QY ou tackle several big themes in your book—culture clash, mental illness and its effect on a family, the ways in which tradition dies hard. Do you believe that you have a core subject, and will write through its permutations, as Faulkner did with race, for instance?
A It’s tempting to lose myself in such a complex subject as the Indian diaspora, especially as the ramifications evolve, but there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.
Q What challenges did you face in writing about such charged subjects?
A If I’d known how immersed in South Indian culture I’d become in order to write Shiva’s Arms, how strong its pull would be, I might have hesitated. I wanted to place my Indian characters in Kerala, with customs, belief systems, and food particular to that region. To get close enough to convince my readers, I had to do research. I read books, and spoke to immigrants “this side,” but I knew I would also have to write letters, make calls, parse the accents of the relatives on the other side of the world who had distanced themselves from me, the perpetually unsuitable bride.
I wanted to hear their stories, I needed them to cooperate. There were negotiations—mostly promises on my part not use certain information that could spread throughout India. When I learned from some aunties that my manufactured fictional family scandal was basically true, it was impossible to reassure them that fiction could afford privacy. In a culture convinced that everyone is looking, it surprised me when the chorus went from “Don’t tell that!” to “This is the way it really happened.”
Q How do you approach a complex plot? Do you outline, or chart the narrative arc beforehand?
A I start with an image, a phrase, or an idea. Like poetry, fiction distills language and meaning. In a poem every word counts, sound and syllable. In fiction, the sentences must advance plot or reveal character. With a novel, revisions are more rigorous, more of a juggle. With so much to take into consideration—characters, scenes, and points of view—it seems counter-intuitive that a novel is more forgiving. But I find that its sprawl makes it more tolerant. “In the novel or short story you get the journey. In a poem you get the arrival,” May Sarton wrote.
That’s not to say that it’s an orderly progression. When characters run amok, and suddenly have their own plans, it’s hard to force them back into the author’s. Mary Lee Settle advised that empathy without identity is one way to keep control of a character, but it's difficult to maintain that distance. Transformation, the way the characters change, what conclusion the narrator comes to, are born out of writing one’s way into the piece again and again, trying on different plots, tone, voice. I feel my way.
Q Did your empathy for the main character stem from your real-life observations, or did you lean more heavily on imagination and research?
A When I first met my new family, this passage from Wonderland’s Alice popped into my head-- “What if I should fall right through the center of the earth…oh, and come out the other side, where people walk upside down?” I knew the basics—don’t touch the men, no shoes in the house, have a fry pan uncontaminated by meat handy. But there were 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. So---all of the above!
Q With all the talk about platform and branding, have you considered writing a sequel to SHIVA’S ARMS?
A Actually, I have and I am: RESCUING RANU, which follows Nela back home after the close of SHIVA’S ARMS. It explores altruism and principles from evolutionary biology the way SHIVA’S ARMS explores multicultural relationships and the Catholic principle of reconciliation.