The author of The Big Bang of Numbers: How to Build the Universe Using Only Math, as well as three internationally acclaimed novels, The Death of Vishnu, The Age of Shiva, and The City of Devi.
The Interview : Manil Suri
(Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl in conversation with Manil Suri)
The Wise Owl talks to Manil Suri, a distinguished university professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of The Big Bang of Numbers: How to Build the Universe Using Only Math, as well as three internationally acclaimed novels, The Death of Vishnu, The Age of Shiva, and The City of Devi. His fiction has been translated into twenty-seven languages, longlisted for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award, LA Times Book Award, PEN/Hemingway Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award, and has won the McKittrick Prize and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, among others. He is a former contributing opinion writer at the New York Times, for which he has written several widely read pieces on mathematics, India, and LGBTQ+ issues.
Thank you so much Manil for taking time out of your packed schedule to talk to The Wise Owl.
RS: You are a mathematician but have won acclaim as a novelist. Your latest book The Big Bang of Numbers is also written more like a literary narrative rather than an academic thesis. On the face of it, literature and math have no co-relation. One would think different skills and tools would be needed to think and write in these fields. How did you find a co-relation or an overlap between literature and numbers? Do you think these subjects have some common characteristics?
MS: If you’re writing any type of non-fiction – be it a newspaper report or a research paper, a good piece of advice is always, “Find the story!” Indeed, this is surely one of the most successful ways to get any message across – who doesn’t like a story? So, it’s not so much a matter of there being an overlap, but rather that literature provides a technique that I’m well-versed in, and which was the obvious one to use here. The aim was to make a subject that can be difficult for many readers much more accessible by incorporating it into an engaging, comprehensible narrative.
RS: You started your career in writing by penning 3 internationally acclaimed novels. But your latest book is a book of non-fiction on the power of mathematics. Our readers would be curious to know why and how a man of science and math was attracted to the novel genre. And as a corollary, after making a mark in the field of literary fiction what made you write a non-fiction book on numbers?
MS: Fiction writing was very much a hobby at first – something I undertook to explore a different part of myself. To have a secret life, completely independent of my math career. I say ‘secret’ because in STEM fields, one is often exhorted to pay attention to nothing else except one’s work – so I knew that if I wanted tenure, I had better appear to be toeing the line. My extra-mathematical infidelities led to interactions with a number of very interesting people I wouldn’t have met otherwise – writers, artists, those in creative fields and the humanities. And when I got lucky with my first novel (which got published and became an international hit), such interactions only increased. Many of these non-math folks told me how they’d always wanted to know more about mathematics – so I started giving talks at artist colonies and even book festivals on intriguing math topics like infinity. My new book is really the culmination of such activities.
RS: Your book The Big Bang of Numbers makes arithmetic, geometry, algebra and even higher math very engaging, even enticing. I always suffered from ‘numerophobia’ but I enjoyed reading your book and was able to understand its concepts with ease. What made you decide to write a book which would appeal to a reader untutored in the complexities of math? Was it not difficult for you to unravel mathematical complexities in a way so as to appeal to a non-mathematical brain?
MS: The problem with writing books to demystify math is that one often ends up preaching to the choir. Since I’d met so many people unconnected with the math world, I was determined to not let this be the fate of my book. Fortunately, I regularly teach university courses aimed at non-STEM students – so I used them quite shamelessly as guinea pigs (once even assigning an earlier version as the textbook!). In addition, I recruited several non-math friends who’d liked my novels as readers of draft versions and received excellent feedback from multiple non-math editors at my publishing house. So, I daresay that the ideas in this book are, after much trial and error, explained as accessibly as might be possible.
Which brings us to ‘numerophobia.’ For most people such fear arises because they aren’t adept at arithmetic. But math is really about ideas, much more than it is about calculation. I’ve tried to bring this point home – browse through my book and you’ll see very few formulas and equations. In their place, I’ve added lots of illustrations, many of which connect math to the familiar world around us.
Eventually, what might have helped the most are the three novels I’ve written. In them, I tried to make people understand India – it’s past, present and future – by no means an easy task. Little did I know that the eighteen-odd years it took me to write my trilogy were really preparing me for a challenge even harder than explaining India: explaining mathematics.
RS: You have structured your book on the Genesis, which makes the narrative a bit like a story unfurling. You have also given numbers’ personalities and turned Infinity into a ‘Godfather of Numbers.’ Was it the storyteller in you that made you pick this framework or was it a conscious choice so as to reach out to all those who find math boring or intimidating?
MS: OK, I’m going to let you in on a secret. I originally wrote the book as a novel – and the title was ‘The Godfather of Numbers.’ It was fashioned as a mystery – only at the end did you realize that the eponymous narrator was really infinity. Although some readers liked it, others didn’t. Plus, there was a fundamental hitch – to succeed, fiction has to be allusive, not explicit, and it was very cumbersome to get mathematical ideas across that way (the novel manuscript came in at close to 600 pages). I had to work very hard to rewrite the whole thing as non-fiction, but I’m glad I did. This version is just as engaging, but much shorter and easier to understand – plus I was able to distill out the most provocative fiction bits and still find ways to weave them into the narrative.
RS: In one of your interviews, you have said that you switched from physics to math in college. Our readers would be curious to know what made you gravitate towards math and pursue a career in math.
MS: India in the 1960s and 70s (when I grew up) was a young, agrarian country which desperately needed to build up its industries. So, students like me who did well in school were always channeled into the sciences. My family wanted me to become a doctor like my grandfather, so I cultivated a healthy dislike of biology to thwart that idea. I became a chemistry major, but didn’t like organic chem, so switched to physics. Then, my abstract algebra professor, Dr. M. S. Huzurbazar, looked into my soul and declared I was a mathematician, and needed to switch. After a half year of his relentless campaigning, I finally did. He couldn’t have been more right. ‘The Big Bang of Numbers’ is dedicated to him.
RS: You are an award-winning writer who has made a mark in fiction as well as non-fiction segments. What advice would you give budding writers on how to hone their writing and storytelling skills?
MS: What worked for me was a lot of workshopping – both in informal writing groups and in formal writing classes (I took three). It takes a while to appreciate just how challenging it is to write well, to realize what a long way you personally have to go, to get comfortable “killing all your babies” as they tell you to. My advice is not to worry too much about getting things published in this learning period – that will come in time. Instead, enjoy the luxury of writing purely for the reason of learning the craft.
RS: Our readers would be curious to know what book you are working on now. Do share details.
MS: It’s a memoir based in part on over 2500 letters I wrote to my mother from the time I left India (1979) to when she passed away (2013). She lovingly preserved them all - a treasure trove of an inheritance no writer could ignore. I read through the entire set a couple of years ago, and it was an incredibly emotional experience – akin to reliving your life, but with understanding now about why things were happening and where they were going. Looking beyond the emotion, though, I saw a compelling narrative about conflict, religion, sexuality and change being played out across a vast India-US canvas. That’s what clinched the project for me – the fact that it had the most important ingredient – a good story.
Thank you so much Manil for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. It was indeed a pleasure talking to you. We wish you the best in all your literary and mathematical pursuits. We hope your latest book is a resounding success.
Thanks, Rachna, I enjoyed answering your insightful questions.