Aditya & Sarah
Aditya Desai and Sarah Thankam Mathews spoke about “The Storms” over WhatsApp.
Sarah: Hi there! It's Sarah. Is it okay if we start in 5 mins? Just wrapping up a work call here :)
Aditya: Yes! I am running late as well so no worries
Sarah: Just got off the call and ready whenever—take your time
Aditya: Sure. I’m ready, just give me a few mins to find a quiet place.
Sarah: All good friend :)
Aditya: OK up and running =]
Sarah: Hi hi hello! Tell me about this writing retreat you're on
Aditya: I’m at the Vermont Studio Center
Sarah: Oh, amazing! Are you liking it?
Aditya: It’s quite nice...to me, anyway. first time on something this big. I've only ever done weekend retreat type things which end up being more social weekends than anything else. Yeah the scenery's gorgeous. Getting work done. Weather just turned up these past couple days. It’s still chilly here
Sarah: That's fabulous. Are you working on stories / a longer project / something else entirely?
Aditya: Novel MS...one I want out of my life haha. Even if it’s terrible at the end of this I’ll feel like I gave it one last shot and can put it away. Been on it off/on for 8 years!
Sarah: I know that feel haha. Wishing you lots of luck and steam to get over the finish line!
Aditya: Thanks! How about you? Other than this story are you working on anything?
Sarah: Yeah! I just finished an MFA, so I've had some time and space to work—though it never feels like enough honestly. I'm working on a novel MS, and write stories and essays alongside.
Aditya: Oh wow! Congrats! so like, just this past semester?
Sarah: Haha yes, I graduated a week or so ago. Life change on the horizon! not quite ready to leave the cocoon yet though.
Aditya: Awesome. Where from?
Sarah: Iowa. You're from Baltimore, right? I lived in DC for 4 years before coming to Iowa City.
Aditya: Wow big time! How was that experience?
Sarah: Often strange, sometimes isolating, but overall something I'm very grateful for I think. If by that experience you were asking about Iowa, as opposed to DC :)
Although I'm sure similar things apply to both—they were different kinds of education.
Aditya: Oh sure. Its profile is so huge everyone has an opinion, but I guess that’s just literary world stuff. I was in DC as well 2009-2015. I went to College Park for my MFA and just ended staying around there for a bit.
Sarah: Oh, awesome. How did you like the College Park program?
Aditya: Conflicted—the program is fairly good as MFA programs go, I think. But I came the year after the recession so budget cuts and university troubles were rising just at that point. There was little funding for MFAs, huge faculty turnover even in my 3 years.
Sarah: Ugh that's awful; I'm sorry to hear. Do you teach now?
Aditya: The ship's righted since, I think
Sarah: Glad to hear it
Aditya: I also went straight out of undergrad, which was too early. but then again, I feel like I would still be aloof from the literary world to this day if I hadn't done so. Who knows. But yes, I teach now. Adjunct hustle.
Sarah: Yeah it's such a catch 22. Ageism in publishing—especially if you're a young woman—makes people, or at least me, feel pressure to have a book out as a twentysomething. So there definitely have been moments when I wondered if I should have done the MFA thing after undergrad, with the idea that I'd be further along now. But speaking only for myself, I think I wouldn't have been mature enough to get what I could have out of it back then
Aditya: Isn't it?! People like the young wunderkind narrative. I felt that too for a while. I guess it could go either way depending on the person, but I think a lot of that depends on how you culturally relate the concept of an MFA or arts career. I’m still embarrassed how little I realized what it was before going. It was like "oh, I'm among people who intend to write real actual books that will be published and sold!"
Sarah: I only let go of the YWKN in the last year—when I sort of internalized how much privilege and social capital it takes to get in the room that early. Which isn't to say that 25-year old’s who are publishing books to rave acclaim don't deserve what they have—some of them absolutely do, and they've clearly worked hard. But yeah, especially in arenas as opaque and full of gatekeepers as publishing and the art world generally....if someone is 23-26 and published already to a celestial chorus of praise, odds are they're coming from some kind of axis of privilege and often more than one.
And haha re: embarrassment, I felt similarly in some ways. In others, because I left a sensible career to go to MFA-land pursue the lucrative and stable path of writing fiction (lmao). I felt like I came in with this very goal-oriented mindset, and then realized that I didn't know how to do a lot of things I wanted to do artistically, and I would have to learn. Good thing I was in a master's program...
Aditya: Preach, can't say it better. This yes. Whole notion of grad degrees = job advancement and then you realize "no, I’m supposed to be finding my artistic practice!"
Sarah: Yes totally!!
Aditya: Weird thing is I have a cousin who did his MFA years before me. But it was still such a foreign concept even when I talked to him about it, I still asked the wrong questions, or at least questions premised on false ideas.
Sarah: Like what?
Aditya: I don't think I remember the questions specifically, but it all resulted in answers that were essentially the same things English departments tell their undergrads who are worried about job prospects. “You become a better critical thinker”, “you do it because you love it”, “a degree is better than no degree…”
Sarah: Haha I see. By the way I just glanced at the time and will need to run in half an hour. Just to give you a sense of hard stop time :)
Aditya: …other than him, I am the only person in my family to do post-grad work that wasn't med or law school.
Ah shite. Yes. So I actually can segue from this
Sarah: That desi extended family life, eh
Aditya: Haha yes. I say that because a lot of what your story is about is very much where my headspace was when I did my MFA, and essentially ever since. (I mean, minus the IUD of course)
Sarah: In terms of questions about Adult Responsibilities vs Personal Choices? Or the backdrop of climate catastrophe etc.?
Aditya: Well so—and I’m sure I haven't told Kamil this but—my father passed while I was in college. so the MFA, and as a result the wayward millennial life and all the squabbles with my mother since, weirdly mirrored in this. A lot more than I expected anyway.
Sarah: I'm so sorry to hear about your father
Aditya: Thanks. It’s all good. As life goes.
Aditya: But even down to the idea of leaving NYC for Madison, essentially why I went from DC to Baltimore in fifteen.
Just got up to it with the motherly guilt
Sarah: There's a novel by Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, that's super weird in a lot of ways but also hugely influential in that it basically invented the Western conception of youth.
Basically Wilhelm Meister is a boy in Germany and his parents (who are indistinguishable in severity and ethic from the stereotype of Indian parents) want him to marry X girl, and work X respectable job and basically become an adult in the community. And Wilhelm is like, nah, and runs away. And there's a whole quest thing that happens and he meets all these characters and has freedom, adventures, harrowing experiences, sensual experiences etc. But by the end of the novel, he meets a girl and falls in love with her. And it turns out that this is the girl that his parents wanted him to be with. And so he basically ends up where his parents want him to, but of his own volition. And I think that's like, the western framework of youth / being a young adult / whatever. You have this period of reprieve. I think it can exist in more tenuous ways in Indian culture, but the gap of freedom to live your own life is shorter, and it's also gendered, I think men and women experience it differently.
Aditya: Interesting! I'll have to look into it. Was that influential in this?
Sarah: It wasn't explicitly influential to this particular story, no. It influenced my understanding of some cultural differences around responsibility vs freedom—I came to the US at seventeen and had to think through a lot of this stuff for myself. If I think about what influenced this story: honestly it felt like it poured out of me a little. I think I see echoes of Ling Ma's Severance in it: a novel where societal change/ collapse, a road trip to the Midwest, and grief around a parent all feature. But that was more something I saw after I wrote it.
Aditya: For sure! But actually that idea of gendered youth time was something I was wondering about, especially with the character being thirty-four, having lost a husband, gone through so much. And yet her mother feels she still hasn't gotten her idea to full womanhood yet.
Sarah: Yeah, the mother totally thinks of Kamala as a child who has not lived up to her responsibilities yet. Part of the emotional journey of the story is realizing that, to her mother, she'll always be a child, as long as they're both alive. And what her mother is actually motivated by is not respectability but a form of care. She doesn't want Kamala to be alone when she dies.
Aditya: It’s funny, we just reviewed a chapbook in Atticus Review that’s a series of stories set after climate-change drought, but the stories are all domestic relationship issues.
Sarah: Yeah. It's important to me to keep things human in scale in my fiction because even set against tremendous change and savagery and dystopia and war, our minds stay on a human scale, you know? We—most people—still are focused on themselves, the people they love, the texture of their individual lives. Anne Frank is in the attic writing about the boy she pines for while Europe burns around her. I don't see that as myopic. I see that as totally true to being human. Sorry, I'm a slow typist, yaar :)
Aditya: No worries! Trust me, most of what I’m typing is just “yes!” and “totally!” But I’m looking at Kamil's notes, and wondering: what was a discovery you made in the process of writing this? Either in terms of craft or internal to the story.
Sarah: That's a great question.
Aditya: Cuz there is SO much going on. I imagine part of it was there at start and part of it came along the way?
Sarah: When I started writing this, I had recently walked around Red Hook, in Brooklyn, where the NYC Office of Resiliency has been working on creating sandbag barriers to help deal with storms and flooding, which will only get worse with climate change. And I thought, okay, let me write a road trip story with an Indian couple leaving NYC for the Midwest.
What I first pictured was like, spec Jhumpa Lahiri—two married or engaged desi-Americans in conflict with each other. And then I realized I didn't care terribly about that. And that so much of what are foundational sources of both definition and conflict in the desi diasporic experience are dynamics with parent figures especially parent figures from the Old World.
So out went the husband—I killed him off :)
Aditya: Good riddance
Sarah: And then this terribly interesting mother figure began percolating in my head, demanding both attention and over time, sympathy. And so then I was like: okay, two widows, mother and daughter, making this road trip, and a lot of the story will circle around grief. Which made sense to me as an emotional-cerebral parallel, since I think of climate grief as being this super real thing that more and more of the world will come to know. And then somewhere in there I realized that the question the grief was funneling around, water around and down the drain, was: can I have a new life? Can there be a new world? And that to me was the pivotal discovery of this story, in terms of the story telling me what it wanted to be.
In terms of craft: I think I realized anew how much a strong emotion, like female rage, can supply an cohesive emotional texture to a story. People who know me are surprised at my stories sometimes, because they know me as this sort of gentle, even-keeled person, and then they'll read something absolutely biting or furious and seem confused or wonder if it's some sort of cathartic outlet haha. It's not, for me. It's craft.
Aditya: That’s really wonderful! OK, so I have two questions about the mother—
First, Kammu on the page has grief of her husband and her father, but the mother never overtly, unless I'm missing it, refers to Kammu's husband. Wondering about the thinking behind this, because that's the easy cliché resolution point.
Sarah: Interesting. I think this story is just most interested in its women. I think Kammu's husband exists for Kammu's mother in this story as a capacity or lack or function, primarily. I see her actually referencing him in slightly cruel ways, just never mentioning him by name. E.g. "Grow old alone, then, with no one to take care of you! Die alone! What will you do by yourself? You can’t even DRIVE!"
And for me it's tied up in how this character, who is from the motherland, who has Seen Some Shit, doesn't think anyone, not her, not Kamala, has the time to wallow. What Needs To Be Done Needs To Be Done, is this mother's way of looking at it. And for her, she doesn't want Kamala to be a childless widow. Like, she would be horrified at the idea of Kamala living some Emily Dickinson artist life
So for her it's like, “why would we talk about our dead husbands? They've passed on. I feel it so deeply that I wished I had died instead, but I didn't, and you didn't. Now, life has to be lived.” It's all very Stoic.
Aditya: Definitely! See there's my male self wondering, "BuT wHat aBoUT tHe DudEs?!"
Sarah: Yeah haha. I have some stories that try to engage deeply and tenderly with the experiences of men but this is not one of them. It's interested in women, in this generational-duplex way, and in what they think. Period. (ha)
Aditya: Second, regarding the dynamic with parent figures, it is a common source of tension, IRL and in fiction. Wondering: why do you think this is? Are there ways you'd like to see it represented that haven't been as tapped yet? Don't think I worded that right.
Sarah: Well, I think it's because it's different value systems on a collision course, mostly, and a lot of children of immigrants have a blended values system. And also some of the thinking I referenced with respect to the Goethe novel thinking around what it means to live a life well, which involves both freedom and living up to your responsibilities.
Aditya: I think what my second question is getting at is: when I read it I expected one type of story, where Kammu learns uncovers something about her mother she didn't know prior, like a literal secret. But it’s not that, it’s more an understanding. But it’s also not one where they are now peers, as you say—she is always the daughter.
Sarah: Well, so—I also found myself very very very frustrated with how a lot of desi moms are represented. (And then sometimes complicit and guilty in that sort of representation.) By which I mean: desi moms as shrews, as rut-tut-tut-tut-tuh accent comic relief, as the annoying Ma figure who just wants you to marry a nice girl/boy with an MD and a good wheatish complexion. And to me there’s an element of betrayal and maybe more importantly, blindness in that stereotype-heavy portrayal. In sum, in a lot of narratives from desi creatives and artists, brown women (especially, but not limited to, moms) are simply and sadly not richly imagined human beings; they are personified hindrances to a protagonist's freedom.
I say not limited to moms, because, for example, brown women in narratives involving arranged marriage are frequently treated that way.
Aditya: ^^Yes! (both to your answer and its better wording what I was trying to say)
Sarah: So anyway, I don't think I've like SOLVED anything with this story with respect to that problem exactly. Kamala's mom does hinder her freedom. But she also rescues her, and at least in my mind she is a super interesting person. And when Kamala is not drowning in self-pity and snark, she begins to realize it, and think about who her mother really is, and how much she loves and needs her.
Re: “But it’s not that, it’s more an understanding. But it’s also not one where they are now peers, as you say—she is always the daughter,” thank you for saying/seeing that.
I've grown wary of big ole generalizations about American or Indian culture, parenting, etc. There's so much variance within each of those umbrellas, neither are monoliths. But I do remember watching Amreekan TV shows etc. when I was fresh off the boat and being shocked at this precept of egalitarianism between parent and child. That's so deeply not Indian, you know? It flies in the face of really deeply entrenched cultural ideas: your life is not your own, age and experience are valuable, respect those who gave you life, etc.
Aditya: Which I guess begs the question, is this something desi writers will ever bridge? That diasporic/generational gap? Maybe that's too big lol, sorry
Sarah: For me the point is not to bridge it. I think there are writers who aren't interested in these old questions/conflicts at all—there's no desi parent-child dynamic. I notice this especially of first, second, third-generation desi diaspora writers vs immigrants. And that’s great! But real talk, for me the point is to examine artistically-flawed or tired tropes, tropes that have sexism or identity-based self-hatred baked into them, like the Fobby Brown Woman Cramping My Style one. For me the point is to try to write with thoughtfulness and deep empathy, and always examine where our allegiances are turning to, politically.
Aditya: There’s so much here! So I should ask re: artistic tropes: what was it like to be actively collaborating with a desi female artist for your story? I feel like that’s just not something we get to do.
Sarah: Working with Senna was a dream, honestly. She's so smart and so gifted at translating the conceptual and textual to gorgeous and fitting visuals. Desi Internet, Non-Desi Internet: buy everything she makes!!!
She responded with real astuteness to the dualities of the story. One of her early notes to me was: "Kamala has such strong internal voice, while her mother has such a strong external voice. The imagery that I see when I visualize this piece is one of a womb or woman within another womb or woman." The final draft she arrived at, though, was a rained-on road, mother and daughter as altered mirror images of each other, and everything shot through with warm colors—tangerine, blush, coral. When I was drafting this story I had the grimmest color palette in my mental mood board—some straight out of Francis Bacon shit. Rainwater, old blood, coal tar, you name it. But I fell in love with Senna's interpretation. It made me see how my story, which is shot through with and opens in grief, is actually deeply hopeful. The sunset-reminiscent colors she chose underscore that, made me see my own work differently.
Aditya: The IUD, in as much as it’s a personal choice for Kammu, is also a sort of cultural/mother’s rejection. And maybe I’m reading WAY too much into it here, but there's also something with her taking control of her motherhood, as Mother Earth is dying in the background?
Just wondering how the IUD became an element in the story and what it means for you in the story?
Sarah: That's really interesting and a framing I hadn't considered. I hadn't invested the IUD with symbolism when writing; for me it was like, okay, Kamala's decided she doesn't want children, she's having sex with a Brooklyn line cook, ergo: IUD. In her mind as long as it's there, it's a talismanic shield against her getting pregnant.
The history of the IUD in India is an interesting one. The IUD was once very popular in India, back in the 1950s, even more so than condoms. But in the 1970s, an American pharmaceutical company began shilling a version of the IUD called the Dalkon Shield, which was faulty as all hell and often led to things like the perforation of the uterine wall, infertility, etc. Doctors and patients became much more leery of IUDs after that, despite them being one of the most reliable and cost-effective forms of birth control that exist. Anyway, history dive aside, you are right to note the environmental catastrophe parallelism. I was thinking about how after the 2016 presidential election, IUD implantation procedures SOARED. I think it was something like a 700% increase. Some part of that was rightful fear that reproductive rights would be eroded significantly. But I also think there is this deep and human impulse to not want to have a child in the midst of disaster and deprivation, both for the parent's sake and the child's. I think about the baby boom after World War II as another example of this. To be clear, I don't see Kammu having an IUD per se as a rejection of her mother / Indian culture. Indian women have sex, engage in family planning, etc etc. Kammu's rejection of her mother's thinking lies in her saying that she wants to be alone, and is fine being alone. Her mother finds that a godawful sentiment, just plain horrifying. I can see how they're connected, maybe, but they're not the same thing.
Any last questions before I beetle off? And by the way, THANK YOU, this has been a pleasure :)
Aditya: Oh I’m glad. (I feel like I did a bad job)
Sarah: Oh no! Why?? (You didn't)
Aditya: Is it okay if I email you things I’m curious about? Dude there's SO much here. Because there's a lot more swimming in my head about this.
Sarah: Ya send me anything and I'm happy to answer. Have a lovely night, and congrats on getting into VSC and doing the thing :) I hope you have a good and productive time there.
Aditya: You have a good night as well!