The Rumpus Interview with Ranbir Singh Sidhu
Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s Deep Singh Blue is his first novel and second book after the short story collection Good Indian Girls. In this coming-of-age novel, Deep Singh doesn’t fit in anywhere. Not in his Punjabi immigrant home, not at the community college where he takes classes, and not in his own skin. His brother will no longer speak to him, his girlfriend Lily is an older married woman, and his father moves the family whenever they begin to settle in somewhere.
Sidhu draws on his own experiences growing up in a Punjabi family in small-town California to bring Deep Singh Blue alive with lush details and masterfully cutting sentences. His prose is not lyric, exactly, not beautiful in the traditional sense, but even when he’s describing brutality it sings off the page, resonating like a tuning fork.
Not only does Deep have to learn how to navigate his own confusing emotional landscape, he also has to learn how to navigate his parents’ world and their expectations for him, 1980s America, and the new reality of his mentally ill older brother. Before he finds his way, Deep’s life slowly begins to unravel. Deep Singh Blue may not be a fuzzy feel-good beach read, but it’s worth journeying through Deep’s pain and rage to reach the light waiting at the end.
The Rumpus: What was the hardest part about writing this novel? How long did it take?
Ranbir Singh Sidhu: It took some years, mostly the revisions. The first draft went quickly, and was more of a comic novel. Only a few scenes exist from that draft.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about the process of it going from a comic novel to what it turned into?
Sidhu: I think there’s a point when you’re writing something and you realize that there was more pain involved, and a lot of the comedy was hiding real anguish in the lives of these characters. And also somewhat of an attempt to look much more honestly at their lives and brush aside any fears about revealing too much about the lives of people that I knew, who’d grown up in Punjabi households, and also my own Punjabi household for that matter. It was a long process really. I think one draft had Lily in there as a sort of very strong central figure who could play against Deep. That really helped a lot to bring out the strong central themes of the novel.
Rumpus: Lily is the one character in addition to Deep’s friend Chuck who’s not living in this in-between world. Even though she’s half Chinese, she’s more at home with who she is than the other characters.
Sidhu: She feels she has a sense of place and a sense of belonging to this world. She’s an actor in it, and Deep and some of the other characters are more sort of acted upon in many ways. That’s one realization that attracts Deep to Lily so much, is that suddenly he sees another way of—however twisted it is—of relating to the world.
Rumpus: The theme of displacement was also present in Good Indian Girls, but I think Deep Singh Blue takes it to another level. Not only do we have an immigrant family in a new country, but the father keeps moving the family around as soon as they start to settle somewhere. Can you talk about those mini displacements and their consequences?
Sidhu: Part of that was simply taken from my own childhood, and also from childhoods of people I knew, where we were just moved around like so much luggage. And that was very much a product of the time and the way that adults related to children at that point, at least in certain cultures. Where today when my friends move, they very much think it out with their children, discuss it with them, all of that stuff. In those days that wasn’t even an idea on anyone’s radar, at least in the worlds I grew up in.
But I think in this particular novel, the way the dad sort of just ups everybody and constantly moves them is a little reflection of his own uneasiness and his own inability to find a place for himself. That’s something I’m sure he would never, ever speak about, and I suppose it’s sort of a sense or form of control.
Rumpus: When we think of California, we think of big cities like Los Angeles, but the action of the novel takes place in these very desolate, rural areas that mirror what many of the characters are going through.
Sidhu: Yeah, very much so. I moved to California as a teenager from London, and so I had very limited notions of what California was; this very narrow idea. I thought of cliffs, and the sea, and houses with swimming pools, but that was pretty much it. Then we arrived and we ended up in these quiet, gray, desolate valley towns, and that experience was quite a shock.
It’s not that I didn’t like it, I liked it quite a bit, and I’m very glad we left England for California. But the place itself, especially in those days, outside of the coastal cities, it was a very sort of enclosed narrow world. And I chose to set the novel within that enclosed narrow world, because it does very much reflect the lives that these people are living. They would not be interested, at least the parents, in bringing their children to a larger, more diverse, interesting world.
Rumpus: Have you been back to the valley since your teenage years?
Sidhu: Oh, yeah. Many times. It’s not much different. It’s somewhat different. The town I lived in, the main town, which is sort of the main bay area town, has become much cooler and hipper, but it’s still a bit of strange odd little town.
Rumpus: What is the name of the town? What was it like growing up there?
Sidhu: It was called Concord, and at the time was the last stop on the BART line running from San Francisco. In the year the book is set, 1984, we had a lynching of young, gay African American art student living in Oakland who’d taken the BART train in for the day. He was hung from one of the enormously high Concord BART station lampposts. Local police called it a suicide because he had a suicide note pinned to his chest. The only problem was the note wasn’t in his handwriting and his name was spelled wrong. On that same night, two African American men who were out walking with two white women were stabbed by men in full Klan regalia. It was only after six months, and the activism of the NAACP, that the cops finally admitted that the young man’s death was a homicide. His killers were never found, but back then, it was common knowledge that many of the local cops were Klan members. This is the Bay Area, remember, so-called bastion of all things lefty and crunchy, and it’s a part of Bay Area history few even know about and far fewer remember. I had thought of originally alluding to this story in the novel, but felt if I did, I would have to make the novel about it, as anything less would be a great disservice to both the brutally murdered young man and the struggles of African Americans in so-called liberal California.
Rumpus: Wow—I had no idea the KKK was ever active in California. There’s a lot of conflict and debate over immigration and race in the United States right now. Did any of that affect your writing?
Sidhu: No, it really didn’t. Again, that’s something for a nonfiction essay or a nonfiction book. Those issues are very important to me and those questions are very important to me, especially with Trump and Cruz and Rubio and their mad cause to build a wall and all this other stuff, but in terms of this book itself, I wasn’t thinking at all about larger political aggression. I was thinking very much about the specific lives of these people. And specific lives inform politics in much more interesting ways, I think. We can talk about politics in much more interesting ways when we look at the lives of people as they’re actually lived. But I didn’t want larger political agendas to be reflected, or to use their lives to reflect larger political agendas or issues or my own political beliefs.
Rumpus: Do you think being an immigrant in the US in the 80s is significantly different from being an immigrant in the United States now?
Sidhu: Specifically for young South Asian Americans, I think it is. The expectations are no way near as narrow, and the possibilities are much wider. Also, there’s been a general growing visibility of South Asians in the media here, so there’s a lot less strong sense of being this utterly exotic other where everything about oneself had to be constantly explained. There’s still a great deal of unspoken racism in contemporary American society—as there is in the world, and I don’t just mean the Western world, but also India, which may be one of the most racist countries in the world today. That said, navigating the endless boxes one is placed in as an “other” in America today is exhausting, and it requires a great deal of energy, energy I’d rather use doing much more interesting stuff—like writing.
Rumpus: It’s so easy to become nostalgic or sentimental when writing about childhood. Even though your characters feel some nostalgia and sentimentality, the novel itself is completely devoid of it. Was that a conscious choice?
Sidhu: I’m not very interested in nostalgia personally, or sentimentality at least, and I do find that in a lot of narratives about immigrants there’s a desire to celebrate the culture and their journey as an accomplishment of what people are bringing to the US and adding to the flavor of the US, but I find it a very restrictive way of looking at it.
To me it’s actually quite problematic. It narrows how we think about people. It narrows how we imagine their lives. It also places it within a political agenda, which people think is a good thing, because they think it’s a liberal political agenda, but once you commandeer narrative toward any political agenda, you’re reducing real human beings to little more than puppets for your own imagined needs. That’s not something that really interests me.
Ultimately I just find it quite boring. I think complex people in complex situations who are actual human beings are much more interesting. And nostalgia and sentiment, it’s a part of people’s lives, but it’s only part of how the world actually is. It’s an imprint. It’s its own sort of momentary imprint upon the world, which we can sit back and enjoy on a summer afternoon if we want to, but it’s not going to change anything or allow us to open ourselves up in any particular way.
Rumpus: Was there anything that you were reading, watching, or listening to while you worked on the novel that affected your writing?
Sidhu: Ah, that’s a tough one. Probably a great deal. I can’t think of anything specific. I know at some point I remember re-reading Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson when I was revising this novel about a year or two ago, and looking at how he’s a deeply unsentimental and deeply complex writer, and that book is a very magnificent book. So re-reading that informed somewhat how I chose to cut passages in the book.
But you know, it’s an opportunity, because there’s not much like it out there in the world. I found that with most of my writing, and so the work that usually informs me really has little direct relationship to what I’m writing about or how I’m writing. And often, frankly, it’s a book that I read twenty years ago and has so far deeply imbedded itself in me that I have no idea of how it is influencing me now. Does that make sense?
Rumpus: Yes, definitely.
Sidhu: I watch a lot of movies, I watch a lot of TV. I find especially when I’m writing it’s hard to read fiction, and so I end up watching bad TV shows. I’m a huge Buffy fan, so I will endlessly rewatch Buffy and Angel. I don’t know if that informs these stories or not, but it helps keep me sane, which is a good thing.
Rumpus: How has the uniqueness of your work had an impact on your ability to find a publisher and the work’s reception?
Sidhu: I think people, they don’t really understand it. People are really confounded by my work and don’t know what to do with it. To me it seems really plain and obvious. It’s complex, interesting work, where certainly more often it’s stuff that doesn’t end up getting published, or it gets published but in very small magazines. It doesn’t into fit anyone’s conception of what somebody with the name Ranbir Singh Sidhu should be writing. And so I think it’s rather lost on people, and that to me is really dismaying.
And the publishing world—I don’t want to be too reductionist—but especially in New York these days in the big houses, it’s a coterie of white, upper middle class, rather privileged people whose lives probably get very boring, and they read boring, and publish rather boring work which they call literary fiction.
That’s not to say some great work isn’t being published out there. I think some really great novels are being published these days, but I find, especially when it comes to nonwhite writers, that the publishing industry is very, very afraid of anything that exists outside of how they imagine our lives should be, or how they imagine we should be writing. So anything that’s experimental, anything that’s raw, anything that exists outside of how how they perceive modern South Asians living, just goes over their heads. They don’t know what to do with it.
Rumpus: How did you find Unnamed Press?
Sidhu: That was purely through my agent, and we tried all the big publishers first. I have a great love and admiration for what Unnamed are doing, but they’re still a small press with limited resources—what they do with that is impressive.
They really do publish genre-bending work by people of all stripes, and I find that really interesting. They really do seem to have opened themselves up to publish what people are writing rather than what they expect will sell or what will get reviewed in the New York Times. And that’s a risky strategy because they want to sell books too, but kudos to them.
Rumpus: Ultimately, what do you hope people will take away from Deep Singh Blue?
Sidhu: I don’t know. [Laughter] I think that’s very personal, and really up to that individual and where they are in their lives. I certainly hope they enjoy it—it still is very much a comic novel, I think. For me it’s very much a love story, but it’s a love story between Deep and Lily. And more personally, I think for me it’s a love letter to the complex and really kind of fucked up world that is a modern Punjabi family. It’s not meant as an indictment in any way. It’s meant quite the opposite.
Rumpus: Has anyone in your family or any of your Punjabi friends read the novel and given you feedback?
Sidhu: Those who have read it have been quite astonished at how spot-on it is about their lives and the lives of people they know.
Rumpus: Since it’s been a long process to get this book out into the world, have you been working on anything else?
Sidhu: There was a book I started even before I conceived of writing this book, and I put it down for some years. It’s a long book, and I just didn’t have any actual time between work and other responsibilities. So I think three or four years ago I went back to that novel—I was able to get a bit of time, a few months, and was able to look at it and decide whether or not it was still alive, and I felt it was very much still alive.
Over the past few years as I’ve been working on revisions of this book I’ve been able to finish that book too. And that book is largely finished at this point. I think it needs a few tweaks, probably, and it certainly would need a good editor, but that one I’m very excited about. It feels much closer to myself in the current moment.
Rumpus: Can you share a little bit about it?
Sidhu: It’s about the end of the world in a certain kind of way. In the book the world ends in 1991, but it also doesn’t end in 1991. It’s about memory. In the process of bringing the world to an end, they lose the memory of who they are and how they brought the world to an end. It’s a novel about people trying to figure out what they did to end the world or to precipitate the end of the world, and it’s about the slow erasure of their memories and their attempt at both erasure and recovery as things fall apart around them, and also about the lives of a few people who are in this world that seems to be coming to an end. It’s set all across the twentieth century in different countries and places. I think it’s going to be a long process getting this one published, too, but we’ll see.
Rumpus: Any final thoughts?
Sidhu: This is my second book and with my general lack of sentimentality and lack of nostalgia, I don’t feel any great excitement about it. I love the book and I love that it’s coming out, but I’m not jumping up and down and going, “Hey, cool, isn’t this amazing?” But I really hope it gets some attention, and I certainly hope people read it.