The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Chaitali Sen

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I first became acquainted with Chaitali Sen’s writing in 1997, when I heard her read aloud from her story-in-progress, “Uma—about a young widow from India who comes to the United States and experiences a chilly reception from both family and strangers. What Sen brought to her fiction was an articulated emotion contained in the crispest sentences, even as a beginning fiction writer. Since that time, Sen received her MFA from Hunter College, has been published in New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, and New England Review (for which she received a Pushcart nomination), and has been a recipient of the Tennessee Williams Scholarship at Sewanee Writers Conference. This past fall, I read her debut novel, The Pathless Sky (Europa Editions), and saw that she had amplified her emotional register, and was no longer writing about a specified Indian or Indian-American character. In an essay published in The Margins, Sen writes that she “felt a crippling pressure to write exclusively about my experience as a child of Indian immigrants” and decided to set her novel in an unnamed, fictional country. “The story that consumed me was not one I could have set in either my native or adopted country. It required an intimate knowledge of what it feels like to have a history rooted in a single place considered to be one’s home.”

Exquisitely written, The Pathless Sky is centered around place, the state’s authority, statelessness, national borders, “dreamers,” and geological continents, all of which provide a rich backdrop to a love story. This fall, when I read the stories of the Syrian refugees, drone warfare, civil wars, and fracking, I could not help but think of The Pathless Sky and the world that the novel imagined. Sen and I conducted this interview by email, with follow-up on the phone.

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The Rumpus: Given how place—imagined yet experienced, resonant yet unnamed—plays a large part in The Pathless Sky, I’d like to start by asking you some questions about your connections to the different places you have lived, or as Taiye Selasi says in her TED Talk, places where you have “been a local,” as opposed to the more prescriptive question, ‘Where are you from?’ In that vein, how old were you when you left India, and what do you remember about living there?

Chaitali Sen: I was two when I left India, so I don’t remember anything about living there. My first memories of India are from a visit when I was six years old. It was wonderful to be suddenly surrounded by cousins, aunts, and uncles I didn’t know I had. Our life in the US seemed quiet and unpopulated in comparison. When I sometimes have an unexplained nostalgia for India, I think it’s because something evokes the purely sensory experiences of that first childhood trip—the smoky air, the car horns and rickshaw bells and peddlers calling from the street, the colors of the walls, the coolness of the concrete floors, all of the contrasts that stood out to me as a six year old. I remember being fascinated by the water pumps on the streets. I think I spent that whole trip just watching, listening, and noticing.

Rumpus: You spent most of your childhood in New York and Pennsylvania? What are your most vivid memories from there?

Sen: When I was five I started kindergarten in Bethpage, Long Island. The beginning of school and living in that neighborhood was a somewhat shattering experience for me. We were the only dark-skinned family and I remember quite a bit of racial taunting. On the other hand, I remember the neighborhood kids all hanging out together, playing kickball in the street, running to the Dominic’s Ice-cream truck, trading Charlie’s Angels cards, and generally getting up to no good, and those aspects I remember fondly.

We moved to a suburb of Philadelphia when I was eight. Pennsylvania was where I realized how much I liked to be alone with my imagination. In Pennsylvania I didn’t have to ride the school bus (a constant source of stress in Long Island) and I remember walking toward my new school one foggy morning and thinking a copse of trees encased in fog looked like a small mountain. That delighted me and it was a good indicator of how much freer my imagination was there. In my elementary school there were other kids of color, Puerto Rican and African American kids. It was a relief to not be the only one anymore. It didn’t matter to me that I was the only Indian because that identity didn’t have any meaning to me at the time. I was seeing other kids who looked like me, and that was enough.

Rumpus: Were you always interested in writing and reading, even as a child? What role did stories and storytelling play in your life?

Screenshot 2016-01-15 19.01.57Sen: I was always making up stories in my head. I would ask my sister to play “movie” with me, a game I invented in which we each stare at a blank wall for a minute, pretending to watch a movie, and then we turn to each other and tell what the movie was about. I think she indulged me once or twice. As an adolescent, it seemed I was the only one in my family who wasn’t busy. I kept myself occupied by daydreaming, reading, and writing.

Rumpus: What did you study in college? And what do you remember most about Ithaca?

Sen: At Cornell I studied history and government. I’m realizing there is a pattern in my life where I think I hate a place while I’m living there, and then pine for it with aching nostalgia after I leave. No landscape has more of a hold on me than Ithaca’s. It’s very dramatic, all hills and crevices, and back then it snowed from late November to early April. A fresh snowfall on campus was stunning, and you could walk through it marveling at the beauty of it and still feeling very isolated and depressed. I loved it and hated it and I can’t wait to get back there someday.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about your time in New York City, what neighborhoods you lived in, what you did for work, what you did for fun. How did living in New York impact you as an aspiring writer?

Sen: For most of my eleven years in New York I lived in Elmhurst, Queens, and I worked on the Lower East Side, where I taught in small public school. My life in New York was insanely busy. Not only was I teaching, which really should have been all I was doing because it was so hard, but I also went to a lot of meetings. In the late 90s I was involved in South Asians Against Police Brutality, South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, Asians for Mumia, and a whole bunch of other groups. What I did for fun was wander around the city, go to museums, and hang out in parks—Central Park, Bryant Park, Tompkins Square, Washington Square, Union Square. I didn’t get much writing done but I thought about writing a lot and what it meant to be an artist in that era. And later I got my MFA at Hunter College and studied with Peter Carey. Gradually I was able to focus and develop the discipline to write, which is all I wanted to do 

Rumpus: You had written about your social, political, cultural communities in New York. Can you elaborate on what movements and organizations you were a part of, how that shifted how you saw yourself, and how you saw writing? 

Sen: It’s difficult to explain to people who were not there how vibrant the progressive South Asian scene was in New York in the late 90s. There was so much activity and hope that the future belonged to us. I guess we felt that we would win, that our politics of inclusion and our desire for justice would defeat the system that excludes so many people around the world. At least that’s what I felt, at the risk of sounding naïve. My main group was South Asians Against Police Brutality. A bunch of us made a banner and marched across the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands of other people after a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima was raped in police custody, and the response we got was overwhelming. After that we attended a lot of protests, always with our banner as a show of solidarity. I was also on the board of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective and met you and Jaishri Abichandani and a lot of other artists through them. That group was absolutely crucial to my emergence as a writer. To be honest, I’m not a good organizer or activist. I prefer to stay at home and read about what’s happening on the outside. I started to realize that if I was going to make a contribution it was going to be through writing.

Rumpus: At what point did you say, to quote Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That,” and leave New York City?

Sen: I left New York after I finished my MFA in 2005. I told people I was leaving to do research for a novel, but I think I just didn’t know how to tell people that I couldn’t live in New York anymore.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little about your life in Austin, how that impacted your development as a writer, and what about the landscape was meaningful for you?

Sen: My lifestyle in Austin is comparatively easy. I have a ten-minute commute to work, I teach in a school with a lot of resources, I have a ready social life at home, and I don’t have a lot of distractions. Again, as I’ve said about other places I’ve lived, I pretend that I don’t love Austin, but after I wrote The Pathless Sky I realized some of the features I describe are exactly what I see around Austin. The limestone road cuts, the dry, dusty air, the big sky—these little things I pretend not to care about have found their way into my book.

Rumpus: In The Pathless Sky, there are a variety of regions in this unnamed country: the capital city Alexandria (which you state is lesser than the other, more Egyptian Alexandria), Luling Province, the college town of Mount Belet, and Sulat. Can you talk about how you created the fictional setting of your novel?

Sen: After I figured out the places that were going to represent different aspects of this country and also different stages in the characters’ lives, I had to figure out what was distinctive about each place. At the same time I was reading Annals of the Former World, and I was inspired by how John McPhee described the geology of the regions of the country as he drove across it. I realized I had to draw on my own experience with different landscapes to imagine and describe it fully.

Rumpus: What is the role of geology in your novel? Why was it important for one of your main character to be a geologist? What kind of research informed your writing of that character?

Sen: I’ve always had a weird fascination with geologists. They seem to have this amped-up connection to the earth that I find moving. In this case, that connection helped me explore ideas about home, citizenship, and migration and the strange and absurd ways that we humans divide and inhabit this planet. And of course, having my main character be a geologist helped me describe the physical features of this fictional country.

For research, I read a lot of geological texts. I read textbooks, websites, popular magazine articles, even dissertation abstracts. The books that I ended up using as touchstones were Annals of the Former World, which is about geologists but not written by one, Earth, by Richard Fortey, and Memoirs of an Unrepentant Field Geologist, a very endearing, enthusiastic account of the early years of American geology.

Rumpus: I heard you say, at an event with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, that you found many postmodern novels to not be romantic enough. Can you talk about the love story between John and Mariam, and how the novel evolved?

Sen: I will say that it was harder than I thought it would be to write a love story. Developing their characters as individuals ended up being the crucial step to bringing their relationship to life, which I guess is analogous to real relationships. But I did set out determined to write a love story, with all its challenges. One thing I had to work on over and over again was what was said and unsaid between them. Sometimes I erred on the side of too much silence and sometimes it was too much revealed.

Rumpus: I know you are a voracious reader, and someone who writes the occasional book review. What are some of your favorite literary love stories?

Sen: Some of my favorite literary love stories are not love stories in the classic sense, but there’s a moment or relationship that resonates with me. In The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, there is a scene where Elias gives Celeste a comb in an awkward gesture of love, and every time I read that scene I feel the same surge of hope I felt the first time I read it. So with that disclaimer, some of my favorite literary love stories are John Henry Days (Colson Whitehead), Beloved (Toni Morrison), The Maytrees (Annie Dillard), Another Country (James Baldwin), and then some of the older classics like Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina. More recently I loved Americanah, and a novel that came out this year called Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta, which I found very moving and romantic.

Rumpus: There’s something very interesting in the language of The Pathless Sky. A very clean style, with perfectly-formed sentences, often filled with emotion. I think of this one: “There was something so adorable about chickpeas, their round little wrinkled bodies.” 

Sen: Working on my sentences is something I’ve been diligent about post-MFA. I had other things to learn during my MFA, and what can be achieved on the micro-level of the sentence wasn’t the focus of our instruction. But I really think sentences need to be studied. I listened to lectures about sentences and bought books about sentences and experimented a lot. Toward the end, most of the edits were trying to get every sentence right, which I know I wasn’t entirely successful at because I have since found some sentences I’d like to change, but I think overall, the effort paid off.

Rumpus: At one point in The Pathless Sky, a character deals with being stateless, being born in this unnamed country, but being unable to get a passport because her parents were refugees who returned, “waiting for the world to open up.” I wonder, what, if anything, is a writer’s responsibility? Is it important to you to engage politically with the issues of undocumentedness, sectarian strife, and even the current refugee crisis? 

Sen: I hesitate to say every writer has a particular responsibility. Sometimes, as a reader, I want to be entertained. Entertainment is important and I’m grateful for people who can write a hilarious book. But for me personally, it is important to engage with these issues in my writing because I have the desire and ability to do that. When I hear news about the refugee crisis or drone warfare, my mind zooms in on the individual, the people who have some other aspiration that is then destroyed because of something that often has nothing to do with them. If I have this compulsion to try to understand the world and form opinions about politics, then I suppose it is my responsibility to address it in my writing. I don’t think that’s every writer’s concern. If we all felt compelled to write about politics, we’d miss out on a lot of rich storytelling.

Rumpus: Thinking of the title, it’s interesting to focus on the sky, since so much of the story is about the earth, and geological formations. The cover for your book The Pathless Sky features a roofscape in an unrecognizable city, but by its coloring, and flat roofs, suggests a city from the Global South. The sun warms and reddens the buildings. It reminds of a line early on, “I think it’s cowardly to kill from the sky, don’t you?” Can you talk a bit about the cover and also the title?

Sen: I often thought about the incongruence between the title and the main preoccupation of the book with land and geology. The phrase the pathless sky comes from the Tagore quote at the beginning of the book. In the quote, the sky is foreboding, a place where danger gathers, but in the book I think it’s both danger and possibility, a sense of the infinite, a place without limits. I think the sky ends up being a counterpoint to the limitations of land, to the feeling of being grounded. It was actually my brilliant agent, Betsy Lerner, who pulled the title from that quote. I myself am awful with titles.

I believe the cover was designed by the same artist who does all the Europa covers. I don’t know anything about it but it does seem to be a city in South Asia or the Middle East. There’s something about the angle of the photograph, looking directly onto the hazy sky over the cityscape, that I find really interesting.

Rumpus: Can I ask what you’re working on now?

Sen: I’m working on a novel about a young South Asian woman in New York in the late 1990s. I know it sounds autobiographical but it’s not.


Swati Khurana is a New York City-based writer and artist. Publications include The New York Times, Guernica, Asian American Literary Review, and The Weeklings. Khurana’s writing and art have received support from Center for Fiction, Jerome Foundation, Center for Book Arts, Kundiman, Bronx Arts Council and others. Find her at swatikhurana.com More from this author →