An Imaginary Homeland
An Interview with
by Sima Mishra
© 2016, Sima Mishra. Used by permission of Sima Mishra and Indira Ganesan.
Indira Ganesan is one of the early South Asian immigrant writers to enter American literary culture. In 2014, she was a judge for the PEN/Hemingway awards and introduced the keynote speaker, Geraldine Brooks. Ganesan is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and in 1995 she was a finalist for the Granta Best Young American Novelists under Forty campaign for her novel The Journey. Her second novel, Inheritance, was a Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Book. As Sweet as Honey, her third novel, was published in 2013. Translations of her works are available in French, German, Greek, Italian, and Japanese.
She has won fellowships from the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, the North Country Paden Institute for Writers of Color, the W.K. Rose Foundation at Vassar College, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and others. Among the institutions where she has taught are Vassar, University of California-San Diego, University of Colorado-Boulder, Long Island University—Southampton, Naropa, and Emerson. Ganesan lives in Provincetown, MA. Her current home overlooks a small horse farm, and in the distance is Pilgrim Monument.
Sima Mishra: First off, I suppose we should make clear that your Pi predates Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi and is not at all related to that work. A member in the audience asked you about this at your reading at Labyrinth Books in Princeton, NJ. There you mentioned the multiple imaginative routes that brought you to the invention of Pi, the island where all three of your novels take place. You said Pi is an homage to your late father who was a mathematician and it is also an acronym for Prospero’s island.
So, tell me, how did a mathematician’s daughter manage to escape the expectations common among Asian immigrant parents to make a career in math, engineering, or science?
Indira Ganesan: I wasn’t very good in either science or math— that is, I liked biology and algebra but not chemistry and geometry. My poor father would try to help me with math homework, but our sessions would end in shouts and tears. I was not a model minority. I loved two subjects: Art and English. At least I could do those things the way I wanted to and even be noticed at school with good attention for it. At home, as a child, I could not get enough of the stories my mother told me from the Ramayana.
When my brother joined our family in the US in 1970—he had stayed behind for a few years in Pondicherry with my aunt and uncle—going to the Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley, New York as a family was a weekly treat. My mother would take out Georgette Heyer’s books; my father math and books about India; my brother and I story books.
I read prolifically: stories from an abridged version of Morte D’Arthur, Robin Hood, Robert Louis Stevenson, Greek mythology, the encyclopedia. But by the time I was in middle school, my reading was censored at home by my mother, who was suspicious of books that promoted young romance, so I stuck to the classics and fantasy. In high school, I wanted to be a human rights lawyer, with a major in international politics, but in college I declared English, which I knew was what I was good at. My parents had no objection to my field or my going to college, only where. Of course, had my interests and talents been in medicine, they would have been thrilled and much less worried.
Mishra: Is the reference to Prospero’s island a nod to postcolonial readings of Shakespeare’s The Tempest? And if so, how has postcolonial scholarship influenced your writing and thinking as a writer of fiction?
Ganesan: I was very much aware of Caliban and Ariel’s roles as the colonized, and Caliban gets an anagrammatic tribute in the Banac tribe that reside on Pi. It’s funny because as an author, one’s subjects are one’s characters, so one is inherently a colonizer as well. But oppression of people has long been a theme I’ve been interested in, as well as hierarchies. Colonialism has left such an indelible imprint on us. When I was a college student in India, I learned that if I spoke with an American accent over the phone, the attitude of the person on the line was different.
Mishra: What was the response when you put on a British one?
Ganesan: More subservient, more forgiving. I didn’t learn the term postcolonial until I met Rosemary Marangoly George in 1992, a scholar and friend who did much to educate me when I taught at UC San Diego. I had been reading and teaching fiction, and Rosemary introduced me to the work of not only Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said, but also South Asian Writers in English, a class she taught which I had the honor of sitting in on.
Mishra: What authors did Rosemary teach?
Ganesan: There were many, and one that most impressed me was Kanthapura (1938) by Raja Rao, in which the voice of a town told the story of itself. We read Dark Room by R.K. Narayan, “The Quilt” by Ismat Chugtai, an unforgettable short story called “Open It” by Saadat Hasan Manto, selections from Susie Tharu and K. Lalita’s Women Writing in India, even Shoba De.
Rosemary was a wonderful, loving teacher and a cherished friend. I sometimes played dumb to get her going on postcolonialism, but often, I really was unlearned and unschooled. After I left San Diego, I could always count on her to give me her honest opinion on anything, really, including my work. She passed away from cancer at age fifty-two.
Mishra: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “oppression has long been a theme I’ve been interested in, as well as hierarchies”?
Ganesan: I think it’s why I gravitated towards Jewish storytellers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer because in Jewish culture, there is a presence of hierarchy, of hiding religion in a dominant culture, of targeted violence against a people. My experience of growing up with religion, which was orthodox, is very much part of my life, as was hiding it from Americans. I also grew up with stories about Gandhi and Nehru, and the fight for independence. Later of course, I fought for my own independence as a teenager.
Mishra: Do you think there is such a thing as an Indian sensibility?
Ganesan: Indian sensibility? What does that mean?
Mishra: Maybe talking about other sensibilities is easier. The Jewish sensibility. The Irish sensibility. The Latin American sensibility. The American sensibility.
Ganesan: The expatriate sensibility. The sensibility of ancient codes as well as colonialism, the sensibility of nonviolence, which of course was short-lived.
You could call that sensibility “effusiveness.” Like in Rushdie’s work. Or my extended family talking very excitedly in a group. But then you think of Jhumpa Lahiri, and that definition does not apply, because Lahiri has a very cool sense of calmness; a real thinking out. This is also evident in Anita Desai. But maybe those are stereotypes and makes me wonder if we can talk about an Indian sensibility at all.
Mishra: Because India is not a monolithic culture.
Ganesan: Exactly. Do we talk about South Indian sensibility versus North Indian, versus Central, versus Western, versus Eastern? Are we talking about ancient Indian societal rules of discourse or modern preoccupations?
Mishra: Maybe exoticism comes into play here. Is there a philosophical bent to an Indian sensibility?
Ganesan: A laissez-faire, a come-what-may attitude towards life itself? The guilt that exists in Indian culture is as Catholic and Jewish as anything. Are we doing right in this world? Can we improve? Can confession heal? If I did not study English literature, I would have studied art history or religion. Literature tells the story; art symbolizes it; and religion interprets it. I still want to write a great novel someday that says something about life.
Mishra: Your second novel, Inheritance, says a lot about life. Take for example this line, “My family was something precious, like jewelry, like a necklace you never take off. My family was deep as a rose, true as any tree.” I wonder if an Indian sensibility is tied to the cultural idea of duty or obligation to one’s family.
Ganesan: Yes! The avowed difference between East and West was traditionally family vs. individual, a far too easy concept. Yet, obligation and duty are woven into our culture, aren’t they? It is in the songs and traditions, in tying rakhi to the brothers by the sisters, to consulting horoscopes for marriage. The notion of the extended-family structure and your place in it and how that affects one’s place in writing is prominent. Of course, there were many women writers who immediately broke that sense of obligation to the family.
For me, obligation to my extended family gave me a sense of my place in the world, however correct or incorrect. This kept me from saying oftentimes what I really meant to say. This leads into a double life. I was hiding who I was within the confines of my nuclear family life and also hiding myself within the confines of American society. That sense of being female, of censoring one’s language, of not wanting to be impolite, of wanting to please, of wanting to be good—all of that definitely informs my sensibility. I am always so stunned at the courageousness of certain Indian writers who are not encumbered by that. The first writer who I knew who was like that was Bharati Mukherjee.
The other thing with writers I think is that we have an incredible sense of entitlement. So there is that sense that only I know how to say my story.
Mishra: So an Indian sensibility is a slippery idea—palpable but not quite. Indian writers don’t really talk about it.
Ganesan: Yes, and the reason you don’t really talk about it is because you’re giving away a secret if you do. And the secret that the whole world knows is that we are such a caste-oriented society. We grew up with it, even though I didn’t learn about caste except outside the family when other people asked me about it. Hindu life has a certain structure. There is this sense that you’re supposed to marry, have children, work—that you continue the family line.
Hindus have a hierarchical perspective on the world. In a family, the father is the head of the household, the supreme person, and then after that is the son. Maybe I should qualify that by saying elders are our hierarchical leaders. And then of course, being born female, one can’t escape male privilege. When you’re working, you have a boss. In school the teacher is your hierarchical leader. Hierarchies exist and can’t be tampered with, in the old view. Someone once told me that Hindus tend to compartmentalize, and I took issue with that. But in a way, compartmentalizing makes things easier, which I think was the point. One could put a box around something or someone and not go beyond.
But in speaking about that Indian hierarchy, one must also be aware of the class system that exists both in England and the US, to take two examples. To be aware of this is also to know hypocrisy in the idea that this society is hierarchical while that society is not.
We’re children of Gandhi also. But all my early political knowledge came from my parents. These black and white definitions: Congress is good, everything else not good. But then you have to find out for yourself what is good and not.
Mishra: Salman Rushdie, in his essay “Imaginary Homelands,” describes a visit to Bombay (Mumbai), after an absence of more than half his lifetime, and says that this is when his novel Midnight’s Children began to take shape in his mind. Rushdie says, “I realized how much I wanted to restore the past to myself.” Unlike Rushdie’s inclination to look back in nostalgia to the India left behind, your work seems to reach for something more.
Ganesan: I love “Imaginary Homelands” and Midnight’s Children. It is interesting that he wrote two science fiction novels before Midnight’s Children, as if to write in fantasy was a prerequisite or practice to write about the children born at the minute of India’s freedom.
I think what I do is construct an “India” that is born of the imagination and of possibility. This India is an island with a solid middle-class town called Madhupur, which means land of honey, and Western hippie outposts. This India is constructed of bits and pieces of other cultures, but it is in many ways a utopia, and utopias suggest the future. I also wondered what would it have been like to have stayed in India, with liberal parents, without debt and racism. But death is always the lurking villain, the game-changer, and that first novel was a stand against death.
One thing that struck me when I returned to India for a year of college in 1978, was how much more free my peers were in their social habits. Here were women riding motor scooters (not necessarily sidesaddle as I had to at ten years old) and wearing sleeveless dresses (though that was actually forbidden by our college rules). It was the classic recognition that while an immigrant’s life can be caught in the amber of life as was once known, the life left, the actual life in India, had moved on. Pi captures both lives—the ideal and the actual. At least, I hope it does.
Mishra: You attended college in India?
Ganesan: For one year at Stella Maris College in what was then Madras. My parents were not keen to send me to an American university. Remember, I was not the model minority. I lived at my uncle’s home in Madras (Chennai) with my mother and my grandmother. When I returned to the States to attend Vassar in 1979, I began to write about Indian characters so convincingly that my few stories about growing up in an apartment complex in a New York suburb were met with suspicion. Something unleashed in me. I was so glad to leave India, but yet all I could write about with any skill and certainty was India. My 1979 trip was the basis of my first novel, and in a more labored way, the basis of my second.
I didn’t return to India until 2010, and that gap of some thirty years informed the writing of As Sweet as Honey.
Mishra: Do you remember the day you arrived in the US? Could you talk a little about the history of your immigration?
Ganesan: I remember bits and pieces of the actual journey. My mother and I took an Air India flight in June 1966 from South India to meet my father who had been studying for his PhD in St. Louis. I was five and it was June, and to my immense disappointment, it was not snowing. I had to learn many things quickly during travel, like actually sitting on a Western toilet, which was highly perplexing, if not a little distasteful. We took a train from New York to St. Louis, and my mother made friends with a woman who was traveling with her little son. The woman asked her son to give me his copy of a Golden Book, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, which he did reluctantly. In kindergarten in India, I had acted in an Aesop’s Fable, “The Fox and the Grapes.” From a young age, I was curious and puzzled about the meaning of stories, wanting to know the “why” of them, the “what happened next.” Why should a fox decide the grapes weren’t to his liking because he couldn’t reach them? Did trolls live under the bridge in St. Louis? What was a troll anyway?
We lived in St. Louis, where I learned English in kindergarten. When my father decided to forgo his PhD for a job at Lederle Labs, we moved to Spring Valley, NY to one of the few apartment complexes that would accept South Asians. In eighth grade, after a bout of intense school bullying, we moved into a new house in Nanuet, NY where I lived until college. My parents moved to New Jersey when I was in graduate school, and my brother was at Princeton.
Mishra: How did the idea of American assimilation play out in your family? In other words, was your family open to assimilation or did they hold tight to their Indian roots? I’m curious how this plays out in your fiction, if at all.
Ganesan: I led a bifurcate life: American when in school, Indian at home. At fourteen, I began to consciously hide the American world from the Indian. I was always pretending what I wasn’t. My mother was very much a child of Indian Independence, while my father was a green card holder who wanted us, also legal, to hold our heads down, not discuss politics, not make waves. This was especially directed at me, a teen in the ’70s who longed to be a ’60s hippie and revolutionary from the confines of a New York suburb.
As a family, our friends were largely other Indians. In those early days of immigration, we were multi-Indian, meaning we didn’t congregate by the region of India we came from. The only temple was way out in Queens, so the shrines were individual, and at home, quiet. We celebrated Diwali and didn’t discuss caste. Oddly, regionalism and along with it, a narrowness, has come more recently.
I think I invented a place like Pi so that I could play out a fantasy of living without boundaries. A place where the Western and Eastern sensibilities did not have to hide from each other, where there was a tolerance that came from what I understood of Indian independence as filtered through my mother’s memories of wearing khadi, hearing Gandhi speak, learning Tagore’s anthem.
In an old photo album, my father had placed two postcards, of Kennedy and Nehru, facing each other, representing the possibility of the new. That sense of possibility is carried out in Pi.
But there are other messages, more mixed and mistranslated, of protocol, behavior, that are a result of immigrants in a guest country, a country that is not quite home. The problem for children is that the birth country is not home either. So where is home?
When I was young, I so disliked the idea of a single citizenship, I longed to have been born on a plane above the ocean, a perfect fantasy that I thought would somehow grant me global citizenship.
Mishra: Do you think writers today have more complicated identities than in previous generations, like Hemingway’s, because of globalization and our Internet culture?
Ganesan: I don’t know that we have more complicated identities. Maybe it is more fractured with social media taking over letter writing. Facebook lets us claim a tribe, collect “Friends” as acquisitions, something in reserve, but are we truly communicating?
The ability to travel, the enormous amount of information available via the Internet, can help bring writers together, but if one chooses the Internet over the library, as I often do now, my connection to the world through human interaction suffers. I was on the Internet earlier to look for a Sanskrit translation that led me to history, and I found, as we do, that an hour or two had passed.
I think there are places where writers have been able to congregate and form close writing friendships, which might be as exciting as Gertrude Stein’s Paris Salon. The Fine Arts Work Center provided that for me, I know. We were immersed in our work, and came up for air to eat, sleep, make love, but we all wanted to return to our work. There is a Chinese expression of greeting which is “have you had your rice today?” The writers would greet one another with “did you write today?”
Mishra: Would your novels exist if there was no Pi?
Ganesan: I hope so. Yet I think the pressure of being true to the realities is removed on an island of one’s own invention. Even my made-up town of Craywick, in the UK, is easier to write about than, say, MetroPark, NJ. Pi is my Macondo, I guess, my Srirangam.
Mishra: What is the relationship between language and place in your writing?
Ganesan: Of all the elements in fiction, setting and place is my favorite in terms of teaching. Language is the key to it all. Does place inform language? Does language inform place?
Mishra: Could you talk about the relationship between language and place from this passage from Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve, for which you wrote an introduction for the 2002 edition? The main character, Rukmani, narrates the story. Here’s the passage: “While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for?”
Ganesan: A lovely line from Markandaya. Everything is predicated by the use of the word “While” which can be substituted by the words, “Only when,” for this happiness of Rukmani’s is fleeting. The language here is so seemingly simple in its choice of words, but the construction is complex, melodic, akin to the pastoral beauty and sensuality Rukmani sees in the moment.
Mishra: There’s a wonderful passage in As Sweet as Honey where the characters play on the word “au pair,” the kids thinking it to be “opera girl” and the grandmother thinking the word is “O-pair.”
Ganesan: I had fun with wordplay in the novel. When I think back to my personal trials and tribulations with my family so much of it was mistranslation and I think that is such a key to everything. How people translate. And what they don’t translate. And they use the wrong word or the right words in the wrong context. We had three languages in our home: Tamil, Hindi, and English. In my writing, I have always thought, though, in English.
Mishra: Could you talk about your experience at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop?
Ganesan: After my mom and dad unsuccessfully tried to convince me to go to Cornell’s MFA/PhD program, my dad and I took a Greyhound bus to find housing at Iowa that summer. I pretended to read Pynchon’s V while furious at my father for being on this bus. (I thought we would take a plane.) I might have read Wodehouse instead, and enjoyed myself. My grandmother had died that spring, and when I saw an elderly Indian woman in a sari on the street in Iowa, I burst into tears. My dad and I bonded a bit over breakfasts at the Iowa Inn, and as a concession to him, I wound up rooming with three women pharmacology students from Iran. It was an interesting situation, to say the least.
I brought with me postcards of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, a poster of a memorial for Elizabeth Bishop, as well as a clipping of a review of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children from The New York Times. It was 1982 and the review indicated a brave new world of letters. In my first weeks, I met an Indian Literature graduate student who lent me a copy of Rushdie’s novel, and I was captivated and thrilled.
I was very young at Iowa, very sheltered despite my pretensions and wanted to transfer after my first year, but I stayed. I blossomed the second year, finding my story and a group of friends who buoyed me up with their good spirits. I was deeply aware of being the only South Asian writer at the time, though Bharati Mukherjee was a professor there and poet Sujata Bhatt would enter the program after I graduated. I once wandered down the aisle of bound MFA theses at the library, wanting to find a non-Anglo name. I think there were hardly three I found. In my class, diversity still meant assimilation. My housemate Toni joined the African Students Association to find a black community, which she was teased about, but it made sense to me. How do you articulate difference to your white friends?
My teachers were all equally influential: James Alan McPherson; Lynn Sharon Shwartz; Robb Foreman Dew; and Doris Grumbach, who told me I could write a novel. I also took poetry classes with Stan Plumly, Jorie Graham, James Galvin, and Gerald Stern. They introduced me to great writers, like Robert Hass, Raphael Alberti, and Galway Kinnell.
My first year, I tried both non-India and India stories, but Pi felt right. It was also well received. The island met my needs of invention, whimsy, and the ability to house character. I once joked to a friend I was influenced by Gilligan’s Island as much as anything. But it was Shakespeare’s comedies, Joyce, Woolf, Rushdie, Garcia Marquez, and Kingston’s The Woman Warrior that I really loved—stories where a bit of real magic entered the intricacies of human interactions.
Mishra: When did you switch from being a student to a teacher and what was that transition like? Did you feel you became a better writer because as a teacher, you reflect back on the craft?
Ganesan: I remember so clearly sitting on the steps of my dorm, facing the quad at Vassar, speaking to a professor who was our Resident Advisor. What he told me was so kind. I was worried about being a graduate teaching assistant at Iowa. He told me that the teaching would be easier than I thought, because the most astonishing thing was that students do listen. At Iowa, I found they did listen, and I led by my enthusiasm, but I did not have any illusions about teaching. I was there to write.
I think teaching lets you become a more confident speaker. It helps when I read aloud at readings. It helps looking at books I love, because no matter what, one has to reread anything you teach regardless of how often you have taught it. This has been a great excuse to revisit an author’s prose. I used to try to teach new-for-me work to keep from getting bored. In the end though, the reading you do as a teacher isn’t leisurely, and I do think reading at leisure is very important to writing. I also know I am a better teacher when I am writing, because I have something of my own to fall back on.
Mishra: I once heard the writer Rikki Ducornet describe how a story can come to her almost fully formed in the first sitting. What is your writing process like? How does a story begin to form for you?
Ganesan: I begin with a line. Sometimes it’s the first one and it will come to me unasked. This can happen while I’m doing the dishes, for instance, not really thinking about it. But that’s assuming that I’m in a world already where my mind is thinking about writing, like I’ve stoked the fire, so to speak. But if I haven’t stoked the fire, during times when I’m doing a lot of teaching, I go back to the morning pages, this writing exercise by Julia Cameron that encourages people to write three pages a day, no matter what. Through those three pages, through all the wretched stuff, some line will make itself known. If I don’t procrastinate and sit down with the line, then another line will come and then the story starts to take shape. So it actually begins with the words themselves.
I do a lot of drafting. But writing is so mysterious. I think more than anything you have to honor the process of how you get there. And I think you have to give yourself permission to say, “Okay, I’m going to write it all down.” It is rare for a story to come fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Yet maybe the stories exist, and the writer just needs to get out of way and trust in the story itself.
Mishra: How do you keep the creative juices flowing while you work on a novel?
Ganesan: Those paragraphs that you know are good is what keeps you going. It’s like that little glimmer of hope that maybe you’re going somewhere with this—that keeps you going. And then when you’re finally in it—this is the part I really like—the writing just writes itself, it really does, and you’re eager to get back to the work. It’s like reading a good book except you’re writing it. But it takes a while for that excitement to come about. It’s so much easier to do something else. I’m realizing that if there are four burners going in one’s mind, there is one burner always on a simmer for writing, although I’m not conscious of it, which is why I give myself permission to daydream.
Mishra: Do you find that the literature you teach feeds your writing life?
Ganesan: Sometimes it does, especially when I come across a writer whom I really like. I recently discovered Tania James’s work and I taught her almost as soon as I read her.
I think teaching and writing are two separate worlds. Teaching can be detrimental to my writing, though, especially when I am doing it to merely pay rent, and using it as an excuse not to write.
Analyzing text to present it to creative writing students requires a multi-step interpretation instead of a one-step interpretation, which you do as a writer and as a reader. If you’re having a direct conversation with the author you’re reading to the students you’re teaching, to the students back to you, you’ve created this sort of triangle and something gets lost for the writer in you because you’ve given yourself over to the teacher in you.
You want your students to become writers, but you get frustrated because you’re not writing yourself. The best teaching happens when I am writing.
Mishra: Is there a text you always teach in your writing classes?
Ganesan: I almost always teach “Araby” and I always get different opinions on it. The story speaks to me as an immigrant. I can identify with the little boy in Ireland confounded by the people around him and his own desires and how frustrating it is and also the kind of humor that is inherent. I love all of Dubliners and “The Dead.” The more I read, the more I recognize I’m so lucky to be writing, to be in this field.
Mishra: How do you shut off the critic?
Ganesan: It is funny how the critic in you goes away when the writing becomes engaged and focused on telling the story. I work well with deadlines, a little pressure to keep me from procrastination. The hard part is beginning, harder than finishing.
Mishra: Has writing become easier with each book?
Ganesan: As I’ve grown older, I’ve reconciled myself to where I am in my life. I think I’ve stopped apologizing, at least in my mind, for not following certain expectations of Indian culture, of my Indian culture that is very different from other people’s Indian culture. In my family that means not marrying, not having children, living apart from my family. My parents are very enthusiastic and supportive of my work now, but they had no idea before. Nobody’s child wrote. They didn’t know what it was. But if I were a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, that they could understand and then they could say ok, when your dream works, this is what it means.
Mishra: What was your first publishing experience like?
Ganesan: I fled. I had a full-scale panic attack, and ran away, forgetting that it wasn’t just me who was involved in producing a book, but the editors, the agent, the copyeditor, the typesetter, the publisher. I somehow believed I would become a laughing stock, and that I gravely misportrayed India.
So I sat on the book after its acceptance for a year or two. When it finally came out, it received the kind of reviews that ought to have made me glow with pride. Instead, I read the Tao Te Ching, and hid out at my parents’ house.
Mishra: How has your writing and your relationship to it changed through your career?
Ganesan: Only after As Sweet as Honey, which was hardly reviewed at all, did I begin to feel like a person who has something to say. I regret how indifferently I treated the good things that came my way in terms of publishing, how callous and foolish. I think I have always wanted to redeem myself with a book, as if to say, “Here. This is what I have been doing, and I am so very sorry.”
Mishra: Still trying to be the good Indian daughter?
Ganesan: Yes, to my chagrin. One can’t ever be a good Indian daughter, can one? One is bound to fail. It’s a lost cause. I must put that down on an index card.
Virginia Woolf once wrote about how modesty was one of the impediments of being a woman. One can be a responsible person, but not necessarily good. I think trying to be good is about manners, and wondering how one’s actions are perceived, to the point it takes precedence over the action itself.
Such an important question regarding women and writing.
Mishra: You’ve come so far. Recently, you were one of the judges for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway awards. You introduced Geraldine Brooks, who was the keynote speaker. Can you talk about this experience?
Ganesan: It was thrilling! The judging itself was difficult, with about forty or so novels to read in a few months, then painstakingly put aside for others. In the end, I am so pleased with our outcome. To see NoViolet Bulawayo, a richly talented young woman originally from Zimbabwe, step up to the podium in the Kennedy Center Auditorium, in a room packed with people interested and devoted to the use of language, was deeply moving for me. It reminded me of how important ceremony is. A public declaration of faith in one’s work can help with making one’s way into the world as a writer. I wrote in my blog that I wished all of our mothers and fathers had been present at that moment. Of course I was speaking of my own parents, for the parental worry for children is enormous, and one wants to remove it.
Mishra: You’re working on your fourth book. Is it set on Pi? Has writing become easier for you?
Ganesan: The fourth book is a continuation of the third. It refers to the story of my aunt who died after giving birth, constituting the main contemporary tragedy on my maternal side. My father’s family was not without its grief; my grandfather passed away from pneumonia when my father was very young, and a sister of his died as a child from a scorpion’s bite. So I want to delve a little into family history, look at death and dying. I know part of it is set in London, and some in the States. Pi must figure in there as well, but I am not sure where yet. You know, I had planned to sink the island after the first book.
The writing has become easier in some ways, more difficult in other ways, due to aging, to teaching. There is always the panic: what if I can’t really do it? What if the whole thing is an extended delusion? But I think when I read the pages, I remember myself, and then it is just the words and me.
Mishra: In our lifetime, we’ve witnessed an incredible shift in India’s place in the world. Once considered an underdeveloped Third-World country rife with poverty and riddled with caste and gender discrimination, India is now a rising political and economic power. Politics and economics aside, the intellectual capital of the South Asian diaspora has influenced American culture in practically every field. On the literary front, South Asian immigrant writers have made their mark on the American literary culture. Because of this shift, is the world now a more accepting place for stories about exotic India, because exotic India isn’t so exotic anymore?
Ganesan: Was India ever exotic? I fought hard not to have the word exotic appear on the flyleaf of my first novel, but Pi was exotic—strange and mysterious, and not really existing in reality. That is what we mean often of the exotic—a thing so unusual and arresting that it is an anomaly, not the custom. Pico Iyer’s first book was about debunking the notion of exotic Asia. What was exotic and uncommon in the East was Coca-Cola.
Mishra: Do South Asians in India accept the work of nonresident South Asians writing about the homeland?
Ganesan: This is the crucial question, because once you have left, have you left your claim on the land as well? I think for the world to be more accepting of books in general people need to read the books, cover to cover, and then form an opinion.
Mishra: You’re one of the early writers of South Asian origin who has contributed to American literature. I wonder if you might reflect on South Asian Americans writing in the US? Who were some of the early South Asian American writers of fiction who influenced you?
Ganesan: Padma Hejmadi (Perera), author of Dr. Salaam and Other Stories, was the first purely South Asian American writer I read who “spoke” to me. I read Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day about a year later, but she’s more European. Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine is a very American novel. Hejmadi and Mukherjee were the early writers who laid claim to being “American.”
Then in the late ’80s, there was Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, Amitav Ghosh’s The Circle of Reason—gorgeous works. There was so much exciting writing occurring in the UK, too, with Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi, whose “With Your Tongue Down My Throat” was published in Granta. Granta itself was so exciting to discover. There were so few South Asian writers when I was starting out that each discovery of a new work was vital.
The South Asian spring came later, with Jhumpa Lahiri and younger writers who wrote of the immigrant experience in America.
Mishra: What are your hopes and wishes for the next generation of writers of the Indian diaspora—our nieces, nephews, and children?
Ganesan: I hope they trust their voice, and tell the world what they see and experience. I hope they are bold and open in their stories. I know I look forward to reading them.
Mishra: There was a lecture given by the Peruvian writer Maria Vargas Llosa at Princeton University called “The Task of the Novelist.” The title continues to resonate in my mind and I wonder how you might answer this question about the writer’s task?
Ganesan: The novelist teaches by entertaining, and by teaching I do not mean instructing. Rather, the author exposes truth, almost accidentally, by revealing glimpses into the human condition—how do we love, live, die? What is our spiritual inheritance, our responsibilities in this life? What causes us to hate, to shun, to condemn, and to forgive? What must we not forget? The novelist’s task is to tell a story as best he can, as best as she can. In writing that story, something happens that is not looked for, but occurs: a transformation, a shift of knowledge, a surprise. This is what you hope to convey to the reader.
Mishra: What book is waiting on your night table right now waiting to be read?
Ganesan: The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger, is waiting. I am reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is delicious. Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life is next. For teaching, Toni Morrison’s Sula awaits a reread.
Mishra: If there’s one author you might recommend an aspiring writer to read, who would that author be and why?
Ganesan: By the time one is ready to declare or admit that one wants to write, one would have already read much of the Eastern and Western Canon, that is Shakespeare, the Bhagavad Gita, Homer, Keats, origin myths and folktales from across the world. Writing and reading are so personal. I would ask the young reader to read fiction from a wide swath of historical eras, filling in gaps, reading more of what one is drawn to, but not neglecting what else is there. If one has read Tolstoy, has one read Eliot? If one likes Austen, has one read Gogol? In my own life, I loved being told stories about the Hindu gods. That in turn made me seek out Folktales from Around the World, a twenty-volume collection in our elementary school library. Funnily enough, I remember the Japanese origin myth of how a goddess’s tears became the islands of Japan.
One book? Impossible to choose, but if pressed, I would say Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I learned so much about setting and scene blocking from the agricultural fair part in the book. The novel has everything, a terrible tragic sadness, surprising turns of events, and an enduring complexity that lets the reader find something new in each reread.
Sima Mishra received her MFA in writing from Vermont College. She is a freelance writer and teacher, living in Princeton, NJ.
Indira Ganesan Interview, © 2016, Sima Mishra. Used by permission of Sima Mishra and Indira Ganesan.