First published on 7 May 2012. Updated on 15 May 2012.
In his new novel, The Watch, Indian-born New York-based writer Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya transforms the story of Antigone into a painful examination of the war in Afghanistan. His hero is a woman with Antigone's tunnel-vision convictions – she wants what is just and fair, here, the body of her brother back from US soldiers. Time Out spoke with Roy-Bhattacharya from New York.
Why did you decide on Antigone as the model for the book?
We’re looking at a situation in Afghanistan that is going to end in tragedy. I don’t want to be a Cassandra but I am enormously pessimistic about what’s going to happen [in Afghanistan] when everyone pulls out, two years from now. I decided particularly to use Antigone because I am personally fascinated by the play and by the character, and I decided to use a strong woman as the counterpoint to a very masculine situation: war making. Although, in America at least, there is an increasing push towards involving women in combat.
We’re talking about a situation here where, much like ancient Greece, the Afghan culture and society is very masculine and misogynistic. This particular aspect of the culture pre-dates Islam – there is something in the water there that has always, essentially, put women in exactly the position they are in today, in a secondary position. I find this to be tremendously ironic in the sense that without the women their society would collapse because the women are the ones who actually work; they are the ones who run the households, who plough the fields, raise the children. They are more or less the centrifuges of tribal culture, while at the same time being enormously repressed.
I was also particularly taken by a political organization called the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan that was founded during the brutal civil wars of the 1990s. It was founded by a woman, it was founded in reaction and response to the sort of collective rape of women by the Afghan warlords. Now they are the most reliable on-the-ground collators of reportage. As far as I know, this is the strongest secular voice in Afghanistan today and its always been, since its founding – it's almost 20 years old now.
When you choose that construct and that character, who by her nature is extremely honourable and almost has a sort of tunnel vision view of what is right, is it sometimes difficult to humanise the character and fit her into a modern novel where she needs to be fuller, rounded, perhaps flawed. Is it difficult to humanise a character who comes from such strong stock?
Well if you’ve read the first chapter then you will know that this particular young woman has got grounds to have what you call tunnel vision. She’s lost her family – everyone is gone – and this brother is all that was left to her and from all evidence they had a very close relationship. She’s also lost her legs, which means on the marriage market she’s nothing. It becomes enormously important to her to fulfill this obligation almost as a way of holding on to her sanity.
But I used her more particularly as a larger metaphor for Pashtun culture. You have a society that has essentially borne the brunt of years of state of the art weaponry, first from the Russians and now from the West, and they have still not given up, they haven’t even buckled. All they want to do is reclaim their way of life, if you will, and to be left alone. And this I think is a remarkable achievement in a situation where they could have very easily succumb to the usual colonial story. I use the character as an analogy in that she is singularly disinterested in anything the Americans could offer her, including prostheses for her legs. It’s a kind of rejection that is just fascinating.
Did you spend much time in Afghanistan before writing the novel?
[Laughs] Actually I haven’t been. I took it as a challenge. One of the things that dismays me is the shrinking vision of literary fiction and that most contemporary writers have surrendered the ambition of the 19th century titans. I did my research – I come from that part of the world and I have been to areas that are like Afghanistan and I used my imagination. I mean: I write fiction. I’ve been asked this question repeatedly and I’ve come up with an answer that I rather like which is, “Does that person who writes vampire novels need to go through that experience?” And I’ve been really flattered that both readers from the American Army who I had fact check the book as well as readers from the other side read the book and assumed I’d been there. So it can be done right.
I can imagine given some of the things you’ve said to me that as you speak to the media about the book, there are going to be those on the right who would fiercely disagree with what your saying and might say, “Well you’ve never been there you don’t understand the situation.”
Well, what happens in this book is that you start with her point of view, written in the first person, but by the end of the book you’ve actually gone 180 degrees. I do, very faithfully, represent the right-wing point of view. It was very important for me to get out of the way. The conversation that you’re having with me is outside of the book is within the book, I’m not there as a talking head, I do not exist. It was enormously important for me to give each character autonomy, regardless of whether or not that character’s point of view coincided with mine.
And you consulted with American servicemen on the book.
I wrote the first draft without talking to anyone actually, purely based on my research. Of course, once I started talking to them, I definitely had to refine, change, alter and take out a lot of bloopers because it's just the nature of the beast.
You became friendly with the soldiers, right?
Yeah, very close friends actually. I was basically passed on from soldier to soldier depending on specialisation and they told me their stories. One of the ironies of modern warfare is that the war as such does not exist in the consciousness of this country – the media has been so effective in distancing it in this bubble they’ve had somewhere else. These kids – and I call them kids because they’re all very young –come back from having gone through what they’ve gone through and it’s inevitably very very harrowing and no one wants to listen to them. I cannot tell you how many American officers I spoke to who were grateful for this conversation.
This seems to feed into what I’ve read you’ve said previously about wanting to give voice to the statistics you see put in newspapers on briefly on the seven o’clock news. Do you feel equally that you’re attempting to give voice to the statistics not just on the Afghan side but on the American side?
I started the book with the determination to represent the Afghan point of view. But I found myself, in the process of writing and rewriting the book, feeling the moral imperative to give voice to the Americans who were there as well because of my ongoing realisation of their voicelessness. The funny thing is now I feel entirely committed to giving them a platform. In fact, for the readings I’m doing in America I’m having my military friends actually precede me and talk about there experiences. I feel its enormously important to involve them and bring them out to a public that is used to the more run-of-the-mill literary reading.
The Watch is available now through Random House Australia. RRP$32.