Anosh Irani takes literature to the streets in new novel

The Parcel set in Bombay's red-light district

“Sometimes stories will disturb you and it’s OK,” says North Vancouver novelist and playwright Anosh Irani.

“That’s what literature is for,” the award-winning scribe goes on to say. “It’s there to cause some sort of dent in your thinking, some sort of shift in your consciousness. It’s not there to make you comfortable, it’s there to move you.”

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Irani has just released his latest work of fiction, The Parcel, chronicling the experiences of protagonist Madhu, a transgender sex worker in Kamathipura, the notorious red-light district of Bombay, who is given an unexpected task: prepare a “parcel” (a young girl from the provinces, betrayed and trafficked by her aunt) for its fate.

While the novel — Irani’s fourth to date and a follow to 2010’s Dahanu Road — shines a light on a world vastly different from that of a typical North American reader, that’s not to say they’ll struggle to find common ground. One major theme Irani says he hopes readers walk away with is the importance of acceptance.

“Sometimes people are forced to operate in the shadows and create a subculture because mainstream society has not been able to accept them,” he says.

“We all feel lost when we are rejected. It’s just the degree of difficulty varies, but eventually all human beings need hope, all human beings need acceptance. That’s what I realized during the writing of this book,” he adds.

The seeds for The Parcel were planted when Irani was a young boy growing up in his native India.

“I was born very close to the red-light district in Bombay,” he says. “As a child I was very intrigued by what I saw. It was very theatrical. The place had a different mood, it had a different feel or tempo to it. I couldn’t express what I was feeling in words because I was too young and I didn’t understand the images that I was seeing. But they definitely had some sort of impact on me. Then when I moved from that locality, maybe when I was seven or eight years old, the red-light district was still something that I passed through to get to various parts of the city. I would ride my motorcycle, I would pass through there. I was in touch with it in the way one would observe something but it had a strange draw to it and I was also very haunted by the things that I saw there over the years, and inspired, which is why I chose to write about it.”

Experiencing what you’re writing about firsthand is integral to any writing project, says Irani.

“I think literature really comes from the streets. If you are not in direct contact with what you’re writing about, if you’re one step removed from it, it doesn’t work for me. That’s something that I’ve been doing for years,” he says.

While Irani is currently based in North Vancouver, he spends a lot of time in his hometown, of course to visit family and friends, but also to inform his writing.

Irani went one step further in his research for The Parcel and conducted a number of interviews with subjects ranging from sex workers, employees and volunteers of non-governmental organizations, and transgender people. In addition, he read countless works of non-fiction profiling the red-light district as well as the “hijra” (neither man nor woman) community.

After spending so many years writing the book, Irani says it’s a strange feeling to finally have it out there.

“I still feel that somewhere I’m still immersed in that world. The novel is done for me but because I’ve been immersed in the world of The Parcel for so many years, I still feel connected to that. The book is out there, but I’m very much connected to the characters in the novel still,” he says.

While just released this month, The Parcel is already making waves. On Wednesday, it was shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust of Canada Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Fellow finalists include Michael Helm for After James, Kerry Lee Powell for Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush, Yasuko Thanh for Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains and Katherena Vermette for The Break. The winner will be announced Nov. 2.

In addition, the release has earned Irani, who also serves as a visiting professor and writer-in-residence in Simon Fraser University’s world literature program, a number of invitations to upcoming fall writers and readers festivals. This weekend, he’ll make his debut at Word Vancouver, Western Canada’s largest celebration of literacy and reading.

The festival kicked off Wednesday and will run through Sunday, the main festival day, which takes place at Vancouver’s Library Square and offers a host of programing from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., including exhibitors, author readings, entertainment, workshops and panels. Next month, Irani is set to appear at Calgary’s Wordfest, the Whistler Writers Festival, the Vancouver Writers Fest and the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

After spending so many months in solitude putting pen to paper on his recent work, Irani says he truly enjoys these opportunities to engage with the public.

“You’re actually in touch with the people who read your work. I enjoy doing readings, I enjoy doing panels. It’s the only time I really meet other writers as well. It’s precisely the isolation that makes this all the more enjoyable: You are away for a few years and then it’s great to meet other writers and then go back into your cave and start working again,” he says.

In February 2017, Irani will be celebrating yet another release, the opening of his latest work of theatre, The Men In White at the Arts Club Theatre Company’s Granville Island Stage. The play, set in a chicken slaughterhouse in Bombay and the dressing room of a cricket club in Vancouver, tells the story of two brothers, Abdul and Hasan. One lives in Vancouver and the other in Bombay, and they share a passion for cricket.

“While I was researching The Parcel, I actually came across a chicken slaughterhouse and I met the owner. I’d always wanted to write about cricket as well, but a play can’t be about cricket, that’s just a starting point. When I visited this chicken slaughterhouse, somehow it connected with cricket. Now that’s a very vague and improbable connection, but that’s what I like about the story is how that connection happens and it happens organically because that’s what happened to me,” says Irani.

The Men In White is set to run from Feb. 9 to March 11 and follows Irani’s previous collaborations with the Vancouver theatre company, including 2003’s The Matka King and 2010’s My Granny the Goldfish.

Irani is grateful the Arts Club’s continued support of his work.

“They have always encouraged me to find more and more depth in my work, even if it means going darker,” he says.

Anosh Irani, part of Word Vancouver’s An Array of Fiction, Sunday, Sept. 25 at 11:40 a.m. at Library Square. Free. For more information, visit wordvancouver.ca.

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