Anitha Krishnan on her expansive novel featuring “whimsical worlds and heartbreaking prose,” Dying Wishes, shortlisted for the 2023 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.

When I was seven, my mother died. I struck a bargain with the Gods to bring her back to life.

For thirteen years now, I have served as a Harbinger of Death, coaxing dying wishes out of mortals so that the God of Death may grant them moksha, liberation from the cycles of birth and death.

The man about to die this evening claims he has nothing to offer me. He is dying a content man, a rarity in our world.

But when the God of Death arrives to lead his soul away, the man changes his mind about dying and flees, surreptitiously planting on me an enigma.

I only know I cannot trust any God with this secret. And that I will pay an unbearable price for this concealment…

Anitha Krishnan is a speculative fiction author and an award-winning poet. She writes contemporary, new adult fantasy with a dash of mysticism and soul-searching. Deities and dreams, loss and longing, hiraeth and heartbreak, all make frequent appearances in her stories and poems.

She has lived in and left pieces of her heart in many places across the world including Singapore, Australia, Canada, and most of all in her beloved birthplace, India. She presently lives in Burlington, Ontario, with her husband and their cherished child. Her days are filled with juggling writing and parenting, and she blogs about her creative journey at thedreampedlar.com.

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2023 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize! Please tell us a little more about Dying Wishes.

Thank you!

Dying Wishes is the story of a Harbinger of Death named Infinity, who works for the God of Death and coaxes dying wishes out of mortals before they breathe their last.

It is a belief in Hinduism that when we are free of desire at the moment of death, we can attain moksha, liberation from the endless cycle of birth and death and rebirth.

Strange events begin to occur in the course of Infinity’s work, and she begins to question everything she has ever believed about Gods and dying wishes, about loss and longing, and even about her past.

Told in a dual timeline format, Dying Wishes is a contemporary, new adult fantasy set in Burlington, Ontario and is steeped in Hindu mythology and Tamil culture. It is ultimately a quest for belonging across different worlds.

How does it feel to be on the shortlist for the prize?

I’m very honoured and grateful, and above all I feel very, very lucky. Being on the shortlist has also been a huge motivation for me to keep writing and telling stories.

What first drew you towards writing? How did you start out as an author?

My Grade 10 English teacher back in India nicknamed me ‘Oxford’ because of my language skills. At the time, I had a very analytical attitude towards language; to me, it was just another subject like math or science with a set of grammar rules to be followed.

It was only as I was navigating the complexities of undergraduate life that I came to see language as a means of expression, and I began to write poems.

One book in particular, Born Confused, by Tanuja Desai-Hidier tugged at my heartstrings in a way that no other work had until then. That book opened not only my eyes but also my heart and soul to the beauty of language.

Later, I came across the works of Neil Gaiman and Erin Morgenstern and fell hopelessly in love with the low fantasy genre. I started writing fantasy flash fiction and short stories.

But it wasn’t until my own journey into motherhood in my mid-30s that I sat down to write longer works, primarily to explore and express what I felt and thought about this world around me and my experiences in it.

Writing is now no longer about grammar but about touching and sharing our very raw and very vulnerable human essence in the form of stories.

What inspired you to write Dying Wishes?

When I began writing Dying Wishes in January 2019, my child was only two-and-a-half years old and I was experiencing much inner turmoil as a mother.

Like the protagonist, Infinity, I too was grappling with questions I had never asked myself before on God and faith, on life and death, and on love and parenting. For all my academic achievements, how little I knew about these truly important matters of life!

I also missed the India of my childhood and was homesick for many of those years, pining for the presence of family with great intensity and fervour. Consequently, the book became imbued with hiraeth, that inexplicable longing for a place or time that doesn’t really exist.

Additionally, snippets of my Tamil Brahmin cultural background and upbringing, South Indian folktales I grew up reading or listening to, and my own questions pertaining to the relationship between human beings and Gods significantly shaped the story.

Just for fun: describe your writing style in five words or less.

Fantasy to soothe your soul.

Do you have any advice for emerging writers like yourself? Any advice you wish you had had when you first started writing?

Luck and time have a far, far greater role to play than we realize (or even want to accept) when it comes to achieving material success in our writing and publishing journeys.

When we are told that we only have to work hard and keep showing up to eventually get what we want, we forget that there are no guarantees. It is such a common and universal human experience to not get what we want.

Besides, innumerable factors in this industry (and in life) are not in our control. Yet we may mistakenly believe that we’re not successful because we’re not exhibiting enough grit or discipline or perseverance.

So if you’re not seeing the kind of worldly success you had hoped for, no matter where you are on your journey, please know it is not your fault.

Please come back to what had brought you to writing in the first place; I suspect that had little to do with getting rich or famous and more to do with an unadulterated love for expressing yourself through words.

And when all else fails, please read And Then We Grew Up by Rachel Friedman for a wise reminder that there can be as many ways to live a creative life as there are creatives.

Do you have any writing projects in the works right now?

Several! I’m writing a fantasy/soft sci-fi duology, and when I need to take a break from that I’ve been writing a bunch of fantasy short stories featuring Indian gods and demons (rakshasas). I can’t wait to finish these because an idea for a sequel to Dying Wishes has also been brewing in my head for a while now!

Please recommend us a book or audiobook, or let us know what you are reading or listening to right now!

After a friend of mine read (and loved) Dying Wishes, she recommended a series to me that has changed my life: Thirst by Christopher Pike! I hadn’t known until then that such a marvellous creation existed in this world.

Pike’s incorporation of Hindu philosophy, his depiction of Lord Krishna, and his formidable protagonist — a 5,000-year-old vampire named Sita, who’d have ever thunk it? — in 1990s America are so fantastic and wildly imaginative yet so respectful of Hinduism that these books made me look at my own culture with new eyes and fall back in love with the very gods I had fallen out of love with.

I’ve only read the first four books so far. As much as I want to know how it all ends, I can’t yet bring myself to read Thirst No. 5 and bid goodbye to Sita!

I’ve also recently enjoyed The Malabar House Series by Vaseem Khan; it’s a historical crime fiction series featuring India’s first female detective and is set in 1950s Bombay in the aftermath of India’s independence from colonial rule.

The Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize was created to bring literary recognition to Canadian talent and kick-start the careers of debut authors. A $10,000 CAD cash prize will be awarded to a book in each of three categories: Nonfiction, Literary Fiction, and a rotating Genre Fiction category. In addition, each winning author receives promotional marketing and ongoing communications support throughout 2023.

Anitha Krishnan is one of six authors nominated in the Speculative Fiction category for 2023. Best-selling author Robert J. Wiersema will select this year’s winner, to be announced on June 22, 2023.

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