Neela Vaswani is author of the award-winning short story collection Where the Long Grass Bends (2004). An education activist in India and the U.S., she lives in New York and is the founder of the Storylines Project with the New York Public Library.
Her new book, You Have Given Me a Country, is a blend of history, memory, myth, and Cultural Studies. The memoir blurs borders of genre and identity, exploring what it means to be bicultural in America. The book follows the paths of Vaswani’s Irish-Catholic mother and Sindhi-Indian father on their journey towards each other and the biracial child they create.
The Rumpus: As a writer of fiction before this book, did you have any misgivings about writing a memoir and sharing your personal narrative and family history?
Neela Vaswani: Definitely. Moving away from the protective mask of fiction was a real adjustment. But oddly enough, the hardest part about writing nonfiction has been reading it in public–standing up at a podium, looking out at the crowd, and thinking “They know this is true because I just said so!” You feel naked, or like there’s a booger peeking out of one nostril or something. And I think there’s a larger issue of judgment. I worry, with nonfiction, that if people don’t like the work, they don’t like the author. I’m not in the writing business to be liked, but with fiction, there’s a distance between the work and author that allows for a greater sense of safety, I guess you’d call it. Anyway, I’ve gotten used to the feeling now. I have learned to accept the booger.
Rumpus: Before the book’s prologue, you write, “What follows is real, and imagined.” In light of the controversy surrounding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and the increased blurring of lines between fact and fiction in the memoir genre, did you feel a certain responsibility to mention that your memoir is a hybrid? What do you feel is more important to convey in a memoir—emotional truth or factual truth?
Vaswani: It’s funny, but in a way, I think I’m more honest in fiction than nonfiction. No, honest isn’t the right word. Bare is better.
I did feel it was important to disclose that the book is a hybrid of fact and fiction. The emotional truth is all there, and the basic facts. But, in the end, it’s a story: I adjusted and smoothed and embellished to create a unified tale, one that would not only make sense to a reader, but hopefully move them, make them think.
Rumpus: Can you give an example of where you tweaked the facts?
Vaswani: Well, my mother didn’t remember what time of year it was when she went to the ‘64-‘65 World’s Fair—but she thought it was soon after it opened. So I set that scene the day after the Fair opened in April. And I know Long Island in April. So I drew upon my own experience of a Long Island spring, adding details that my mother hadn’t said in her telling. And I’ve never been to Hyderabad, Sindh, but I needed to place my family there so I relied on stories from my uncle and father and blended their facts with my imagination.
Or I compressed time, like when I wrote about the peanut fields in India. It was emotionally and factually true, but it didn’t all happen in one day, as it does in the book. I presented it that way for the sake of narrative flow and tension, and to show a day in the life of those amazing women. Maybe because I am, first and foremost, a fiction writer, none of that really felt to me like messing with the truth. I think making stories out of remembered life, or lives, always creates an inevitable blurring. But, I didn’t want to be unethical or disrespectful to other people’s version of the same past. So I wrote that disclaimer at the beginning of the book. And added another at the end: “History is something that never happened, told by someone who wasn’t there.”
Rumpus: I love that. Reminds me of Thomas Carlyle’s “History [is] a distillation of rumour.”
Vaswani: Oh, that’s a good one! The one I used came from my husband, whose History teacher at his Quaker high school had it on the wall of her classroom. I thought it was beautiful and true and that it would maybe keep angry relatives from attacking me with pitchforks.
Rumpus: Which leads me to ask, have your parents read the book yet?
Vaswani: I didn’t let them read the book in advance so I was sick to my stomach with worry that they’d hate the book and disown me. But they didn’t. After my father read the book, he sent me an email with the subject heading “You gave ME a country.” He also gave me the highest compliment—that he took a sip of tea while reading the prologue and didn’t take another sip till page 88. For him to let a cup of tea go cold, he had to be engrossed. He stayed up till 3 am to read the book in one sitting. My mother sent me an email when she was halfway through. She said, “Odd how I know what’s going to happen next in this book!” She said she loved the writing even when it made her cry and that she liked the portrayal of my father and that she was finding herself “a bit pedantic but not bad.” Which made me laugh. I think of her as being the heroine of the book—as being a very admirable, force-of-nature presence.
Rumpus: Very much so. So let’s talk about your mother, Sheila. There is a passage told from her point of view. I think it’s the only time you switch points of view, but instead of seeming inorganic or jarring, it works exceptionally well. Why did you decide to incorporate this different viewpoint?
Vaswani: I think I found a flexible persona in the first sixty pages of the book, where I tell my parents’ stories but also disappear inside them as characters. It’s somewhere in between a third-person and first-person voice. Like an “I” with a wig and sunglasses on.
Hopefully, because I was maintaining that disappearing “I” for the first part of the book, the fact that the next section dips into my mother’s voice is not jarring for the reader. I’m glad you said it was a smooth transition: I had been a little worried!
Rumpus: Are the words in that scene her own, or is this an instance of you blending fact with fiction?
Vaswani: I’ve only ever heard the story of how my parents got together from my mother. So that story is only real to me in her voice. And I wanted to pass the truth of that on to the reader. Also, the book isn’t just my story—it’s my family’s story. So it felt right to me to share the telling.
I think I’m someone who has the voice of her mother running through her head at all times, which of course could just mean I’m nuts. But my mother’s voice is very strong and distinct and is the easiest voice in the world for me to hear or mimic. She’s fierce and brilliant and funny—often without meaning to be. And she always respects a story’s structure, telling it the same way many times over. So I’ve heard the story of how my parents met–of how, circumstantially, I came to be–at least twenty times, in bits and pieces. It was easy to access it again.
I also felt it was important for the reader to know that, for a long time, I hadn’t known the true story of how my parents met. I wanted to recreate the freshness and drama of hearing the true story for the first time. I figured, to do that, it had to come from my mother. And there’s something fundamentally human about being told the story of your birth by your mother. I think that’s relatable for a lot of people.
Rumpus: You begin your memoir, “This place, that place. You have to stand someplace. I pledge allegiance to the in-between.” Being of Irish-American and Indian descent, you write that while growing up, you often felt a sense of division and separateness in your own skin, like there was a war in your body. Did writing this book help you reconcile the duality of “this place,” and “that place,” and embrace the gray “in-between?”