Author Q&A: Piyali Bhattacharya

Interview by Misha Rai

Piyali Bhattacharya is Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and many others. She is the editor of the anthology Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion which was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, was named an “Asian American Literary Achievement of 2016” by NBC News, and was listed as a “Best Nonfiction Book of 2016” by Entropy Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel, an excerpt from which was awarded the 2015 Peter Straub Award for Fiction.

Let me begin by saying CONGRATULATIONS on the success of this anthology and I just wanted to say how important this book—Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion—is, not just to me, but to the landscape of publishing where the publication of such a book seemed a near-impossibility. We hear stories all the time about book projects and books that are rejected over and over again only to be published and find critical and commercial success, which in the end is such a joyous thing. This got me thinking about the last two essays—“Cut” and “Operation Make My Family Normal,” in the anthology because they are so different in subject matter and tone (just as the anthology has essays on wide ranging subjects) but united in the agency the narrators find for themselves, and that last essay ends the anthology on this weirdly optimistic note about embracing who you are and where your family comes from whilst trying to be part of a larger culture one finds oneself in. So I was wondering what the curating process of the anthology was like? There are after all so many different kinds of essays in the anthology. How did you decide, for example, that “Operation Make My Family Normal,” would be the last essay of the anthology? Or that the anthology would begin with “The Cost of Grief?”

Piyali Bhattacharya

Thanks for your deep reading of the book. I thought for a long while about how to organize the essays so that they would have the most impact. For a moment, I considered classifying them into groups – essays on love, essays on professional choice. And then I realized that to do that is to diminish all of them. Each one of these essays is about love, in all its different forms. First and foremost, even those essays which end on difficult notes regarding parents and guardians, the stories in this book are about the love we have for our parents. Each one of these essays is also about personal choice, and about women stepping into their own agency. So, I decided to let the chips fall where they may, and it turned out that if I organized them in the most mundane way – alphabetically by last names of the contributors – then a heart-wrenching essay about the loss of a parent came first, and a moving but hopeful and funny meditation on childhood family dinners came last. The sequencing of that sat very well with me.

Still thinking about how the anthology was curated and presented, I remember reading for the first time Tarfia Faizullah’s foreword—beautiful, unexpected, heart-wrenching, important and HONEST just like this brilliant anthology—and being blown away by the sheer poetry of it. And then, there were your acknowledgements and introduction so full of heart and passion. What was the process of writing those two notes for you? What was it like reading Tarfia’s foreword for the first time? How did you guys decide on what that foreword was going to be like?

When Tarfia and I first spoke, I felt we understood each other without having to use many words. As a Bangali sister, her remarkable work speaks to me on a level that I can’t always explain. I knew I wanted to ask her to write the foreword because I knew only she could capture the range of these essays, but also that she has harnessed the language – the languages – necessary to introduce all the power and force these essays bring. I’ve never been in a room with all of our contributors at the same time, but in the moments when many of us have been together, there is a kind of magic in the room. A support system. A sisterhood. That magic is what Tarfia brings to the foreword. To be honest, we didn’t have much of a conversation about it. This is the only essay in the book about which I can say this – each of the other essays required hours of discussion. But for this, I asked Tarfia if she would do us the honor, she graciously agreed, and we both knew that something startling would happen the moment we were both tapping into the same source of power.

Thanks for your notes on the introduction and the acknowledgments. All three of these pieces kind of serve as introductory comments to the book, and at first, I thought that might be too much. But the truth is that this book is so deeply personal. Every word of it is real, and every one of us who has written for it has had to fight all our instincts to do so. There is not one single essay in the book that wasn’t, at one time or another, pulled from the collection. All of us, at some point in the process, felt that we couldn’t do this. When a work is that delicate, it requires extraordinary care in its handling. All the introductory pieces serve as the book’s bubble wrap. They are not disclaimers, they are declarations of the fact that we have not shied away from truth, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also overflow with love. The acknowledgments were a particularly careful part of this process for me. They come first in the book, and they are my love letter to everyone who made this unusually emotional work possible – most notably, my parents.

Of course, this became even more sharp and, in my mind, even more necessary when my very beloved, young, healthy father suddenly passed away from a swift and violent cancer just months before the book was to be published (after so many years in the works). His loss has broken me wide open. I often think that it is precisely because I have enjoyed such a loving relationship with my parents that I have found the strength to be the one advocating for this project for so long. Losing my Babai has zapped me of so much of that energy. I will find it again, I know. I am his daughter. But I was forced to rewrite the acknowledgments for the book six weeks after his passing, and in that moment, I thought I wouldn’t survive. I think my notes to him and my strong, graceful mother are about me reminding myself that what they have given me are the tools to rebuild myself, to force my body to reform around this hole, and really, to publish this book without fear.

Hundreds of people have come out to support the anthology at various bookstores and readings and I imagine those people must have gone out and recommended this book to countless others sparking a much needed chain reaction. I read somewhere that the book very quickly went into it’s second printing once it was released. HURRAH!

I am not American but I am South Asian and naturally am friends with South Asian women and have giddily recommended this anthology to women who live across the globe. Some who continue to live in countries where generations of their ancestors were born and many who do not; they do not have American, British, Australian, Nepali, Thai or the name of whichever other country they live in attached to their passports or ethnic groups they belong to, and a lot of them, like me, have found themselves identifying with much what is written in these essays. So here is another group of women who have found parts of themselves through this anthology, and through that discovery they have begun to feel visible to some extent. Did you and the other contributors of the anthology have any idea the kind of audience(s) your book would reach out to and the kind of positive response it would generate?

Given the fact that in the past, I have identified so deeply with essays and novels that are tangential to my own experience, I did hope that the audience for this book would be wide. I did hope that these stories would make women feel visible in the ways that other women writers of color had made me feel visible when I was first starting to read seriously, even though I might not belong to the same ethnic communities they write about. On the other hand, I think that to be South Asian and to be South Asian American are two very different things. I sometimes worried about how that might play out. But I am so grateful that a word-of-mouth, grassroots campaign instigated entirely by a handful of people has brought on such a tremendous national and global response. In all the years that I was trying to get the book published, I think the voice in the back of my head that never let me give up on the project (even when everyone in my life told me to let it go) was constantly saying, “But if I can just get it into the hands of readers, maybe they’ll feel what I feel.” It is a wonderful feeling to see that work pay off.

You begin the essay you wrote for Literary Hub by talking about how you spent a decade of your life pursuing women, feminist South Asian American writers, and I was blown away by that because I knew just what you were talking about albeit in a small way where I had gone looking for a similar community years ago. So, why do you think it was so hard to find this species of womankind? You had to go pursue them as opposed to having easy, visible access to them? Do you think much has changed, now a decade later, in terms of visibility and access to such writers?

Part of the reason it is so difficult to find these women – women like us – is that we are so rarely given a platform. If Good Girls had existed when I was first starting an anthology project, it would have been the first place I would have looked for such women. I might have written to the editor, I might have followed the contributors on social media. As it is, I had to do my own version of that. I wrote to University cultural groups, I appealed to arts listserves, I looked up people that favorite authors had thanked in the acknowledgment pages of their books. I don’t know if very much has changed in the last ten years, but I do like to believe that we – all of us who are doing work like this – are pushing the needle forward, inch by inch. I now get several emails a day from women who have read or heard about the book and want to tell their story, or want to access this kind of community. I know some of the other contributors get this kind of correspondence, too. It is so encouraging, but it is also so much. I am so desperate to be a resource for these women in the ways I wish someone had been a resource for me that I end up saying yes to more things than I should, and I know that is true for others in my position as well. Make no mistake: I do not regret this for a moment. I am thrilled to have earned this knowledge, and sharing it and holding space for communities of brown women in my country is my Resistance. But there need to be more of us out there so that even more women might benefit from a sense of community, camaraderie, and sisterhood. More of us need to be given a spotlight, a safe space. There is a crescendo building, I can feel it, but it can’t come fast enough.

In the same Lit Hub essay you eloquently write, “As Asian Americans, we wondered when the discussion of race in our country would move beyond a black and white binary that rendered us invisible. It wasn’t that we saw our position as being equivalent to that of Native or African Americans—we knew and still acknowledge that the racial legacies borne by those groups in the US are made of the heaviest material. Still, we hungered for recognition beyond being grouped into some kind of unknown “other.” We didn’t want to be labeled the “model minority,” which implied that each of us, in order to be legible in our sect of American society, needed to find success as a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. And we didn’t quite identify with the umbrella term of “Asian.” Such labels papered over the stark differences within our communities between rich and poor, documented and undocumented, Sri Lankan and Japanese, Hindu and Muslim. They suggested a uniform and largely trouble-free existence that few of us had actually experienced. We wanted to be seen for the diverse group that we were.”

And as I read those words, I couldn’t help but think that what impressed me about the anthology was not just the sheer variety of subjects the contributors touched upon or how beautifully crafted the essays were, but also the specific cultural, social, political, historical contexts they brought to their essays. Also, how much bravery it took to write about some of the subjects—queerness, domestic violence, sexual assault, the female body, to name a few.

What was the discussion like between you and the contributors as they began to decide what they would write about and then sat down to craft the narratives?

I feel so privileged to have been let into the inner worlds of so many remarkable women. Usually, the process went something like this: I would identify someone who I thought might be good for the book. I’d reach out to them, and they’d respond with some cautious interest. We’d get on the phone, and I’d talk to them about the project, trying to ease their fears about it while also admitting my own concerns.

Often, in that initial conversation, we wouldn’t even delve further into the book than that. We would move on, veering into the topics of what life has brought us so far, the friends we might have in common, and shift into the easy swing of language that women often do when they are together. I would end the call by asking the writer to consider what she might write, if she were to write something at all, and we would schedule another phone call to talk about it in a few days or weeks.

In the second conversation, I would ask the writers to simply tell me about their lives. So much of the process of being an editor of personal essays is listening. Those calls would often go on for hours. I delighted in them. Each one felt like a kind of date – like I was forming a new friendship with someone who might be in my life for a long time. I realized that many of us had never really been asked about ourselves in this way before, and we found ourselves talking about issues we thought we had forgotten or buried. These were not one-way conversations with me interviewing the writer, they were exchanges. We were like college roommates in the middle of the night – each laying in our twin beds side by side with the lights off, reaching our arms out and letting our fingertips touch, finally finding the courage to tell each other secrets in the dark.

I think these conversations are the reason why there is such a great range of stories in the book. We are Desi American women, yes, but open us up and look inside us, and we are every bit as diverse as any other community. That became clear to me when these women were sharing their stories, and I knew that needed to be reflected in the book. If there was ever a point I thought the writer was skating over, it would be exactly that point I’d ask them to elaborate on. Often, these were the nodes of deepest pain. “No, I don’t think I can write about that,” they’d say. And I’d tell them they didn’t have to, but that just for my own sake, I’d like to hear about it anyway. Again, we’d exchange confidences, and for a while we’d forget all about the book. We’d just be carrying both our experiences together, bearing weight for one another. It was the most beautiful part of this process. More often than not, it was these moments – the ones that we tried to evade in our discussions – that the writers ended up choosing to write about.

Then, of course, came the process of drafting. So many drafts, and then edits, comments, and more phone conversations. Because essays like these, I couldn’t just return with red ink all over them. Each one of them was a gift. I wanted to handle them with the delicacy they deserved. I was so fortunate to be holding these gems. I couldn’t afford to drop them. So we talked, and cried, and talked.

Eventually, when the book was ready, and I was feeling so shattered about its publication having just gone through the loss of my father, it was these writers who held me up. They are so incredible – they lifted me when I thought I couldn’t be lifted, and they gave me the courage and the strength to finish what we all had started together.

What has been the most surprising outcome of this book being published? For you and the other contributors?

The most surprising result of this book, on a personal level, has been the deep friendships I/we have made along the way. I may not live in the same city as many of these women, but they are my safety net. They are the people I call now for every kind of silly and deep problem. I went into this project looking for a community, and it took me a decade, but I found one, we found each other.

Finally, what are some books or anthologies you read or are currently reading that continue, in a manner, the conversation Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion started, whether for the South Asian community itself or other underrepresented voices? And, what kinds of voices and stories would you like to see represented in the writing world?

Before I mention what will come, I must mention what has come before, and those are groundbreaking anthologies like Our Feet Walk The Sky, the very first collection of South Asian American women’s voices, edited by Women of the South Asian Diaspora, and also published by our publisher, Aunt Lute Books, in 1993; and Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings By and About Asian American Women, edited by Asian Women United of California and published by Beacon Press in 1989. These volumes and others like them are our ancestors. I honor them for their bravery and their building of the base.

While I was putting Good Girls together, I read, among others, collections like Yell-Oh! Girls: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American, edited by Vickie Nam; Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, edited by Jessica Hagedorn; and Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, edited by the Combined Asian Resources Project. It was as much an education in Asian American history as it was a process of learning how anthologies are created.

I’ve been talking to other writers recently about anthologies they want to create. I think the power of anthologies is so huge. I don’t know if they are given their due in the literary world, but to cultural communities, they have always been tools of collection and resistance. I was recently speaking about Good Girls at Georgetown University where I was in conversation with Samip Mallick, the director of the South Asian American Digital Archive, and he was talking about how vital it is for us as (children of) immigrants to not only know our own history, but to record it, to archive it, to make it available to future generations (which is part of the wonderful work that SAADA does, please check them out). As he was speaking, it occurred to me that this is exactly the kind of work anthologies try to do.

So, regarding voices I’d like to see represented in the writing world, I think I’d just like to see more. This may sound silly, but I mean it in the context of an anthology and in the context of recording all our various kinds of histories. I mean that I want to read more of the stories we “other,” and I’d like to read about them in all their diverse perspectives. I don’t want to assume that just because I’ve read a few works from a certain region, I have good handle on the literary and living traditions of that place. In a nutshell, I hope I never fall into “The Danger of a Single Story,” as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes it.

I feel some of this happening, and I’m so excited by it. The stack of books on my nightstand published in the last few years alone seems never-ending, and I love being transported to all the very dissimilar places these authors are taking me. Here’s to more, and more, and more.

Misha Rai is the first-ever PhD in Fiction to be awarded the Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies for her novel-in-progress, Blood We Did Not Spill. She is also a 2016-2017 Edward H. and Mary C. Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State University and has been the recipient of the 2015 George M. Harper Award. Her prose has appeared in Indiana ReviewHayden’s Ferry Review, Sonora Review and The Missouri Review blog. Misha Rai was born in Sonepat, Haryana and brought up in India. She currently serves as Fiction Editor for The Southeast Review and as Associate Reviews Editor for Pleiades.