Interviewers always seem to want to know: How much of Shiva’s Arms is autobiographical? Here are a few ways I've answered the question ---
1) Everything and nothing – the irony of literary fiction since Flaubert ! The set up, unsuitable American bride marries Hindu NRI , parallels my life. But the characters are fictional, not portraits of people I know, although some may fancy they see themselves in the story. After all, it speaks to a universal conflict. Everyone known an Amma, right?
2) Only the broad outlines were drawn from my life--American girl marries Hindu Brahmin. The characters and their struggles grew organically out of the story as it developed through several years of revisions. My own truth, being stranger than fiction, wouldn't necessarily have fit in with the themes, motifs, and symbolism of the book. Fictional truth is so much more malleable.
3) It’s fiction. I gave my characters qualities of certain people, or put them through experiences drawn from life. The little Ganesh on the chain Amma gave to Alice is modeled after the one my own mother-in-law sent to me, for example. She melted down her marriage bangles for a daughter-in-law she never met. Amma would never have done that!
4) I had just married a South Indian when an Indian family moved in next door to us. Suddenly I was immersed in the culture from all sides. I had a bird's eye view of the neighbors' lives as immigrants, and the walls between our townhouses were thin enough so I could even hear what they argued about. Before I knew it, I had been pulled into samsara, the important householder stage.
Armed with the basics of acceptable behavior—don’t touch the men, no shoes in the house, have a fry pan uncontaminated by meat handy-- there were still an overwhelming number of ambiguities to sift through, from the comic head-shaking that looked like No but meant Yes, to the serious conflict between freedom and family. I began to imagine a novel built on the swirl of relationships around me.
5) I gave Alice my long hair and quirky fashion sense, and Ram inherited my husband’s job; but Shiva’s Arms is no roman a clef. Didn’t Flannery O’Connor remind us that the novel is an art form, and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it? I am not Alice, although I know her very well.
6) The characters and the trouble I get them in are all fictional. While I was composing, I'd assign tics of people I knew to my characters, mostly for my own amusement, but also to help me find a reaction to a made-up situation that would ring true. “I like to put real toads in my imaginary garden,” the great poet Emily D. once said.
I liken shaping a narrative to sculpting. (I know, I know –more metaphor!) With each revision, I chip away at what is NOT the statue, until each character emerges as itself, with its own reality and fictional truth. Each detail of a character has to earn its place, so in the end, there’s little overlap with actual people. The types sure are familiar, though! Don’t we all know an Amma, sari or no sari?
7) The action in the story certainly could have happened to me, if I had married a more traditional guy. In our social circle, there are plenty of attitudes similar to those I write about, and I’ve witnessed the results in real life, from my place as observer.
8) My book went through so many changes, the details I drew from life were more often objects rather than people or actual events. But it is funny when people go from “you’d better not talk about that!” to “let me tell you exactly the way that happened,” isn’t it?
How do you answer the How Much of Your Story is True question?