Samrat Upadhyay on fiction

What are the complications of writing about a place you have left far behind? I talked  about that with Samrat Upadhyay, whose short story collection Mad Country was a finalist for the 2018 Aspen Words Literary Prize. Our conversation took place on a  summer afternoon in 2011 in Bloomington, Indiana, where he teaches creative writing at Indiana University.

You left the land that you write about when you were still very young.

I was twenty-one.

You’re writing out of a well of experience that was a young person’s experience, so how might that affect your continuing to write about Nepal without spending significant time there?


Samrat Upadhyay

Samrat Upadhyay

I did go back in the early ‘90s and lived in Nepal for two years. I go back every  year, I reconnect with my friends. My parents still live there. My wife’s family also lives there. I think I am writing about a kind of basic core human nature that doesn’t change that much, and I think I have over the years kept abreast of all the changes that have happened enough that I can write about it confidently. There are enough writers in the history of literature who have lived elsewhere and write about a particular place. I think if the writer is completely divorced – let’s say if I never went back, didn’t have any connections, then I would be writing about that period of my youth – the 1970s and 1980s, but I don’t think that literature needs to always adhere to a one-to-one sense of contemporary reality.

What I’m getting at is not so much whether what you are writing about is accurate in some way, but more that your impressions of what, say, married people do in these situations are a young man’s impressions.

That’s right. I think you’ll find that probably in Arresting God in Kathmandu – I’m happy with that work, but when I read it now, I see that that’s a young man’s perception. Salman Rushdie said that all expat writers are writing about imaginary homelands, but this is not something to be scoffed in the sense that it’s imaginary and fluffy. He talks about how expat writers are like a fractured mirror. A fractured mirror will not give you the linear wholesome picture that you’re accustomed to. It’ll skew the reality a little bit, but then there might be a lot of insights in there. So the way I would think about what you’re saying is that, yes, those might be a young man’s perceptions, but then there’s an overlay of someone whose intellectual growth has happened mostly in America, and might be able to put something on top of those young man’s impressions.

It seems to me there is a folklore quality to your fiction that reviewers seem to miss when they describe your stories as stories about ordinary people living middle class lives in an exotic place. For instance, there’s a point in your first novel, The Guru of Love, when I can just imagine the storyteller saying, “Once upon a time there was a man who fell in love with a woman who was not his wife. When she came and knocked on the door, the wife said, ‘Oh, come right in, and sleep in his bed…’” And then we go from there. I wonder if you read a lot of folklore as a child.

Let me first say that I have always disliked what a reviewer said – “These people in these exotic places are just like us,” and to me that’s a “duh” kind of thing. Of course they are. Yes, we do read literature so that we see that people in various cultures and in various political situations have the same range of emotions that we do, but that’s obvious. So I’ve always sort of cringed at that.

And there’s another side to it. There was one review in a newspaper that said The Guru of Love was not exotic enough – it didn’t give the reader mountains. So I don’t think of my fiction in terms of whether it’s exotic or not.  I’m a story teller, and I’m telling stories, and it happens that I’m telling stories about a very particular place, but I hope that people who like my work like it for the literary qualities, not the exoticness.

In terms of the folktale quality – there is a “Once upon a time feeling to my stories,” and some of this may come from the religious cultural background that I come from, because in Hinduism you do have a great many stories that involve the gods. In Hinduism there are millions of gods, and the gods are always doing something. Some of the gods are naughty, and the gods are transforming themselves into beautiful women and all that. So I grew up with a slew of these stories during various festivals, and some of that impression is still on my mind, although naturally I transfer it to a modern setting.

And a human setting.

Yes, with contemporary concerns.

Sometimes your stories remind me of Jane Austen because they are comedies of manners. And sometimes they seem very funny to me. There’s a playful humor.

Sometimes I have fun with my characters, so I’m happy that you’ve caught the humor. I love writers who can do dark humor, like Kafka. Kafka is one of my favorite writers. He’s one of the most serious writers, but his stuff is also funny in a very subtle way.

Did Buddha’s Orphans represent a departure from your earlier work?

Yes, it did, both in terms of my writing it and in terms of the territory that it covers. My experience of writing it was more fragmentary than say The Guru of Love. The Guru of Love I wrote within a span of ten months. It was one chronological story that came out – very few characters. Buddha’s Orphans – I think my mind itself was a little bit schizophrenic while writing it, so I would go into one area, I would have Nilu and Raja as adults, and then I would go back to the childhood, and then one of the more wonderful moments for me in the writing of the book was how toward the end of the book all of a sudden I felt that I needed to write about Raja’s mother. The story starts out with her – that she had committed suicide – but as the novel progressed then I became curious about what her story was, and so for me, encountering that particular story within the larger novel, was one of the more joyful aspects of writing Buddha’s Orphans.

Was this the hardest piece of work you’ve done?

Yes, it took me three years of constant writing, and a lot of writing. Normally I’m not a full-day writer, or even a half-day writer. I’m always amazed when writers say they get up in the morning and continuously write until lunchtime. And some even take a break then go on and write in the afternoon. And I’ve never been that kind of writer.

 But with Buddha’s Orphans there was a sense, even in the opening pages, that this was going to be a big novel, and along with that was the pressure: If this is going to be a big novel, I’m not going to spend ten years writing it. So I broke a lot of myths that I had built up around myself as the kind of writer that I was. I thought, “I’m an early morning writer,” but I found that, well, I have to write in the afternoons, too. There was a point where I abandoned the laptop and switched over to notebooks, and I started writing in the notebooks, and then I went back to my laptop. I wrote in airports, which I had never done.

Was this because you knew you had to finish or because the story took hold of you?

It was both. There was a sense that if it’s going to be a big novel, I’m going to need to put in more words per day. And also the canvas started getting larger and larger.

It goes over how many years?

It actually starts out in the ‘60s and then goes a little bit beyond our present time, but then there’s a dip into the ‘50s with the mother’s story.

It includes political developments in Nepal, which have been quite stormy. Did you have any concern about politics outrunning you on the story? When you do a political story it’s useful to know how it turned out, and then if it hasn’t really turned out but it’s still churning around, that may change the way the earlier story feels.

Interestingly Nepali politics have been very cyclical in nature. Just yesterday there was an article in a Nepali newspaper about how the King is making these speeches again and is making gestures about wanting to come back, and the comments below that article – a lot of them were pro-King. And there was a point in Nepali politics when everyone was blaming the King, and then two years before that, everyone was supportingthe king. So it’s a cyclical thing. So I never worried about that aspect of whether anything I wrote would turn out to be true. What I did worry a little bit about while writing it was that I didn’t want it to be a novel about political history. That was very important to me. So I had to constantly not let myself be overwhelmed.

Why did you not want it to be a political novel?

Because I feel that’s when there’s a danger of a novel turning pedantic. I didn’t want to pontificate. I didn’t want to give the sense that this is what my politics were, and that’s why even the character of the man who adopts Raja – he’s a royalist, basically, but he also has a compassionate side, and I think that’s how human nature is. I wanted it to be a human story, and I wanted it to be partly a love story between these two characters who come from different backgrounds. But as I was writing it, it became clear to me that there was a wider canvas out there, and it seemed logical that the progression of the political history also be a part of the novel.

You didn’t start out thinking that you would put the political history in.

No, no, I never do, in fact, in none of my work. They’re always character based. The characters have to be interesting to me. And this has happened with both the novels, The Guru of Love as well as this one – even in Buddha’s Orphans I thought that Raja was the central character, the protagonist, but then within a few chapters, Nilu emerged as a very strong woman. I somehow started sensing as I was writing that her character is the one that is going to hold the whole novel together, even though she comes from a fairly elitist background. In The Guru of Love the same happened, when Goma takes charge of the novel – at least in The Guru of Love it galvanized the novel at that point. The novel was reaching a state where it could have easily have gotten stale.

She’s the wife who invites the lover to come live in the house and sleep in the husband’s bed. I was talking to a friend about this who said, “Well this is very Buddhist, because she looks at the whole situation and thinks, How does all this affect everybody?” You are associated with a Tibetan Buddhist center here, and I wondered how Buddhist thought enters your fiction?

A little bit of background: I was born and raised in Nepal, which is predominantly a Hindu country, although we have Buddhist temples which we used to go to. In the Hindu pantheon, Buddha is recognized as one of the avatars, which is sort of contentious – Buddhists don’t recognize that. They say “We’re separate from the Hindus because Buddha actually rebelled against some of the Hindu strictures.” But I’d never given much thought to Buddhist philosophy, or Hindu philosophy for that matter. In fact, it was only after I came here and people started asking me what religion I was, and I said, “Well, I was raised a Hindu,” and they said, “Well what do Hindus believe?” And I said, “I don’t know. We just go to temples, we have all these gods.”

When I was writing The Guru of Love I was actually living in Cleveland, but I had interest in Buddhist philosophy, but not as deeply as I have now. Most of that has got to do with the wonderful monastery that we have here. I don’t know whether that’s actually a Buddhist gesture on Goma’s part, to do that, but it is a very loving gesture, because she could have easily said, “Well, I’m not going to have anything of this, I’m done, I’m out,” but then that would have made it a very predictable novel for me. For her to do that was a challenge to her husband. It was a very strong challenge. “Okay, you want it? Here, you can have it, and now what?”  She almost becomes a – she’s a higher being than Ramchandra is, and I think she proves herself at that point – someone who’s able to move beyond the predictable emotions, which is part of Buddhist philosophy. The Buddhists say, all right, you have your emotions, but so what? There’s a higher nature that you can aspire to.

You’re working on a new novel now?

Yes, I am. I’m writing a novel ­– this is a strange way to work, but I’ve told myself to write a short to medium novel, so I wouldn’t end up pulling another Buddha’s Orphans – it doesn’t get to be this long thing. And it’s interesting to give myself a rule, because I find that as I’m writing I have to accomplish a lot within – I’m thinking more like 200 pages double spaced. I think I’ve already reached 100 pages, and I’m thinking, I still have to do all these things. It’ll be a good challenge.

How did this one start? How do your stories usually come to you? Through scenes? Situations?

Through characters and scenes. Mostly I would say characters – so I have a sense of a character. And a mood or emotion that the character is feeling. I don’t do plot outlines, I move imagistically, and somehow for me, this manner of writing has worked so that the plot seems to emerge organically from the concerns of the character. It does take a little bit of patience, especially with a longer work. With Buddha’s Orphans, there were points, especially after I was halfway into the novel – there were moments of great anxiety about whether this was all coming to come through: Am I going to be able to pull this together even though I don’t have a roadmap? But at that moment I really had to put a lot of trust in myself. I think I believe there’s something inside us that has these organizing capabilities. Also for me it’s important that I surprise myself in the process of writing. In Buddha’s Orphans there were many moments when that happened. With the Guru of Love, too, because what Goma does was a moment of surprise for me, but it added a lot of pleasure to the writing.

I’m curious about how you manage to write a novel, especially – I can understand short stories better – when you’re teaching.

Actually I haven’t found it that difficult. I wrote The Guru of Love while I was teaching four courses a semester in Baldwin-Wallace College in Cleveland and my daughter had just been born. And Buddha’s Orphans, too, I was teaching a full load. I usually wrote early in the morning, so there’s a sense of focused concentration early. I used to get up at 4 o’clock, or 3, and write it, before the day’s teaching schedule took over.

Teaching – in some ways I find it stimulating. Today we were discussing Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and I was telling the class – I remember reading her when I was beginning to write, and how influential she was. And I pointed out just the way she structures her sentences, her images and descriptions. And I got excited while I was talking about her, and I’m sure that excitement carries over when I’m actually working on my stuff. I don’t find teaching and writing divorced activities.

One of the criticisms of creative writing programs is that we end up with a fiction in America that is more the same than, say, in England, which has few programs like ours. Do you find it at all difficult to work with students whose style or approach is really different from yours, or who may be working toward a style that’s really different from yours?

I would say no, for the most part, unless the student’s style is radically experimental– I’m pretty much a traditionalist. I emphasize character, I emphasize understandable emotions. Although I love language I have found that mere language is not enough to carry a story. Things need to happen in a story. You need to give your protagonist a problem that the protagonist needs to solve. So all of these put me in the traditionalist category. If the student’s work is way experimental, there might be problems in my being able to give helpful feedback– it all depends on the student. If the student is open enough, the student might find there are possibilities for some of the traditional structures even in experimentation.

Buddha’s Orphans is out in the UK and the US. Is the same publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) publishing it in Nepal?

Rupa and Company has been publishing my books in India, but they distribute my book all over South Asia, including Nepal.

Is that in English also?

That’s in English, yes.

So are your books ever translated?

Yes, Buddha’s Orphans is going to come out in German – it’s already out in Czech language.  My other books have been translated into French, Greek, Thai, Indonesian, etc.

What about Nepali?

None of my books have been translated into Nepali. I translated one of my short stories from Arresting God in Kathmandu, and I found it enormously time consuming. It just took me a very, very long time, and I enjoyed it, but then – would I use the same time to write original work in English or would I do that?

And you don’t have any temptation to write in Nepali?

I’m not a literary writer in Nepali because I’ve lost over the years my facility with Nepali.

How have the reactions in Nepal been by readers? Have they been different from reactions in England and the US?

Oh yeah, it’s all over the place. There are a lot of readers who haven’t read my work but are my fans because my books have been successful here. There are some readers who think I exoticize Nepal, so you have that, but it seems like a lot of south Asian writers who live in the West face this criticism.  There are Nepalis who read and admire my work. So I have a reading public.

When Arresting God in Kathmundu first out, it was reviewed by the New York Times and there was enormous publicity in Nepal. I would go to a bank, and someone would come up and say, “You’re Samrat Upadhyay, aren’t you?” We were in the resort town of Pokhara and we wanted to go this restaurant, and there was a guy outside who was asking people to go to the restaurant, and I was asking some questions, and then he just stopped in the middle of explaining all this food, and he said, “Sir, what is the best way to write?”

Write to Samrat Upadhyay or Carol Polsgrove