Nepal | November 22, 2018

The life that you write

Sangita Shrestha

As renowned author Manjushree Thapa gets ready for the launch of her upcoming work All Of Us In Our Own Lives, Sangita Shrestha catches up with this author who says that it is writing that helps her understand life and clears any confusion that she has

Author Manjushree Thapa. Photo: Balkrishna Thapa Chhetri/THT

Author Manjushree Thapa. Photo: Balkrishna Thapa Chhetri/THT

“When you write about the subject matter of Nepal, you don’t think your book will interest international readers. And getting noticed along with being one of the finalists for an international award definitely made me feel good as a writer. I am happy that being a Nepali I got selected. However, I was disappointed that I did not win the award,” said author Manjushree Thapa about being one of the finalists for the Lettre Ulyssess Award, Berlin in 2006 for Forget Kathmandu.

And it was an overwhelming experience looking at the collection of books at Thapa’s residence in Baluwatar. It makes you think what it takes to become a writer as it is said that you have to read to write. Thapa has not only published non-fiction but also fiction and literary translations.

Her journey as a writer began in 2001 and it’s been 15 years for this Nepali writer writing in English, who is based in Toronto, Canada, and is still exploring as a writer.

Her first language 

Thapa was born as the third child to Dr Rita Thapa (public health specialist) and Bhekh Bahadur Thapa (veteran diplomat) in 1968 in Kathmandu. Born into a family where her parents had to live frequently outside of Nepal for years due to their work commitments, Thapa moved to Canada when she was only two years old.

“When we were in Canada my brother and sister used to go to school and I was left at home, which used to upset me. Later I joined pre-school and I used to depend on my elders for everything. I was attached more to my sister who is 17 months older than me,” recalled this author.

She stayed in Canada for two years and returned to Nepal with her parents. Even after coming to Nepal it was a rule inside their house to speak in English and she shared, “My parents thought we would learn the Nepali language speaking to friends and relatives. This rule and being in Canada made English as my first language.”

Struggle at early age

Thapa studied at St Mary’s School, Jawalakhel till Class VI and she recalled, “I was a very weak student, except for English and Art subjects, I was very poor in Maths, Nepali and so on. I was very shy during my school days and I did not have many friends.”

Then she went to the National Cathedral School (high school) in Washington, DC. Here she was free of memorised education and her confidence level shot up and Mathematics was not scary any more. However, juggling life in the West and the East created problems in her early life where she shared, “Most grown-ups think that at a young age, a child can adjust herself/himself to any environment. But it was difficult for me to adjust in the beginning. In Nepal, I was scared most of the time and could not perform well. And in the US, language became a hindrance as I was growing up learning British English. As I was from a very protective family, I did not have much independence like my classmates did in America.”

With all these adjustments that she had to make, Thapa was a shy teenager who used to spend most of her time at a library near her school.

Higher education and early career

Thapa knew she wanted to do something in the art field as art was her favourite subject. After her high school, she completed BFA in 1989 with Photography and Painting as majors at the Rhode Island School of Design, USA.

Being the youngest at home has its perks and downsides and Thapa had more advantages than disadvantages. “My mother was working for the World Health Organisation (WHO) and at that time she was the Head of Family Planning Division in Nepal. There was a policy of having two children in a family with a gap of three years between two children. My parents maintained that gap between my brother and sister, but I was born accidentally. I was that extra child in the house, so I did not have to go through the pressure of studying what my parents wanted me to study. Being the youngest gave me freedom. But it has its own consequences. When you have the freedom to do anything, then you get confused. So was I.”

Though she wanted to stay in America even after her BFA, legally she was not allowed and she returned to Nepal and began her first job as Picture Editor at Himal for nearly a year. Nepal was in its transitional phase in 1990. “When I came to Nepal, I was all Americanised and I had difficulties while understanding the Nepali language. Staying in Kathmandu made me uncomfortable, as everybody knows everyone here. There was pressure to get married. So I worked at the Annapurna Conservation Area. I felt like I am free,”
she narrated.

She worked as the Project Manager of the Annapurna Conservation Area in Ghandruk and Lo Monthang, Mustang. Working for two years there turned her life, making her question herself: Who she is? How does she belong to Nepal? Is she really a Nepali citizen?

The turning point

While working as the Project Manager she travelled through Mustang in 1990 where foreigners were not yet allowed. “When I was in Mustang, I found that hardly anyone could speak Nepali there. Their culture was totally different from my understanding of the Nepali people. I felt I was not in Nepal but in a different country. And being a Nepali, if I didn’t know other Nepalis, then how am I a Nepali citizen? Such thoughts crowded my mind and I got confused. In 1992, I published a travelogue Mustang Bhot In Fragments based on my experiences there and it was my attempt to understand Nepal.”

To understand something that confuses her, she needs to write it down. And writing is her way of clearing those confusions. However, even after publishing a book she was not certain that she was destined to be a writer. “At that time I had a circle of friends who were studying Anthropology. Looking at them I thought I would pursue my Master’s in Anthropology but I was not sure deep inside. I was working for NGOs, doing reporting and writing. I was in a confused state about myself.”

But at 27 years of age Thapa was clear, she was going to pursue her higher degree in Creative Writing. “I was asking my friends what I was doing here. I was confused but I got a fellowship for a Master of Fine Arts in English (Fiction) at the University of Washington, Seattle. I found my path.” According to Thapa, her circle of expatriate friends who used to recite poems or make her listen to their stories inspired her to get serious about writing.

Becoming a writer

Though she was aware of what she wanted to do, she had her share of struggles to establish herself as a writer. Her first novel The Tutor of History (2001) was written while pursuing MFA, where she came to Nepal in 1996 to complete her assignment to write a novel. She got to do her research for the novel, while helping her father during the elections, where he was one of the independent candidates from Tanahun.

“I got recognised and support as one of the Nepali writers writing in English. This made me hopeful,” she said of her
first novel.

She wanted to know Nepali writers, so she studied the Nepali language with poet Manjul and did literary translations from 2001-04. “I felt I needed to understand Nepali literary figures and through translation I got to know so many Nepali writers who had the same calibre as international writers. Progressive writers such as Narayan Dhakal, poet Shyamal and more interest me. Doing translation gave me a purpose — through my translations Nepali writers can get an identity outside the country, and even they are happy being identified as Nepali writers when they visit literary festivals in South Asian regions.”

Being a female was not a problem for her as she enjoyed the freedom enjoyed by men. She is aware that being a female writer in Nepal is difficult. “It is hard to sustain as a writer in the first place. Then they have responsibilities towards family and it is not easy for a woman to enter a bhatti where most of the male writers meet.”

For her, writing fiction is satisfying as well as difficult “though you have your structure and you do research for years, it is hard to give soul to that structure, the body of the novel”.

At 48, Thapa feels she does not have to get married as “family is a huge responsibility” and has a Canadian partner, who her mother calls ‘friend-in-law’. It’s her writing that helps her understand life and she “will continue writing till the end of my life”.

Thapa’s published works

Fiction

  • All Of Us In Our Own Lives (official launch on May 25)
  • Seasons of Flight
  • Tilled Earth
  • The Tutor of History

Non-fiction

  • The Lives We Have Lost
  • A Boy from Siklis
  • Forget Kathmandu
  • Mustang Bhot in Fragments
  • Translation
  • The Country is Yours
  • Secret Places

A version of this article appears in print on May 22, 2016 of The Himalayan Times.


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