Recently, I had reviewed Houston based Indian American writer, Saborna Roychowdhury’s debut novel, The Distance, for Hyphen Magazine. (Read the review here). I sent a few questions to the author online. She graciously agreed to answer them.
Question: On your website, I read your profile in which you mention that you started as a short story writer before venturing to write a novel. I am curious to know more about your journey as a writer. From being Chemistry major to a Pushcart-nominated author, how did it all start?
Answer: Taking a writing workshop with Jeff Kellogg at Grub Street may be one of the smartest things I’ve done. Jeff was a very supportive and inspiring teacher who inspired me to finish my first short story, “Bengal Monsoon” and send it off for publication. To encourage the class, he gave us a writing exercise. He asked us to close our eyes and think of an image and then bring it to life with our words:
“Write about what you see and feel. Who is in the picture? What is he/she like?”
The image that I saw that night was that of a 15 year old domestic help who once worked for my aunt back home in Calcutta. Her father used to come every month to collect her wages. The girl often complained to my aunt how her father never thought of her wedding or her happiness and just used her as a source of paper notes. My aunt felt very helpless but the few times she tried to intervene, the father insulted her. One day, my aunt found this teenage girl hanging from the ceiling fan in her little terrace room. She had left a suicide note behind.
I picked up my pen and though I did not know the name of this girl, my fingers itched to write the story of this young girl’s suffocation and her desperation. When it came to sharing the story with my class, I felt very shy. I was a chemistry teacher and this was my first attempt at writing a short-story. But my teacher, Jeff, gave me great feedback and other people in my class seemed to like the story a lot. “Send it off to a journal for publication,” Jeff urged me. “See what happens.”
So it was because of his encouragement, I mailed the story to three journals. Within a month New York Stories called and said they wanted to go ahead and publish my piece. My husband was in Paris then on a business trip. I called his room. “I am a published author,” I told him. “Congrats!” he replied sleepily. It was 4 in the morning, Paris time.
At the end of 2004, I received a letter from New York Stories:
“Each year New York Stories receives 3,000 manuscripts for consideration. We publish approximately 25. We nominate six, the best of the best, for the Pushcart prize, and yours, we are happy to say, was among them…” (Danny Lynch, Editor)
I shared the letter with Jeff Kellogg. He told me, “It is time for you to write your first novel.”
Q: In your debut novel, “The Distance”, you employ the trope of distance as a way of implying estrangement and escape. Is it to indicate that all escapes are necessary yet impossible? Would you please elaborate on this particular trope and what it does in your novel?
A: In the novel, the trope of distance is used in many forms – a distance in time, a distance in space (geographical), and a distance in the socio-economic context. As Mini moves through life, her experiences depend on her location (in all the three above senses), and thus the changes that these experiences bring in her are also dependent on location. The estrangement and the escape which you refer to are implied in all the three senses: escape from Amitav and the revolution due to the spatial (geographical) distance; escape from the mundane middle-class Calcutta life due to socio-economic distance; and escape from the young, wide-eyed self through temporal distance. However, as the distance between Mini’s past and present grows (and threatens to grow even more), she experiences a great amount of distress – should she let the distance increase or should she try to bridge this ever-increasing disparity? Towards the end of the novel, a series of events leads to the dramatic bridging of this disparity. So, escape for Mini was impossible.
Q: Reading your novel, I couldn’t but feel frustrated at the plight of your protagonist, Mini, an ordinary girl from a middle-class Bengali family. One of the reviewers has insightfully pointed out that Mini might appear a misfit in this age of strong women. But, by the end of the novel, she chose her own course and decided to return to India. How would you define agency in light of Mini’s action? Is that also a way of complicating notions of freedom and independence and making us rethink about the choices an ordinary girl like Mini can make?
A: The concept of agency is always very complicated for me, partially because it implies a separation between the conscious decisions/actions and the unconscious (or circumstance-driven) decisions and actions. In reality, perhaps the situation is more complicated. As a person interacts with the real world, he/she changes the real world. In turn, the real world changes him/ her. Sometimes, the change is obvious and changes the person’s active decision making. Sometimes, the change may be in the sub-conscious level, and then the agency of the person’s actions is unclear. For example, as Mini deserts Amitav in the village to marry someone else is Canada, is that decision completely conscious or actively taken? Or is it driven by circumstances (pressure from parents/society)? I would say it is a mixture of the two. It is thus very difficult to assign agency to such actions. What is completely true is that as Mini experiences life (which in some cases is different from other ordinary girls), she starts making decisions (e.g. returning to India) that may be different from other ordinary girls.
Are all these decisions completely analyzed in Mini’s mind and actively taken? May be not! As she travels through life, life changes her and leads her to new paths. Her own concept of happiness and sadness undergoes rapid change and even her fears and inspirations take a different shape.
Her freedom and independence follow a similar path. In the beginning, Mini seems concerned about the freedom to choose (in this case a suitable life partner). In the middle of the story, her freedom and independence is tied primarily to economic freedom and the resultant expansion in individual choices. This leads her to Canada. However, she soon realizes that this freedom is also limited. She has perhaps changed the strata of society, but she is still bound by the rules of the new strata. Towards the end of the book, she chooses a new kind of freedom – the freedom to contribute to society in any form she chooses. Thus the story is about the changes in Mini that life brings and the resultant changes in her conscious or sub-conscious decisions and actions. The distance between Mini at the beginning of the story and one at the end is perhaps the true distance.
Q: How do you juggle between motherhood, career, and the dream of becoming a successful writer?
A: Every day is a challenge for me, that’s for sure. Kids, husband, boss, parents, neighbors and friends demand my time and attention constantly. I am surrounded by people who are non-writers. They either work in the medical field, engineering or software. So they mostly think of writing as a big waste of time…and to me everything else, other than writing, feels like a big waste of time. Writing is the only thing that is worthwhile to me.
I have tried to become the “ideal daughter” – dream of all Asian parents – one who works full-time and then takes care of the family. In the last few years, I have tried to forget the dream of becoming a writer altogether.
I know now that I cannot fight what I am made of, my true nature. If I have to forget trips to the Caribbean and eating out in expensive restaurants, so be it. My happiness is more important to me. I am working part-time now and even then I only get one or two hours a day to write – these two hours are essential for my well-being.
Q: There appears to be a burgeoning number of Indian writers in English and a mushrooming of publishing houses in India. How easy or how difficult was it to get the novel published?
A: Getting published these days is akin to finding God. Big publishing houses in India will give opportunity to established writers. What is more upsetting is that they don’t send you a rejection letter and keep you waiting for months and years. I am still waiting to hear from some of them.
A year after I finished my book, a big Indian publisher showed fair amount of interest in the material. We kept writing back and forth for 9 months. “Your manuscript is being reviewed by our panel of reviewers. I will get back to you with our decision shortly,” said the editor. After nine months they passed on the book.
When that happened, I combed down the whole college street area in Calcutta looking for publishers and distributors. It was a nightmarish experience for me. Most Indian distributors and publishers have very little love or respect for books. They are mostly businessmen with very little schooling. “Madam, go and waste someone else’s time,” they seemed to say.
Finally one day, my brother walked me into a tiny office of a college street book publisher. The man looked very strict in his Tagore like glasses and flowing beard.
“You have to look at the manuscript,” I told him. “Or else I will keep coming back.”
A couple of weeks later, around the time I was about to come back to the U.S., he sent me a text message on my mobile phone: “I can’t say it is a great book. But it is publishable. We will take it.”
Q: Please mention some of the South Asian writers whose works have left a lasting impression on you. Is there an “anxiety of influence”?
A: I am a big fan of Jhumpa Lahiri. I think she writes linguistically brilliant and innovative prose. I sometimes find myself drooling over her sentences. But my favorite author is still Rohinton Mistry. I have rarely seen an author choose such unremarkable people and turn them into such extra-ordinary characters in a novel. The man’s honesty and empathy has the power to melt even the stoniest of hearts. He understands Indian politics and class/caste issues like no other author I have known.
To quote Rick Gekoski: ‘Mistry has a great eye and a huge heart, and if the world he describes is often cruel and capricious, his characters have a remarkable capacity to survive.’
No, there is no particular “anxiety of influence.”
Q: Now I come to a clichéd question: Is Mini Saborna Roychowdhury’s alter-ego?
A: All the characters in this book are purely fictional. I am not Mini. The theme of the book – which is about living a good life and potentially distancing yourself from those who must struggle to make ends meet versus doing something to help alleviate people’s suffering around you – is perhaps something I struggle with myself in my everyday life. In that sense, I am similar to Mini. But unlike Mini, I didn’t/don’t plan to go back to India. I did however teach a “pregnant and parenting teen” program in urban schools for several years. I did find a lot of peace in that.
Q: Mini’s return to India appears to be fraught with new possibilities. Is there any plan of returning to Mini in your future work? Do tell us about your future projects.
A: I don’t think I have any Mini left in me. I am not planning to write a sequel.
Sorry, I can’t discuss the story I am working on right now, simply because writing is like building a bridge. Like an engineer, I have to put the pieces together and then bolt them in. If the pieces don’t fit, the bridge will collapse.
I am trying out a twisted and complicated plot for my current work. There are many loose ends that have to come together and fit in nicely. I don’t know what will happen in the end – if my bridge will stand or collapse. So it is better not to share it here.
Thank you, Saborna, for answering my questions!