Tania James is the author of four works of fiction, all published by Knopf: The Tusk That Did the Damage, which was a finalist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Financial Times Oppenheimer Award; Aerogrammes and Other Stories, named a Best Book of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle; and the novel Atlas of Unknowns, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Her short stories have appeared in Freeman’s: The Future of New Writing; Granta; The New Yorker; O, The Oprah Magazine; and One Story, among other places, and featured on Symphony Space Selected Shorts. She has received fellowships from the Macdowell Colony, Ragdale, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and the Fulbright Program.
An associate professor of English in the MFA program at George Mason University, her new novel, Loot, was published by Knopf Doubleday in June 2023 and longlisted for the National Book Award for fiction. Rights have been sold to the UK (Harvill Secker), India (Penguin Randomhouse India), Alianz di Novelas (Spain), and Russia (LiveBook).
Excerpt from The Tusk That Did the Damage
Everyone in Sitamala thinks they know my brother’s story. On the contrary. They may know the tune, but I would bet a half bag of pepper the words are all wrong. I blame his wife’s people for spreading slander, all those perfidious huge-hipped sisters, not a one half as lovely as Leela.
Our father was a rice farmer. He came from a time when to farm was a noble profession, when people sought our gandhakasala and our rosematta for their earthy fragrance superior to the stuff that now comes cheap from Vietnam. Who can remember those times with all these farms lying fallow and many a farmer’s son gone to roost in a soft office chair? And who am I to blame them, I who have seen the Gravedigger for myself and felt its breath like a steam on my face?
Some say my brother stepped into the very snare he laid for the elephant. I say opinions are cheap from far. I will take you to the Gravedigger myself and let you meet its honey-colored eye. I will show you the day it first laid its foot on our scrawny lives. Then you tell me who was hunter and who was hunted.
To know our troubles, you must know what happened to my cousin Raghu. When I think on poor Raghu, I see him stoking a small fire. I see him nudging a stick aside so as to let the flames breathe. I have called up this image many a time as if I were with him in the palli as I should have been that night.
The palli was a paddy-roofed matchbox on bamboo legs stranded in the midst of his father’s rice field, same as the ones in the neighboring fields. If a herd of elephants were to come glumping their way through the stalks, we were to wave the lantern and give the long caw that would set the others cawing. If this didn’t scare the herd away, we used crackers and rockets. But the herds became wise to our ways. They learned that our racket had no teeth to it, so they kept on eating their way through six months’ worth of our back-bent work. Sometimes we had to call the Forest Department; it would send three or four men to blind the beasts with headlights and fire ancient rifles. We called them greenbacks for their dingy green uniforms and their love of currency.
The herds were mostly cows, and they meant no personal harm unless you tampered with a calf. There is no one more fearsome than a mother enraged. In my youth I heard of a cow that cradled the carcass of her baby for days and would not be deprived of it.
- “Tania James: On Inventing Historical Characters Lost to Time.” Writers Digest. 18 June 2023.
- “In ‘Loot,’ Tipu’s Tiger tells a story of war, art and love.” NPR. 13 June 2023.
- “Failure, Patience, and Joy. Tania James on What It Means to Be a Writer.” Literary Hub. 4 May 2023.