The Rumpus Interview With Neela Vaswani

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Vaswani: A big old hairy bear dead-set on hibernation.  I revised the book, in major ways, at least ten times.  I always revise a lot but this was strange, new, and difficult.  And I had to revise that much because I was trying to find imaginative distance.  I had to get myself to a place where I could view my parents as characters. In going back and re-telling the stories of their pasts, I had to step into a created space.  No matter how much they had told me about their lives, I couldn’t write convincingly, couldn’t re-create vividly, without feeling like I was stepping into my parents’ skins the way I would with a fictional character. I wanted to write their stories to read as fiction–scenes, dialogue, a sense of place. I wanted their stories to be experienced by the reader, rather than overheard in my telling.

And I worked a lot at adjusting tone–the way my voice sounded when talking about complicated issues like racism or social notions of identity.  I had to write past my emotional attachment to my experiences, shed bits of defensiveness and self-pity, so I could allow the reader to draw their own conclusions.  I loosened my grip on my experiences and let them be an organic part of who I am rather than something that “happened to me.”  I’d felt that same kind of personal release and cleansing when writing fiction, but with nonfiction it was even more profound.  And it surprised me.  I hadn’t expected any of that when I first started writing this book.

Rumpus: So all in all, how long would you say it took to write the book?

Vaswani: Hmmmm.  I’d say about six years, and that includes its former life as a dissertation.  Research alone took a good two years.  I wrote the bulk of the book in about seven months.  And then the hairy revising began.  For the past two years I haven’t been seriously revising anything except the first sixty pages of the book. I kept changing it to try and find the right voice, the right distance, the right form.  I was rewriting the first section up until the publisher’s due date.  I even asked for an extension of three months just for that first section.

Actually, my publisher initially suggested cutting the opening sixty pages entirely. I fought for that and we went back and forth a lot on revisions, which I think ultimately made the book and the writing much stronger and more lyrical.

Rumpus: Would you say that is one of the advantages of working with a small press—that extra individual attention?

Vaswani. Absolutely.  My first editor at Sarabande suggested I was too married to the facts of my parents’ stories, that I needed to be more imaginative and step away from the reality in order to tell their story better.  The fact that my publisher was asking me to blur genres—that freed me up.  That’s the kind of benefit that comes with being with a small press, I think.  They gave me the extra time I asked for, they let me argue, and they gave me license to be as creative as I needed to be.

Rumpus: You write a lot in the book about displacement and homelessness–not just in a physical sense but also in a spiritual sense. How do you think growing up with both Catholic and Eastern religious influences shaped your worldview, and ultimately this book?

Vaswani: I think that religious identity—be it comfortable or conflicted, nonexistent, half-assed, or whole-hog, is an important part of self-definition.

I always felt my mother was somewhat displaced from her Catholicism because the rules forced her to be.  She is a good enough Catholic that she follows the rules, even when they hurt and deny her.  With Sindhi-Hindus, you can practice your religion anywhere, everywhere.  There are no hard and fast rules.

I think being raised in more than one religious tradition allowed me, from a very young age, to see the commonalities between religions rather than the differences.  It made me respect multiple perspectives, diverse ways of seeing the world, and believing.  My parents had different approaches to religion, but what they had in common was a strong faith and a distrust for hypocritical dogma.  They instilled those in me.

I constantly struggle to see the value of fundamentalism in any religion. Of exclusive, violent, and small-minded rules—wholly outside of God (whatever that means to you) and kindness.  In the memoir, religion played an important part in the exploration of sameness and difference between my parents, and ultimately where I landed, because I was raised by them.  And, as always, I landed in between.

Rumpus: But yours isn’t an indecision between faiths; it’s a straddling of multiple faiths. So did that make it even trickier to write about?


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 →