Destiny′s Child - An interview with Sharon Maas
Peacocks Dancing is the story of Rita Maraj. She lives in a ramshackle house in Georgetown and collects people like she does dogs, cats, ants and even a police horse. But then her father remarries and her life is turned upside down with the arrival of her stepmother, followed a few years later by her new sister, Isabelle.
Rita feels the pressure to conform, and the duty to find a suitable husband, but her sense of adventure is reawakened when she decides to go in search of her roots and ultimately discovers the destiny that awaits her. Beautifully written, Peacocks Dancing is enchanting, moving, exotic and a joy to read. We spoke to the author, Sharon Maas, about the beauty, mystery, cruelty and romance of Guyana and India, the characters in her book, and about how she came to write such a magical story.
You were born in Guyana and have lived in India. How much of Peacocks Dancing is based on your personal experiences there?
Since these are the countries I know best, I used them as backgrounds: the story itself is imagined, but superimposed on these backgrounds. A few incidents came from first hand experiences, for instance, my friends and I really did get hold of an old-fashioned hearse, painted it bright blue, hitched it to a horse and rode through the streets of Georgetown picking up all our pals. And like in the novel, after two weeks of havoc we ended up in a ditch! Also, a friend of mine really did enter the Miss Guyana competition, and came second! However, there is no Victoria Street, and (as far as I know!) no kingdom of Mahapradesh.
To what or whom does the title ′Peacocks Dancing′ relate? How did you come up with this title?
Peacocks are considered sacred in India, and along with the elephant, symbolise wealth and luxury. A lush Indian garden wouldn′t be the same without a peacock or two, along with a harem of hens, strutting about and dancing their hypnotising dance, and indeed they are present in Rani′s garden.
The peacock appears in many Hindu religious myths and legends, and is thought of as a protector. Since a potentially deadly emotion such as anger is depicted as a serpent, and the peacock is immune to the serpent′s poison, the peacock also symbolizes victory over poisonous tendencies in sentient beings. As such, I felt it to be a fitting symbol for this particular story.
In the West we think of the peacock mainly as a symbol for vanity. Peacocks are brilliantly coloured birds who try to attract attention by showing off their beautiful feathers- to us human onlookers, they appear "vain". Throughout the book there is the recurring image of dressing up to attract the opposite sex - first Isabelle, then the women in Kamathipura.
Both of your novels feature captivating characters that stay with you even when you have put the book down. How do you go about creating such a memorable cast?
My stories are always character-driven; the plot develops automatically out of the character and his or her needs within the framework of their situation. I always start with character.
Rather than intellectually think up a new character I let each personality come to me emotionally, until I feel I "know" him or her. Only then can I write about the character. Outer details such as appearance, profession, what they eat for breakfast and so on are secondary.
He or she becomes very real for me. I imagine it′s the same as for an actor. you have to drop your own identity and as far as possible "become" your characters, live inside their skins. I have been known to actually fall in love with my heroes. hope my husband doesn′t read this!
What was your inspiration for the story as a whole and more specifically for the central protagonist, Rita?
With both my novels I began with just a germ of an idea. In this case, the idea was two sisters, one beautiful and poised, but superficial, the other an awkward misfit, but with undiscovered depths. Rita is a problem child, but only because she is not understood and not appreciated. She is searching for a mission in life, something to really fulfil her, something she can give herself to entirely, and through that, really become herself. She begins as a troubled soul on a quest for herself, and when she discovers her true strengths she even becomes heroic.
Isabelle on the other hand is the one with the huge ego and who thrives on adulation from the world, but who fails miserably in all her aspirations. Her self-importance in fact is just a mask: deep inside she is just a self-centred little child with no genuine self-worth. It′s not having a big ego that makes for a true winner, but knowing and living through one′s inner substance. The inspiration for Rita was born out of this conviction.
From a very young age, Rita is pressured to conform by her new step-mother and made to feel duty bound to find a suitable husband. Is this the norm in Guyana?
I haven′t lived in Guyana for many years, but when I was growing up it was unimaginable for a girl to even think of not getting married. We weren′t necessarily pressured into marriage, but it was plain that marriage - preferably to a well-situated, wealthy and good-looking man - was the final goal, and an unmarried girl of 25 would surely be desperately unhappy, and feel a failure!
Perhaps things have changed by now, but again, I don′t believe they will have changed all that much. Indian girls were definitely pressured into marriage more than Africans.
Do you think that the guilt that is laid on Rita after her sister nearly dies had a huge bearing on the rest of her life?
Definitely. After the accident she felt an incredible responsibility for Isabelle and was incapable of saying no to her. with the consequence that for a long time she was unable to make decisions without considering the effect on Isabelle, and could not help but put Isabelle first. Isabelle wrapped her around her little finger, which didn′t do much for her self-esteem, either. It was only when she freed herself of Isabelle that she could really begin to be herself.
Does the area of Bombay you refer to as Kamathipura really exist? And if so, are the conditions there really as horrific as you describe? And is under-age prostitution and kidnapping really as rife in India as you suggest in your book?
Kamathipura really exists. I went there for the research for this novel and the conditions are actually much, much worse than I describe. I didn′t want my readers to shut the book in revulsion so my descriptions are slightly sterilised.
The doctor in the book is inspired on Dr Ishwarprasad Gilada, who works among these women and girls and who founded the organisation PHO to deal with the situation.
Through the efforts of the PHO child prostitution in Bombay was reduced by over 75% in the last 10 years. Now there are "only" about 4000 to 5000 child prostitutes. About 40% of them have been kidnapped or abducted from their homes. If you can imagine being raped several times a day each day of the year, by 8 to 10 different men, from the age of 13 upwards, while living in filth among rats and vermin, far from your home and your parents, you will have an idea of what life is like for them.
Peacocks Dancing is your second novel. What does it feel like to have two books published so successfully?
It′s a fantastic feeling. I feel I communicate much better through writing than through speech - I′m actually rather shy - so to have the stories come out in this form and to find readers is for me an enormous fulfilment. At the same time I think it′s important for a writer, or in fact any public figure, not to get carried away by the elation of success.
I notice that one specific area of India, Tamil Nadu, features in both of your books. Is this because you have spent time there yourself?
Yes. I first went to Tamil Nadu in 1973 and lived there for almost two years. Since then I′ve visited the area regularly, nearly every year in fact, and feel almost as if it′s my home. India has a certain atmosphere, indescribable. for me it is magic.
Are you currently working on another novel or any other projects?
At present I am halfway through my third novel.
What made you decide to become a novelist?
I don′t think I made any decision. I just always had these stories inside me, ever since I was a child - I thought everyone made up stories. I wrote my first "novels" when I was eight! I never was much good at anything else. I′m very impractical, a typical dreamer, so all I′m really doing is finding a practical use for my dreaminess!
But as an adult I never had the confidence or the patience or the determination to actually sit down and begin writing. Once I began I couldn′t stop: I didn′t want to write, I had to write.
Any words of advice for aspiring authors?
Don′t talk about it, not to anyone: just write it. Don′t worry about publication. If you really believe in it, if it has originality and truth, it will find it′s own way to your readers.
About Sharon Maas