On Leaving Home, and Writing: Interview with Phillip Ernest
November 1, 2019
Author Phillip Ernest fled his home of New Liskeard, Ontario at the age of fifteen to live in an impoverished life in Toronto until he was twenty-eight. Later in life, he learned Sanskrit from a book, earned his BA in South Asian Studies and moved to India where he now lives. Below his publisher Linda Leith Publishing interviews Phillip about leaving home, influential writers, and his two novels:
The Vetala and most recently
The Far Himalaya.
Linda Leith Publishing: Your life has had an interesting trajectory. First of all, there are not many writers from New Liskeard, Ontario. Did you grow up wanting to be a writer?
Phillip Ernest: No, I wasn’t that smart. I was mainly interested in reading comic books and Mad magazine. I began to create imitations of them, eventually spending my after-school hours building a cosmos of costumed heroes that reflected the dismal microcosm I lived in, in which I felt powerless, alone, and disliked. I wonder if I would have continued to cling to comic books until such a late age if the domestic atmosphere had not been so nightmarish, and in particular if I had not had to suffer a disgusted disapproval of my choice of reading matter. This much is certain: as soon as I left home – illegally, at fifteen – literally the day after, I began to read books voraciously, anything I could get my hands on, especially fiction.
In the weeks and days before my flight, having long since left school and sunk in ever-deepening inner night in the winter-bound house, I happened to find two magazine articles that had a profound effect on me. The first was an interview in Spin with an older woman who had been one of the leading Jungian analysts and thinkers. She told a story: A painter dreams of a white fox. Waking, he is haunted by a vague but intense sense that there is some deep hidden meaning. So, he paints a picture of the fox and then addresses his own creation: “White fox, white fox, why have you come to me?” This was an astounding idea for me, my introduction to the idea of art as a means of communication with and exploration of the part of the mind that is not the self. The second article was a review of a book by some poet in Maclean’s magazine. It quoted lines which struck me with the force of a revelation: “I am a dog on a short chain who has dug up, shat on, chewed up, and vomited up again every square inch of the ground within the small circle of my world, desperately struggling to free myself.” This was my first exposure to the idea of the poet as an explorer of his own tormented self, of poetry as the instrument and expression of that exploration. At that moment, I knew that I must become a poet.
LLP: Are there any particular writers or books who influenced you in your path to becoming a writer?
PE: Milton Acorn, Alexander Pope, and William Butler Yeats, the first poets I loved, discovering them for myself before I met my mentor, Jiva Das. Then the classical Chinese and Japanese lyric poets to whom Jiva introduced me, and who moved me most strongly. Since becoming a writer of fiction, I’ve engaged most intensely with William Styron and also the Italians Giovanni Verga, Federico de Roberto, Luigi Pirandello, Giorgio Bassani, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Elsa Morante, Elena Ferrante, and the poet Giacomo Leopardi. And despite his extreme remoteness in time, place, and culture, I think I can also cite Vyasa, author of the vast Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, my principal reading for the last fifteen to twenty years, in particular his magisterial, compassionate, great-souled capacity to hold tragedy and comedy in one hand and the other at the same moment.
LLP: The language of Sanskrit plays an important role in both your novels, The Vetala and The Far Himalaya. How and why did you teach yourself Sanskrit? What was it about Sanskrit that drew you to it?
PE: I first heard of Sanskrit from Jiva Das, whom I met in the Scott Mission weeks after my arrival on Toronto’s skid row at the age of sixteen. Born Errol Pritchard in the North Battleford, Saskatchewan, lunatic asylum, Jiva was then forty-nine, my age now, and had led a remarkable life of physical and inner wandering, having studied poetry composition with Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington in Seattle, served in the American army, travelled around America with his own theatre troupe that performed his own plays, spent a year or two as a Catholic monk in a monastery on top of a New Mexican mesa, earned a comfortable middle-class living as an auditor, and finally abandoned that comfort and security to live homeless in several Canadian cities, pursuing an obsession with Indian philosophy that led him to teach himself Sanskrit in the Indian Studies department of the University of Toronto. Jiva taught me the Sanskrit alphabet when I was eighteen, and I went on to begin a study of its grammar, but I was too messed up to do serious language study. When I turned this psychological corner at twenty-eight, I was finally able to devote myself to an intensive study of the language, using Michael Coulson’s excellent primer Teach Yourself Sanskrit, and within months was able to read the Mahabharata.
LLP: Your first novel, The Vetala, is set in India, where you now live. But The Far Himalaya takes place on the streets of Toronto, where you spent many years of your youth. Which location was more of a challenge to write about?
PE: Now that I think about it, I think the challenge was about equal in both cases. Both books are laments for a squandered and lost past, and were equally rewarding and painful to write, though I freely admit that there was — and in my later Indo-Canadian novels, has continued to be - more consolation in the memory of my homeland.
LLP: There are so many obstacles in Benjamin’s path, including the fact that despite being a brilliant scholar he isn’t actually allowed to study. Is the world is set up to make life difficult for people like Benjamin?
PE: Being cynical and misanthropic, and lacking political and sociological sophistication, I have a tendency to see the fate of people like Ben as timeless, universal, and inevitable. Aditi tells Ben about the University of Toronto’s Transitional Year Program, to which I owe my own rescue from educational limbo. Ben and Moskha Das live on the streets as a result of the damage that the ordinary cruelties of life can do to morbidly sensitive souls. Ben has suffered the trauma of an ill relationship with a parent. But Ben dodges starvation thanks to places like the Scott Mission and the Corner Drop-in, and avoids the filth of homelessness thanks to the Harrison Baths — impersonating a normally-housed person thanks to such resources. Living in India, where I have seen people waste away and die in the streets after falling out of whatever community once sustained them, I never forget that the poverty and exclusion I knew in Canada are relative. The path of my history, and my often surreal crossing back and forth between the easily generous opulence of my homeland and the terrible, inevitable harshness of a land that is still many decades away from recovering from the devastation wrought by colonization has made me keenly conscious of the good fortune in being one of the unfortunate in Canada rather than elsewhere.
LLP: In The Far Himalaya, Benjamin seeks to eventually find some kind of peace of mind in India. Why can’t he make a life for himself in Toronto?
PE: I think that by the end of the novel it dawns on him that Toronto, or somewhere like it, is really the only place where he can make a life for himself, or at least that there can be no life for him in India. An alienated, solitary personality like Ben may fantasize about fleeing the society where he feels so out of place and relocating to one that he imagines to be so much more in harmony with his nature, but it is essentially delusional. Anyone who is going to attempt the difficult and perilous adventure of emigrating to a society that is profoundly alien to the one into which he was born, and in which aliens like him have no established place and role, needs to be a very social person, fascinated by the target culture not in its abstract essence, but in its most immediate, practical, quotidian, and social aspect. In order to make a rewarding independent life for himself, someone like Ben needs to be in a situation in which friction with other people can be reduced to a minimum and the severe limitations imposed on his capacities by alienation will rest on him as lightly as possible. He will not find this situation anywhere outside of his home society. He should stay there, and read Sanskrit after work. Aditi has always known this, and by the end of the novel, so does Ben. It’s a happy ending.
LLP: In Benjamin and Aditi you have created a relationship that is warm, nurturing, and protective. They are lucky to find each other. Was this a difficult or easy relationship to write about?
PE: It was easy. In fact, I often feel that it was too easy, and that the idealness of their love is something of a weakness. In The Far Himalaya, their relationship is shown as having no grave internal obstacles, at least no developed ones, but this may be realistic considering their youth and the fact that the external obstacles they face are so serious. I wouldn’t know from experience, because at Ben’s age I certainly didn’t have an Aditi, and this of course was the major motivation for writing about such a relationship, and the source of the possible danger of over-idealizing it.
LLP: Do you have another story in the works? What is the most challenging thing about writing a novel?
PE: I write for an hour every day, rising at 2 a.m. in order to assure myself of the greatest possible solitude and silence in an environment in which these are very difficult to secure. Since The Vetala, I have written novel after novel, and have come to need this daily hour in an alternative life. After The Vetala had been rejected by Indian publishers, I gave up on the idea of writing for publication. I was now writing for myself, for a small circle of intimate friends, for an ideal audience that I never expected to find, and as an unconscious result, my fiction’s relationship to my real life and history gradually became very much more open, a fact that caused me some anxiety when it was decided that The Far Himalaya would be published.
Phillip in Toronto's Chinatown in 1987.
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Born in 1970, Phillip Ernest grew up in Northern Ontario. Fleeing home at the age of fifteen, he lived on Toronto's skid row until he was twenty-eight. He learned Sanskrit from the book Teach Yourself Sanskrit, and later earned a BA in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto and a PhD in Sanskrit from Cambridge University, with a dissertation on the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Marrying a woman from Pune, India, in 2006, he lived in that city until 2016, working first in the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, then as a writer and editor at Dilip Oak Academy. His first novel, The Vetala, was published in 2018, and he lives with his wife in Bengaluru, India.
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Thank you to Leila Marshy at Linda Leith Publishing for this brilliant interview with Phillip Ernest, and to Phillip for his insightful responses.
The Vetala and
The Far Himalaya are available for purchase on All Lit Up.
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