Nandita Dinesh: Of War and Humanity

dinesh
Image credits: Anson Stevens-Bollen

Nandita Dinesh has always been passionate about theater, and for the past 15 years she has focused on the role it can play, along with writing, on addressing violent conflict. Dinesh has conducted community-based theater projects in areas during and after conflict, and has written multiple non-fiction books about it.

Her debut novel released this year, “This Place / That Place,” synthesizes her experience and expertise in an allegory about militarized occupation that could have happened at any place or time.

“This Place / That Place” takes place in a nameless country under military occupation with unnamed protagonists – a young woman from “That Place,” the occupying state, and a young man from “This Place,” the occupied region. While confined together during a curfew, the characters find themselves grappling with the complex dynamic war can bring to a relationship. The unnamed conflict could be any war, and the protagonists could be any of the millions of people caught on different sides of a militarized occupation.

The influence of theater is apparent as the novel is written like a screenplay, where the dialogue moves the plot forward.

As Dinesh explained why she chose this forma, “As someone who’s always been a theater person, it seemed inevitable that there would be this really important role that dialogue had to play. And that became another fascinating question – is it still a novel or is it a play? And then why did it matter if it was a novel, if it was a play? I just found myself going on these really interesting thought journeys of what’s possible when you start to play with what a book looks like. So that was a lot of fun with this particular book.”

Tracing back the origins of Dinesh’s interest in theater in war and conflict zones is crucial to understanding why she chose to write “This Place / That Place” in the way that she has.

Dinesh grew up in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. While in college, in 2005, she went to Uganda for her junior semester abroad. While interested in theater, studying it wasn’t an option in Coimbatore. She found it in Uganda.

“I was blown away by a new type of theater I encountered in Uganda,” she said. “It was called theater for development. It was basically looking at intersections of theater and social justice theater and community organizing.”

Dinesh spent that semester in northern Uganda, working on her project about a place where a war has been raging since 1986.

According to her, “That sort of set me on this journey of thinking about what is the role of art in times of violence? Even if there is a role for art in times of violence? What could we do?” Since then her work has focused on using theater to provide narratives of war and talking about conflict. Dinesh holds a PhD in drama from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and an M.A. in performance studies from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Till she wrote her first novel, her published books were all non-fiction accounts of war and conflict zones.

dinesh

After 15 years of that, Dinesh tried her hand at fiction.

She explained, “I just got tired of doing things in a documentary form, because often the work becomes about other things and not about the work, right? People would start fighting, asking why are you blaming this person? But not that person. Why are you blaming this group but not that group? Often, I found that the bigger questions that I wanted to discuss about humanity never came up. So maybe if I based it in a fictional place, drawing from some of these experiences that I’ve had over the years, we could have some conversations about these bigger topics.”

Fiction also seemed like a good choice because of its ability to reach a wider audience. Dinesh was regularly publishing research about theater and performance studies, and in 2017 she won the Elliott Hayes Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dramaturgy from the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. These books were being taught in colleges around the world, but Dinesh realized her work was reaching a limited audience.

“I just wanted to talk to more people and I wanted to reach different kinds of audiences, the ones who found academic writing a little alienating,” she said. “So that’s when I said, okay, can I write fiction?”

In addition to drawing from what she observed, the novel also has elements that are very personal to Dinesh.

She explained: “My particular lens as a theater maker in these conflict zones is being a woman who enters patriarchal settings and I think that’s where making [the unnamed woman protagonist] a woman who is the outsider, allowed me to draw from my own personal experience in some way and make her more complex because I felt like that resonated with me more.”

While belonging to a country is central to most people’s identities, Dinesh argues that things are not that black and white.

“I very strongly identify with being from India, with growing up there,” she said. “But what does it mean when I spend so much time outside of India, right? That’s something that I think about a lot. How much time has to pass before I can’t say that I’m from India anymore?”

“This Place / That Place” compels the readers to think not just about the effects of war but about intersections between not just the occupier and occupied but also between the “personal” and the “political.” It forces them to ask themselves some tough questions about what does it mean to belong to a place and who decides who belongs.