VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Aurvi Sharma

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I was introduced to Aurvi Sharma’s work through “Revenge Porn,” a jaw-dropper of a nonfiction story that left me unsettled, my head buzzing with my own memories of feeling tender and vulnerable beneath a less than tender gaze.

“Revenge Porn” traversed centuries and continents, not unlike Sharma herself as a writer. A native of “the Indian hinterland”—now based in New York City—Sharma is the winner of a 2017 New York State Council on the Arts/New York Foundation for the Arts Artist Fellowship (Nonfiction Literature). Sharma has been awarded the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, the Prairie Schooner Essay Prize, and the Wasafiri New Writing Prize, among others. Her essays are notables in the Best American Essays 2017 (“Apricots”) and 2016 (“Eleven Stories of Water and Stone”).

In 2012, as the recipient of the Sarai-CSDS Nonfiction Fellowship, Sharma returned to some of her childhood homes and to the banks of dying rivers in North India. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about water.

Recently, Sharma and I talked about her memoir-in-progress, finding inspiration in ancient women’s voices, and writing against erasure.

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The Rumpus: I read “Revenge Porn” in one sitting. I kept looking at the page that said it was non-fiction, thinking, No way. I was very curious how this piece came about, the reaction to it, particularly given your cultural background—and the title!

Aurvi Sharma: It was a really difficult thing to write about. I think it’s the toughest thing I’ve ever written. I struggled to write this piece about the changing perceptions of beauty that women are supposed to conform to. I grew up with a certain beauty standard that changed as I grew up. My mom had a different standard. Then I moved to the US at the age of twenty-nine, and I felt like I had a whole new standard to conform to. By this age, I was pretty set in my ways, and I really didn’t care about beauty standards and all that. But then as a foreigner in a new country, I felt again like a teenager, as if I had to like mold myself to a certain set of things, to conform.

I like to write about dirty things, things that I usually don’t read about. And that was my most basic impulse to write the essay. And at the same time, I was researching all these ideas of beauty in India. I was looking at these gorgeous paintings and sculptures, and beautiful, beautiful women in poetry from a thousand years ago, from two thousand years ago. And I was like, but where is the woman waxing her mustache? You know?

Where are the women who are waxing their mustache, or shaving their “lady parts,” or whatever? You don’t really see that. It only gets discussed when you’re in a room full of women and we talk about all this stuff. And then outside, we’re flawless, as if we were born beautiful. My sister and I always joke that a lot of work goes into looking “naturally beautiful.”

Rumpus: Work!

Sharma: So much work. And I wanted to show that in my writing. With “Revenge Porn” I wanted to write about how insidious and oppressive this system of beauty is. I wanted to unpack what it means to live within this system, and what kind of emotional abuse it exposed me to. I think the gratuitous sexual descriptions were my way of challenging the system on my own terms—my “revenge” as it were—by refusing to make sex and traditional ideas of beauty palatable or pretty. And that’s how these two things came together.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

Sharma: I’m working on a book about water, but a lot of it has to do with sewage, so there’s a lot of shit in there. [Laughs]

My dad was a water works engineer in India, and I moved with him all over north India because he kept getting transferred from place to place. So, we’d stay in a city for two years and then move. In India, the rivers are so horribly polluted. Many of them are like sewers. My father’s job was to turn sewage into potable water. And we grew up on these water filtration plants where they had these gigantic machines, and you’d get all these chlorine smells. So a lot of what I’m writing about is going back to the actual process of purification.

In India, there are some five million people who defecate in the open, so, there’s a lot of shit on riverbanks. A few years ago, I went back to some of the places I grew up in and looked at all these gorgeous rivers that are just festering now and are surrounded by these ancient cities, which are in ruin. And walking the riverbank, my primary concern was not to step into the turds! So, the book is sort of about shit. And it’s also the history of my family. When I started writing, I thought I was writing about water, which is normally associated with purity, but I ended up writing a lot about all the fecal matter.

Rumpus: And then tying it to family?

Sharma: [Laughs] It sounds ridiculous when I say it. It’s also my family history and what it was like moving all over. The ecology, geology and mythology of not just the rivers, but also the history and mythology of my family, my father, where he came from. He grew up in a village in India that was extremely dirty. They have no sewage treatment systems, there are open drains everywhere, and there are no proper toilets with running water. So that was kind of a part of my life growing up and I’m just trying to make some sense of that.

Rumpus: You came to the US at twenty-nine. What’s your background in terms of your education or training as a writer?

Sharma: I’ve been a commercial writer all my life. I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Delhi University. And then I went to England where I got a master’s in commercial writing. So it was more of how to write the perfect press release—you know, how to make money from writing. Since then, I’ve worked as a professional copywriter. I have a small marketing communications firm with a design partner who lives in Bombay, so we run this “trans-global enterprise” where we do websites and brochures, we copyedit books, and the whole shindig.

I started writing for myself only a few years ago. I started submitting to journals, et cetera, four years ago because I realized that I just got really tired of writing for other people.

Rumpus: How long ago did you come to the US?

Sharma: It’ll be seven years in January.

Rumpus: At least among the writers I’m familiar with, their immigration stories are often about being young children or teenagers. So how has coming here as an adult influenced your writing or the arc of your writing career?

Sharma: I came to America fully formed, and unlike writers of Indian heritage who are American in their identity, for me home still means India. This informs all my decisions and my writing, always confusing me, because when I travel to India and back, I can never tell whether I’m returning home or leaving home. This to and fro, this homelessness, is always present in my writing.

Try as I might, I’m always aware of being an outsider, constantly looking at myself from the eyes of others—by which I mean the eyes of other Americans. Every time I return to India, I experience a shedding of this burden, which brings me immense relief. In terms of everyday life, it’s just harder to make conversation since my understanding of, say, American popular culture is nothing like someone who grew up here. And even though I speak and write in English, my slang is so different, and so is my cultural perception of so many things. Living in America is akin to living my life in translation, and that seeps into my writing.

My education happened in India, and I had worked in India. And then I moved here because my husband got a job in Cincinnati in the wake of the recession. So I left, already with a career, and I moved all the way across the world. I didn’t know anyone here besides my husband, though I had a few friends who were scattered around the country. So, it was an intensely lonely experience.

I was in Northern Kentucky actually. Weeks would go by and the only person I would see would be my husband. I was still freelancing for companies back in India. I didn’t have a community, I had not done an MFA. I didn’t know anything about the US literary world, I didn’t know any magazines, I didn’t know about The Rumpus. In retrospect, it seems like such a brave and foolish thing to do. What was I thinking?

Rumpus: You didn’t know any better.

Sharma: I did not know. The funny part is that all my life I had thought my parents, as most South Asian parents are, were not very happy with my choice of leaving the sciences to become a writer. And I don’t blame them because both of them come from poverty. My father’s an engineer. He turned the family around because of his profession. And he worked really hard to go to University and everything, and then, you know, I come along. I was always good in the sciences, and he thought his daughter would carry on the family torch and all of that. And then I turned around and was like, “Oh, you know what? I want to study English literature!” And they’re like, “What?” It was such an alien concept for them. So I’ve kind of defined myself by my professional success, all my life.

My larger family is very, very conservative, and I grew up in small towns and it was a really big deal if you didn’t have a son. So extended family would come to my sister and me and say, “Oh you don’t have a brother, poor thing.” Or they’d tell my mom, “I’m sorry for you, you don’t have a son.” And my parents didn’t think like that at all. “We are really proud of our daughters and they are who they are. They do not have to conform to feminine standards. They will go on to be successful in careers.” My mom never said, “You really need to learn to cook.”

At the same time, I had this pressure. I realize now—but I wasn’t thinking about it like this back in the day—I was always the daughter who had to succeed professionally. And because I didn’t take the traditional career path of becoming an engineer or something similar, I put myself under intense pressure to climb the ladder of corporate success. And I was on the way, but then I got married and moved in with the love of my life and “Okay, what have I done?”

And then I went through a period of intense depression for a year. It was quite difficult. And I said to my husband, “We need to move to New York.” Because you know how it is outside New York—and at least coming from India—when you’re driving for forty-five minutes and wondering where are all the people? Who lives here?

And then in New York, I was asking, “Who am I?” I was writing on the side, but I wasn’t publishing. And you’re supposed to say, “Oh, I don’t write to publish. I write because I’m a writer.”

Rumpus: It’s so lofty.

Sharma: Right! But getting published was really important to me. And that’s when I made a plan in New York, and I just started writing and submitting. I started going for these writing conferences, and I met a lot of amazing people. That’s how I built my own kind of life.

Rumpus: Did you have writing role models?

Sharma: I didn’t really know any writers, but I’ve been a lifelong reader. When Arundhati Roy’s first book was published [The God of Small Things], she gave a lot of writers like me permission to write in a certain way. She shattered a lot of tropes; the whole idea of what postcolonial writing from India was supposed to be like.

And there is Sara Suleri who’s a Pakistani writer, and Nadim Aslam, another Pakistani writer. They’re writing really intensely about how the personal is always political, and also how the political is always personal. And they’re doing it in these bewitching, wonderful ways. They do amazing stuff with language.

Because I write nonfiction, about my past, I research history. And when I’d go back hundred years, I would stop finding any Indian women writers. So I’m always on the lookout for any ancient voices. There are unnamed, anonymous women writing about love and sex, loss and yearning, in these really simple, straightforward terms, for example, in Gathasaptashati, a collection of poetry from the fifth century. Or poems composed by Buddhist nuns between 600 BCE and 300 BCE, called TherigathaIt is considered to be one of the earliest known examples of writing by women. At that time, the only roles available to them were that of a mother and a wife. And if they didn’t want to do that, the only other thing they could do was become a nun. That was their way of having some kind of agency. They said, “I will not serve a husband. I will serve the Lord.” And then if you read that poetry, it’s very religious. But if you read between the lines, it’s also about these ancient women saying, “Look, this is what I choose.”

Rumpus: You mentioned a period of depression shortly after you arrived in the US. Were you writing during that time?

Sharma: No, I wasn’t writing at all which was really scary because, even when I was doing all my professional work, I’ve always written on the side. Small things which nobody really read besides me. I just couldn’t write for almost two years. I saw a psychiatrist and a therapist and I said, “Okay, I need to feel better.” I treated it like a medical emergency because it kind of was.

I was feeling so out of control and that was the reason why I was so depressed. I felt the only way I could gain some control over my life is by writing. It sounds really cheesy, but it literally saved me. I was writing about my own life, shaping my life while I write about it. So that kind of gave me some kind of agency. And the more I wrote, the better I felt. And as I felt better, I wrote more.

Rumpus: And when you sit down to write, do you have a process or ritual?

Sharma: There’s always a lot of procrastination. I keep delaying it as much as I can. Like, let me read all the news first!

Usually, reading, researching, leads to the writing. If I have an idea, I start pulling at that thread. And as I read, I maintain these little bookmark folders on my Internet browser where I add links. Or I find something in books. I take photographs. It all becomes a little digital repository of an idea. If things strike me, I just keep writing them down, usually in my phone. And then, it goes from there. Usually, it’s nebulous extracts floating all over. Sometimes it goes nowhere, and sometimes it turns into a piece of writing.

Rumpus: At this stage, are you concerned about what people will think, what your family will think? For those writers who might hesitate to write about sex, or any subject where their family might be slightly horrified or upset, what’s your advice?

Sharma: I’m the last person to give advice. I’m scared myself! Especially when you’re writing nonfiction, you definitely have to be respectful of the people you’re writing about. A lot of times, I change names because it’s just not fair for somebody to stumble upon their name on the Internet in the situation. They might not want to. And at the same time, I never stopped myself from writing. I’m always worried. But I write it down, and then I figure out what to do with it. I write a lot about family.

But I guess it’s a case-by-case thing. I don’t know how much to write, what to say, what not to say. But I always give myself permission to write what is flooding out. And then I can edit it later. And I can show to people later. The first step is to just put it on the page.

Rumpus: And it’s amazing how for so many of us, even that step is just so hard.

Sharma: It is hard. I totally understand. It’s so complicated, writing about relationships and family, about people that you love and respect. You don’t want to hurt them, but you also don’t want to not make your art. I have complete respect for people who struggle with this because I know I do.

Rumpus: When someone reads your work, what do you hope they take away from it? Or is that something you don’t really think about?

Sharma: Even when I’m telling a very personal story about how I had sex in a public place, it’s perhaps linked to a larger narrative. A lot of times, women’s memoir writing is brushed off as being navel-gazey, but every word one puts out there is political. I firmly believe that nothing is apolitical, and all my stories are consciously filtered through this sieve.

Rumpus: You’ve had a great amount of success, in terms of winning prizes and a Pushcart nomination and having notables in The Best American Essays. But were there times when you felt discouraged? How do you write through discouragement?

Sharma: It’s a horrible process. I often joke about how I should wallpaper my toilet with all the rejection letters I’ve received. Because I’ve got enough! You just have to barge through it. Writing is such a thankless job. And I feel for all the fellow writers out there. Nobody cares. Nobody wants to pay you. You just do it in a little black hole in the corner feeling sorry for yourself. But you have to persist.

There have been times when I’ve just thought, “I cannot possibly have another place tell me that they’re rejecting me.” But then the next day, the only option is to just dust yourself off and write more and send stuff out more.

Submitting your writing is a job in itself. I have a whole Excel sheet. People tell me so many times, “Oh you have all these awards,” and it’s because I send out a lot of stuff. It’s just probability. If I send it to a thousand places, maybe one would respond to me. It has no bearing on anybody’s talent or skill or anything.

Rumpus: That’s really encouraging.

Sharma: Hats off to the literary magazines who have all these volunteer [readers and editors] who are doing it just because they love literature. That is incredible. You are reading submission after submission. And the fact that I’ve gotten published only through the slush says a lot. I am very thankful and grateful to the people who actually took the time to read my work and then passed it along to various channels.

Rumpus: There’s a quote on your web site: “Memory belongs to the imagination.” What’s the significance of that quote to you?

Sharma: It really spoke to me as someone who is writing a book of memoirs. Ostensibly, it’s nonfiction and I’m writing from memory. But memory is so fickle, and we are constantly remaking old memories. We are also, I’m sure, neurologically modifying our memories. So, there’s that aspect of it. There are so many times when different people remember the same things differently.

As I’m putting my memory down on paper, I’m giving it shape, and I’m asking the reader to hold my hand as I take them to a certain spot which they may not go to if somebody else were telling the same story. So, as you write nonfiction, I feel like you’re also creating a certain version of reality, and that’s why I really like this quote.

Rumpus: What are you reading right now?

Sharma: I just finished reading Abeer Hoque‘s book, Olive Witch. Oh, my God, she’s amazing! I love Abeer. I’m completely in awe of her writing.

I’m usually reading a bunch of things at the same time. I’m in the middle of this collection by an Argentinean writer, Mariana Enríquez, Things We Lost in the Fire. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book about growing up in Argentina during the dictatorships. It’s a collection of fictional stories, but they’re filled with historical details. It’s a little bit of horror and just a beautiful book.

I’m also reading a few books about Indian history and mythology. And I’m reading Eve Ewing‘s stunning, surreal Electric Arches, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, and Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.

Rumpus: Who are some of your favorite authors?

Sharma: I have mongrel tastes. My favorites are a mishmash of old Indian writers and contemporary poets, translations, oral literature, and ancient texts whose authors are unknown. What brings all these authors together is that I feel my life to be distinctly before-x and after-x, x being books by Amitava Ghosh, Sara Suleri, Maggie Nelson, Arundhati Roy, Kamila Shamsie, Nadine Gordimer, Eliot Weinberger, Nadeem Aslam, Anita Desai (for her strong, sparse prose), Ismat Chughtai for writing fearlessly about sexuality in the 1940s and 50s, Lucia Berlin, Natalie Diaz, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Ambai, J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, A.K. Ramanujan, Anne Carson, and Wendy Doniger.

I enjoy reading ancient Sanskrit drama and poetry—some of which is almost two thousand years old—for their literary merit but also for the nuggets of history they contain. I’m a fan of Babur’s 15th century memoir, Baburnama, and also of Sei Shonogan’s 11th century The Pillow Book.

I learned a lot about how to tell a story from my mom’s stack of Kadambini—a monthly Hindi magazine she subscribed to in the early nineties that comprised short stories (from some of the foremost Hindi writers of the time) as well as recipes, anecdotes and commentary, which I devoured despite the not-child-friendly content.

Rumpus: Do you feel the responsibility of representation as an Indian writer?

Sharma: No, not at all. That is very limiting, and India’s such a gigantic country, I couldn’t possibly speak for the whole country. A lot of people might also be upset with me if I started speaking for them! And many others would not agree with the kind of things I have to say about India.

A lot of times when I’m traveling for research, I meet these older people, usually men, who are kind of patronizing. “Oh, you’re a writer, in New York. So I hope you write good things about India.” And I’m usually like, “No.” [Laughs]

Rumpus: “I write the truth about India.”

Sharma: The good and the bad. Mostly my head is in India because I’ve not been in the US as much as I’ve been in India. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to do some kind of glorification process.

As a post-colonial child, just the fact that I write in English is complicated. My mother tongue is Hindi, my education was all in English, and I’ve always struggled between the dichotomy. I speak to my parents in Hindi, but I write in English because I’m carrying the burden of colonialism, literally, in my writing. But at the same time, I’ve had people in the US ask me why I don’t write in Hindi. Or white people tell me, “Oh, you should write in your own language.” God! You have no right to tell me how I should write and what I should write about.

Try as I might, I’m always aware of being an outsider, constantly looking at myself from the eyes of others—by which I mean the eyes of other Americans. Every time I return to India, I experience a shedding of this burden, which brings me immense relief. In terms of everyday life, it’s just harder to make conversation since my understanding of, say, American popular culture is nothing like someone who grew up here. And even though I speak and write in English, my slang is so different, and so is my cultural perception of so many things. Living in America is akin to living my life in translation, and that seeps into my writing.

Rumpus: So what’s the endgame? What are you writing towards?

Sharma: I’m writing to bear witness. That’s what I tell myself. When I’m writing I’m always looking to draw connections between things that don’t overtly seem connected, to draw out things that the official narrative might not acknowledge. And I want my writings published because if I am bearing witness, I want it to be public to the world. I’m writing against erasure. That’s what we’re all trying to do in our own way, I think.

Rumpus: Erasure as a woman, as a woman of color—

Sharma: All of that. I write as a woman, as a woman of color in America who writes in English but speaks with an Indian accent. Someone who has great healthcare but wasn’t allowed to work legally in the US until last year. Each one of these descriptions betrays my privilege as well as my disadvantage, and when I write, I am trying to represent all these faces of me.

Intersectionality is so important to me—I know everybody rolls their eyes at that word but I really believe in the concept. It’s all connected, and you pull a thread and the whole thing unravels. And we’re knitting a fabric with our words, just to remember the way things were and making sure people don’t forget.

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Want more VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color? Visit the archives here.

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Author photograph © Monesh Punjabi. All other images © Rachita Dalal.


Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, dead housekeeping, and Apogee Journal; Essence, Ebony, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author →