The eight short stories in Gitanjali Kolanad’s Sleeping with Movie Stars are, among other things, about dance, femininity and sex, none of which is written about with the frequency or clarity you might suppose them to inspire. Kolanad’s cool, impressionistic voice lends grace and elegance to stories strongly grounded in autobiography. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You’ve been a dancer for 30 years. Have you always been writing alongside?
About the same time that I started trying to make a career for myself as a dancer, I tried to take my writing to a professional level. But after the first round of rejection letters from editors, and acceptance letters from dance presenters, I gave up the writing and concentrated on the dancing.
About the autobiographical strain in the stories, what is it like trying to balance the fictional and non-fictional in writing?
I think that comes from a lack of imagination on my part. I can’t create whole worlds, but the process of making a story, putting events into an order, in words, on a page, is fictionalizing, no matter how “true” the events are. Once I came to terms with that, the only balancing comes from the demands of story—what does the story require?
Sleeping with Movie Stars, Penguin India, 176 pages, Rs 225.
Could you talk about how this worked in your last story, ‘A Different Lion’, in particular?
Being attacked by a lion—you can’t make that stuff up. But writing it created a structure that could contain ideas, philosophy, brain science: That story expresses what I came to realize about the fictionalizing power of memory. Milan Kundera puts it very well: The past is constantly dissolving into two strands, of forgetting, and story-making.
Google my name and what comes up first, even now, is the story and video of me being attacked by Leo the lion. After 30-odd years as a dancer, that is not my first choice of what to be known for. That video exists entirely independent of me as a real person, outside of any context, floating there in another domain. This story was a way for me to claim that back, regain some control of what happened to me.
Is there a challenge in finding a voice to write about something that cannot lend itself easily to language?
That’s one reason I wanted to write about the dancer’s experience. Dance is the art form most subjected to the tyranny of words. I used to rail against it when I was a dancer, the way in which the dance performance simply ceased to exist once it was over, and only if it were reviewed did it continue to have a life. Putting the experience into words helped me to get over that, and move on.
It was challenging, but since thinking about dance is what I like to do, it was a pleasure for me to try to find ways to bring that experience to a different kind of life on the page. And not necessarily the dancer on stage, but just the dancer, who may never make it on to the stage. Because what Rukmini Devi said turned out to be true: “You are always a dancer.” I was just too stupid to listen when she first told me that.