Tania R. James ’03

After years of film, a former VES concentrator tries her hand at a novel

With an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University under her belt and the release of her debut novel “Atlas of Unknowns” less than a week away, it seems ironic that at one point, Tania R. James ’03 dismissed writing as a viable career option.

Even from a very early age, James was drawn to writing.

“I guess I was always writing, you know, in the way little kids do, with complete freedom and deep seriousness,” said James.

Although she continued writing in high school, James encountered opposition from her parents when she began to consider it as a career. Her mother dismissed writing as an “unstable profession.”

“I kind of shared her belief that it didn’t seem possible,” said James.

At Harvard, James concentrated in Visual and Environment Studies, specializing in filmmaking. She laughed when explaining her choice of concentration, given her mother’s concerns about a writing career.

“I’m not sure why I chose filmmaking instead,” James said. “Maybe it was a small act of rebellion.”

However, James continued to pursue writing throughout her time at Harvard, taking creative writing classes with visiting lecturers Patricia Powell and Brad Watson, as well as with Radcliffe Institute Fellow and novelist Gish Jen ’77.

“She was funny and brilliant, kind of like her work,” James said of Jen. “She made me consider the contemporary world—why we write, why we make art.”

In her senior year at Harvard, James was faced with a difficult career choice She decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing from Columbia.

“When deciding between film and writing, I guess I felt writing was the place where I felt the most free to experiment and take risks,” she said.

James didn’t leave film completely upon entering Columbia. In her first year out of graduate school, she worked as an assistant editor and producer for Operation Iraqi Filmmaker. She admits that she hasn’t been able to let go of her attraction to the art.

“I still get jealous of people all over New York walking around with cameras and equipment,” she said.

But James’s nostalgia for her filmmaking days are overshadowed by her enthusiasm for her new book.

“Atlas of Unknowns”, which will be released by Alfred A. Knopf on April 21, tells the story of two sisters in Kerala, India. In the novel, the younger sister makes her way to America as a student while the older is left behind. Inspired by a trip to her father’s village, Kumarakom, in 2006, “Atlas of Unknowns” is James’s first novel.

Karen Russell, who attended Columbia’s MFA program with James and had several workshops with her, praised her former classmate’s work.

“Her sense of humor has an incredible inventiveness, but there is also a lot of heart to it,” said Russell, also a published author. “And there is sort of a kinetic energy to her writing—every sentence is humming with life.”

Jordan Pavlin, a senior editor at Knopf for both James and Russell, expressed optimism not only about “Atlas of Unknowns”, but also about James’s future.

“I think she’s a born novelist,” wrote Pavlin in an email to The Crimson. “This is the first of many captivating stories Tania will tell.”

Pavlin is not the only one convinced that James made the right career choices after all. Despite her previous doubts about a career as a writer, James herself seems content with her decision.

“Right now, I can’t imagine doing anything other than what I’m doing: writing,” she said.