Krishna Udayasankar on the power of myths and exploring universal questions through writing

by Jennifer Kwan

This March 2017, we're exploring #intersections and focusing discussion around the women writers within the region! Join us as we interview each of our three featured women writers – Noelle Q. de Jesus, Krishna Udayasankar, and Jinat Rehana Begum – and learn a bit more about how their identities and beliefs shape their writing.

The third and final author we're featuring is Krishna, author of 3. In this interview, she discusses the significance of cultural myths and their retellings, and what she hopes to write about next!


Jennifer: How important is International Women’s Day to you?

Krishna: At the risk of hitting a nerve, I confess: It’s not all that important. In fact, I get quite irritated by how it has become another consumerist holiday. And worse, how the number of insensitive clichés that are thrown around – the endless advertisements for everything from discounted slimming packages to push-up bras takes away the focus from what International Women’s Day is really about.

J: This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange. If you had to advocate one issue related to women's rights, what would it be?

K: Education. Undoubtedly. I say this because it is the one privilege I have enjoyed that has made all the difference – not just in terms of economic independence and social mobility but also in terms of self-perception, awareness and assertiveness. It is the critical factor that determines whether you are going to ask for what is yours by right, or step up to claim those rights and refuse to relinquish them.

J: Do you think female authors from the Southeast Asia region have gotten enough recognition for their works? Who is an underrated female author that we should be reading?

K: I believe that most South-East Asians who are in a position to write and publish in English are already in positions of privilege, to the point that gender creates less of a differential. Underrated female authors are more likely to be found amongst those writing in regional or vernacular languages.

J: If you had to recommend a list of books based on this month’s theme (#intersections), what would it be and why?

K: I’m going to name one all-time favourite, one recently read book, and one book that’s on my reading list: First, the all-time favourite is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. It was one of those books that made me painfully aware of my own ignorance and worse, assumptions. The second book is Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan. I was amazed at the ease with which he was able to transport me into a world that I was unfamiliar with – not just in a cultural or geographic sense but in terms of world-views and belief-systems. Finally, a to-be-read acquisition from a lit fest I recently attended: The Adivasi Will Not Dance by Hansda Sovwendra Shekhar comprises short stories about marginalised groups in India, but without relying on tropes and stereotypes.

J: Is there anyone who you look up to or who inspires you?

K: I am inspired by instances, more than individuals, and by the examples of courage and compassion that we see around us.

J: Do you have any words of wisdom for those aspiring to be writers?

K: In general, I believe all writers should listen to, and then promptly ignore, all advice. Having said that, I’ll also add, more as a reminder to myself than for the benefit of aspiring writers:

Treat your subject/story/material with respect. The story (and this is particularly true for mytho-historical fiction) has endured in memory and myth for a long time; it has a life of its own and is bigger than you are. Respect that and engage with the story. It was here before you and your writing, and will probably stick around long after you are gone.

J: What does multi-culturalism mean to you?

K: Imagine a hall of mirrors, constructed around something that we believe is universal – a fact, a thing, a construct. Multi-culturalism lets us look at that thing reflected manifold. The trick (as with all halls of mirrors), is that the longer you look at that universal, central attraction, the more you realise that it is your own reflection you see, and you see yourself as you would not have before. It’s scary, empowering and amazing all at the same time!

J: What is your life-motto?

K: I don’t have one, really! I’m not disciplined enough!

J: You've given readers absorbing retellings about the founding myth of Singapore in 3 as well as the Mahabharata through The Aryavarta Chronicles – what's another mythic retelling that you would like to work on, and why?

K: I hope someday to work on something that interweaves different world-myths – for example a combined pantheon, or a tale where world-myths intersect. But I also find that what I write tends to be a result of a question or dilemma I experience at that point in time, and myth is just the domain I look to for answers. I also have wanted to work on the Ramayana for a long time, particularly because of the gender elements involved, but that seems to be one story I simply cannot get a grip on. Perhaps it’s time is yet to come!

J: Do you think (oral) storytelling is a gendered tradition or a tradition marked by age? (E.g. Typically, the elder of the family would be the one to share folktales) How important is it for us to continue passing down myths and folktales, and do you see yourself as doing this through your mytho-historic fiction?

K: Writers are very much products of their times; other writers and I who work with myth and folktales are merely a few amongst the great legacy of narrators and bards who have passed these tales down through time. Myth is kept alive, partly by its larger than life allure, and partly by the way it allows for reconstruction to stay relevant to current times. In that vein, as our families and social structures go through change, there possibly is an increase in writing and books as the means of transmission than the older traditions of storytelling by elders.

J: Nila, the protagonist of 3, has recurring dreams throughout the novel. Did you ever experience recurring dreams? What do dreams mean for you?

K: No, fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t have recurring dreams. I have quite vivid dreams, so I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t get into dream-loops! I view dreams as subconscious thought/emotion coming to the fore when our ego or the illusion of control that we like to hold to on to has been lulled, quite literally, into sleep.

Funny thing is, I write some of my best lines, get some of the best ideas as sort-of-dreams, when I sleep. The nightmare, however, is that I don’t always remember them when I wake up, and even when I do, it seems only a pale imitation of what actually went on in sleep!

J: Being a female author from India who now calls Singapore home, how was the process of growing up and transitioning between different societies like for you? What advice would you give to those who might be going through the same situation?

K: I’ve lived overseas since I was a child and I think this may be why I sometimes (try to) deal with universal questions – things like what is freedom, what is the role of a leader, can the greater good be excuse for individual restrictions – through my fiction. I think I’m also better attuned to observing and picking up context, which again translated into detail I use in creating fictional story-worlds.

As for advice, I’m not sure I have much to offer, really. These can be very personal journeys, so I wouldn’t be sure what to say!

J: Do you see a rise in mytho-historic fiction in Southeast Asia?

K: Yes, particularly in the face of globalisation, I do think we are both re-asserting our Asian-ness through mytho-history, as well as questioning our present society and its norms by reconstructing established narratives – be it our conceptions of good and bad or gender roles and expectations. 


Krishna Udayasankar’s bestselling debut series of mytho-historical novels, The Aryavarta Chronicles (Govinda, Kaurava and Kurukshetra; Hachette 2012, 2013, 2014) have received critical acclaim. She is also the author of 3 (Ethos Books, 2015), a novel based on the myths and legends surrounding the founding of Singapore. Krishna holds an undergraduate degree in law and a PhD in strategic management. She lives in Singapore with her family, which includes three bookish canine-children, Boozo, Zana and Maya, who are sometimes to be found at her laptop, trying to make her writing better.