Friday 5 March 2010

Interview with Samrat Upadhyay

Source:by Rajani | February 2006 (Samudaya.Org)

Samrat Upadhyay is the author of the short story collections Arresting God in Kathmandu and The Royal Ghosts, and the novel The Guru of Love. He is the recipient of the annual Whiting Writers' Award. His latest collection of stories, The Royal Ghosts, has been reviewed on this site.

Rajani: I read Arresting God a few years ago and I feel like Royal Ghosts is an improvement. The stories are more dramatic and more interesting. Did you make any changes in your writing consciously or do you think you have just grown better as a writer? Do you agree your second short story collection is better?

Samrat Upadhyay: It's impossible not to grow as a writer if you treat it as a discipline and work on improving your craft—on a regular basis. With The Royal Ghosts, even while I was writing the individual stories, I was more conscious of them eventually culminating in a book, so some of my approaches in terms of characters and points of view were more deliberate. I attempted a wider angle in the collection, hoping to embrace a wider perspective of concerns and positions. My first collection, Arresting God in Kathmandu, was written over a span of ten years, starting with my initial days in graduate school, with no idea on my part that they'd be published as a book.

But I don't agree that The Royal Ghosts is better than Arresting God. Someone once said that asking such a question of writers is akin to asking them which of their children they favor. These are different books. Arresting God has a youthful, roaming quality, a feeling of irreverence that I cherish. The Royal Ghosts is a more mature book, for sure, but better? I'll leave that to the individual reader.

R: You live in the United States and have done so for at least the past few years. Yet almost all your stories are set in Kathmandu. Did you go back to Nepal before you wrote Royal Ghosts for research, or is it entirely based on memory?

SU: I go to Nepal whenever I can, at least once every year or two years. I didn't research The Royal Ghosts as one might when writing a work of nonfiction, but I am acutely aware of the political scene in Nepal, and well as how things have changed there over the years. For a writer like me who lives here and writes about there (and I'd argue this applies to all writers, regardless of where they live and write about what), the form emerges out of an interaction between imagination and reality. Imagination shapes reality, and powerful literature always is about this shaping, and not the world itself. The world is finite, the shaping is not, and that's why there are infinite possibilities of innovation in literature.

R: Are your characters drawn from real life? Is there one (or more) character in your stories that is based on yourself?

SU: Some are. Most are composites of real people and fake people. No character based on myself—am I that interesting?

R: Your characters though are not "interesting people". They live pretty ordinary lives. Have you been moved or inspired by certain people (ordinary or otherwise) or are these the stories of every-person?

SU: I find them interesting when I write, and it's crucial for writers to become engaged with their characters; otherwise they turn lethargic on the page. I am interested in the activities of the "ordinary," if you will, and how the ordinary moments can lead to extraordinary epiphanies in our lives. These ordinary moments can carry what Raymond Carver called "startling power," a sudden illumination of an object, a movement, a feeling that can then become a tremendous source of energy for the story, carrying with it transformation that embraces everything around it. Also, my characters often observe other characters, and in these voyeuristic moments too something happens, a transfer of feeling or mood that then becomes the impetus for further changes in the story. After a while, it's hard to distinguish what's ordinary and what's not, and I think that sort of equanimity is something I strive for, and value, in my fiction.

R: You've said in interviews that you write every single day. That sort of discipline is really admirable. Were you always so consistent or is this something that happened gradually? For example, sometimes life gets in the way. People who want to write have other jobs, school, etc. I feel like people are not really encouraged to pursue creative writing as a full time career. How has your experience been?

SU: The discipline has come gradually. In the beginning I used to rely on the conventional muse, but now I will the muse to come when I sit down to write every day. And yes, there are other things to take care of. I'm a husband, a father. I'm also a teacher, so I have student stories to read and comment on, meetings to attend, readings to give—all of these are part and parcel of the life I've chosen. I get up very early, sometimes as early as three am, to write. Now it's become a habit.

Unless you're a Stephen King or a John Grisham, most writers have other jobs. Increasingly, most like me make their home in academia, where we get to share our love of literature, teach others what we know, and get summers off to do our own writing. Luckily, my parents didn't force me to become a doctor or an engineer, so I was able to major in English as an undergraduate and pursue creative writing at the graduate level. I have been heartened, in the past few years, by how many young Nepalis have joined or expressed interest in joining creative writing programs, or in the least have pursued work in the humanities.

R: I think there is a Faulkner quote that goes something like: "I only write when I'm inspired. Fortunately, I'm inspired at 9 o'clock every morning." How was your experience as a student of creative writing? Do you think you would have written the books you have written whether or not you pursued creative writing in college?

SU: These "what would have happened if" questions are, of course, hard to answer, but I think I would have ended up becoming a writer no matter what, although the road might have been a bit tougher. I think being in a creative writing program, with amazing colleagues and teachers, helped me become more disciplined, and made me widen my aesthetics, from the mad stories of Denis Johnson to the controlled narration of Peter Taylor, for example.

R: In one of your interviews, you have talked about "exoticization" of stories by non-native English writers, and you've said you dislike this. Quote: "The profusion of "Hai Ram's" and spices in some works from South Asia are a major turnoff for me." I remember reading Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer prize winning collection "Interpreter of Maladies" and quite liking it. Then I thought I'd read her novel "The Namesake", opened to the first page and read "Asmina Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper" and so on. This typical Calcutta snack was described in several stories in the first book to good effect, but when I saw this in the opening scene of the second book, I was fed up and turned off. It seems extremely difficult for a writer who is South Asian but who writes in English to balance this sort of thing. First of all, if you're writing in English, you know your readership is going to consist of more non-Nepalis than Nepalis. Second, the writer has to deal with the fact that "exoticized" fiction is more likely to get published in the West. And so, is it really healthy for a writer to be conscious of all these things that are actually external to the actual writing? Even if you were to say that one should not write with an eye on certain audiences or publishing markets, how can a writer remain authentic and true to himself? Do you struggle with these questions?

SU: Whew! This has to be the longest question I've received in any interview so far. I'll try my best to make my answer shorter than your question.

What is "external" to the writing and what is the "actual" writing is not as easy to distinguish. The external world is always shaping us, and we already have numerous audiences in our minds—parents, friends, critics, readers, editors—even if we were to pretend we were writing a diary entry we've vowed not to show anyone. Writing is at once an individual and a social act, and the question of "authentic and true" is always a negotiation between the self and the world. Who knows what our authentic self is? Spiritualists spend a lifetime trying to find answer to this. Philosophers for ages have pondered this.

Does this mean that the writer "caters" to a primary audience? No. That's marketing. I write for the love of writing, but that doesn't mean that I position myself and my work so that I am able to market it. I write out of my heart, and I hope my work speaks to other hearts. I am well aware that both Western and Eastern readers will read my work, and there's nothing wrong with trying to address both these audiences, or to the audience in between, but that's not the same as writing with the sole intent of pleasing them or "currying" their favor (how's that for an exotic phrase?).

R: I understand that you (and other writers) write for the love of writing but isn't there pressure (if you're Asian, if you're a woman, etc.) to write in a certain way? I am not only talking about the expectations of the reader, but from editors, publishers etc. Is there an idea of the South Asian writer (or the foreign writer, the writer from the third world country, etc.) that leads to certain expectations? Maybe you feel the pressure more acutely when you are unpublished?

SU: I have never felt the pressure. My editor herself is a novelist, so we often focus on craft-related issues when we work on revision. The idea that Western publishers, in their desire to orientalize or exoticise the East, will publish only a certain kind of work from foreign writers is not something I have experienced, and is certainly not borne out by the wild variety of fiction that gets published, whether from South Asian writers or others. Sure, there'll always be some who have set ideas about what "ethnic" fiction ought to read like—I am reminded of one reviewer for a major newspaper who lamented that The Guru of Love wasn't appealing enough because I didn't dwell on the mountains.

R: Do you think there are similarities of themes and style among South Asian writers writing in English? Do you consider yourself part of a group or completely independent? Also, are there writers who are very different from you as far as circumstances (time, place etc) go, but who you consider similar in spirit?

SU: Rushdie's metaphor of a "broken mirror" applies to most South Asian writers writing about their homelands. The concerns of fragmentation, dislocation haunts many of us. That we write in English, our cherished alien tongue, in itself a gesture of displacement. When I began writing, I was greatly influenced by writers such as Rushdie, Anita Desai, R.K. Narayan, and Amitav Ghosh. Of course, I grew up in Nepal, so geographically there's a degree of independence. But it's not only the Indian writers. There are other writers who are my spiritual kin: Irish storyteller William Trevor, and the South African Nadine Gordimer, who was a tremendous influence on my approach to the short story. I've also been influenced by poets such as Pablo Neruda.

R: I would like you to comment on certain perceptions about yourself. Two comments from Time magazine:
1. "One of the first Nepali writers to publish fiction in the West, he has been called the "Buddhist Chekhov." He's not Anton Chekhov, but he is Buddhist, and the influence of the religion—observant, detached, cyclical—is richly apparent."
2. "Upadhyayis that rarity among authors of a subcontinental drift: he is an under-writer, both in style and substance, the anti-Arundhati."

1. Chekhov was a Buddhist, don't you know? It's rumored that his famous story "The Lady with the Pet Dog" came about after he made a pilgrimage to Swayambhunath and saw a young Nepali woman with a monkey on a leash. I'm joking, of course, but I'm amusedly and humbly flattered to be compared to Chekhov, and if the reviewer wants to throw in my quasi-Buddhist upbringing to comment on my fiction, that's his prerogative. I am interested in the cyclical nature of life, but I wouldn't attribute it solely to the Hindu-Buddhist philosophical outlook, because I believe many Western writers also display similar interest—Raymond Carver, example.

2. So, I am like Chekhov but with a Buddhist tint, but I'm the exact opposite of Roy? How about Upadhyay has 20% of Amitav Ghosh's historical acuity; he writes like Rohinton Mistry on ganja; he's a male Anita Desai, he's an anorexic Suketu Mehta; or he's a "poor man's Jhumpa Lahiri," as one magazine actually called me?

R: How different are the reactions of Westerners and Nepalis to your work? Does the reaction of the Nepali diaspora differ significantly?

SU: I get varied reactions from both groups. The Nepali diaspora is not a monolithic gang, so the reactions too are mixed. Since I am writing about Nepal, Nepalis here and in Nepal often respond forcefully to my work. When Arresting God first came out, a friend told me about attending a Nepali gathering in the U.S. where people opined passionately about the book, especially those who hadn't read it.

There's a feeling of ownership among Nepalis when it comes to my work, and it cuts both ways. There are Nepalis who, I imagine, are not convinced by my depiction of Nepal, particularly the sexual content of my first book. It's nothing new in the history of writers. James Joyce, for example, was not only criticized but also banned on moral grounds. Salman Rushdie is still routinely castigated by Indian critics. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, even as he's adored worldwide, is sneered at by Japanese critics who consider him too low-brow, or not Japanese enough. It's part and parcel of a writer's life, isn't it? Once the book is out in the public domain, it's fair game.

On the other hand, I get emails from Nepalis all over the world telling me how moved they are by my stories. I frequently hear from aspiring writers in English who feel that the critical reception to my work has made them hopeful about their own.

R:Yes, sometimes in discussions it seems like a lot of criticism is directed towards your (mis)representation of Nepal. For me, personally, reading your book was an experience that I immediately recognized as having to do with so much more than just the stories or the quality of the writing. It was not only about your Nepali-ness but also about my own. So responses are bound to be complicated. Some of the criticism is unreasonable though isn't it? Like when people assume that when you write about sex, you are necessarily catering to a Western audience.

SU: Writing is not a reasonable business, and often you are your own worst critic. It's true, though, that I have never understood this Nepali preoccupation with sex in my first book—to me it's part of the overall narrative of the stories, and I can't isolate it for discussion. I mean, Nepali writers have ploughed this territory with passion before, so what's the big deal? There's a tendency, I think, to become super-hyper with the idea of Westerners reading something about Nepal, as if one has to instantly on guard and catch "errors" (Nepalis having sex? But we really don't; at least not in the depraved, licentious Western way!). If I really wanted to cater to the Western audience, I would have gone the full route, i.e., Nepalis having sex, en masse, on the murky shores of Bagmati, you know, Anjalis and Saritas copulating with Mukuls and Avinashs. For added exotic and erotic effect, I would have maybe painted a riot in the background, with King G's constipated face looking down benevolently from a billboard. Wait! That's actually a great image. Maybe I will use it in my next work.

R: Are you ever going to write stories set in the United States? You've said that the theme of cultural clashes (in an immigrant's life) has been done to death. But surely there are ways of doing this that does not just rehash the same types of stories and situations?

SU: I'm sure there are ways of making anew the concerns of immigrant fiction. Right now I'm just not the author to do it. But I also don't want to say never because a writer's interests can change, and there is a possibility I'd want to venture into this area.

R: When discussion of your work is taking place (in online forums for example) the name of Manjushree Thapa tends to come up. People either claim that she is a better or worse writer than you. Have you read her work and if so, what do you think? Also, have you read any other Nepali writers writing in English? What kind of a future do you see for Nepali writers?

SU: Manjushree Thapa is an accomplished writer, and I admire her books, especially Forget Kathmandu. Her candor, and her commitment to what she believes in, something she articulates both in her fiction and nonfiction, is an inspiration. As for being worse or better, readers have tastes, and they make pronouncements according to their tastes, as they are entitled to. Yes, I do read Nepali writers in English. Peter Karthak's EveryPlace EveryPerson, for example, is a very engaging read, and I even wrote a blurb for it.

I am optimistic about the future of Nepali writing in English, but aspiring writers should be wary of falling prey to what Indian writer Vikram Chandra calls "the cult of authenticity": the belief, especially among conservative critics, that 'accurate' representation of culture/nation supercedes art, and that there is one true picture of culture/nation that writers, especially those writing in English, often distort for the exotic-hungry West. I'm paraphrasing, but Chandra's essay playfully demolishes the notion of "Indianness" in Indian writing in English. Translated into the Nepali context, the "authentic representation" argument is often espoused by those I've come to regard fondly as Titleholders of Nepali Reality. These people know what constitutes Nepaliness, who is allowed to speak about it, and how it should be spoken about, and most often they deliver their sermon without any penetrating discussion of the substance or style of the literary work in question. They know the real Nepal, and if the work they encounter doesn't match their version, their idea of critical response is to pontificate. Young writers should recognize that the titleholder's Nepal is also a mythical Nepal, in which the East and West are at polar opposites, all Nepali writing in Nepali is pure and rooted in authentic culture (notwithstanding the fact that even our giant Devkota himself borrowed literary tricks from the English Romantics; many contemporary Nepali writers also admit Western influence), and Nepali writing in English is suspect because it's _(fill in the blank here).

New writers should particularly be aware that no one work captures the ultimate Nepali reality (isn't Nepal right now a battleground for competing realities?), that we can only prod at it from different angles, hoping that some of what we say will resonate with the readers, that they'll see some of themselves in it, and more importantly, that they'll see something different, something strange and provocative. In order to achieve this, it's important not to succumb to the shrill voices of these watchdogs of Nepalipan, and to trust one's own vision and plunge in.

I'm reminded of Chinua Achebe, who, after reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness and not recognizing his Africa in it, went on to create his own Things Fall Apart. It didn't diminish Conrad (a better writer by far, in my opinion), but it did a heck of a job in galvanizing postcolonial literature. We need writers who take it upon themselves to produce interesting, challenging, even controversial work, hound publishers to publish it, and let the beast loose on the public. That's what will energize Nepali literary scene in English, and it'll enrich all of us.

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