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Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons: Q & A with Jocelyn Cullity

Since its publication two years ago in fall 2017, Jocelyn Cullity’s debut novel has garnered an impressive array of honors. Winner of the American Book Fest’s Best Book award for historical fiction, Amah and the Silk Pigeons was also a finalist in two categories each for the 2018 International Book Award and the 2017 Foreword Indies Award, and was one of twenty recommended Commonwealth books by the 2018 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, to name only a portion of its recognitions.  Cullity, who was born in Australia, raised in Toronto, and whose mother’s English family lived for five generations in India, holds a PhD in creative writing and has worked in television and film production. Her documentary about women in China, Going to Sea, aired nationally in Canada.

The novel tells the tragic story of the 1857 Lucknow Uprising, when the Indian population challenged the English attempt to take over the Kingdom of Awadh. Specifically, it’s the story of women’s role in the resistance: the efforts of the African-descended military guards known as the Rose Platoon (to which the title character, Amah, belongs) and of the king’s ex-wife, Begam Hazrat Mahal, who helped to guide and fund the uprising.

Readers of Amah and the Silk Pigeons will find themselves caught up in the texture of life in the Indian city of Lucknow in the mid-nineteenth century. One of Cullity’s exceptional accomplishments is that she is able to recreate a place, time, and tone, without making it evident how exhaustively researched this novel really is. Equally striking is her ability to inhabit the perspective of her Indian characters.  The result is a book that speaks, beautifully but also firmly, about a historical injustice that will not be forgotten.

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Evelyn Somers: A number of the characters in the novel are actual historical people: the king, of course, and his ex-wife, Begam Hazrat Mahal, who funded and supported the uprising. Some of the occupying English in the novel were real people, too. But tell me a little about inventing the others. I’m thinking of Amah, your protagonist, and there are others that you also invented.  How did you decide what characters were necessary to the story?

Jocelyn Cullity: Amah is a composite character. I read everything I could get my hands on about the king’s African bodyguards (most likely from Ethiopia and/or Eritrea), and then I shaped Amah out of what I found in those readings. I did the same with the courtesans—I read everything I could about the courtesans who lived in Lucknow, many of whom were artists of one kind or another and as such crucial to the cultural life of the place, and then I shaped the way of life in the kotha (courtesans’ palace) of those courtesans and the character of their manager, or Madam, Gulbadan.

Sir Henry Lawrence was an actual historical figure. He belonged to an older generation of Englishmen who were much more sensitive to what the English were doing in India in 1857. The older generations had stronger engagements with the Indian people; there were marriages between English and Indians, and it wasn’t uncommon for India-based English families to never go back to England. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a younger generation of Englishmen were often criticized by the older generations for not really caring about India, for not bothering to learning the languages sufficiently, and for being generally disinterested in India’s culture and customs. One might say that this younger generation was motivated more by greed and careerism than those who came before them. The character of John Graham, aka Red Man, is a composite of these younger Englishmen I read about. The Indian spy, Abhi, is also a composite created from Indian spies working for the English that I learned about through my research. I strived to illustrate the various feelings and attitudes of English and Indian people in Lucknow as best I could.

ES: This is a feminist novel in its imaginative recreation of the role that Afro-Indian

women played in resistance against the English and in the Lucknow uprising. But I doubt that even Amah, who shoots and rides better than most men, would think in those terms—and it seems historically right that she would not.  How did you balance your feminist interests and your historical ones?

JC: It is true that a historical fiction writer must check her own political agenda at the door of her writing room. But as literary scholars and theorists have noted, it is very difficult not to let present-day concerns creep into historical fiction—any writer is after all living in a certain historical moment. As far as feminism is concerned, we all certainly feel its importance right now, and that has to impact what one writes, however unconsciously. But writer beware! A reader will not tolerate political agendas of today hidden in the coattails of historical characters who would not, as you say, know anything about the future, i.e. our present.

I wanted to write about people who do not show up in the many English history books written about 1857 Lucknow, this historic event in India, The people who don’t show up in most histories about the uprising are the Indians. I also wanted to write about the women who in my view never show up in historical writing more generally. Sometimes in our histories the women disappear altogether. This mysterious—actually ridiculous—absence of women at key historical moments became crucial to me. But I didn’t really think about that as I started writing. Only when I began interviewing for academic jobs and was asked about it did I realize that putting women into history motivated so much of my creative work.

So I did worry about what could be construed as a present-day feminist bent in this novel, but I came to justify the approach in Indian terms. As a graduate student, I had the great good fortune to work with AIDWA, the All Indian Democratic Women’s Association, arguably the largest women’s rights group in the world today. At the time, in 2000, it was run by a really amazing woman named Brinda Karat. Thanks to the direction of Karat, I worked with the group over a summer, traveling to villages in rural India. This group has a great collection of women’s history, including transcribed oral histories (invaluable given the issue of illiteracy among the poor and rural population). The experience of being an observer during AIDWA’s work in towns and villages in India fueled my understanding of many women in India. There is an outspokenness, an intellectual and political zeal, that I could also hear in the voices of the Indian and Indian/African women in Lucknow at the time (for example, in Begam Hazrat Mahal’s counter proclamation to Queen Victoria, and in comments recorded by Englishwomen attributed to Indian women). What I wanted to do, therefore, was to simply display the realistic strength that these women had at that time, something that is often disregarded in male-written military history textbooks in England.

ES: I was struck by how fully and naturally you inhabit the Indian/African perspective in this novel.  It seemed to me a particularly remarkable achievement given how slanted most histories have been toward the English colonial perspective.  How did you find your way to the spirit and worldview of Amah’s Lucknow?

JC: Though it is now beginning to change, thanks to the work of contemporary scholars, for a very long time the history of this period was completely slanted toward the English—so much so that my father in Australia grew up with a school curriculum that entirely obliterated any Indian point of view on an event that involved resisting English colonial power. My husband’s Indian aunt got the same school history that my father did in Australia! I saw a BBC documentary recently that was still spouting myths about the Lucknow uprising to honor the English perspective.

The book took ten years of research, mostly because it was very difficult to find the Indian point of view, let alone Indian-African perspectives. When the English took Lucknow, Indian documents, records, books, diaries, you name it, were burned. Some key historians, particularly writers like Rosie Llewellyn Jones and Veena Talwar Oldenburg, have pieced things back together to reveal Indian and Indian-African perspectives. Other than those excellent researchers, I had to rely on primary documents written in English that included English soldiers’ diaries and English women’s travel diaries that very occasionally revealed the Indian/African point of view. So, for the character of Amah, for instance, it was all about collecting tiny bits of information and putting them together to draw a composite character.

ES: I was interested in the narrative method. It brings together a vivid evocation of place and a way of life—lavish description—with a narrative of the increasingly tense and violent events that follow the king’s removal to Calcutta. Was it difficult to balance narration and description?

JC: Absolutely. Writers are often divided into two camps: those who write for plot, those who write for language. I am in the latter camp! Illustrating the old world of Lucknow every way I knew how with language fueled me. While the events of this uprising against the English certainly have their own intense momentum, I nevertheless had to work hard to move the plot forward and focus on creating tension; I had to not dawdle too long on description. I’m still not sure if I didn’t err too much in that direction.

ES: Throughout the novel, you depict virtue as gentleness and compassion for the weak, dependent, and innocent. Even before we get to the bloodbath of 1857, we’ve had intimations of colonialist cruelty. In several cases this cruelty is conveyed through the killing of animals. These scenes, in which your protagonist, Amah, is an observer, are powerful correlatives. Are these entirely imagined, or did any of them come from your sources?

JC: The scenes of animal cruelty that Amah observes unfortunately came directly from historical sources. Mostly they are not exact replicas but very close approximations. The rushed auction of Wajid ‘Ali Shah’s majestic collection of animals and birds after he left for Calcutta to protest the English annexation of Lucknow really did significantly contribute to the mobilization of resistance by the Indian citizens of Lucknow.

ES: What sources were most valuable in creating the texture of life in Lucknow in the mid 19th century?

JC: Abdul Halim Sharar!! Never could a writer of historical fiction be so blessed as I was to discover the work of this historian , who was also an essayist and novelist; he was himself from Lucknow. His work Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture is, I believe, considered one of the best historical accounts of Lucknow’s genesis and patterns of life. Sharar filled his book with rich details of the everyday. I couldn’t have asked for a better or more fascinating source.

ES: Acknowledging that historical novels are works of artistic expression, not history books or moral exempla, do you think some readers might still carry away a lesson or warning after reading your novel?

JC: I discovered during the writing of this novel that Western hostility to Islam has a longer history than I’d known. Somehow I’d thought that the events of 9/11 set up a new reaction against the entire Muslim community. The events in Lucknow set off a terrible prejudice in general against Indian peoples in England, and the Muslims were disproportionately blamed for resisting English rule. The reaction to Muslims after the resistance to English rule was not unlike the reactions to 9/11, where Muslims were condemned as evil people. What I really discovered, of course, was how very important it is to strive to really understand what is happening in the world through perspectives that are not Western, perhaps particularly not American or English perspectives.

ES: Researching a historical novel means wasting some time, too. Were there any promising wrong turns you made in your research on the novel—any rabbit holes you went down that ended up being fruitless?

JC: I don’t think I made any wrong turns in the research but I did find I became obsessed with the research — putting up charts up all over my walls with sensory details about Lucknow that I could draw upon by just seeing them plastered to my walls. All this took an incredible amount of time to collect and chart. The key is knowing when you have enough, when you understand enough about a particular time and can start writing a story, adding what you need by doing more research as you go. I felt I needed to be saturated with the research: I wanted to really, really understand the world before I began. So I think I lost time with that approach because as you write the story, of course, you discover and understand the world layer upon deeper layer.

ES: I don’t know quite how to put this question delicately—in a sense, the entire novel is the story of a rape or rapes: the English East India Company’s rape of a country and, specifically, the English rape of Lucknow. At the end we see this metaphor—if it is that—enacted literally in the soldiers’ rapes of the courtesans from the palace kotha.  It’s a “fulfillment” in the most awful and dismal sense. It brings home once and for all the most degraded motives of conquest.  Was this ordering of events intentional? Or was that historically the order in which things happened?

JC: It was intentional to highlight the fact that this was indeed the historical order in which things happened. The degradation of courtesans into prostitutes for British soldiers occurred after the final takeover of the city in March 1858, and that is where my story, and the story of old Lucknow ended. To me it was the final display of total ignorance for the culture (which included courtesans among the wealthiest members of society and the distributors of etiquette and art in royal Lucknow) by the English. There was so much beauty that the English just didn’t see, due to racist approaches and policies.

ES: You are finishing a novel that’s a follow-up, if not a direct sequel, to Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons—is that right?

JC: The sequel is called The Envy of Paradise. It follows Begam Hazrat Mahal, the key organizer of the resistance, when she is forced to flee Lucknow, and it also follows her ex-husband, King Wajid ‘Ali Shah in Calcutta, who became the last king in India and who had been under house arrest during the uprising in Lucknow. I wondered: What happened to them? How did they make their way, find new homes after the English destroyed Lucknow? So the story looks at that question. The novel covers the two years after the takeover of Lucknow, 1858 and 1859, during the time that the English, in the name of Queen Victoria, took over the whole of India. It is told from both the points of view of Hazrat Mahal and Wajid ‘Ali Shah.

Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared widely in journals. Her two concurrent writing projects are a supernatural novel-in-stories about two dueling female divinities and a comedy about a single-mom empty-nester and her  unusual pet.

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