Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Finalist Stuart Blackburn

Stuart Blackburn was born in Providence, Rhode Island and lived with his ever-westward moving family in Detroit and then Claremont (California), where he attended high school. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1969 and soon entered the Peace Corps (one of the few remaining alternatives to serving in the military in Vietnam). Two and a half years in the rice fields and villages of south India, where he learned to speak Tamil, changed his life.

He completed his doctorate in Tamil language and international folklore from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1980, after which he took a teaching position at Dartmouth College, followed by other positions at Berkeley as well as a private high school in San Francisco. In 1994, he was offered a position at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of the University of London, where he remained until he took early retirement in 2003.

He is the author or editor of 16 books on Indian culture and folklore, mainly in south India (where his first novel, Murder in Melur, is set) and northeast India. One book, a study of shadow puppet theatre in Kerala, won the runner-up prize for the UK Folklore Book of the Year, while a translation of an early Tamil novel won the A.K. Ramanujan Prize in the United States.
He has received numerous grants, including a Fulbright and a Guggenheim. He was also the director of a five-year, multi-disciplinary grant to study Tibeto-Burman tribal cultures in northeast India, which provided him with the inspiration for Into the Hidden Valley.

In 1977, he married Judith Tarr, who accompanied him on several research trips, enduring heat, mosquitoes and bad food. Judith’s son (by her first marriage), Michael, has also spent many years in India, some of them with his mother and Stuart. Michael now lives in New Delhi, with his partner, the landscape architect Aditya Advani. Stuart’s obsessions include old films, Arsenal football club and organic food. He lives with his wife in Brighton, on the south coast of England.

Into the Hidden Valley explores a little-known episode in the colonial history of British India. While a great deal has been written about the British Raj, considerably less is known about the encounter between the British and the tribes of India. One reason for this is that the paper trail for tribal history is thin, but another is that tribal populations were generally dismissed as peripheral. Yet, the British and their Indian allies were engaged in constant, low-level warfare with tribes from the 18th century right up to Independence. Even today, armed struggles continue in parts of the country, especially the northeast, where the story is set. Many of the main events described in the novel are either true or based on true events, though I have manipulated the dates of some events to fit into the time-frame of my narrative.

This photograph from 1897 shows negotiations between British and tribal leaders (flanked by Indian soldiers) in the Apatani valley, which is the ‘hidden valley’ of the novel. This was the first official colonial contact with the valley, which remains isolated even in modern India.

The novel dramatises the colonial encounter with tribes by telling two stories, one of a British official and the other of a tribesman. I made the tribesman a shaman because he takes the reader into the mental as well as the physical world of the ‘hidden valley’ and highlights the contrast with the incoming culture. The fictional shaman (named Gyati) was inspired by a shaman of the same name with whom I worked during field research. In the photo below, he is shown holding a copy of the Indian edition of the novel. Gyati died in May 2016.

I first became interested in the Tibeto-Burman-speaking tribes of northeast Indi, when I went to Arunachal Pradesh (which had been part of colonial Assam) in 1999. I spent a large part of the next decade researching the cultures and oral traditions of one particular group, the Apatanis, who live in the ‘hidden valley’ of the story. Two of my monographs document their storytelling arts.

Into the Hidden Valley is published by Bygone Era Books (Denver) and by Speaking Tiger Books (New Delhi). It is available both on Amazon and from the publisher in India.

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