Multiple international awardee Jayanthi Sankar, mother of two adult sons, started reading passionately in her mid-twenties. And four to five years later, she began writing in 1995. Therefore, naturally, her fiction is predominantly Singapore with some subtle traces of South Asia or Southeast Asia. She credits the National Library Board of Singapore, with the plethora of books she gets access to and that transformed her to a serious reader which naturally propelled her towards writing. She continues to evolve as a reader and an author.
“Years of reading with a child’s curiosity, and some travelling to far-away lands and cultures, a lot more through books slowly brought me to a place where I chose genres and authors and started guiding many younger readers. I didn’t realise there was a critic forming in me until I started involuntarily evaluating texts in my mind as I read.”
The critic who was growing in her used to distract her often with quick comments preventing her from enjoying her reading, she mused. Interestingly, she wasn’t even aware of that strong critic for long. “One fine day in mid-1995, I wanted to find out if I’d missed something from a short story I’d finished reading. I reread it the next day, only to reaffirm to myself that I was indeed right. It wasn’t worth publishing in the Sunday print edition.” Immediately, a voice within her asked, “It’s easy to criticise, but have you ever tried writing at least a simple essay?”
It became crucial for her to find out how difficult it was to write. That led to her playfully crafting ‘The turning point’, a simple short fiction based on a silly, and illogical, random early morning dream she had.
She didn’t know she could write until it got published in print the following weekend. She only wanted to shut the new nagging voice down so she could enjoy reading peacefully, but no, that didn’t happen. Instead, it paved out a whole new path that she’d not expected.
It was another surprise when the editor called her to talk to her, to encourage her. She didn’t know her attempt at finding out how difficult it was to write would actually open up a whole new long road to her. And it took her two more years and several short stories before she started believing she could indeed pursue writing and thus writing soon became her solace, and it continues to be, naturally.
She exposed herself to many kinds of writing and experimented with hands-on writing, unconsciously learning the rules well which she broke subsequently to create. Crafting has always brought joy to her, and hence the artistry naturally combines with her process.
With no external guidance or mentoring, she had neither an internal nor external support system to guide her. She learned as she seriously pursued her journey. Her vast inner world of creativity opened up and soon writing became the soul of her life, the purpose of her existence and her identity. Since then, there has been no turning back. “I grew fast flued by my continuous, unobtrusive reading for the pure joy of it.”
Born as the eldest of the four, in the temple city of Madurai to a central government Civil Engineer and a housewife, Jayanthi Sankar grew up in a few states including Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Meghalaya of the sub-continent. After studying in many schools in a several cities, including Shillong, she graduated in Physics from Seethalakshmi Ramasamy College in Trichy in 1985 and was married off the same year.
When asked what creativity meant to her, she replied instantly, “I’d call the phenomenon of my intellect ripping itself off its daily monotonous routine to go on a fun spree as my creativity, rather than the product or any resultant tangible output. I may or may not even translate all of my creative experiences into ‘Art’, which I could eventually share with others as some evidence of my experience. Result might be important to me but more as precious to me. I continuously interact with myself to find myself constantly untangling all the cobwebs of countless complex thoughts, aligning them systematically, understand them better and subsequently also sharing them with others through my text. I value the process more as it leaves an ineffable joy in me.” She said with a subtle laugh. “But we can’t deny the fact that humanity has not yet clearly defined what creativity really is, can we? Primarily because it can be so damn subjective, as our understanding of it keeps changing, and the yardsticks also keep shifts higher. All that we consider to be creative in the present era might not even come under creativity a decade from now. Like it is for most of us humans, creativity is more of an inner experience for me. An experience of dreaming and imagining, which usually triggers newer ideas in me. This need not be so for others.”
“All my out of the box and wishful thoughts, debatable if not revolutionary, caring if not envisioned, sprout in me when I go inwards. Creativity is more instinctive, and intuitive neither be taught nor learned but happens in everyone of us. I believe being open-minded, observant and calm in my own way starts the creative surge in me. However, what works for me need not necessarily work for another. And, what I can teach and learn are only the crafts of writing that help transform my creative impulse into literary art.”
Her novel Tabula Rasa was a 2022 NYC Big Book Award ‘Distinguished Favourite’ in the category of Historical Fiction and an ‘honourable mention’ in SanFrancisco book fest award 2022
“I’ve observed that creative people are a lot more accommodative to some level of disorderly ways of daily life. They can also naturally tolerate discomforts. Creatives often are eccentric and their behaviour mostly includes creative thinking which is mostly not too systematic. Even those who are disciplined tend to be the opposite when they create as they naturally lose track of time. And, ‘time’ can be a formidable obstacle in a creative pursuits, during and after, in my opinion. Too much of a monotonous routine can hinder it from happening. Interestingly, I remember, around my mid-twenties, shunning my innate resistance to my constantly changing atmosphere when I started getting more accommodative to all the chaos around in my life. And, that’s when I started creating in my mind. And it increased as years rolled by. I started enjoying the process and, therefore, often longed for it. And that beginning was possible because of my passion at reading that expanded my mind.
She was a rigid introvert during her childhood and formative years, silently observing the world around. During her childhood, except for the basics any child would be expected to have, she didn’t display any noteworthy sign of a serious reader, let alone writer. She migrated to Singapore in 1990 where she lives with her family.
“Since creativity is the source of my writing, I’ve tuned my mind to be more open to effects and ideas. Watching my thoughts leads me to memorable creative processes as I progress with my novel chapters. And, I’ve always observed my mental activities at my conscious level, which often works as an extension also at my subconscious level. Disrupted thoughts re-emerge often when my mind is open, giving me flashes of continuous thoughts often at the alpha state of my sleep and seldom also during my lucid dreams.”
“I’ve often observed myself filling with a innumerable thoughts randomly emerging erratically floating in me. They result in a clear joint thought only when I consciously follow them. I also park them temporarily in my brain to revisit later. I don’t panic like I used to, during my younger days, with a funny yet gripping fear of losing them. When I note them down digitally or physically, I’m more at peace with myself. There is something tangible waiting for me and I can always revisit it to continue where I left them.
“Especially when I’m in the process of writing my novel chapters, mulling over my knots and incidents, the flashes of ideas have often pleasantly surprised me, particularly when I’m about to fall asleep. I usually keep a sheet of paper and a pencil beside my pillow. Merely a word or a phrase would be good enough for me to recollect the sparks in the morning, and it can be memorably euphoric when I experience that. If I don’t scribble that down, I can’t fall asleep, neither can I recollect anything next morning. They are more like baby scribbles, illegible. When I jot down in point form in my notepad, I have something to return to. And, the evaluation, improvisation, deletion and distortions of those ideas can always happen any time later.”
“Creativity doesn’t happen when one forces it, but it blooms only when one prepares herself for the process,” she said. “That’s what I mean whenever I say creativity can happen during my inward journey, more of an act of an individual brain, devoid of gadgets and media.”
“More of an experience, and also a process creativity is capable of training our brains to bring our human side to the forefront, which can happen only when we keep our hearts and mind open, thereby facilitating it to happen. And, I strongly believe that my creative process is so personal to me and often incredibly meditative, all of which I may or may not even share with others, let alone write,” Jayanthi Sankar said.
She gets creative not only while she writes, reads, paints but also when she cleans the house, cooks meals, sorts out untidy wardrobes, or organizes any resources. “With creativity, any ordinary task can naturally become amazingly interesting.”
“Without creativity, life could turn out to be so monotonous and unliveable for us because creativity explores, combines, and transforms people and environments, bringing meaning, light, purpose, and zeal to our lives,” Jayanthi Sankar, one of the Top 50 most influential Authors 2021 by Delhiwire pondered on, “It illuminates my inner being, chasing away the darkness that often enters me, redeeming me from the realms of the eternal voidness that constantly lurks around to heartlessly gobble me up.”
“I’ve often observed that reading like an author, writing like a reader, reading and writing like a critic, just as reading and writing like an editor would require creativity. Perhaps, at different levels and shades. And these roles, keep changing spontaneously without the conscious efforts of the novelist. However, the editor in me keeps disturbing me as I create, and I need to find novel ways also to silence her, coax her to come back later. So, to create the essential creative ambiance by itself requires various creative ways of adaptations and therefore the sky is the limit,” she concluded. “It is mostly about experimenting, right? For example, water colour on paper maybe my forte, but I also love to work and palette knife with acrylics on canvas, with minimal or no plan. That sort of a different creative ride boosts my spirits, differently. So, as a respite from my routine, I go for my brushes or the pellet knives.”
“I don’t translate even a small fraction of my creative processes into the literary or visual arts. I think it is definitely not always necessary to do that. It would also be impossible to do that. It is not as important as the quintessential experience I get from the process itself. I guess it is the same for most of us, more or less,” she said. When Will You Die? Her fourth book, a novella, amazes her readers through its profound explorations of the human psyche.
As her sons grew up, focusing on bringing them up, she also tutored students at her house for subjects including English, Tamil, Maths and Science, in her free time. However, after six years, she needed a change and explored other options to work from home as the new millennium dawned.
Jayanthi Sankar initiated an international webinar series in the short story month of 2023 to reread her short story collection Dangling Gandhi, published in 2019, the winner in fiction: short story in 2020 International Book Award -American book fest and The Literary Titan award in the fiction category. “Gathering an audience even for virtual meetings has become difficult these days. Many events overlap and we end up missing many. Therefore, getting reviewers to read the literary pieces, thereby creating an authentic platform for sincere readers and at the same time leaving ample resources for the future literary fraternity became important. Those interested could always watch the videos whenever they can. Short stories require less time and effort read compared to novels.” The weekly series went on for 12 weeks, each of the stories read and reviewed by two, recorded separately on zoom, stitched together and uploaded on YouTube.
While answering a question about her dealing with criticism, she explained, “Where criticism comes from is extremely significant for me.” I know which ones to ignore and which ones to ponder deeper into because as the author of the book I have clear insight where I’ve scored and where I could work more, even during my editing stage. And as an author constantly striving to achieve perfection, it gives me immense joy when readers and reviewers, though rarely, match that. And I think, for any artist, that kind of clarity in thought about their works and in their approach to criticism helps with their constant growth.” Her novel Misplaced Heads, was on the Eyelands Book Awards 2020 final list of historical fiction, in Greece, making its mark as an outstanding postmodern historical fiction.
It took her three years in a role a sub editor of a local daily, from 2013 to 2016, before reaffirming to herself that reporting and news writing are not her interests.
Touching on the topic of books facing existential issues without social networking or promotion, the ex-freelancer shared her belief, “No doubt promotions gain short-term attention but works of literary value are sure to stand the test of time, in the long run. Not all books that gain enormous attention need be superior, neither are all works struggling to attract attention need be inferior. We’ve reached a phase in our lives where we cannot do without social media. Whether we like it or not, the world is becoming more and more virtual and visual. SM has certainly helped me earn some visibility for my works, which also brought in a fair number of good readers. We live in an era also of inevitable yet deliberate publicity. Balance is the key.”
“The international anthology An Iron Fist In A Velvet Glove saw print last June. It consists of 32 Short Stories from 27 contributors from various countries, including the USA, Singapore, India, Philippines, and Myanmar. A global volume in its truest sense! Except for two, all of them are pre-published pieces. The call for submissions was for published works.
“I rejected only a few,” she confessed. “While proofreading the book in April, I felt an unexplainable excitement and fulfilment,” she said.
The number of submissions exceeded the expectations within a short period of time, so there were no promos/ads needed, unlike the previous anthology ‘Dancing Gold Flecks’ consisting of 27 unpublished short stories from 18 contributors of India and Indian diaspora. Both anthologies have been proudly published by zero degree publishers.
When we asked her, “What do you expect of such collective volumes?” she was kind enough to explain, “Aspirants get to taste the feel of having their work on print, and every writer of the anthology takes the book to readers, book lovers in her/his circle and every contributor subsequently gets a tiny portion of the visibility the volume gains every time. And, I expect them to attract the attention literary enthusiasts, researchers, and academics. But for my publishers, such initiatives would’ve just been my dreams,” she said.
“A strong believer in building communities through literature, I derive incomparable joy creating platforms for promising beginners, emerging aspirants among whom are some of my mentees.” While sharing about her future projects, she said, “There are a few in plan, to build new or strengthen the already built literary communities.”
When asked about her WIP novel, she said calmly, “Right now, rewriting my novel chapters has been slower than I’d expected. I’m watching the process closely, hoping to gain some momentum soon.”
She has been in several renowned international panels of literary festivals including the APWT – 2018 at Gold Coast, Singapore Writers Festival, Seemanchal literary festival, Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival. Jayanthi Sankar also co-hosts a podcast LOL-Love of Literature featuring high flyers and aspirants like publishers, lit agents, authors and illustrators who share insights into the making of a book.
When we asked her about her mentees, she said, “There are dozens of seasonal mentees who connect with me on and off and a few regular ones. It would be nice when they talk about our literary interactions and indulgences if and when they feel the relevance and context.” She freelanced in interpreting, translation, transcription, subtitling for more than two decades, before joining MOM-CRD as a full time (English, Tamil, Hindi) interpreter, months ago.