Pranaya SJB Rana, the author of ‘City of Dreams: Stories’, and the former Feature and Op-Ed Editor at The Kathmandu Post, had a tete-a-tete with Parikrama Students’ Family to talk about the multiple facets of his life as a writer and his insights on the current trends in journalism.
Writing a good story is a lot like creating music. Resonating to your readers requires one to possess the calibre to craft words, and use their expertise and imagination to create a piece that has its very own music and rhythm. Pranaya SJB Rana, a well-known name in Nepal’s literary scene, started writing from a very young age, and realising his ability to work with words, he turned his passions into a profession by taking up a career as a writer, journalist and editor. He is currently a visiting faculty at Kathmandu University and was the former Feature and Opinions Page editor at The Kathmandu Post. His literary debut, “The City of Dreams: Stories” released in 2015, is an anthology of fictional tales that mainly revolve around the city of Kathmandu. Amidst the chaos and imperfections, the stories’ vivid imagery takes us along the city’s narrow gullies, lively chowks and bhattis, introducing us to some of the denizens and their experiences. The stories delve into the unexplored depths of the city and shed light on the capital’s transition from traditional to contemporary.
We recently sat down with Rana, who got candid about his experiences over the years in Nepali media literature, the inspiration behind his book, the challenges faced along the way, and also his opinions on current issues related to journalism.
1. When did you start writing? What inspired you to take up writing as a career?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. The first full story that I wrote was when I was around 11 years old, although it was a complete rip-off of everything that I had read until then. Since then, I’ve managed to write consistently, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. I realised early in life that my one real skill was my ability to work with words and language, which is when I knew that I had to pursue writing as a career.
2. What inspired you to make Kathmandu as the setting and the urbanites of Kathmandu as the protagonists for a majority of your stories in City of Dreams?
I’ve lived in Kathmandu pretty much all of my life. Except for four years in New York and two years in various cities around Europe, I’ve spent the majority of my life in Kathmandu. And for all its ugliness, it remains the only city I’ve felt comfortable calling home. There’s beauty in the madness, an order in the chaos. It might not be a perfect city but it exists with an energy all its own. It is a city of palimpsests and permutation; everything is built on something else; everything new is an iteration of something that’s come before.
3. Where do you think some of your characters from City of Dreams are right now?
I’m sure Kanti has gone back to walking his city and Pranaya is still out there, searching for his Maya. Maybe he’s found her or created her anew. As for the others, I hope they’re living on somewhere, beyond the page, in some reader’s mind. No one ever really dies and no story ever really ends.
4. What makes your writing stand out? What do you think is the reason behind your success in the Nepali literary universe?
I don’t know how successful I am in the “Nepali literary universe”. I write in English and that already limits the reach of my writing. I believe more people have read my articles on The Kathmandu Post than have read my book. I write what I know with the hope that someone out there will connect with what I’ve written. Writing, for me, is about communication, as I believe all art should be. Something personal, something intangible is put out there for someone else to pick up, recognize and feel heard. If even one person feels that way about my writing, I can rest easy.
5. Fiction versus Non-fiction, and why?
Non-fiction is an attempt to tell the truth as it is while fiction tells the truth as it isn’t. Fiction is only about possibility while non-fiction is about how infinite possibilities were distilled into one specific reality. I write fiction and I also write non-fiction. In the end, it is all about telling stories. I go by a maxim that a couple of Stephen King’s characters expound upon: “it is the tale, not he who tells it.”
6. What is the biggest challenge you have had to face as a writer in Nepal?
Writing is by itself a challenge. It comes easy to some but I struggle. It’s difficult producing something suitable for publication, or even just for someone else to read. Writing something and publishing it is like standing naked before the entire world and letting everyone get a good, long look at you. Everything else comes after. Editing and publishing are no doubt difficult but for a writer, the hardest part is staring at a blank page and knowing you have to bleed all over it.
7. What makes a good feature article?
In Nepali journalism, a “feature” tends to describe light pieces, generally about art and culture. Elsewhere in the world, a “feature” is generally a deep-dive into a specific subject, which can be anything from politics, crime, society, art, and culture. These were the kinds of features that I spearheaded at my time at The Kathmandu Post. I led the long-form section of the paper which produced weekly deep dives into a variety of subjects. I would say, a good feature is like a good short story. It’s compact storytelling where you need to write with enough flair that the audience doesn’t get bored and you need to be able to communicate something important that needs telling.
8. What do you think about the current trends in journalism?
On one hand, the explosion of online media is forcing legacy media houses like Kantipur to explore new frontiers, breaking into videos, long-form, investigations and podcasting. This is always a good thing because, without a proper challenge, newsrooms can get lazy. But on the other hand, the proliferation of online media has meant that fake news circulates very fast and most of these online news sites don’t have the kind of rigour and reputation that other newspapers do. This can be dangerous. The next decade or two for Nepali journalism will be about moving away from newspapers and going digital but also finding a way to maintain revenues to pay reporters. That’s a tough task for the Nepali media.
9. News outlets sometimes give stories a different swing to fulfill their vested interests. What is your take in media neutrality?
I tell my journalism students at Kathmandu University that no reporter can be objective or neutral. We all have our own biases and prejudices. When we say that the news should be objective, we mean that the method should be objective. The method of journalism includes veracity (are you reporting what actually happened) and fairness (did you give everyone in the story a chance to talk). As long as the method is objective, we can expect the news to be fair. But of course, this doesn’t always happen. Numerous unethical dealings are happening within the media, both big and small. Favours are being traded and self-censorship is often exercised when it comes to advertising concerns. For me, the biggest threat to objectivity and fairness does not come from the political class but from business interests.
10. Any advice for aspiring writers?
Every writer gives the same advice: read. If you want to write then you need to read. Read difficult things, that make you uncomfortable, that challenge your beliefs. Read widely from across the world. Read translations. Read less white men and more black, brown and Asian men and women. Read more women. Perspective is important in writing and you only gain access to diverse perspectives by diversifying your reading.
11. What is the one suggestion you would make for student-led campus literary clubs like Parikrama Students’ Family?
I would ask literary clubs to read more and discuss frequently. Get together and talk among yourself. Invite writers from around the country to come and talk. Listen to them, ask them questions. Ask yourselves questions. It’s not enough to read. You need to discuss just as much if you want to get closer to what makes something “literature”.
“City of Dreams: Stories” is available at the Parikrama Library. You can borrow the book from the library as soon as the classes resume on campus.