Upadhyay’s novel THE GURU OF LOVE (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year 2003, a San Franciso 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.
Samrat 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 “powerful” and “beautifully told” by Publishers Weekly, which gives it a starred review. The novel has been translated into German and Czech. It was also longlisted for the DSC prize in India.
Upadhyay has also co-edited the anthology SECRET PLACES: NEW WRITING FROM NEPAL (University of Hawai’i Press), published in Winter 2001 as a special issue of Manoa magazine.
His new novel, The City Son, will be published by Soho Press in 2014.
He is the Martha C. Kraft Professor of Humanities at Indiana University.
1. You have now written two collections of short stories, two novels and have edited an anthology. Did you find writing your first novel difficult after establishing yourself as a leading Nepali short-story writer? What was your favorite book to work on and why?
By the time my first book of stories ‘Arresting God in Kathmandu’ was published, I had already written my novel, ‘The Guru of Love’ so I was blissfully unencumbered with the publicity that followed in the wake of ‘Arresting God’. I’ve discovered, after having written a number of books, that I can’t pinpoint a favorite book, either in terms of my enjoyment in writing or in terms of my fondness. Each book had its moments of joy and pain. Arresting God’s stories were written in a span of close to ten years, with two other novels that I wrote in between (that I would never publish).
I had no idea that these stories would ever come together as a book, that anyone would be interested in publishing them. ‘The Guru of Love’ was written in about a 10-month period, with only minor revisions before it got published. That book seemed to more or less write itself. ‘Buddha’s Orphans’ was the most difficult book to write, but I recall enjoying that difficulty immensely during certain portions.
2. Many of Kathmandu Tribune‘s readers are themselves aspiring writers and curious about your writing process. How often do you spend on your writing each day? And how long did you spend working on each of your books? Do you work solidly for a number of hours each day or work in longer bursts when inspiration strikes?
I am more of a steady writer who writes only a few hours a day. I have rarely written for long periods in a single day, except perhaps during ‘Buddha’s Orphans’ when it became clear that I needed to write more daily, if I was interested in finishing the book.
I usually write in the mornings and do the editing and polishing type of work in the afternoons. But even if I write for only half an hour a day (I also teach and attend meetings and have done administrative work at my university), my writing is never far away from me. Perhaps writers who are geniuses can wait for inspiration. I’m not a genius. I rely more on my labor than anything else.
3. In your first collection of short stories, ‘Arresting God in Kathmandu’, desire is a recurrent theme and there are quite vivid descriptions of sex and sexuality (something other Nepalis writing in English shy away from). What reaction did this receive from your Nepali readership and were you anticipating this reaction?
I think you know what reaction it received from my Nepali audience. Some of it was vociferously critical of my so-called “obsession” with sexuality. Some were close to claiming that Nepalis don’t have sex at all! Frankly, I was not anticipating that ‘Arresting God’ would receive the kind of publicity it did, here in America and in Nepal. I was writing stories that I enjoyed writing, and they got published—that’s the long and the short of it.
But I’m not the type of writer who allows his writing to be dictated by audience reaction, whether positive or negative. I still write stuff that I want to write, that I enjoy, and that I feel speak to truths that are important to me. For aspiring writers, I think this is an important point.
Nepali writing in English seems to receive special scrutiny in certain quarters, with critics endowing it with extra responsibility in how it speaks for the entire nation, how it’s representing Nepal and Nepalis to Westerners.
I worry that young writers will listen to these voices more than they’ll listen to their own, thereby squelching their powerful creative impulses, only to cater to ossified, one-dimensional and regressive notions of the function of literature.
4. The stories in your first two collections really focus on the details of everyday life and how normal men and women experience mundane challenges and joys. Where do you get your inspiration from? And how much of your work is autobiographical (or based on the experiences of your friends and family)?
None of it is autobiographical. My own life is not as interesting as the lives of my characters. It doesn’t have as much drama. I do take impulses from what I see, either in my immediate life or from the larger life of the culture and country, but by the time I put it down to words it gets transformed into something else. I am inspired by the stuff of life itself, and yes, it’s in the mundane ‘everydayness’ that I find insights and epiphanies.
5. Your first collection centres around desire and love and your second collection uses the Maoist insurgency as its backdrop and recurrent theme. Do you feel that short stories need a unifying theme to form a collection?
As I mentioned before, the stories in my first collection were written over a number of years. Several of these were published in American literary journals, but since I hadn’t anticipated them coming together as a book, I hadn’t thought of how they cohered. Only after it was published did reviewers and readers began to speak of its thematic unity. By the time I was writing ‘The Royal Ghosts’, however, I knew that I had an agent and a publisher and that I’d publish the book. During that period the Maoist insurgency was at its peak, so that concern came to the forefront of the book. But there are other stories in there too about family and cultural structures and breaks from those structures. Looked at one way, since the stories in any collection emerge from one author’s consciousness, they by default have a unifying theme. But it’s also good to consider how the stories speak to one another, as long as unity doesn’t become a rigid and artificial imposition. The best way to approach it is this: make sure each story is an excellent one, then put them together as a book.
6. You have been living in the US for a number of years now and your writing focuses on Nepal. Do you find the geographical distance a help or hindrance in writing about your home country? How often do you return to Nepal? Do you have any advice for youngsters living outside of Nepal who want to write about their home country on how best to capture such sincere descriptions?
That I have written a number of books set in Nepal already speaks to the fact that the distance has worked out well for me. I return to Nepal as often as I can, at least once a year. I think young writers need to trust their instincts about how to write about Nepal, whether it’s the country where they grew up or where their parents grew up. Literature is not about one-to-one “realistic” descriptions. What is real to one reader is unreal to another. “Authentic descriptions” can be approached from many angles, depending upon the nature of the work. The blurriness of one’s “vision” about Nepal in itself can be a powerful artistic tool that can trigger new ways of thinking and experiencing for the reader. Let me put it another way: “sincere descriptions” can be dull, artificial, and ultimately useless—thereby calling into question both their sincerity and authenticity to the work at hand. And if it’s not authentic, is it true?
A young writer should always think about the truth of her art, not the truths that others want her to believe, not even the truth that is “out there.”
7. Compared to Indian writing in English, Nepali writing in English is still in its infancy. Is there a reason you chose to write in English rather than in Nepali (and then translate this to English for the international market)? How can we better promote Nepali writing in English and there any Nepali writers writing in English you particularly like?
It was not a matter of choice in the conventional sense of the word. I attended St. Xavier’s in Kathmandu and drifted toward writing and reading primarily in English in my late teens (even as my Nepali was excellent). And after I came to the States in my early twenties, I immersed myself even more in Angrezi literature.
Some people react to Nepali writing in English with a near-xenophobic attitude.
The reading public should treat Nepali writing in English as also Nepali writing, capable of insights and of generating questions that can lead us all to a better place. Young writers should be given more space to experiment, and not be harangued with one-dimensional notions of what English writing should “represent”. This is a tremendous burden for young writers; they get shackled by the notion that somehow they are responsible, single-handedly, to tackle issues of national scale. Apart from this attitudinal shift, more effort needs to be put into organizing writing contests, holding workshops and symposiums etc. But some of that is already being done.
As for Nepali writers in English, there are several I admire. But let me take this opportunity to draw attention to young writers who were winners of a recent competition, Writing Nepal, I judged hosted by La.Lit magazine. Some excellent work is coming out of new writers: Shertok Samyak, Muna Gurung, Prabhat Gautam, and several others. I was pleased to read them, and am looking forward to new writers opening up exciting frontiers.
8. As a creative writing teacher can you give any tips to our aspiring writers?
Each writer’s path is different.
But if one is writing merely for fame, then that is bound to lead to an early demise, no matter the writer’s talent. My own writing journey has involved years of struggle and hardship and rejection—and also joy.
Aspiring writers who are serious about their art should always think of themselves as being in this for the long haul. Quick and easy success is rare in this business, and writers who succeed are those who combine their talent with equal measure of hard work. Discipline and patience is hugely important.
9. Can you tell us a little about your new work? And what can we expect from you in the near future?
My new novel, ’The City Son‘, is coming out next year. People will have to read it to find out what’s it’s all about. I think it’s my best work so far (I feel that way about every book after I finish writing it).
10. What are your top five, must-read books?
There are probably fifty, and my top five list keeps changing, but these books have made an impact on me:
Rohinton Mistry, ‘A Fine Balance’
Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Remains of the Day’
Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby and Other Stories’
Flannery O’Connor, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories’
William Trevor, ‘Selected Stories’