Sandra Hunter is a prolific short-story writer. She has won the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction, and been a finalist for numerous short-story prizes, including the Pushcart. Born and brought up in England, she now teaches at Moorpark College, California. Losing Touch is her first novel.
TCJWW: Your novel spans nearly four decades. In addition to showing the progression of Arjun’s disease, what inspired your choice to cover this large chronological expanse? It seems to emphasize the feeling of isolation and distance that pervades the story.
Hunter: The ‘60s and ‘70s were pivotal times in England for music, social issues, and really terrible fashion. There was a distinct separation from the conservatism of the previous decade, which caused predictable conservative responses. Arjun and Sunila find themselves in this turbulent period, even as they struggle for respectability. The era also mirrors the turmoil they experience within themselves and the family. It was important to use this time span to show Arjun’s degenerative disease as a separation from self. England is the external cause of his sense of emotional imbalance, and this is mirrored by the effects of the disease on his body’s growing imbalance.
TCJWW: In Losing Touch, Arjun is diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy. How did you decide on and research this particular illness?
Hunter: My father had Spinal Muscular Atrophy. During periodic visits to my family in England, I could see the progressive effects of the disease: ambulatory to using a stick, to a walker and, finally, to a wheelchair. Each time I saw him there was physically less of him. SMA literally withers the muscles. His body seemed lost inside his clothes. On the other hand, his internal spirit grew stronger. He learned patience and a deep sense of compassion — and his sense of humor was always there.
TCJWW: Losing Touch is your first novel. How did you navigate the transition from short story writing to novel writing? Do you prefer one mode to the other?
Hunter: From short story writing to novels was a rocky road for me and I’m lucky that I was piloted by OneWorld’s amazing editor, Juliet Mabey. I learned to go from a self-contained unit of 5,000 words to developing membranes between chapters. Novel-writing really is long-distance running and while it has chronic frustrations (for me that is), I really enjoy the luxury of “spreading out” in the story world. Perhaps novels are yoga and short stories are pilates. I love both forms. I’m currently working on the next novel-in-progress set in post-apartheid South Africa, and have finished a couple of short stories that I’m sending out.
I can switch back and forth between fiction writing and the art that I do. I take close-up photographs of the intersections of ice, snow and water and layer text over them. The approach to the text is completely deconstructed. I have no preconceptions about what text will “occur” as I study the photograph. When the language does arrive, it’s in single letters, sometimes two or three letters, whole words or part phrases. These iterate across the photograph and I sketch them down on a pad. After that I transfer the patterns via Illustrator, onto the photo.
This is completely unlike the ordered and painstakingly-built world of fiction. I can alternate between an art piece and a fiction piece, but I can’t switch between short and long fiction forms.
TCJWW: One of the major sources of alienation in your novel is the struggle of immigrant life. Sunila and Arjun have to adapt to a foreign country and reconcile the cultural differences between their home country and their new home all the while feeling estranged from both India and England. What do you think is the most challenging part of life as first generation immigrants like Sunila and Arjun?
Hunter: For the immigrant, the most challenging part of adapting to the host country is the sense of otherness: language, dress, customs, social behaviors, sense of humor. These things identify us. We also rely on our friends and family to give us back ourselves. When those things and those familiar people are no longer there, it is difficult to make sense of the world. Even if the family comes with you, as in Arjun’s case, they are also experiencing the new country but in ways completely different to each other.
There is a sense of betrayal for Arjun, as though his family has deliberately abandoned him. Unlike his brother, Jonti, whose sense of delight and discovery made his own brief life so joyous, Arjun resists. It’s his resistance to change that makes him miserable in England. When he is forced to change by his body’s breakdown, he actually finds a sense of peace and acceptance. For example, instead of taking charge of his grandson and being the adult, he is forced to wait for Sami to come to him, to sing to him, and even to comfort him.
Sunila is enthusiastic about England in a self-destructive way: she longs to be English. Her loss of self comes because she feels inadequate about who she is. She spends a lot of time trying to make herself liked by English people, her sisters-in-law, her colleagues, and her church friends. Her fundamentalist beliefs bring her no comfort. Sunila’s sense of family is Indian: everyone stays together. If the children have partners, those are absorbed into the family. In England, though, the children move away. This, more than anything else, disorients Sunila. Regardless of her attempts to adapt to England, she is an Indian mother: without her children who is she?
TCJWW: Arjun and Sunila suffer from many different forms of alienation, from each other, their English surroundings, their children, and, in Arjun’s case, from his own deteriorating body. Which form of alienation do you think is the most devastating? Or is it the combination of them all that really delivers the most crushing impact?
Hunter: The most interesting idea for me is the loss of self through changes that aren’t volitional. There’s a compounded sense of loss: through immigration, through the inability to relate to the spouse or children, and that most intimate loss of identity, as the body appears to forget how to respond. It’s as though the body abdicates from the essence of self. One sense of alienation affects the other.
The distance between Arjun and Sunila has the most impact on their individual and mutual ability to adapt to England. This is further exacerbated when Arjun becomes ill and needs Sunila’s help. Because they aren’t close, they resent one other. The issues they face, such as racism and Arjun’s disease, might have been mitigated had they been united. They are a marriage of strangers who remain strangers. Sunila is loyal partly because her religion and custom require it: but she longs to be free. Arjun would prefer another partner but hasn’t the courage to leave.
Even so, in the end, they do find some comfort in each other: Sunila finds her Christian duty in caring for Arjun, and Arjun learns that he really does love Sunila even though he can’t tell her.