Novelist Tania James on Writing, Vulnerability and Transformation


I first learned about Tania James in 2009 when she published her debut novel, Atlas of Unknowns. For me, reading Atlas was a transcendent, life-changing experience—not only because I savored every minute of its crisp, lyrical lines and its page-turning plot, but also because the book marked the first time that I ever truly saw myself on the page. The novel’s South Indian American family, whose transcontinental sprawl sprung from a host of ancestral secrets, burst with mothers, fathers, siblings and cousins just like my own.

I felt this same thrill of recognition when I read James’s brilliant new novel, Loot, which begins in Mysore, India in the court of the Mughal ruler Tipu Sultan—a ruler I, a former Bangalorean, learned to revere as one of the original southern stalwarts of resistance to British Colonial rule. The book’s protagonist, Abbas, is a Muslim wood carver who unexpectedly finds himself apprenticed to a drunk French clockmaker in the last days of Tipu’s reign. The fall of the Mughal kingdom, and its subsequent concession to British rule, propels Abbas into a madcap adventure that spans continents, languages sexualities, and class structures, but always keeps anticolonial India at its center. Whether facing murderous pirates in the Atlantic Ocean, delusional nobles in the French countryside, or bloodthirsty soldiers in Mysore’s city gates, Abbas remains, above all, Mysorean—and, unwittingly, a champion of colonial resistance. Abbas’s story is similar to tales I’ve heard from my relatives; what a thrill to see it in print.

I spoke to James about the making of this remarkable book: her research process, her craft choices, and—of course—what it felt like to write a book about empire in the shadow of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing.

Mathangi Subramanian: Loot begins at the turn of the 19th century in Mysore, India. What was your research process like, given that so many of the sources that survive this time period are British?

Tania James: Well, there are sources that feel dusty and distant, and that attempt to give you an authoritative overview of a specific time (like the British records you mentioned). But there are also sources that surprise you, that invite you to bring your imagination to bear on the past. For me, one of these was The Dreams of Tipu Sultan— a journal Tipu used to record not only his dreams but what they might mean in regards to his rule. Some of the entries are really wild, as dreams tend to be. For example, one dream, entitled “The Strange Cow,” involved a cow who appeared to be a cross between a tiger and a cow. Tipu often referred to himself as “The Tiger of Mysore,” so he interpreted this dream to mean that he would be soon destroy the enemy forces of the Malabar region, who were Christian. Why he linked cows to the Malabar Christians, I’m not sure, but when you’re eager for a positive omen, I guess you’re willing to make a few leaps!

Beyond this strangeness, though, there’s also a vulnerability on the page that I doubt Tipu exposed to those outside his inner circle, as his various enemies closed in on him, from without and within his kingdom.

Subramanian: That’s amazing! Were there any other research-related memorable moments?

James: I visited the abbey at Mont St. Michel off the coast of Normandy. In one room, the floor was made up of large cubical stones. In the corner of each stone were the initials of the people who had carved it. Everywhere else, the stones had been laid with those sides facing inward, so as to hide these initials. But in this room, for some reason, the stoneworkers had decided not to omit themselves from history. This was as wondrous to me as the abbey itself, this very human desire to be seen, to be recognized. I hope readers will come away from my book with a similar a sense of wonder and enchantment.

Subramanian: Speaking of wonder and enchantment, this is such an enthralling story with so many twists and turns. How did you decide when to deviate from the past, and when to stick to what really happened?

James: The first time I wrote historical fiction—in this case, a short story—it took me 23 drafts to learn something crucial: I only need to include the aspects of history that matter to my point-of-view character. The hero of my novel is Abbas, a young toymaker who constructs Tipu’s Tiger. He isn’t based on any specific historical figure; I made him up. But when historical events directly affect his life—as when he’s caught up in the siege of Seringapatam—that’s when I go deep on research, to sift and mine for details that would have specific resonance for the character in that situation.

Subramanian: What you’re saying reminds me of your New Yorker story about Indiana Jones, in which you took an existing—albeit fictional—character and imagined him in an Indian setting.

James: I wrote that story during a break from writing Loot! I often find I need to impose breaks during the span of a larger project, in part to revive my sense of play. A totally different genre and form can allow me to do that, and flash fiction works especially well, because I can write it in a period of time that’s not so long that I become detached from the novel. And I was actually surprised to find that the same themes bridged both Loot and the Indiana Jones story, about theft and reclamation, and the stories we tell about ourselves. I was delighted when his old mantra popped up in the story—it belongs in a museum!—and excited by the comic possibilities, confronting an iconic hero with his own blind spots.

Subramanian: You tell part of the story through a British sailor’s diary. Why did you make this choice? 

James: Why thank you! Actually, I did try to write that section from Abbas’ perspective, and not in diary form, but in the same narrative voice that preceded it. And I was bored. I often grow bored around the midpoint of writing a novel—not a good sign, because if I’m bored, the reader must be doubly so. In an effort to break out of that boredom, I considered the diary form. I like diaries and letters in fiction: they carry a level of mystery and unreliability, particularly in what the writer leaves out. But I didn’t think Abbas would be one to record his own experiences in this way, so I dreamed up someone who would. This resulted in Thomas Beddicker, the sailor who pens these entries as a kind of living legacy.

Subramanian: This novel contained so many languages: Persian, Arabic, Urdu, French, English and Kannada, among others. Even the novel’s title is a linguistic trick (loot is a word the British stole from Hindi). How did you handle multilingualism in your storytelling?

James: Discovering the origins of the word loot felt like striking gold. What a perfect confluence of so many thoughts I was having about theft and conquest and trade! I suspect that, at the time this book takes place, the movement of language was as common as the movement of goods: there was a strong French expatriate presence in Mysore, Britishers often passed through the city, and Mysorean ambassadors traveled back and forth to West Asia. But again, I let the point-of-view character be my guide. So, for example, what Abbas understood was what I translated. What he didn’t understand, I allowed to float past him, to be ignored or misinterpreted, which can add an interesting flavor of tension to a scene.

Subramanian: You wrote this at such a pivotal time for empire: not only did museums begin returning stolen goods, but also Queen Elizabeth II passed away. How did these events influence your writing, if at all? How has the world changed since you started writing this manuscript?

James: My favorite historical fictions are ones that are somehow speaking to our present moment. I wasn’t attempting to write about the restitution movement, but I’m sure it informed some of the questions I’ve mulled over during the writing process, specifically how we lay claim over a work of art, and how the meaning of an object changes depending on who owns and displays it. As for the changing world, I don’t think I’ve ever written a book during a period of such personal and global transformation. I started this novel just before the birth of my second son, in 2018, and was still writing it during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. I often say you’re a different person at the end of a project than at the beginning, but I feel as though I’ve been about five different people in that space of time. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling this! But I do hope these transformations lend depth to the book.

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Mathangi Subramanian is an award winning writer, author and educator. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, Quartz, The Hindu, The Wire, The Indian Express, Skipping Stones, Thinkling and the Seal Press anthology Click! When We Knew We Were Feminists, among others, and she has received a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholarship, a Jacob Javits Fellowship and an Office of Policy and Research Fellowship from Columbia Teachers College, where she completed her doctorate in communications and education in 2010. In 2016, she won the South Asia Book Award for her novel Dear Mrs. Naidu. Her latest book, A People’s History of Heaven was published in March 2019 by Algonquin Books.