The Rumpus Interview With Neela Vaswani


Vaswani: The point of the book is that when you’re a certain kind of person, you’re born embracing the in-between, because you are the in-between. And therefore it’s not a gray place at all.  It’s a vivid place.  It’s as real and contoured and legitimate as this place or that place.  I think it’s society and the human tendency towards rigid categorization that gives the in-between a sense of division or incompleteness.  I already knew this and lived it before writing the book.  But in writing the book, I found a way to voice it to other people.  To explain.

Like most biracial or multiracial people, I’ve been asked my whole life, “What are you?” We hate that, by the way.  And I specifically avoid discussing that in this memoir because I feel it’s already been explored thoroughly in multiracial fiction.  Instead, I set out to write an answer to “What are you?” without ever stating the question.  To try and get behind that question, to understand why it is that people label and box, why they can be so uncomfortable with pluralistic identities.

Rumpus: And why do you think that is, especially since, as you mention in the book, the continuation of life depends upon difference?

Vaswani: Human beings love the myth of purity.  In the memoir, I included a section on how children learn to classify because I wanted to investigate how and why and when we learn to think that way. While categories are necessary, and serve a purpose, they can be so reductive.  That’s why I feel such a strong responsibility to try and portray both of my cultures realistically, to peel back the layer of exoticism or romanticism that reduces and stereotypes.  This book does not feature any mystics or leprechauns.  I also feel a responsibility to stand up for, and as, a hyphenated American.  That said, I firmly believe that all experience is subjective—including “being Indian,” or “being Irish,” or “being biracial,” or “being American.” Every identity is experienced individually, and it’s impossible for one person to fully represent a community.

Rumpus: Speaking of representing . . . I remember you having some difficulty coming up with a title. How did you finally arrive at this one?

Neela's Father

Vaswani: Yeah.  The memoir is so different from section to section that I did have trouble finding a title that represented the book as a whole.  But I’ve always liked titles that are complete sentences.  It was a revelation for me when I first heard Cynthia Huntington’s title: We Have Gone to the Beach.  And Maya Angelou’s, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  I think I’ve held that sort of title in mind for years, and this happened to be the book for one.

I also like that the title could be referring to more than one definition of “country.”  The country we seek may be a place, a feeling, an idea, a person, or anything that makes us feel we’ve found a home.  “You have given me a country” was actually a line in the book that later got revised out. But I liked its resonance and atmosphere so I tacked it on as the title and then asked a ton of friends what they thought.  There was a positive consensus, so it stuck.

Rumpus: This memoir started out as your Cultural Studies PhD dissertation. Did it help or hinder the writing process to start from that factual, academic framework?

Vaswani: Both.  In some ways, the academic framework made the book more solid.  I guess because I did a lot of research and thinking about my topic, for many years, I was able to use all that as a foundation when I moved the book towards creative nonfiction.  At one point, the book was about 400 pages; it still had all its academic parts as well as the new memoir parts.  But it was ungainly and didn’t read as a fluid whole.  So I ripped out some of its academic guts, and the academic sections that did stay had to be softened and re-imagined in more lyrical language.  I guess I think of shifting the text from a dissertation to a creative nonfiction memoir as an act of translation.  Thematically, the book stayed the same.  But the methodology changed.  And at first, I tried just telling my family’s story.  But it was too big.  It needed lassoing.  So I focused on the themes of identity, categorization, and in-betweenness.  Anything from my family’s story (even the juicy, soap opera bits) that didn’t connect with those themes, I left out.  The book ended up being a synthesis of styles, I think.  It’s part history, memoir, fiction, ethnography, poem, photograph.  And that structure reinforces its themes—it’s a mixed being.

Rumpus: And given that the book is such an amalgamation of styles, how did that affect revisions? As I was reading, the writer in me kept thinking, This must have been a bear to tame.

Aimee Zaring’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blood Lotus, Adirondack Review, Arts Across Kentucky, New Southerner, and the anthology New Growth. She has an MFA in Writing from Spalding University and is the recipient of an artist enrichment grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. A frequent book reviewer for The Courier-Journal, she also teaches English to elderly refugees. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband and dog, an American Eskimo named Edelweiss. Her favorite sounds are laughter, church bells, the ting of a golf ball when it meets the sweet spot, and the chicka chicka chicka of a cocktail shaker. More from this author →