Hometown: New Delhi,
Based In: New Delhi
Education: Occidental College
Briefly: If It Is Sweet is a collection of short fiction that looks at class relations in New Delhi. Not Only the Things That Have Happened is a novel about inter-country adoption set in India and the US.
Author Crush: Eliot Weinberger, Breyten Breytenbach, Paul Zacharia, K Satchidanandan, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Foster Wallace, Alice Munro.
Your Writing Space: Coffee shops in my neighborhood.
If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be: If I were neither a writer nor a mother I’d be trade union organizer. In an entirely different life I would be a radio reader with a sideline in dress design.
Up Next: a novel about a young girl, daughter of a poor man, who dreams of riding a bicycle and of healing her broken family. It is set in present-day New Delhi.
When you think of your childhood, and when you think of books, what comes to mind?
My sister and I would take turns, one of us minding the road on the walk home from school while the other read. It was frightening to finish a book because I didn’t know how else to spend my time. A book left unattended for even a moment was fair game. There were many fights: “But I am still reading it. I only put it down because Mummy was calling me” etc. Once while we were reading Omen together, I waited for her in the closet, butcher knife in hand. I hadn’t anticipated how much her hysteria would frighten me. I was precocious and read books far beyond my years but everything I read was read at a younger age by my younger sister. There was and still is no point boasting.
Litjuice.com: When you set out to write Not Only The Things That Have Happened, your novel about adoption, did you set out to speak for adoptees everywhere?
The voices of the members of the adoption triad – birth mother, adoptee and adoptive mother – are not heard equally. The power to tell the story of adoption belongs most clearly with the adoptive parents. The relinquishing parents and the relinquished child have the least voice in the story. I wanted to hear their voices. Annakutty Verghese relinquishes her child under great social pressure. She lives then with an enormous sense of loss. Her child is adopted and grows to adulthood in a loving but complicated Christian family. He too lives with a sense of loss. Not Only the Things That Have Happened is a work of fiction and ultimately gives voice to the story of individuals. I cannot claim to have spoken for everyone everywhere because my characters are uniquely themselves and their story is uniquely their own. However, my novel is a critique of adoption in that it examines power and its operations in the relationships of various characters in the book.
Litjuice.com: In an interview you gave at the time of the publication of the book, you mentioned the extensive you did for the work, the countless reading of adoptee memoirs, adoption articles. As you leafed across all that information, how did you determine what was going to influence you?
I do think there is a dynamic at work in the author’s writing of a story and the story’s writing of itself. I had characters in mind and wrote their story and then at some point became aware they were dictating their story to me. Of course this is not the same thing as having a muse. I am responsible for all the decisions of craft in the novel. And it was craft that was the mediator between me and my characters. I was not the inspired author who hears and responds to a voice by transcribing. No, I did actually have to understand my characters’ desires and then understand the craft of being faithful to their intentions for themselves.
As I researched among adoptee and first mother blogs and read scholarly papers I became increasingly aware, for example, that my character Annakutty Verghese was researching with me. In the novel, she dies within the first couple pages, but the epitaph she leaves on her grave at the end of Part One of her life, her last message to a son she realizes she will never see, is something she, reading over my shoulders, understood was true for her: though she will never see her son, she will live in him. This is an understanding of the biological and spiritual bond I repeatedly encountered in adoptee and first mother blogs.
What’s the writing community like in India?
I write about what I am curious about. Most often there is some basis for my curiosity in the known, and of course a whole lot more basis in the unknown. It would be hard to sit solving the various complex craft challenges of writing if it were not for the motivation of knowing that I am doing this to discover something unknown out there.
To write in literary fiction in English in India, is to simultaneously live in a small town and a large country. The terms ‘literary’ and ‘English’ are the confines of my small town. There are few writers and few readers inhabiting this small town, but like inhabitants of actual small towns, there is an abundance of love and courtesy here because most of us actually live face-to-face. The accountability of small town life makes me glad to live in this small town. When I moved to this small town, a complete unknown, I was welcomed as I imagine small towns welcome strangers, with some curiosity and a whole lot of generosity.
On the other hand, we, the few of us living in this small town, are painfully aware that our actual lives are lived in a large country. Our coziness is likely to be our undoing, and we are guilty of producing a literature that is thin in its inability to grapple with all of what our subject demands from us. Luckily there are many other towns in Indian literature – other languages, shaped by scores of practitioners, into literature fantastic in its scope and ability to tell the stories of this country.
I just wish we had more translators so the good news in these other languages could travel to my small town.
Tell us about the writing process for your other novel If It is Sweet.
My short stories are image-driven. That is, I see something searing in its beauty somewhere in the city of Delhi, and I cannot abide its fleeting nature. I want to be seared again and at my behest. So I set out to write the story that will take me back to the image. My short stories are expressions of ecstasy and I am always aghast when a reader will moan to me that she finds their ending sad. But the reader, who I love has written to me once or twice and complained about things other than the sad endings.
When you got to the editing and revision stage, how did things go?
I had to rewrite my novel once twice, three times. I wish I had rewritten it some more. With short stories rewriting can give way more easily to new stories that are themselves re-writes, that are new efforts to mine the same ground. With the novel there is just the embarrassment of putting out into the world something that at a practical level must be put out into the world but that at an emotional level feels incomplete.
What are some of the publishing trends that you anticipate seeing in literature?
I think a lot of what drives literature is its thematic concerns. At least in my lifetime and perhaps beyond I imagine our thematic concerns will be similar to what characterizes the literature of the past. Still there are interesting wrinkles. For example, are we more or less violent as a species? And is technological advance equivalent to an advance in any other arena of human achievement, for example does it advance compassion? Perhaps. There is as much ambivalence about our own existence now as there ever has been and that alone gives us much to chew on. How we choose to do our chewing – in flash fiction, twitter feeds, through e-books or chap books – is something I don’t spend a lot of time pondering. I am glad I started writing in my mid-thirties. I am not afflicted with the sort of ambition which might drive me to speculate on market trends with the view to cashing in.
How can new writers improve their writing?
There is another sort of ambition that is worthwhile, which is the effort to do justice to one’s thematic concerns. I read Weinberger for example because while he is no trendsetter, he has done much to look at the question of how we can relate the seemingly unrelatable. I love the notion of a world in which what is in opposition is also in collision, that what pulls apart achieves embrace. His experiments with form and craft have taught me a lot. Recently, Booker short-listed writer, Jeet Thayil told me he writes for the writers he admires. New writers might want to read the writers they love lovingly and then sit down to write for them.
What’s the best way to get the word out on a book?
I am not aggressive about searching out ways to promote my book, but that’s only because I am shy. I have never turned down any opportunity to get the word out. Not even when I felt too shy. There’s a chutzpah involved in thinking of myself as worth being published. It would be hypocritical to follow on that with a pretense of crippling shyness. So while I have conquered shyness and would advise others to do the same I have another issue – laziness – that I have yet to wrestle with successfully. Promotion is part of the job even if it isn’t the most interesting.