The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #108: Akhil Sharma

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No one can live an entire life of pleasure. But for the protagonist in the title story of Akhil Sharma’s short story collection A Life of Adventure and Delight, he can hold an anonymous girl’s breasts as she jumps in front of him at story’s end. A young Indian-American falling out of love with his girlfriend and back in love with the ease of prostitutes can love what he loves for a few minutes, before the guilt and shame set in. That’s about as much happiness as Sharma allows his characters, many of whom struggle to love each other with the ardor they would like to muster and are left to reckon with the mixed results instead.

The author of two previous novels, Family Life and An Obedient Father, Sharma mines the Indian and Indian-American experience for loneliness and fractured connections amid some of the world’s most crowded cities. In New York City and Delhi alike, he tells of isolation in young marriages and aging families. With clear, clean prose, he unearths the universal in the specific as he reveals a middle-aged man’s reliance on Cosmopolitan for seducing his world-weary neighbor, as he shows us a young boy talking to God at night while his older brother languishes in a hospital, brain dead. Through the eight stories presented in this new collection, Sharma tells us nothing new—how hard and rare it is to love and be loved by another person—but reminds us how profoundly human we are to try anyway. There is no pretention here toward lasting fulfillment, but there are quiet dinners of lentils and rice. There is the cooler air that comes with the monsoon and the temporary relief it brings from the heat.

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The Rumpus: The characters in the first and last stories, “Cosmopolitan” and “The Well,” seem to share a good deal in common. Both involve Indian men who don’t think they have a lot to offer and their lust then love for a promiscuous, more seemingly confident white woman. Yet the first story seems to end on a more hopeful note than the last. The first also feels more open ended, so I’m wondering how you usually decide to end a story. What makes you feel a sense of completion while the characters themselves may have none? I’m also wondering, given the symmetry of the opening and closing stories, how you chose the specific sequence presented in this collection.

Akhil Sharma: I think both “Cosmopolitan” and “The Well” have some amount of optimism in their endings because even “The Well” ends with a lesson learned and so hopefully a chance to improve.

For me, a story has reached a conclusion when there is a moment of heightened emotion that brings together most of the themes of the story. Things might not be worked out, but all the themes are together in one place.

The way I read short story collections is I begin with the first story and, if it is good, I read the last and, if that is good, I then read the title story. When I was organizing this collection, I was thinking in terms of what story would have the broadest appeal, and so I began with “Cosmopolitan” because it is funny and high concept. I then wanted to display range and so picked a story with a young point of view. After that, I went to a middle-aged point of view. I didn’t want to have two first-person narrators next to each other, but I ended up in that situation. I put “If You Sing Like That for Me” before “A Life of Adventure and Delight” because the latter is dark and would have made the former appear foolish if it had preceded it.

Rumpus: Monsoons often signal relief or change throughout these stories. When the narrator in “If You Sing Like That for Me” realizes she is in love with her husband, the monsoon has finally arrived, for instance. In “A Heart Is Such a Heavy Thing,” the monsoon coincides with Prasad Kumar abandoning his vices and sinking into a deeper contentment with age, while in “You Are Happy?” it comes with a new awareness on the part of Lakshman of the horror of his mother’s life and death. How intentionally do you interweave a monsoon into a story’s plot and with what layers of symbolism? In what way is this a tradition with other writers who set stories in India, and how do you see yourself as perhaps altering or playing with that tradition?

Sharma: The monsoon is such a dominant part of Indian life that it is hard to overstate its importance. One’s life completely changes based on the rain. After the monsoon, because the dust settles, one can see further and so it feels like one’s eyesight has improved or that one is living in a different country where there is more light.

Because of this, as a human being living one’s life, one is more open to relief when there is rain or the expectation of rain. That readiness for hope gets manifested in my stories and that of many other Indian writers.

While “If You Sing Like That for Me” and “A Heart is Such a Heavy Thing” use the monsoon in a traditional way, the monsoon in “You Are Happy?” is more unusual in that the promise of relief does not bring relief. What does occur is clarity, that sense of being able to see further that is part of the dust settling.

Rumpus: Some of my favorite stories here seem to be about coping with trauma that occurred before the story started. “Cosmopolitan” opens after Gopal’s wife has left him. “Surrounded by Sleep” begins after Ajay’s brother hit his head on the bottom of the pool and has sustained irreparable brain damage. Both of them are also told in third, not first, person, so I’m wondering what power this lends you as a writer. What leads you to write in first in some stories and third person in others? Does it have something to do with your closeness to the characters?

Sharma: I wrote the first few drafts of “You Are Happy?” in first and then realized that there was something weird about how understated everything was in the first and switched to the third. This made the story come alive.

I am sometimes not certain what point of view I am going to use when I begin. I try one and then, if the story gets bogged down, I switch to another. I started “We Didn’t Like Him” in first person plural because the “we” sounded cool. But then I didn’t know what to do with this and began to feel trapped and so pivoted out of the “we” into an “I”.

Choosing between first and third is usually determined by what exactly is the thing that is being worked out. A change in understanding about oneself is typically an “I,” while a change in understanding of a situation or one’s place in the world is a third-person story.

Rumpus: Did you write “Surrounded by Sleep” before your second novel, Family Life, both of which are based on your older brother’s tragic accident? Or was it the other way around? What, if anything, do you feel you accomplished or communicated in your short story that the novel may not have done?

Sharma: I wrote “Surrounded by Sleep” before I wrote Family Life. The story is closed and self-contained in a way that the novel is not. The father is not emotionally unkempt in the story. The brother is brain-dead, and so there isn’t the possibility of recovery. The story is also about coming to an understanding of a situation while the novel is a coming-of-age story.

Rumpus: In the story “A Life of Adventure and Delight,” Gautama confides to his girlfriend that, “In India, public knowledge of his sister’s epilepsy would have marked the whole family as defective.” You are similarly candid about other unsavory aspects of Indian culture, such as alluding to forced abortions for women who conceive daughters in “The Well.” As you’re writing, do you struggle with the potential fallout of exposing certain sins of a whole community? Or do you think that certain Indian institutions and customs simply reflect the same problems and prejudices (class and sexism, for example) present everywhere, only perhaps more starkly in some instances?

Sharma: I am not exposing these sins. If anybody reads an Indian newspaper, all these things are obvious, and so I am not breaking news. All I am doing is representing my community as it actually is. Also, I have to assume that readers are sophisticated enough to know that not every person in a community is the same, and so there are many people who would not force an abortion just because a fetus is female. Even within my stories, people hold opposing views. The mother in the story, for example, would vehemently oppose a forced abortion.

Certainly, the same problems of sexism etc. exist in most societies. With that being said, certain pressures are greater in certain societies.

Rumpus: I love how you overlay economic with emotional reality throughout these stories. To me, your characters’ emotional lives come across as even richer for the frankness with which you discuss things like Namrita’s unsatisfactory dowry in “A Heart Is Such a Heavy Thing” and Gautama’s thrift in “A Life of Adventure and Delight” as he tries to secure the afternoon rate for prostitutes in the early evening. I feel like economic life is something other fiction writers ignore too easily, perhaps because they feel it detracts from the poetic aspects of their work or slows down the drama. But you make it seem essential. What do you think factoring money into the interpersonal equation adds to your writing? Do you think there needs to be more of this in fiction?

Sharma: Money is part of how we move through the world, what stores and restaurants we go into, whether we take a train to the airport or a taxi. Describing characters living in the real world requires describing them engaging with money. There are also so many emotional aspects to money—feelings of inadequacy, feelings of security. I am not sure if there needs to be more about money in fiction, but the absence of this aspect can make a story feel somehow frictionless and unreal.

Rumpus: A lot of the humor for me in this collection, I felt, came from a given character’s innocence—Ajay praying to Superman to make his brother well again in “Surrounded by Sleep,” Gautama in “A Life of Adventure and Delight” watching YouTube videos to get better at kissing his girlfriend. Most of your characters are dealing with situations that are a little too complex for them. Are you consciously trying to insert levity into heavy subjects, or is it simply a byproduct of fleshing out the character?

Sharma: For me, a lot of the humor comes not from innocence but from characters trying to figure out how to get what they need. So, for example, the protagonist of “A Life of Adventure and Delight” deciding to get married so he won’t go to prostitutes and thus end up in jail again.

I don’t try to be funny, but am relieved when an opportunity comes up for humor.

Rumpus: Who have your main influences been as a writer? What do you as a teacher think you can teach people about writing and what do they have to discover for themselves?

Sharma: Hemingway has been the most important influence on me as a writer. But at a certain point as a writer, I realized that he was writing about good people doing good things. This did not match my experience of life and so I found my sentences stretching and becoming less plain.

As a teacher, I can help my students see what is working and not working. I can show them certain solutions. I can guide them to books that will serve as role models. Largely, though, one learns to write almost like developing muscle memory, and this requires years of effort.

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Author photograph © Nicolas Prakas


Melissa Wiley is the author of the essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in places like DIAGRAM, The Offing, Juked, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Drunken Boat, PANK, and Queen Mob's Tea House. She lives in Chicago. More from this author →