Muna Gurung is a writer, translator and educator based in Kathmandu. She received her MFA from Columbia University where she was a teaching fellow. Her fiction, non-fiction and translated works have appeared in various online and print publications. Working closely with Nepali illustrators, she has also edited a handful of children’s books. Muna writes a monthly column for Nepali Times called Lightroom Conversation where she interviews women writers in the Nepali literary scene. She teaches writing at the Open Institute for Social Sciences and is the founder of KathaSatha. When not writing or teaching, Muna runs an inter-generational pickle company called ĀMĀKO. Currently working on a novel, Muna talks about her childhood creative writing, KathaSatha and more. Excerpts from the interview:
When did you start writing?
In the unconventional sense, I think we are all writers crafting our stories daily, but in the words on a page writing sense, I think I began around 7th grade inspired by my friend then, Monica Rana. She was tall, beautiful and very smart. And the cool thing about her was that she read outside of the textbooks we were assigned in class, and she made reading look cool. I would visit her in her home sometimes to do homework together, and she had her own study room with wide windows that opened up to the view of a wild, sprawling garden. After that, I was ashamed to invite her to my home because I didn’t even have a desk of my own! I sat on my bed and wrote on top of two suitcases that were stacked together.
But Monica, I picture her in her study reading real fat novels and a cat sitting on her lap. Looking back now, I think I was in love with Monica. One day, she read me the first paragraph of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things where the writer describes the way rain falls like silver slanted threads, or something. Monica was so moved by that imagery that we began to write a story together. The scene opens with a girl who is on a large swing, mid-air, and it is raining hard, just like the rain in Roy’s opening paragraph. That was perhaps the first time I actually wrote-wrote.
What was your childhood like? Did you develop storytelling skills at a very young age?
A while back, I remember going to watch writer Zadie Smith speak and she said that to be a writer, one must have read a lot of books as a child… and I left that event feeling like maybe I had become a fraudulent writer. You see, my childhood home was not one filled with books.
I grew up in Singapore in a gated community of Nepalis called the “Gurkha Contingent.” My father was a lahure and would wake up in the morning and leave for work, my brothers also went to work or school and I remember before I reached school-going age, I would just wake up and spend my time with Aama until it was cooler in the evening when I could go out and play with my friends. I remember my job in the morning was to go and pick a handful of these white pinwheel flowers that grew outside the building where we lived. Aama needed those for puja in the morning. Then half boiled eggs for breakfast, tea in a small cup and then I had to feed the fish in the aquarium. The days just went like that.
But I realise now that yes, to be a writer, one must be a good reader, but the act of reading can look different: it doesn’t only have to be reading a book, or words on a page. Reading can also be listening, observing, and remembering. In that manner, I was constantly reading; reading my mother’s gestures, her movements, the way she did things in the kitchen, reading the undulations of her breath during our afternoon nap, reading the way these large red ants always made it to our kitchen from the back.
What is your creative process like?
It varies. Sometimes the voice comes first and I lead with that. Sometimes it is a character I see, or dream up, or remember. Sometimes it’s reading something that inspires me that sends me writing. Sometimes a poem comes to mind, a song, a saying. It is different each time, but the work itself is just the boring but important showing up at the desk, and facing my writing or a blank page. I struggle with that especially during the winter when it’s cold in the mornings, or when I have scheduled way too many things around me. When I don’t write on a given day, it gnaws at me. I am easily irritable, I know something is amiss. So I go back to my desk, even if it is for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or to write down a thought or a scene.
Being a writer, what captivates your attention the most?
As a writer, I’d like to think that my role in this world is to observe with all my senses, and different things capture my attention, and it changes according to the phase of life I may be in, the time of the day, the month…
Writing both fiction and non-fiction, how do you manage between the two?
I don’t know if I would use the word “manage.” Fiction and nonfiction are just two different ways for me to tell stories, but at the core of it, I hope for all stories to be “true” in their own sense. I try not to think too much of the different genres and instead go about trying to find how best I can serve the story that wants to be told.
What led you to establish KathaSatha?
Over the 13 years that I was away from Nepal either studying or working abroad, I came home each summer and I wanted to sit with Nepali writers and write together. I dreamed of a place, a community where we came together through writing and storytelling. So in 2010, I began collaborating with other writers and offering free writing workshops. We came together, read and wrote together and shared our work. Now, KathaSatha has become an organisation that not only offers writing workshops but is also dedicated to lifting Nepali stories, writers and the literary scene: we do book launches, literary events, offer mentorship and in general like to believe we are literary activists.
As a 16 year old, I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and then started down a path of reading all the South Asian writers’ books I could find here in Kathmandu. What these stories did was announce that we could write characters who ate the foods we ate, who moved in the world like we did and call it “literature”. It blew my mind. I think back to that 16-year-old and think about how she would have loved a community like KathaSatha. I did it for her and others like her.
You have been working towards highlighting Nepali literature through Kathasatha and Lightroom. How has the journey so far been and what aspects have surprised you while interacting with various writers in this field?
Nepalis have been writing now for a while and I don’t think I am “highlighting” Nepali literature because it doesn’t need me to highlight it. I started Lightroom Conversation, where I interview Nepali writers who identify as women and queer, as a way to record my own journey through the vast Nepali literary scene. I mostly read and write in English and I’ am aware of the deep chasm that exists between writers who read and write in Nepali and those who read and write in English. I wanted to sit in the discomfort of that chasm and do the honest work of slowly reading on my own, and understanding and measuring that distance and perhaps make efforts to close it. To begin, I knew that I was interested in reading non-Brahmin and non-straight-male writers, because we have heard and read about the former in schools and textbooks.
But whenever I went to bookstores asking for women writers’ I would get the usual Parijat. Don’t get me wrong, I love Parijat’s work and she holds an important place in my heart, but surely, I thought, she isn’t the only one. And she isn’t. So, you see, Lightroom is just my way of navigating that landscape and speaking with writers whose work I find interesting. And I record it in writing because when I started out on this journey to seek Nepali writers who are not all Brahmin and not all straight male, I wished for there to be a catalogue of the sort I am creating, a way to get to know the writer better. And you know, if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you have to create it. So here I am. As for what has surprised me in this process of talking to Nepali writers?
That “chasm” I spoke about; it is there, but it is also completely created and imposed. The writers who have spoken to me are nothing but warm and welcoming. Many of these writers have become my mentors, friends, and collaborators. Recently, I was able to work on a project where we created a series of children’s books in Tharu languages, and out of the three writers who worked on the project; I was able to bring in Shanti Chaudhary, one of my interviewees from Lightroom.
What inspired you to write a book? Could you share with our readers about your first book experience?
I haven’t written a book yet, but I have many of my stories online and in print. I recently translated a chapbook of poems by Sulochana Manandhar Dhital, titled Night, via Tilted Axis Press in the UK. The title is forthcoming locally in Nepal via SAFU; hopefully in early 2021. I am currently working on a novel.