Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Shubigi Rao
By Yeow Kai Chai
If there is one thing Shubigi Rao does not lack, it's ambition. Since 2014, the writer and visual artist has been on a global itinerary, visiting libraries, public and private ones, and rifling through archives for a decade-long film, book and art project about the history of book destruction, censorship and other forms of oppression titled Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book.
It is an idiosyncratic ode to bibliophilia, exquisitely put together and ranging far and wide with the spirit of a curious adventurer. The book is a symbol of resistance, pin-pointing stages of human civilisation where knowledge is alternately feared, erased and empowered.
Her hard work has paid off: the first portion of the project, Written in the Margins, clinched the Juror's Choice Award at the triennial APB Signature Prize 2018; and the first book from the project was shortlisted for the English-language non-fiction category in the Singapore Literature Prize this year.
Born in India and based in Singapore since 2002, she is adept in making layered installations of books, etchings, drawings, pseudo-scientific machines, metaphysical puzzles, video works, ideological board games, and archives. These are rooted in her interests in subjects such as archaeology, neuroscience, language, historical acts of cultural genocide, contemporary art theory and natural history.
Her publications include Pulp II: A Visual Bibliography of the Banished Book (2018), Written in the Margins (2017); Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, Vol. I of V (2016); and History's Malcontents: The Life and Times of S. Raoul (2013) chronicling 10 years of artwork and writing under the pseudonym S. Raoul, Useful Fictions (2013), three pseudo-art history books (2006), and Bastardising Biography (2005).
Aside from having her new work featured in the upcoming Kochi Biennale in December 2018, and in Asian Film Archive's State of Motion in Singapore in January 2019, she will be filming a documentary and a new instalment of her Pulp project across three continents in 2019. The third volume of Pulp will be released in 2020.
1) What are you reading right now?
I'm reading multiple books on the suppression of thugee, a 450-year old murder-cult in India that was apparently eradicated through the efforts of one man – William Henry Sleeman. I remember my father reading aloud from a first edition of one of his books when I was a child, and he eventually rewarded my ghoulish fascination in the mid-80s by giving me a cyclostyle print version of this thoroughly inappropriate book. Unfortunately he also had a terror of termites and bookworms, so the pages were full of the toxin Gamexane, and so every time I turned a page, I would breathe in a cloud of banned pesticide. This might explain my peculiar proclivity towards things proscribed and poisonous. Luckily I've been able to get some non-noxious copies recently, and so I'm reading Sleeman's Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, about his adventures and encounters in early nineteenth-century India, Ramaseeana: Or a Vocabulary of the Peculiar Language Used by the Thugs, which describes the intricate and secret systems of signs, symbols, omens, and invented language used by thugee. I enjoy reading multiple writing forms on the same subject and so I'm also reading Francis Tuker's bit of biographical gossip on him, The Yellow Scarf: The Story of the Life of Thugee Sleeman, which conveniently also co-opts Sleeman's work to justify colonial excesses in the Indian subcontinent. Here's a blurb from the jacket sleeve, "This biography is a reminder that India awaited the British to set them on the path to independence", a horrifying, hilarious attempt to justify colonial violence as necessary to self-actualization. There's also a crime novel from 1829 based on Sleeman's accounts that became the bestseller of its time, with Queen Victoria amongst its ardent fans. Sometimes classified as ethnographic fiction, Confessions of a Thug by Meadows Taylor was also responsible for the word 'thug' entering mainstream English, and we can see how it retains its racialist undertones in contemporary usage in the US, for instance. In between I've been rereading some old favourites as palate-cleansers: Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, Moten and Harney's The Undercommons, and a number of papers on the neuroscientific bases for altered and illusory realities through psilocybin.
2) If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
Hanta from Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude, a 'superfluous man' possessed of an irreverent but terrible humanity.
3) What is the greatest misconception about you?
I have no idea how (and why) anyone would consider having conceptions, mistaken or otherwise about someone like me. I suppose a possible misconception is that I'm a serious person with serious preoccupations. In reality I have the taste (and scatological humour) of a nine-year old.
4) Name one living writer and one dead writer you most identify with, and tell us why.
This is horrible and impossible. Horrible because I now realise I admire from afar and therefore can't identify with most of my favourites, and impossible because, just one of each?
5) Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I'm not wholly convinced it exists. I suspect the block is just the weight of expectations, or the erroneous perception that other people have expectations of us. In my case I was snowed under a massive amount of material and was frozen for a while, unable to choose a beginning. I worked it out by grabbing a single thread, one of many that seemed to run through the wildly disparate mass of information and histories. I wrote a short essay about that, and almost immediately my brain relaxed and began making the necessary links and leaps, and I didn't stop till I finished the book. A fun trick is to write a short, spiteful introduction that eviscerates the subject and my laughable desire to tackle an enormous field. It's a great way to draw out the sense of futility that bedevils long-term projects. By dragging it out into the light, I am able to identify, capture and pin it down.
6) What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
Sensitivity to lives, real and fictional, that are markedly different from one's own. The ability to disregard literary conventions with humour, intelligence, and fidelity to the idea at the heart of the work.
7) What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
Smugness and gatekeeping – traits most noticeable in those who love their own voices (and the even tenor of those most familiar), and see diversity as territorial intrusion.
8) Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
So many! Lately though I've been coming back to this one from Henry David Thoreau's Walking, "My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not knowledge, but sympathy with intelligence."
9) Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
Hate ginger. It has the most revolting texture. Biting into a piece makes me physically ill.
10) At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
It depends on what I've been working. If I'm in the middle of an intense endeavour, then it would be an action thriller – pure escapist pap helps my brain delink and float free, and make unscripted cognitive connections. If I've been feeling the news of the world, or if life in the city presses in too close, rendering me unhuman, then I'd watch a tragedy. I'd be reminded of the rich interiority and intensity of unknowable lives, a form of rehumanising, if I can call it that.
11) What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
This is hard for me. Words carry the imputations of their users, and change flavours depending on when and where they appear, so there aren't any that I permanently like or dislike. For now, I would have to say my favourite words are those that mutate, or infer something new in the hands of a gifted writer. The least pleasurable words for me are those used by lying demagogues, spin-doctors and the like. A non-ideological choice would be 'rank', in every sense of the word.
12) If you could give only a piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
Writing isn't necessarily a lonely endeavour – when you write, you are listening to voices other than your own. Also a little discipline helps, and identifying what time of day (or night) allows you to be most comfortable in your skin.
13) What object is indispensable to you when you write?
My playlist from the 1990s – Rage Against the Machine, dEUS, NIN, Jane's Addiction, The Breeders and so on, all releasers of rage repressed by age and comfort.
14) What is the best time of the day for writing?
I love writing between 10pm and 5am at my studio. Every few hours I step outside for a cigarette break into a night made raucous with oversexed frogs and greedy geckos gorging on Goodman's gigantic cockroaches. With trees blocking out most of the light-polluted sky, I feel unmoored from the heavy muddiness of being human. It's a lovely feeling, and the cockroaches know it too – we're both nocturnal for the same reasons – they don't like humans very much either.
15) If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
The answer to this question changes all the time. Tonight I'd like to drink with two equivocal fictions and the creator of one – Jan Morris (for her Hav), Cassius of that lean and hungry look from Julius Caesar, and Funes (from Borges' Funes the Memorious). At some point Spike Milligan and that old liar Herodotus would crash the party. Milligan would befuddle that political manipulator Cassisus and Herodotus would give Funes a migraine. Thursday Next (the literary detective from Jasper Fforde's clever novels) would join us for dinner, at which point we'd realise we are all fictions of a sort.
16) You're in the midst of an ambitious 10-year film, art and book project, Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book. If you could take a one-month sabbatical from it, what other artistic pursuit would you take on?
I would write and design an RTS or RPG game, and do some work in my long-neglected garden. Perhaps I'd make new copper-plate etchings and aquatints, make endpapers, attempt fore-edge painting, or finish my series of porcelain books that I began as a student 12 years ago.
17) What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 17 No. 4 Oct 2018
'Shubigi' is a bit of onomatopoeia – it's the call of the Common Iora, a tiny but inordinately noisy coincidentally local to India and Singapore. Plant a fruit tree over me and let the birds call my name as they eat the fruit of my body. Let their poop be my epitaph.