Kiran Bhat is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. He has currently traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. He is primarily known as the author of we of the forsaken world… (Iguana Books, 2020), but he has authored books in four foreign languages, and has had his writing published in The Kenyon Review, The Brooklyn Rail, 3:AM Magazine, and several other places. His list of homes is vast, but his heart and spirit always remains in Mumbai, somehow. He is currently traveling around Mexico, but you can find him virtually on @Weltgeist Kiran.
Around the World in 365 Places: Kiran Bhat
BY VEENA RAO*
It was all because of a vision. Then student Kiran Bhat had been visiting a cathedral that is also part synagogue and mosque in Segovia, Spain, when he suddenly realized he wanted to write the narrative of the world. A life of journey and travel led Kiran Bhat to create his fascinating new literary project, Girar. Set in 365 places, Girar, which means ‘to turn’ in Spanish, is essentially the story of Earth and the thousands of cultures on it. Each digital instalment will unfold in a different corner of the planet until the end of 2029. The story itself is a compilation of many stories at once. This is ultimately the story of Mother and Father. They live a settled and suburban life, but their son is gay, and has migrated continents away from them. They yearn for him to be home.
Exploring the Earth as setting comes naturally to this young author who has visited over 132 countries, lived in 18 places around the world, speaks 12 languages and writes in several of them. “Girar is the concept of the world-in-a-book taken to its extreme,” he says in this Q&A.
What better way to travel the world and get a unique glimpse into diverse cultures and communities?
What was the initial spark or thought or impulse that created Girar?
Read this interview to find out more.
Veena Rao: Girar is a novel concept that unfolds in real-time. Tell us more about it.
Kiran Bhat: Girar is a digital web project, in which people who subscribe to the webpage get stories about an archetypal mother, father, and son being reimagined into a new cultural context and nationality in each installment, between now until the end of 2029. The general gist of the stories is that Son is gay, but his parents have never taken the time to accept it. After a homecoming thanks to COVID turns dramatic, Son once more leaves his parents. The central drama is how the three of them learn to eventually make space for each other after a decade of fighting. At the same time Mother, Father, and Son have very rich exterior lives, and so the novel also explores the many different ways their outward relationships are not only affected by the passing of time, but how the reimagining of the story in a new cultural context in each installment creates a new way to perceive these relationships as a whole.
VR: What made you want to write something like this?
KB: The impulse behind Girar came to me due to a trip I took to Segovia, while I was a junior studying abroad in Madrid. We were visiting a cathedral that was part synagogue and mosque,
learning about the histories of the Visigoths, Jews, and the Moors. In the same way this building collapsed the histories of so many peoples inside of one building, I suddenly started imagining what it would be like to collapse the narrative space of our planet into a novel. It was something akin to a darshana, or a vision. I didn’t know how I would ultimately write this novel, but after spending twelve years of my life travelling, I felt like I started to get this idea of a book that would in fact take place in as many parts of the world as I could imagine. we of the forsaken world… was also an attempt at this, but Girar is the concept of the world-in-a-book taken to its extreme.
VR: What were the challenges of unfolding a narrative as ambitious as this?
KB: For me the biggest challenge of the project has been the web development. I can control my research into other cultures and countries, I can control my narrative arcs and understanding of my characters, and I can control how well I write. What I cannot control is how well the firms that I am paying to transfer this vision onto a webpage are going to do. The world of web development and IT is very different than the world of artistry. Most web developers don’t have much of an aesthetic eye and are only there to code. They don’t necessarily care about your aesthetic demands; they just want to get paid and stop their coding when the hour has ended. So, getting http://www.girar.world up and running has been a lot of work, and sadly it’s work that I can’t control.
Unfortunately, when you try to do something really out of the norm, it’s hard to get it right. There’s just not a lot of infrastructure for global-serialized-novels-told-over-the-Internet, the way that there would be for a traditional print novel. There’s a lot that is hard to anticipate because there’s so few models for what works. And because there’s a lot to get wrong, there’s also a lot of places to stumble, and that ultimately detracts from the reader experience.
I haven’t fully lost hope. I’ve hired a new web team to revamp the project, with hopes of relaunching in August. I do very much believe in the storytelling and world building of the project, and I hope that once the story platform has been improved, my readers can get lost in all of the exciting ways Girar innovates.
VR: Authors traditionally set their novels in one or two places. Girar takes place around the world. Can you talk a little bit about the world as a setting in Girar?
KB: Well, in reality, because Girar is almost a compilation of many stories ultimately being framed together to tell a greater one, each of the installations, whether set in rural Costa Rica or Hokkaido in Japan, becomes an exercise in scene building. I don’t know if I get each story right, but I try to make sure that with each installment I find a sensitivity reader from that city or culture, and make sure they approve of what I’ve written. There are times I really screw up, but most of the time, they help me find better words to show how people in that country speak, or correct me on slip-ups on body language or place description. I usually try to write out of places that I have at least visited, so I can also draw on my own memories or experiences being in that place. I also mostly make it about my characters, and the experiences they are going through. I think the rich interiority of the worlds that I have created for my characters serves to propel a lot of the pathos, and can make up for even when I don’t necessarily write about a culture well.
As per the world as a setting, that is interesting. I often tell people that I’d like to imagine literature if the source of a story did not come from a community or a nation, but from planet Earth itself. However, the Earth, just like a community or a nation, does not have one singular voice. In reality each person on this planet is their own narrative, with thousands of thousands of experiences which form their sense of being. So, if I were to capture the Earth as a literary concept, I would not be able to base it out of one place. In the same way that our current digital communication networks are fusing milliseconds of thought and being at all of the different nodes of the planet at once, a style that capture the planet would have to be a little bit everywhere. It would have to be like the many heads of the hydra flinging around at once, or the cacophony of a million sounds somehow bleating together into harmony when heard at once.
That is how I view global narrative, and the perspective from which I believe a global aesthetic could be produced.
VR: An author’s perspective of globalization, I am sure, is a bit different from an economist’s perspective. You’ve lived in several countries, speak many languages, and even write in several of them. Girar is the outcome of your travels. Can you talk a little about what globalization means to you?
KB: It depends. There are many different ways to talk about globalization, some good and some bad. A lot of the globalization of the 90s – McDonalds, global capitalism, etc – were objectively bad for the planet. When I think of my experience with globalization, I think of the Internet, and how it’s created a generation that, no matter born in Kenya or Turkey, Kazakhstan or Argentina, seems to be reacting to a similar way of thinking and feeling. And now the Internet makes us see everything at once when it’s happening. We have information about everywhere in the world whenever we feel like it, we attend digital events partly being hosted in Hong Kong, India, and Canada. People are slowly starting to feel like they belong to one space, which is a global one, and I think that’s the one I want to carve a literature for.
VR: The publishing world is not known to readily embrace change. Do you think the reading world is ready for out-of-the-box reading concepts?
KB: It’s hard to say. I think readers are used to traditional novels, and this act of reading something serially, and having to pay a nominal amount for it, isn’t something people are used to for novels. For journalism, sure, or for literary journals, sometimes. Ironically, I think that this piecemeal approach of reading a novel works a lot for our hustle-and-bustle lives. I also think it’s exciting to read something set all over the world. While I’d say my work isn’t necessarily for people who want a deep look at a culture, it might spark curiosity in a place that people haven’t thought much about. And then there’s just the narrative of it, the ambition, the rush of finding something new.
So I think it’s hard to generalize. I think some people are, and some people aren’t. It’s mostly about finding the right reader, which I assume is true for any project.
VR: Your first traditionally published novel, we of the forsaken world…, was hailed for its genre-defying originality. How is Girar different in concept, themes, and narrative style?
KB: Veena, that’s so nice of you to say. 🙂 I think we of the forsaken world… is the inverse of Girar. In we of the forsaken world… I wanted to really exhaust the concept of the multitude. I wanted it to feel like sixteen people speaking out from four varied corners of the world as an attempt to be heard against the static of globalization. The stories of the four regions are quite topical, ranging from sexual trafficking to eve-teasing, from the after-effects of an industrial spill to the destruction of indigenous land from logging. The stories are also told in first person, and are stitched together by poetic interludes interrupting the flow of one narrative and transitioning into another.
For now, Girar is much more seamless and traditional in narration. The installment approach gives every piece a clear beginning, middle, and end. Both are story sequences (ie short stories being framed together to cohere into a novel), but Girar has a much more obvious direction it is going in. I also think Girar is much better storytelling, and gets across what we of the forsaken world… was trying to do in a much clearer form.
But we of the forsaken world… was an attempt to have multiple voices cohere into one aesthetic sound, whereas Girar is certain fixed voices hopping all across the globe, or finding a new form for themselves. So, I definitely think they have a lot in common, but are also quite different.
VR: Do you hope to ultimately take the traditional route for Girar?
KB: Yes! The ultimate goal was to have Girar pieced into a series of multiple books and published in that format. I’m shopping the first book to publishers already. Some are quite eager to see it, so I’m hoping for the best. 🙂
VR: What else are you working on?
KB: I’m taking my first foray into translation currently. I’m currently living in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas. Chiapas is the territorial stronghold of the Mayan peoples (I say peoples because there was no contingent Mayan civilization, but multiple civilizations and heritages which were called by outsides as the Maya). It’s a place with 12 indigenous languages strongly spoken by its citizens, where Spanish is a second language for most. So, I met a collective of poets here I like. One of my goals is to try to translate their writings in Maya Tsotsil into English using Spanish as a medium. I’ve never translated before so I don’t know how it will go. I am also trying to do a lot of events and cross-collaborations here. One of the beauties of the globalized world is the ability to connect with anyone regardless of physical distance, and so I’m trying to connect indigenous communities here with the indigenous communities of other countries and cultures, with which they are normally not connected. I’d love to see some chapbooks come out of these inter-lingual connections, but we’ll simply have to see how it goes!
VR: Thanks so much for your time. I hope the best for your work.
* Veena Rao was born and raised in India but now calls Atlanta home. A journalist by profession, she is the founding editor and publisher of NRI Pulse, a popular South Asian newspaper. She is recognized by the Limca Book of Records as the first Indian woman to edit and publish a newspaper outside of India. Purple Lotus, her debut novel, is a Georgia Author of the Year 2021 Finalist and an Award-Winning Finalist in the International Book Awards. Her manuscript for Purple Lotus won the She Writes Press and SparkPress Toward Equality in Publishing (STEP) scholarship in 2019.
Kiran Bhat visits Brockton Writers Series via ephemera series on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 starting at 6:30pm alongside Kamila Rina, Prakash Krishnan, and Carrianne Leung . Our guest speaker Sonia Vaillant will talk to us about, “Audio books 101”.
Special note: As we adapt to current social distancing regulations, we’re happy to announce our event will be hosted by the wonderful ephemera series! They have already done their show online multiple times, so we are thrilled to benefit from their technical expertise, while also increasing collaboration within the literary community and growing connections between organizers, authors, and audience. You can attend the event by watching on the ephemera series YouTube channel. Please log in at 6:30.