Vaswani: I think faith in general is a tricky thing to write about. It’s often mocked, or seen as naïve or backwards, these days. Or it’s warped in the hands of people looking to serve their own selfish purposes. I guess I took faith on partly for the challenge. To try and write about it from a cultural, identity perspective, in a way that could potentially make sense to any reader—no matter how, or if, they may or may not believe.
Rumpus: Language is a double-edged sword in the book. While words and story are in essence your “country,” your adopted homeland, you also acknowledge that language can be a barrier to true communion. I know you work in other art forms. What do you think these other creative outlets give you that the written word can’t?
Vaswani: I take photographs and I used to play the piano and now I play the fiddle (badly). And I like to dance, as you well know since we’ve torn up a dance floor or two together. I have a background in the technical aspects of theater, and the process of rehearsal and staging came in handy with this book. We all pass through different stages of struggle and comfort in our own skins, so it made sense to me to set the book up through blocking, through different “acts.” I think all art forms lead us towards emotional response. And each medium brings that emotion out in a different way. Touches a different part of the mind. Non-verbal art forms can give outlet well beyond words. And words can express things that dance, photos, music, and so on, can’t. I’m currently collaborating on a piece with the trans-media NYC group VIA (VisionIntoArt). Paola Prestini and Milica Paranosic are composing music and Carmen Kordas is composing a visual piece based on my memoir. We’re all influencing each other and letting each medium pick up where the other leaves off. The whole experience has already made me a more sensitive writer.
Rumpus: You use family photographs throughout the memoir, which I think adds a level of intimacy to the reading experience. Why did you choose to include photos, and can you explain the method you used in presenting them?
Vaswani: While the images and text can both stand on their own, the hybrid way seemed best and most comfortable to me as a way to tell my particular story. I tried to place the photographs in the memoir next to text I felt would expand its meaning, or vice versa.
There’s a photo of my mother and uncle standing on their Long Island lawn–newly middle class, my mother in her First Holy Communion dress and veil, looking like a little bride of Christ, and my uncle in his Boy Scout’s uniform. This photo says so much about the culture in which they were raised—of what makes a “good” girl and boy, and all those other societal expectations. What I love about the photo is that it’s slightly blurry and on an angle. As if, underneath all that appearance, underneath “the normal,” there’s another reality. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by this picture. It looked like my mother and uncle were wearing uniforms, like they were part of something “truly American.” The photo called to me with a sense of belonging that I both longed for and found terrifying.
When writing about my father and his journey from India to the States, I included a page from his passport stamped with the word CANCELLED. There’s something ghostly about an old passport, from another country, stamped with the word CANCELLED. And next to it, my father’s face. I think that photo reinforces the mood and tone of the text. It captures the weird official-ness of passports and nationality. You might have a CANCELLED stamp next to your picture, but that doesn’t change what resides in your heart.
Rumpus: Your first book was a collection of stories, Where the Long Grass Bends. How did that writing experience inform the writing of this second book? And how do you think this book might affect your next project?
Vaswani: In a way, I was working with mythologies in my short story collection—finding a way to subvert traditional storytelling structures. And in the memoir, I was again trafficking in mythology. This time, though, it was the mythology of family, of country.
And practically speaking, the memoir taught me how to write a book-length piece. I tried writing a novel right after the short story collection, but I kept getting side-tracked by work, life, and, most of all, my discomfort with writing a book-length work. I couldn’t wrap my mind fully around moving from the scope of a short story to the scope of a novel. But somewhere in writing the memoir, I came to understand how to shift scope. And all that is helping me now as I continue to work on my next book, which is a novel.
Rumpus: Care to divulge anything about that novel?
Vaswani: I’m going back to the novel I had been working on ten years ago, about itinerant performers. It moves between New York City, Montana, and northwest India. It’s largely inspired by my husband, who is an actor. I also just finished co-writing a Young Adult novel that is currently under consideration with a publisher, and I’m about to start co-editing an anthology with a writer I’ve admired for years. It’s funny, I used to be someone who could only write one thing at a time, but as my teaching and life responsibilities increased, I’ve gotten better at keeping more stuff going at once.
Rumpus: The redemptive power of story is a major motif in the book. Could you talk about your literacy initiatives and involvement with the NCV Foundation and the Storylines Project?
Vaswani: One of my Irish great-uncle’s was illiterate. He had to leave school young to help feed the family. And when my grandmother Vaswani came from India to Vermont to live with us, her life was circumscribed by her inability with English. Little things, like answering the doorbell, reading the labels on cans, asking the neighbor to help shovel the driveway after a snowstorm. Not having language can be so isolating, painful, and shameful. When I started teaching an Adult Literacy/ESL class at the New York Public Library’s Center for Reading and Writing, I was immediately moved and improved by the people I met there. It made me re-fall in love with language, re-appreciate the privilege of reading and writing. To see someone’s face when they finish reading a book or writing a sentence for the first time . . . there’s nothing more rewarding or inspiring for a writer and teacher. A few years later, I started the Storylines Project to bring published authors together with literacy students and teachers. Because we all have a lot to learn from each other. I wanted students to see how brave and enterprising they are, how much they’re accomplishing with every new word they learn. I wanted to honor their voices and their particular American experiences.
My family foundation is named after my paternal grandfather and is geared towards education and health. We’ve done most of our work in India, but have been lucky enough to start a writing fellowship at a university in the States, and to direct the Storylines Project. It’s my job to handle the educational aspect of the foundation, to find useful, manageable things we can do with the amount of money we have. To use the cliché of “giving back” cheapens it, I think, because, frankly, I’m getting more from these writing-reading-warriors than I could ever give them. It’s been a reward for me, and I cherish it.
To learn more about Neela Vaswani and the Storylines Project, visit www.neelavaswani.com.