In her debut novella Where We Set Our Easel (Stanchion Books, May 23, 2023), Indian fiction writer, essayist, poet, and columnist Mandira Pattnaik imagines what would happen if two young people in love stepped through the frame of a van Gogh painting. In these 11 lyrical prose vignettes that evoke the Dutch painter’s aesthetic through vibrant imagery and bold stylistic brushstrokes, the line between art and real life blurs.
In the book’s second microprose, the narrator poses a series of hypotheticals: “Let’s say, we didn’t stay in the painting long enough… Let’s say dreams are muddled instead of mossy, and we supplied the color black the painting never had.” In the world of Where We Set Our Easel, the canvas continues outside the frame, and there’s a sense that the work of art that is these characters’ lives is still in progress, the paint hasn’t dried. This sensation of dreamy possibility amidst real conflict—border clashes, divorce, injury—offers hope: that it is never too late to pursue the what-ifs, to reframe, to start anew.
Pattnaik and I exchanged emails to discuss her process, her lyrical style, and the role that her South Asian heritage plays in her storytelling.
Emily Huso: The novella’s first microprose takes its name from van Gogh’s Café on the Terrace. What drew you to respond to this particular painting?
Mandira Pattnaik: I’ve been an artist in my school years, and one of my better oil paintings was a sunflower field under bright sunshine. I remember it was drawn after first discovering the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflower” series. It is still framed in my parent’s house. Cut to March 2022. I participated in one of the events at Flash Fiction Festival UK. We were tasked to write a story where van Gogh’s Café on the Terrace was an image prompt. Curiously, I had never seen this work before and was immediately enthralled by it, particularly the midnight blue shade—rich, royal, glorious. My story, written in a rush with all the bareness expected of first drafts, did not win the contest. But after one round of edits, it found placement in the very next place it was submitted. It appeared in Canadian publication CommuterLit titled “Where We Set Our Easel” on April 8, 2022. The idea of a couple walking into a painting had already germinated, and it was just a matter of time that I’d take it further. When I began writing this novella, I used that title to name the novella, and reverted to name its ‘seed’ piece (the opening microprose) with the title of the painting!
EH: While these lyrical microproses often feel delightfully unmooring and rich with metaphorical imagery, as a reader, I still feel like my feet can touch the ground. How do you achieve balance between the abstract and concrete in your work?
MP: Thanks for your kind words! That my writing style is metaphorical and lyrical is the highest (and delightfully, the most common) compliment I receive from readers. I’ve never really understood if there’s a method or process to it. Some of it definitely comes from my South Asian roots, where story-telling tends to transcend the immediate and pitches to a larger, more profound certainty and a lasting outcome. Using layers of meaning within the scope of a flash piece is challenging but is definitely satisfying both to the writer and the reader. The aim is to braid the story in the present, with references from the natural world, or history, or science, or any object that enthuses me, by means of a series of motifs and images that enhances the overall impact and achieves universality. For a story to appeal to a reader in Ireland as much as someone from Kenya requires that universality, and I’m grateful if it reflects in my work.
EH: You manipulate time so masterfully in this novella, compressing time, reversing, and suspending it. The characters seem preoccupied with time’s slippery nature. The speaker observes, “When time wraps around, we’ll let Hipparchus of Rhodes plot our positions.” What guided your choices with time throughout the story?
MP: The concept of time and its dealing vis-à-vis the characters in the novella, I think, has again to do with my South Asian/Indian roots. That time wraps around and time is slippery are all part of our ancient texts and philosophy. When I discovered “Novella-in-Flash,” the idea that a novel could be compressed into less than fifty pages without compromising on any of the pulls and emotions that novels promise—it absolutely surprised and grabbed me. After the title story, I already had the outline of how this book would progress. I wanted Where We Set Our Easel to have the arc and timeline of a novel, follow the characters through a lifetime’s journey and satisfy the reader in its resolution, and yet shrink itself to within thirty pages. It wasn’t difficult to make choices about where I wanted the reader to peep into the characters’ lives and where not, given flash is a genre I have written in the most and am definitely comfortable in. Out of my 250-plus published pieces, flash fiction takes a disproportionately large chunk of the pie.
EH: In “Being Kakapo,” Matilda freezes during her wedding rituals. She observes that her parents are joyful and thinks, “I should be too.” I appreciate how this scene acknowledges the resistance women may feel to the roles we are trained from girlhood to perform. What message do you hope to convey to readers through Matilda’s characterization?
MP: Matilda’s character at this point in the novella is that of a person whose thought-process is in chaos, her decisions are in flux. Readers are already aware that there have been derailments to her plans on several previous occasions and that she is unsure what the future holds for her, which is why she acts in ways not expected of her. As a corollary to that, especially as a woman from India who has behind her centuries of civilization and cultural conditioning, I write from a perspective where marriage is the culmination of girlhood, a finality in a woman’s life. So I felt giving Matilda’s character those shades perhaps just followed organically. Remember, Matilda is a professional woman, earning for herself, and yet her marriage will mean a lot of changes in her life—new relations, new responsibilities to shoulder, and perhaps a change of base. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it is a resistance on Matilda’s part, but more like a reaction of numbness at the enormity of the change in her life. I’m sure this is an emotion women can relate to very easily and will prepare readers for the swift jumps in time and storyline that are to follow.
EH: You’ve released poetry and flash fiction collections and now a novella. Can you share anything about your next project?
MP: My poetry collection, Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople, was published in November, 2022, by UK/Kuwait-based publisher Fahmidan Publishing. It is a collection of poetry that develops from experiences of how lives are dependent on weather, resources, and on each other in small towns, and how this interdependence shapes the present and futures of people. Living a large part of my life in small-town India, these poems have been written over the years to respond to the changing dynamics of my country. Girls Who Don’t Cry (Alien Buddha Press, January 2023) is, as the title suggests, a collection about girls who fight, who endure, who retaliate, who unleash revenges, who escape to pursue dreams, and who emerge stronger, and alongside all of it, they have fun! It has seventeen stories encompassing narratives that explore, in varied tones, the surreal, the speculative, the metaphorical, and sometimes the identity-centric.
I’m working on a couple flash fiction collections. One is anchored by a common location but explores a honeycomb structure of prose, where every piece is tied in some way to the others, and we’re looking at multiple perspectives and situations. I’m also working on a chap-length collection of historical fiction. I’ve been a student of history, and I really enjoy researching these things, so I’m quite upbeat about it. I’m also looking to find a publisher for a Novella-in-Flash that was just longlisted in the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award 2023.