JCB Prize 2020 shortlist | Dharini Bhaskar on why Scheherazade is the story
Today, the word is ‘rubberband’. My son views it with tentativeness. ‘Rub-ber-band,’ he says, the first syllable stretching. He isn’t pleased, I can tell, his eyes frown. ‘Rub-ber-band,’ he now attempts, the last syllable a thing of elastic. No good still. Rub-ber-band, rubberband, ruberand, he says, fast, too fast, vowels and consonants slipping into each other. Ruberand, he repeats.
And yes. Yes! his eyes convey. They’re chortling.
I am tempted to tell my son a story. That the ‘rubberand’ wasn’t always a rubberand; that there was a time when it was not unlike a stump of wood—inflexible; that when it stumbled into love, and felt its heart exploding, something strange happened—it became altogether supple—
—But no. My son is impatient.
Besides, he is telling me something—telling me as he chants, singsong, joyful, nudging this syllable, then that, ruberand, ruberand, ruberandandandand—that before the story comes the word.
And the word must be just-so.
The sales manager wasn’t convinced.
I had spent ten minutes pitching a work of fiction I hoped to commission. I had spoken truthfully, reading paragraph after paragraph from the manuscript before me, expressing amazement at how the words catapulted themselves into sentences.
‘No,’ the manager said. Curt.
I was new to the job. I turned to a senior colleague for help.
‘There’s drama,’ she started. Paused.
‘Bombay, Slum-Dog-Millionaire-ish,’ she said.
‘Poor boy, rich girl,’ she asserted.
The sales manager remained unmoved. Editors are a suspect lot. But he chose to be conciliatory. He chose to say yes.
Today, I cannot remember much of the novel—the story, the characters, the drama I must believe exists.
But I recall a word—molasses. I recall sliding into sweetness.
E.M. Forster says that a story is ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence’.
Put differently, to storytell, the author must be clear about character-plot-denouement. She must be certain about what-happens-to-whom-and-why.
In the not too distant future, I am told, there will be machines for this, AI systems that will arrange a series of broad novelistic elements, and tell the reader, as Forster did, the king died and then the queen.
But what if we were to imagine another future, one that upended Forster’s definition of storytelling?
Cosmologist Janna Levin, in Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, speaks of the universe. But she describes not what she sees through the lens of the telescope—through sight—but by way of sound. When two black holes collide, she isn’t concerned with the light and glimmer, the swirl of star parts, dust, and gas. She speaks instead of a faint whisper.
Listen, she tells us. Gravity is music.
I want this for the story—a future where it’s synonymous, not with a series of discernable events—king-queen-death-piled-on-death—but with the music that is the word.
What I propose isn’t new, of course.
A century ago, Virginia Woolf was invested, not in what characters did, but in what words did to them. ‘Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me,’ Rhoda says in The Waves, speaking, yes, of her dissolution, but speaking, too, of how the words she chooses—there goes ‘tremendous’, a falling guillotine—contribute to the splintering of her self. In The Waves, as in so much else Woolf wrote, the story lies in the churn of every syllable.
So, too, with James Joyce. So, too, in Ulysses. In ‘smellsipped’, and ‘helterskelterpelterwelter’ and ‘harpsichording’, we witness not just a series of words getting defamiliarized, we witness a protagonist estranged from himself. Once more, word is story.
We have moved far and away from Joyce and Woolf, from the linguistic carnivalization of the high modernists. To speak of the future of storytelling is to know that the past has slipped away.
Or has it? We are cycling back in time.
2020 has been an unusual year—the year of the pandemic; the year of the giant human pause. No airplanes hovering overhead. No machines trawling underwater.
In the silence we now know, we can recover what we imagined we had lost—the ability to tune into and perceive, not just the flutter of the dragonfly’s wings, but the faint rustle of words. We can know them for what they are—elements of speech, but also soundburst. We can arrange them, not to propel a sequence of events—hello and goodbye, dear king and queen—but because they’re enough in themselves.
This is the gift of the pandemic. And this, too—a return to basics; to the atom of our selves, shorn of the outer matter of gossip and chit-chat; to the atom of the story, the all of the story, the word.
For too long, we have been casual about the language we choose—a casualness born of noise and clutter—viewing it as no more than an accessory to a story.
What if the pandemic opened a new future? What if the story became an accessory to the word?
I am asked sometimes how my debut novel, These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light, was born. I play with several answers, all true. That it emerged from the ashes of the first work of fiction I attempted. That it galloped towards me in a dream.
But here’s what really happened. I found a word I could carry for years. Scheherazade.
I love the word. I love it for its expanse, its cadence, and especially for what it carries within it—the story of a woman who talked herself to life; the story of women who aren’t condemned to silence and gather the will to create texts of passion.
Dear reader: Scheherazade is the story.
And so, I prophesy, this is the future of storytelling: a move away from plot and people and genre; a move into the word with reverence.
Anne Carson tells of a room, ‘not exactly an unknown room’, where she ‘gropes for the light switch’ that is the word.
Kim Addonizio says, sometimes / there’s only one word that means / what you need it to mean, the way / there’s only one person when you first fall in love, / or one infant’s cry that calls forth / the burning milk, one name / that you pray to when prayer / is what’s left to you.
Robert Hass says, blackberry, blackberry, blackberry, each word glowing with ripeness.
Ruberand, says my son, sure of what he has built—a sound, a story for the tongue.
In the beginning is the Word.
Dharini Bhaskar’s debut novel These, Our Bodies, Possessed By Light, is shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020.