form she enjoys and the craft of writing. Excerpts from her winning entry, and our conversation.

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“In Muhammadabad, a mofussil village struggling to morph into a town, we trace fourteen generations. The uncle who told me this is now gone. Fifteen generations, then.

I fight with my mother: We don’t come from this! You came from cities like Lucknow and Delhi, from secularism and cosmopolitanism, from an English-medium education. You wore breeches and rode horses!

Mom counters: Daddy said never to forget our roots. Over all protest, she builds a morsel sized house there.”

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“Mom says, wherever you can trace your bloodline, that place is yours. Yours as much as anybody else’s. By that measure, the province of Uttar Pradesh is flecked with my blood. Not just Uttar Pradesh, not just India. Pakistan too. My father’s side of the family came from that side of the border. Their traditions, their connection to the soil were lost when the country was carved up in 1947.”

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“Partition along religious lines shattered the Indian Subcontinent and nobody is allowed to forget. The wound of millions being killed and displaced is scratched raw every few years. Three wars, constant accusations of cross-border infiltration and terrorist activity. India and Pakistan do not give each other tourist visas. I’ve had brows raised at the post office when I tried to send books to friends across the border.”

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The Nine Dots Prize aims to encourage innovative thinking on contemporary issues. In its second year it posed a provocation, ‘Is there still no place like home?’, for entrants to answer in a 3,000-word essay.

Zaidi’s entry, ‘Bread, Cement, Cactus’ came out of multiple essays she’d been wanting to write for a while. “Where you grow up is very different from where your grandparents, or actually, your great-grandparents grew up,” she says. “How do you reconcile these two in terms of self-definition and identity?” 

“Whether it was about my village, or about my relationship with the land itself and where that comes from… or about the industrial township in another context – in my head these were separate books. When I saw the [Nine Dots] topic, all the ideas started to come together. I was thinking about these as disparate, but the topic forced me to draw connections between them.”

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Zaidi’s essay evokes the ‘call of blood’. “What is this call of blood?” she asks. “All I understand right now is that the call exists for me. I know my cousins do not feel as strongly about that village. So this is also an investigation of how responses are shaped. Part of it is just the person I am, and part is, how do you define blood? It’s not literal DNA. I’m talking about something else.”

“It’s also interesting to think about where we draw our sense of personal identification from. I don’t feel that call comes from necessarily a narrow community. I’m not talking about Muslims, because that’s also a very fractured community with multiple identities – I mean my actual literal great-grandfather. Is this just about how I determine my personal identity or is it something larger?”

Her blog was her beginning

In addition to being published in print, the book that emerges from the Prize is also made available online for free as an open access pdf. 

“A great thing about Nine Dots is that it’s not invested in books per se,” Zaidi says. “The focus is more on ideas that are relevant in contemporary society. Getting the book out is just a way to get you to think about that idea.”

Zaidi is understandably jittery about elaborating on the bullet points in the press release.

It lists themes her book will address, including: the politics and economics of death in India; how industrial townships are created on the back of dislocations, and what it means for citizens’ relationships to the land; the struggle to belong to a city which changes in all recognisable forms, even down to its name.

She’s still framing her own ideas, and not ready to say too much about them. 

Annie Zaidi. Credit: Provided by Annie Zaidi

“I’m still in the pitch phase,” she says. “Right now all I have is a book proposal!” And about six months to come up with a first draft. The book will be published in 2020, and the Prize will enable a singular focus until then.

This kind of hybrid writing, blending memoir and journalism, is her forte. “My first book of non-fiction, Known Turf came out of blogging and me telling the stories behind the stories,” she said. At the time, Zaidi worked at Tehelka“It was reportage-based, but also all personal essays. Some of my recent essays have also been about… [the idea] the personal is the political. As much as journalism is objective, we are all a film of experiences, and we only understand the things we’re able to understand”.

I suggest that it’s a good time for the personal essay and Zaidi immediately disagrees.

“Because of the way our media has become, suddenly everyone wants 1500-word pieces. I’ve been sitting on a 7000-word piece for two years now. When you want to deeply think about something, there’s not a place for that,” she says.

Inspiration and perspiration

Zaidi declares herself a huge admirer of Doris Lessing. “I can’t get over the sheer narrative craft involved in The Golden Notebook,” she says. “I read it only a few years back and in a sense, my jaw is still sort of fallen.” Otherwise, she says, almost everything you read and like influences you.

In the sort of rare admission that’s so reassuring for working writers, Zaidi says, “I’ve had so many rejections! This year alone I’ve been rejected in 10-15 places. You write what you can where you can, and move on, and keep applying like mad.”

Also read: Omani Author Jokha Alharthi Wins Man Booker International Prize

Her next novella, out later this year from Aleph Book Company, is called Prelude to a Riot. She wrote it about a year and a half ago, and it also pushes genre boundaries.

“Structurally I was employing different voices and narrative tones to show a story. It’s not actually about a riot,” she says. “I’m not interested in violence. All acts of violence – the gory detail etcetera isn’t interesting beyond a point.”

“What’s interesting [to me] is how things get that way, what are the things we’re saying to each other that push it that way. How these things develop in a seemingly normal ‘up until now everyone was happy living together’ , ‘all this while everything was happy – what changed?’ I’m interested in that.”

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