Vinita Kinra: Congratulations, Ben, on your new book, The Concubine and Selected Stories. Tell us about the type of stories the readers can expect to read in your new book.
Ben Antao: Well, there are 20 stories in all, about half set in Canada, and the other half in Goa and Mumbai. Each story is unique in tone and theme as it follows the protagonist and his/her ambitions and passions. There is, for example, the struggle of the immigrant to find a suitable job and succeed in Canada, the land of opportunity. Other stories focus on the darkness of superstition, corruption, caste differences, unbridled lust, illicit sex, seedy capitalism, and politics of nationalism. The title story explores the occupation of concubinage during the last ten years of the Portuguese rule in Goa, which was annexed by India in December 1961.
Ben Antao: It has been a long journey from Goa, my birthplace, to higher education in Mumbai where in 1966 I won a journalism fellowship when on the staff of the Indian Express newspaper. This award granted by the World Press Institute based at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota allowed me to study American history, politics, economics, society and culture in the company of 15 other journalists from fourteen countries. From the US I came to Canada in 1967 to write a book about my experiences in America. This memoir titled Images of the USA projects a kaleidoscope of the US in the sixties.
In Toronto I worked as a reporter and editor for a weekly and daily newspaper until 1976 when I decided to switch careers and graduated with B.Ed from the University of Toronto to teach English and drama in high school. I taught English literature and grammar for 22 years before retiring in 1998. In the 80s I also studied to become a certified financial planner, which I continue to practice on a limited scale. After retirement I began to write fiction in earnest and joined the local writers groups like the Canadian Authors Association (CAA) and the Writers and Editors Network (WEN).
Currently I’m giving workshops to other budding writers on various aspects of the writing craft, both fiction and nonfiction. Yes, indeed, it has been a remarkable journey, as you say.
Vinita Kinra: You are a prolific writer with many publications to your credit. Tell us briefly about your other works.
Ben Antao: Thank you, Vinita. My first book published in 1990 was a memoir titled Images of Goa. It deals with my childhood and early adulthood years in Goa, covering the period from 1942-1964. I wrote it in the early 80s in Toronto as a way of transforming my early experiences of growing up in Goa into art for posterity to learn what it was like during the last 20 years of Portuguese rule in Goa. The memoir focuses on Goan sociology of the time. As I suspected, a Ph.D student in Lisbon contacted me in the mid-90s for permission to use my book for her research as she was writing a thesis on Goan culture during the last 20 years of Portuguese rule in Goa. She said she would give me credit for it.
In 2004 I published Goa, a Rediscovery, a travelogue based on my month-long visit to Goa in Jan-Feb/2004.
In 2005 I published Blood & Nemesis, my first novel about Goa’s freedom struggle from the Portuguese rule, covering the years 1946-1962.
In 2006 came the Penance, a novel set in Toronto exploring the love triangle involving a lesbian couple and a heterosexual couple, both of Catholic faith.
Another novel The Tailor’s Daughter published in 2007 and set in Goa and Nairobi, Kenya follows a young Goan woman and her dream of breaking out of the caste structure through love and marriage.
In 2008 I published Living on the Market, a novel about a supply teacher in Toronto and his efforts to support his family by playing the stock market.
The fifth novel The Priest and His Karma came out in 2009, dealing with a former priest hounded by both God and the Devil in his struggle to seek justice for past wrongs. The action in this novel takes place in Goa, Mumbai, Montreal and Toronto.
Although these novels appeared year after year, I wrote them in the 90s and then did the revisions and rewriting to get them ready for publication.
In the fall of 2007 I traveled to Sicily with my Sicilian wife and produced a bilingual travelogue in 2008 called The lands of Sicily/Le terre di Sicilia.
In 2009 I published Images of the USA, the memoir I’d written in 1968.
From 2010 until the present I’ve written and published short stories in anthologies as well as in book form, such as A Madhouse in Goa and nine other stories (2012) and The Concubine and Selected Stories (2014).
Currently I’m writing poetry, mostly sonnets in Shakespearean form; have completed over 160 sonnets so far to outdo the great bard’s 154.
Vinita Kinra: Where do you find inspiration for your literary offerings?
Ben Antao: Since I choose to write literature or what’s labeled as literary fiction, I find my themes in life experiences. Usually, a human interest incident will grab my attention and lodge in my memory. It takes me about 20 years after that incident to reflect on it again to see whether I could weave or invent a story around it; sometimes the story would extend to novel length. Of course, to inspire me the story has to contain strong conflicts and be of human interest; in addition, I must also care deeply about its theme.
Thus, all the novels and short stories have evolved from such incidents, directly observed and indirectly understood.
Vinita Kinra: Hailing from the tourist city of Goa in India, what, according to you, are the distinctions between the former Portuguese colony, Goa, and the rest of India, and how did it shape your writings?
Ben Antao: Because of the long period of Portuguese colonial rule (over 450 years and much longer than the British rule of India), the small population of Goa, about 100,000 in 1510 and now about 1,500,000, was profoundly impacted by Portuguese culture as reflected in the Catholic faith and Western norms of dress, food, music and language. In my case, I decided to pursue education in the English medium rather than Portuguese, for in my teenage years I’d wanted to write for newspapers. As English is more widely spoken than Portuguese in the world, I thought being a journalist writing in English would considerably enlarge my audience. And so it has.
Today, Goa being a part of India, the smallest state is regarded as a tourist attraction by the rest of Indians, a place of sun and beaches, fun, sex and drugs. Because I left Mumbai in 1966, the touristy glamour of Goa has not shaped my fiction, most of it set in the pre-Liberation Goa that I knew and grew up in.
Vinita Kinra: Which is your favourite story from The Concubine, and why?
Ben Antao: My favourite is, of course, the title story The Concubine, a 10,000-word story I wrote over two months in June-July, 2013. The genesis of this story goes to my final year in high school in Margao, Goa and my friend who was besotted with this girl in our class. He married her upon graduation in 1953, despite her antecedents, and went to Belgaum for college education. I lost contact with him until 1964 when I was a reporter in Panjim, Goa for a local newspaper.
I was on my way to cover a meeting at the Secretariat when I saw him on the sidewalk. He’d become a lawyer. I asked him about his wife when he said, “She has gone back to her mother’s profession.”
For nearly 50 years I had this info logged in my memory, on many occasions making me wonder how that ending must have come about. Finally, I imagined a story about girl who became a concubine. Let me know what you, the reader, think about this fictional tale.
Vinita Kinra: Please give us some information about where our readers can get a copy of The Concubine, and what the price point is.