“It’s the writer’s job to provoke, stimulate— perhaps even titillate”: Samrat Upadhyay
In this interview with Kitaab’s fiction editor Oindrila Mukherjee, Samrat Upadhyay, a fiction writer of Nepali origin, discusses his journey in the world of fiction.
His first book, the short story collection Arresting God in Kathmandu (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) has been translated into French and Greek and was the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award as well as a pick for the 2001 Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers Program. Upadhyay’s stories have been read live on National Public Radio and published widely as well as in SCRIBNER’S BEST OF THE WRITING WORKSHOPS and BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 1999. Upadhyay’s novel The Guru of Love (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year 2003, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2003, and a BookSense 76 collection. The novel was also a finalist for the 2004 Kiriyama Prize, and has been translated into several European languages. Upadhyay’s story collection, The Royal Ghosts (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), won the 2007 Asian American Literary Award, the Society of Midland Authors Book Award, and was declared a Best of Fiction in 2006 by the Washington Post. The book was also a finalist for the Frank O’Connor Int’l Short Story Award from Ireland and for the Ohioana Book Award.
His second novel Buddha’s Orphans (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) has been called a novel of “ambition and heft” by The New York Times and “beautifully told” by Publishers Weekly, which gave it a starred review. The novel has been translated into German and Czech. It was also longlisted for the DSC Prize in India. The City Son, Upadhyay’s fifth book and third novel, was published last month by Soho Press.
He is the Martha C. Kraft Professor of Humanities at Indiana University.
Are you really the first Nepali writer writing in English to be published in the West as Wikipedia says? And if so, why? What was happening in NEW before you?
As far as I know, I am the first fiction writer in English from Nepal to be published in the West. English writing in Nepal, compared to India, is quite young. You have to understand it in context: Nepal was a remote country that didn’t open up to the outside world until the 1950s. When I was growing up in the 70s, the government newspaper The Rising Nepal carried a Friday supplement, in which some creative writing was published—the only venue with a wide audience for imaginative writing. There were writers writing in English, for sure, who were published in the region and had limited readership. Compare this to India, where publications in English were appearing by the nineteenth century and by mid- twentieth century Tagore and Raja Rao had already gained international recognition for their work.
Two of your novels revolve around a man who gives private tuitions. Manjushree Thapa’s most famous book is about a man who gives private tuitions. I found this quite interesting. What is it about a private tutor that makes him a suitable protagonist? Were you thinking of Thapa’s novel when you wrote yours?
I was not aware of Manju’s novel while I was writing The Guru of Love, which I had written before my first book, Arresting God in Kathmandu, was published. For me, the private tutor is a compelling figure: throughout my childhood my father tutored students in the various flats and houses we lived in. There seemed to be great stories hidden in the teacher who has to coach students on the side for extra income and even greater endless stories in students who desperately needed to pass those exams. In the private tutor figure I discovered many of the frustrations of the middle class folks who were educated yet unable to become prosperous.
Your first book of stories reminded me instantly of RK Narayan’s work, focusing on the middle class, daily urban life, attention to quotidian detail, and simply teeming with memorable characters. Who were your most important literary influences?
RK Narayan was certainly one of the first authors from the subcontinent I’d read and enjoyed, although I don’t think I’d count him as a major influence. My literary influences are varied, and international. This has become a cliché to say this now, but Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was galvanizing. I read it in my last year as an undergraduate, and was awestruck by the literary possibilities it opened up. When I first began to consider myself a serious writer, Nadine Gordimer was a big influence. I was also very impressed by some of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s work. Then later there were others: Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry (possibly the singularly most influential South Asian writer for me), William Trevor, John Banville.
Your fiction is very erotic. There is a lot of sex in this latest novel some of it graphic. What is your purpose in writing about sex? Is it an organic part of the plot or do you consciously include it for a thematic or symbolic reason? Also, can you talk a little about how this is received in Nepal?
I don’t think there ought to be a purpose in writing about sex. Human sexuality is a natural part of our lives, thus it has always held fascination for artists. While I’m writing, I don’t consciously think about erotic and non-erotic elements in my fiction—I simply write what I deem as necessary for the story that’s being told. There’s a puritanical attitude toward writing about sex in South Asian literature, and South Asian literature in English is no different. When Arresting God in Kathmandu was published, it created a maelstrom in certain Nepali circles, especially the fuddy-duddies who have antiquated notions about the role of literature. It was said that I was writing “porno” and that I was not being a good “ambassador” of Nepali culture. It was as if it’s okay to read about Westerners desiring sex but not Nepalis. I’d say that it’s the writer’s job to provoke, stimulate— perhaps even titillate.
What is the current state of NWE? Are other writers writing like you, about similar things, or are they very different?
Although the state of Nepali writing in English is still young, it’s showing signs of great promise. Every year when I go back, I meet writers who appear to be serious about their craft and are eager to make their mark on the literary world. The few young writers I’ve read all have varied styles and subject matters.
Your work is very political as well. Were you always a political writer? How did the Maoist insurgency and other political events impact your writing?
I wouldn’t consider myself a political writer, even as politics does feature, sometimes prominently, in my work. It seems like in Nepal politics is often a part and parcel of one’s personal life. The Maoist insurgency made this even more clear, especially to those Nepalis who felt cushioned or removed from the effects of politics in their daily lives. My story collection The Royal Ghosts attempts to demonstrate this interplay between the personal and the political. In Buddha’s Orphans I was interested in this personal-political dance across generations. But when I begin to write, I’m not concerned about political themes. I focus on character, and let the story emerge from it.
Discuss the evolution of your work from AGIK to The City Son.
The stories in AGIK were written over a long period of time. One story in there, “The Man with Long Hair,” was the first story that I wrote for a graduate workshop in 1990 or so. When I look at these stories now, I am struck by their youthfulness, the meandering quality to their explorations of familial constrictions and sexual desires. My first novel, The Guru of Love, was written in a span of ten months, and it grew out of a story that I was in the process of revising. I had written two novels in Hawaii that I had considered failed novels until I wrote The Guru of Love; then I understood that those two earlier novels were practice novels for me. The Guru of Love has a simple storyline, with three main characters and a backdrop of the 1990 pro-democracy movement in Nepal. I think it has the “feel” of a short story: it’s a novel with a singular, linear movement that can be consumed in one sitting. The Royal Ghosts more or less grew out of a response to the Maoist insurgency, although it also contains stories that deal with other changes happening in Nepal, including the trauma that came after the royal massacre. In contrast to Arresting God in Kathmandu, this collection was written in a shorter span and with some very conscious decisions about subject matters, so it has a more deliberate and controlled feel to it. I wrote Buddha’s Orphans because I wanted to write a big novel with a large canvas (the kind South Asian novelists are notorious for!) with multiple characters and threads. The novel was not easy to write, and after its publication I thought I was done with writing for a while. But within a few months I found myself working on The City Son. I told myself that I wanted to write a compact, lyrical novel, and among all of my books this is the book that I have enjoyed working on the most.
When I look upon my body of work, I am quite happy with the way I have challenged myself, either in form or content, with each book. I feel that with each book I have pushed the boundaries, and in the end that’s the most important thing for a writer.