Where I lived and grew up, the novella was never endangered.
New Yorker,Southwest Reviewnot
Three Famous Short Novels
Scribner’sThe Hamlet (Harper’sSaturday Evening PostGo Down, Moses
Unfortunately, this is the story of almost all novellas. They can exist only as “short novels” or be collected as a “story” in anthologies. Unless the writer has a huge following, such as Ian MacEwan, or Joyce Carol Oates, novellas don’t appear independently in book form and novellas are not even called novellas. Somewhere along the way, corporate publishers’ balance sheets ensured that the novella became an endangered species like the Florida panther. This is why the cover of the William Faulkner’s novella anthology screams Three Short Novels. It means, if you buy this book, you will have the pleasure of finishing a “novel” in a short period of time. If they called them novellas, perhaps even Faulkner wouldn’t sell—as if the American literary establishment is telling us that they don’t know how to sell novellas. It is an excellent question to ponder on—if an imprint such as Vintage can’t sell something written by a writer of Faulkner’s stature, whose novellas can they sell? Who are writers such as us: as useless as laundromats in the land of nudes?
There are many more essays about the novella published in American journals. What emerges from these discussions is that in the world of literary fiction, the novella is perceived by critics and readers as an endangered species. But societies tend to protect endangered species. There is little attempt to do so in the mainstream publishing world. However, reading Lindsey Drager’s brilliant 2015 essay “The Novella Is Not The Novel’s Daughter: An Argument in Notes” in the Michigan Quarterly Review was a breath of fresh air: “. . . a novella is a book-length work that uses conciseness and unity to create a narrative of suggestion that feels at once compressed and expanded. The novella is slender but gaping. It embraces pause and pattern and gesture. It declares, ‘I can say more with less’ and then it does.”
We don’t need to re-read Hamlet to understand this, but there is always something rotten in the state of Denmark if you are not treating your citizens with respect. Marginalized people, and literary forms, don’t end up on the margins by accident. It is by active neglect. This discrimination against the novella reveals what is rotten about the American literary establishment. In fact, none of these essays would be written if American publishers translated more. What we need is a publishing culture that would bring lessons from other literary universes, where novellas are thriving, kicking, keeping people alive and sane in politically turbulent times.
I come from one such universe.
The Indian fall festival of Durga Puja—celebrated primarily by Assamese and Bengali communities—is to honor the powerful, demon-killing goddess Durga who has ten hands and rides a lion. Usually, you would see me running in the opposite direction of Indian diaspora gatherings, but that’s another story. But I care about this festival so much that in 2019, even though I was a new driver in America, still scared of six-lane highways, and still making the mistake of driving on the left side, I drove with my friends to a small town called Lawrenceville, Georgia (population: 30,000) to attend Durga Puja at a desolate high school where I met Bengali and Assamese speakers chattering away in their festive outfits. Back home, the Durga Puja holidays are the first most extended vacation we get after the summer vacation. To kill free time, people also read a lot, especially after the heavy festive lunches.
Between August and October, almost every daily and weekly in Assam bring out a beautifully produced issue called “sharodiyo” (fall) special issue. These literary magazines, printed in tiny fonts, large-sized editions, easily run up to 300–500 pages. They publish around thirty to forty short stories, about one hundred poems, fifteen to twenty essays, and of course, at least six novellas. This publishing process is repeated with a spring special issue, usually in April during Assam’s biggest folk festival, Bihu. Unfortunately, just like our western counterparts, the Assamese and Bengali name for novellas is “uponyasika,” which means the female form of “upanyas” (novels). They are also rarely called by their true name. The pre-publication advertisements scream, “half a dozen novels.” It is understood that they are actually talking about novellas. Another important aspect is that they don’t discriminate between genres. I have observed, on multiple occasions, there is something for everybody: detective, romance, science-fiction. But the point I want to highlight is that until I moved to the US, I didn’t know that it was even possible for the novella to face endangerment; that it has to struggle for its existence, earn its keep.
It is through novellas that a lot of Assamese authors earn their reputation, since these fall issues are extremely popular. The works are commissioned between April and June. We submit drafts in August. The issues are published in September/October. To a great extent, this culture of writing novellas for bulky special issues exists during Eid celebrations in Bangladesh, and during Durga Puja celebrations in the Indian states of Assam, West Bengal, and Tripura. Among the many monthlies and weeklies in Assam, at least eight to ten periodicals publish special issues during fall and spring. In a single month, readers get to read at least sixty novellas published by new and established writers. For a writer like me, who fails to master the story’s art form and end short stories in 4000 words, the novella is a refuge. I remember the excitement of those Durga Puja vacations: After lunch, there is little to do. It is worth it to go out to the streets to watch the lightworks, the festivities, only at night. Every family member would rest in each of our bedrooms, with a fat magazine by our side, and finish a novella in one sitting. It kept us hooked for two to three hours, gave us the satisfaction of being with a sustained narrative, more time in a world we cared about, and a long enough time with a set of characters; but also didn’t demand too much of our time. It was like enjoying a movie, or a mini-series: a crash course on empathy by inhabiting other bodies.
One of my favorite novellas I read during these festivities is Anuradha Sharma Pujari’s In Search of a God (Asom Bani, Spring 1997). The provocative and frank story about Debashish, an introverted young man from a dysfunctional family and a sexual assault survivor, created ripples in the state on publication due to the taboo subjects it covered in direct, frank language. In Search of a God pushed boundaries: The character Debashish also discovers the dark story behind his birth and wonders if he was the product of love or rape when his mother tells him that she worked as a house-maid for his father, when she conceived him. When I read the book in high school, I wondered: What was Debashish looking for? What is this “God” he is searching for? Reading it in a lonely Georgia afternoon in the American South, almost two decades later, I realized he was looking for love; God is love.
My home, the Indian state of Assam, has been the site of an armed militancy against Indian rule since 1979. It is one of the main reasons many from my generation had to leave the state for better jobs, lives, and safety. As a teenager, I moved to Delhi first and later to the United States. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, counter-insurgency operations stormed Assam through widespread extra-judicial killings, rapes, systematic torture in detention camps, and mass graves. Very few of these stories of people’s resilience and suffering, shifting loyalties for the once-popular secessionist movement, found coverage in India’s national media. However, they not only dominated the Assamese press but also shaped the state’s literary imagination.
I write about this in my first novel; The House With a Thousand Stories(Penguin, 2013)is a family saga set against the backdrop of widespread extra-judicial killings conducted allegedly by the Indian security forces. Between 1998–2001 in the middle of the night, these “secret killers” in army uniforms used to enter the homes of people who they thought supported anti-government activities, to torture them for information. My uncle went underground for months, fearing for his life. My cousins were picked up and tortured by the army on suspicion; one of them vomited blood for days after he was returned. We were lucky. Perhaps no one in the rest of the country wrote about us or told our stories. It wasn’t an accident that I would spend my college years writing this novel. But I couldn’t have written my first novel if Assamese writers hadn’t written novellas and broken the silence. Two novellas that puncture this silence are Manikuntala Bhattacharya’s Stone People (Dainik Janasadharan, Fall 2014; trans: by Mitali Goswami; anthologized in How to Tell the Story of an Insurgency); and Geetali Borah’s The River’s Curve (Ajir Daik Batori Fall 2009; trans: by Stuti Goswami; unpublished in English).
I couldn’t have written my first novel if Assamese writers hadn’t written novellas and broken the silence.
In this gripping story, Stone People’s protagonist is a woman disillusioned with life working for the government. Her brother has left home to join the underground militants group fighting against Indian rule, and her parents yearn for her brother’s return or any scrap of news about him. Told through a series of short chapters in the first person, the protagonist isn’t interested in the bravery of her brother, who is fighting the Indian government. “I fail to understand how someone who turns a blind eye to his own responsibilities at home, and to his aged parents, has the guts to fight for freedom,” she argues with her brother’s handler Abhinash, who accompanies her in a long, arduous trip to meet her brother in a secret location. The novella, told in a relentless, intimate, first-person narrative, gives us a penetrating glimpse of what happens to those left behind after a family member joins an underground movement.
The River’s Curve takes us to a secret location in Bhutan where militants are trained to wage war against the government—Borah paints the picture of a makeshift camp of militants in an idyllic hilly location, where an underground leader, Dihang, is training youths to fight the government. As he and his colleagues train the new batch and strategize on “warfare,” Dihang becomes attached to an injured baby deer. He raises her and names her after the state he wants to free from Indian rule: “Asomi,” derived from “Assam.” Emotional and romantic, but often restrained in narration, Borah’s plot is inspired by the true story of militant tribal poetMithinga Daimary, whose entire family was shot dead one night by “secret killers.” Known for his poetry collection Melodies and Guns—released at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006, Daimary was captured by the army because instead of running away like the rest of his camp members when the Indian army attacked, he was trying to free a pair of green doves. In Borah’s novella, the Indian military captures Dihang while he tries to save his pet from gunfire. In a climate saturated with dehumanizing images of “terrorists” circulated by the state narrative, Borah reminds us that some people may be terrorists for some; for others, they are rebels.
Both of these novellas were published in special issue magazines. They are yet to be published independently, in a book form. Bhattacharya and Sharma Pujari, both prolific authors, have published their respective novellas as part of anthologies, however. This suggests that one has to wait for a set of novellas to gather to be published; both authors are also immensely popular with a huge readership, making the anthologies possible. When Borah and Bhattacharya’s novellas appeared in print, they performed strong critiques of different aspects of the militancy that has come to dominate so much of our psyche. Fast-paced production—commissioning in late spring, submission in late summer, publication in early fall—ensured that these novellas participated in ongoing social conversation about militancy. For instance, when the peace talks started between the government and the insurgents, the middle class was largely against seeing the militants in a sympathetic light. Decades of violence and uprooting had made my generation hate my earlier generation—the generation that romanticized the militants who tried to give us a new passport. One of the ways the Indian government ensured this sustained hatred was through a systematic suppression of information. Fiction filled that gap.
Where I lived and grew up, the novella was never endangered. It was, in fact, a dominant genre that not only nourished our souls but also influenced public debates.
During those years when I was a new professor in a new university—when my country was slowly going up in flames, and I was always worried about the next bad thing that was going to happen—writing novellas saved me. Writing Samironor Pasot, the story about a mother who slowly discovers her son’s love life in Guwahati after his sudden death only to be disappointed and confused, gave me sanity. In the next three years, I would write a total of three novellas for different special issue magazines. Writing those provided me with a sense of accomplishment; reminded me how I make sense of the world. I finished them soon and they also appeared in print soon! Publishing a novella in a magazine only means more possibilities: I can revise it and publish it again later in an anthology, or choose to develop it into a full-length novel if I wish so.
There is one area of US publishing that values the novella. The novella has a strong presence in the sphere of popular genres in America; the literary fiction publishing world has much to learn from the science fiction, horror, and fantasy publishing world. Every year a large number of novellas and novelettes, are published by Tor.com, Lightspeed Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Last year, I had the absolute pleasure of reading three science fiction novellas by Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor. The books are about Binti, a young girl who is so intelligent that she has won a scholarship to study in another galaxy. Every evening, I sat with a cup of Assam tea spiced with cardamom, and read a novella in one sitting that took me back to those fall holidays of my childhood in Guwahati: the post-lunch sloth and reading, the rhythmic sound of drums from the pooja venue next door. The Binti novels are now out in an anthology, as Binti: The Complete Trilogy (2019), but they gained their current popular following when they were published separately by Tor.com as slender books with stunning cover-art, first:Binti (2015), Home (2017), and The Night Masquerade (2018).
As for literary fiction, Miami University Press has an annual novella contest. The wonderful Garth Greenwell, who writes prose that makes your lungs shiver, debuted with a novella called Mitko after winning the prize. Yet, the literary novella is perceived as a risky business. Large publishers won’t put their money in this art form unless the author has a huge following. This is embarrassing. Hopefully, one day, the novella in America will be published more frequently by magazines as happens in Assam, West Bengal, and Bangladesh. Some spaces are already showing the way: TheGriffith Review, Australia’s premier journal, publishes a special edition of the journal annually in a series called “The Novella Project.” Many American small presses regularly organize novella contests and publish the winners. Magazines such as Alaska Quarterly Review andIdaho Review publish novellas; The Massachusetts Review publishes up to 25,000 words in fiction or nonfiction under their new digital series, “Working Titles.” But novella publications must use the digital space more, instead of being limited to the expensive physical incarnation to reach a wider readership and engage in social dialogue—if a longform essay can break the internet occasionally, why couldn’t a novella? Fiction works like a wand. The novella, as a longread online, can perform the magic that a novel can’t because it needs a supporting cast.
Hopefully, one day, the novella in America will be published more frequently by magazines as happens in Assam, West Bengal, and Bangladesh.
In the literary Global South, some of the greatest writers have written novellas at various stages of their careers, interrogating the contemporary. Mario Vargas Llosa’s often forgotten and ignored Who Killed Palomino Molero invites its reader to assume social responsibilities by pushing them to an intellectual protest against human rights abuse. In The Late Bourgeois World, Nadine Gordimer examines white people’s role in a racially divided society. The novella follows Liz, whose husband, a failed revolutionary of the anti-apartheid struggle, has died and she has to make a difficult choice to honor his wish. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a stylistic marvel that inverts the detective novel’s style to tell the story of the murder of Santiago Nasar in a small unnamed Latin American town. Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer who regularly critiqued the state with his fiction, crafts the masterful The Day the Leader Was Killed through three first person-narratives. In each, the country hurtles towards the assassination day of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who started a new economic policy and made the country’s common folk suffer financially. From Egypt to South Africa to Colombia to Peru to Assam, there are so many examples of writers using the form of the novella to engage with immediate realities; to subvert, to puncture the state’s versions of truth. The novella doesn’t seem to be in danger here. Instead, the governments are in danger due to the sharp critique of the novellas.
As a writer in graduate school and later as a teacher, I have fretted on the lack of novella-writing courses. In 2019, designing a course called the “Art of the Novella” gave me enormous satisfaction. Writing a twenty-thousand-word text over a semester seems doable and satisfying for anyone seriously interested in fiction writing. Undoubtedly, the novella is an astonishing form, open to so many possibilities. Novellas are unpredictable, interesting, attractive; speaking in quick repartees, they take a conversation from one level to the next at lightning speed; they are irresistible, and keep writers like me sane in an increasingly turbulent world.
Aruni Kashyap is an Assamese writer and translator. An Associate Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Georgia, he is the author of two books of fiction: The House With a Thousand Stories and His Father's Disease. There Is No Good Time for Bad News is his first poetry collection. You can find more of his work on www.arunikashyap.com and on Instagram/ Twitter @arunikashyap