Dipika Mukherjee’s new novel about child trafficking, Shambala Junction was recently published in the United Kingdom, where it received the Virginia Prize for Fiction. Already available globally as an e-book, Shambala Junction will be available in American bookstores in April. Thunder Demons, her debut novel about the sociopolitical situation in Malaysia, was longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize and was republished last year as Ode to Broken Things. Other works include a short story collection, Rules of Desire, poetry collections The Third Glass of Wine and The Palimpsest of Exile, and her edited anthologies of Southeast Asian short stories: Champion Fellas, Silverfish New Writing 6, and The Merlion and Hibiscus. A Contributing Editor of Jaggery (A Desilit Arts and Literature Journal), a founding member at Asia-Pacific Writers & Translators, Mukherjee also curated an Asian/American Reading Series for the Guild Literary Complex, Chicago, from 2014-2015. She is a Northwestern University Faculty Affiliate at the Equality Development and Globalization Studies, Roberta Buffett Centre for International and Comparative Studies.
Mukherjee and I first met some years ago. We caught up in a coffee shop recently to talk about Shambala Junction and political fiction.
The Rumpus: The fiction that you and I write is usually laid upon a political tapestry. Were you asked to get rid of any pieces of the novel that were deemed too sensitive?
Dipika Mukherjee: This novel is less overtly political than Ode to Broken Things, which was about specific events involving Malaysian power-brokers. Shambala Junction doesn’t refer to particulars of government. It uses the general corruption of Indian politics as the ground upon which the story occurs, its tenor and tone—and my editors didn’t want to lose that. They just wanted a bit more hope. Here’s the truth: We have a problem with the trafficking of female children in India. People should be—and some are—fighting it. The feticide numbers for girls are horrifying. Telling a human story, with individuals experiencing the effects of an actual political issue—that’s my part in shaking the ground.
Rumpus: You’ve participated in writing groups all over the world with writers from every part of the world. Do your groups ever talk about journals or publishers or editors who are open to fiction with sensitive political issues as background to the drama? Do your writing partners speak anecdotally about instances of running into roadblocks?
Mukherjee: Not so much. In writing groups, we focus pretty much on craft. Where I have found such frank discussions about marketing political fiction is at literary festivals. One that has been very helpful to me is the Kriti Festival at University of Illinois Chicago; the festival director is Mary Anne Mohanraj. It’s a South Asian lit fest, bringing in writers from Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh. The problems in the sub-continent are common: gender discrimination, corruption, poverty. I’m not interested in writing these exotic stories about beautiful immigrants with bare-shouldered women in glamorous saris on the covers. So it’s helpful to get together with others who are writing the gritty stories. It was inspiring to be on a panel with writers like Soniah Kamal who wrote the moving An Isolated Incident about an American family caught up in the violence in Kashmir, and Nayomi Munaweera, author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors, who tackles the Sri Lankan conflict head-on in a gritty unflinching novel. Beyond literary festivals, you have to do your own legwork, look at who’s publishing books that challenge readers to look at social issues.
Rumpus: The character of the father, Aman—did you have a difficult time making him full and round? One of my characters in Cementville was always on the verge of violence, and I had never written a character quite like that. How did you find a way of relating to this man who laid his day-old daughter at the door of an orphanage and walked away?
Mukherjee: Even though I spent a lot of my time abroad (my father was a diplomatic attaché), my thinking is very Indian. That is where I molded my sensibility, and I’ve been around men who treat their daughters as second-class citizens. Yesterday I saw a movie, called Dangal, which is breaking all the box offices in India and has been playing here in Chicago the last few weeks. It’s about two sisters who win international wrestling championships after their father pushes them really hard to succeed in sports—and this was a father who had been upset at having girls in the first place. As an Indian daughter, that premise is not hard to wrap my head around. It’s the way things have worked, always. Even now, in many families daughters are not equal to sons, and more so in rural parts of India. It crosses socioeconomic lines, and you have to merely see the number of “missing girls” in the Indian population, so many girls aborted before they are allowed to be born, so that only about 806 girls are born for every thousand boys.
So, it wasn’t hard to imagine Aman. For me he was very real. In early drafts, he had a relatively small role. He showed up, abandoned his baby daughter, was remorseful, and then was relegated to the background. I didn’t really play around with him very much. It was through working with my editors that he became more fleshed out.
Rumpus: Which made the story richer, and probably more fun for you too.
Mukherjee: Yes. I think there are people like this. For us to deny it is ridiculous.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about your background. It sounds as if you probably always had a strong social consciousness, heightened by where you grew up, and the way you grew up. With your PhD in linguistics, you’ve taught all over the world. Before you began writing poetry and fiction, your writing was largely in your academic field, wasn’t it? How did that develop?
Mukherjee: Poetry is the one thing than never abandoned me! My first publication was a poem—I think I was ten or eleven, living in Wellington, New Zealand—it was the children’s page of the local newspaper. That was the first time I saw my byline in black and white, and I thought Woah! The clipping still hangs in my parents’ home in Delhi. I got married at twenty-two, which was very common then, but now seems so young. I finished my PhD when I was twenty-nine. But in between I had two boys. There was little time for writing. My husband is Malaysian, so I’d moved from India to Malaysia, then to Texas for my PhD. Lots of upheaval, two little boys, and no writing—except for poetry. Poetry kept coming. I started thinking about fiction seriously when I was about thirty-five, and the boys were older. Penguin India commissioned me to edit a Southeast Asian anthology of short stories.
Rumpus: Penguin knew of you through your academic work?
Mukherjee: No, I had simply walked into their offices to propose a nonfiction book about migration to Malaysia, based on some of my academic work. But the head of Penguin India, David Davidar—later head of Penguin Canada, a very charismatic man—would have none of this. He said, “No no, no—no one’s going to read that!” [Laughs hard] He said, “Why don’t you do this anthology for us instead?”
Rumpus: That’s a very different book.
Mukherjee: It was! But he said, “Look, you’re well read, you’re teaching in Singapore now, you’ve got a strong background in Malaysia, so let’s just round up the work of some of the best Malaysian and Singaporean writers, and do this. Nobody’s done this. We’re going to take this anthology to the world.” So, I was like, “Yay! Penguin!” I think it took me all of ten minutes to agree. I was like: Okay, he’s telling me whatever nonsense-high-flying-academic-stuff you want to do with us is not happening. And I signed. I ended up getting two co-editors to work with me, Kirpal Singh and M.A Quayum, and Merlion and the Hibiscus was published in 2012. Editing this anthology—of the best writers from Singapore and Malaysia who we were contacting, selecting and getting the rights to the stories—was like entering into a great network. But I think I also, being in my early thirties—and having so much of that thirties arrogance! [Laughs] I was reading all these wonderful stories and thinking, you know, this might not be so hard, I bet I could do this! This surely can’t be harder than some of the stuff I’ve written. I was SO arrogant!
Rumpus: Had you previously been an avid reader of fiction, particularly Southeast Asian fiction?
Mukherjee: Yes, because I’d lived in both places, and knew a lot of Malaysian and Singaporean work. When I went in to talk to Penguin about my original proposal, I knew it was going to be about Malaysian history and migration, but I planned for it to be interspersed with stories written by people who’d been migrants to that country. I had written for the Malaysian media, had a list of people who’d written and been published in journals, newspapers, magazines, so I had a network already. Penguin knew that; I think that’s one of the reasons they took me on for the anthology. I didn’t end up using those new migrant voices, because Penguin wanted only established writers. That book did really well. Which was great, but yes, a very different book from the one I’d initially proposed.
Rumpus: Did you return to your original project idea, try to get it published by a university press?
Mukherjee: No, it was in its infancy, I had just begun thinking about it. But I knew that publishers would consider nonfiction ideas before you’d written them, so I just took a chance with it, walked into the Penguin office in New Delhi, and it took me in a whole different direction.
Rumpus: Another example of the way some of us sort of fall backwards into fiction.
Mukherjee: Yeah, and even though I don’t have a story in The Merlion and the Hibiscus, I was just the editor, it gave me tremendous confidence. Of course, I got buffeted by the marketplace for many years after that, got slapped around! [Laughs] But that initial boost was wonderful.
Rumpus: Since then, do you feel your own work has been fairly balanced between fiction, poetry, and your academic writing?
Mukherjee: My academic work has fallen behind a bit. 2009 was a landmark year for me, because that was when my debut novel was longlisted for the Man Asia Prize. I also had my poetry chapbook published in Canada. Suddenly there was this validation from a major prize and I had that feeling again: Maybe I can do this. Once I’d finished The Merlion and the Hibiscus and the anthology was being reviewed favorably all over Asia, I thought, Oh, destined for greatness! [Laughs] Then in 2013 the Centrum Foundation gave me a residency, all expenses paid. I flew from Singapore to go and write for six weeks in Washington State. I was working among all these established writers, and I decided maybe I could take a few years, you know, give this thing a good shot. I gave up a very comfortable academic job in Singapore to do this. Then of course I started getting rejected everywhere! When we came back to the US, I taught at Bowling Green State University in Ohio for a while, but I haven’t been teaching full time since. It’s paid off, in that 2015 and 2016 have been very good for my creative writing. I did edit an academic book on Malaysian migrant community and language change which was published by Amsterdam University Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press here. But no, my academic writing doesn’t happen in equal proportion to my fiction and poetry. I’m on a research project at Northwestern University, focusing on Malaysian women and participation in democracy. And I’m loving it. But I don’t feel like I’ve been giving it as much time as I should, with promoting and touring for the new fiction books.
Rumpus: And some of that has been from your family obligations too. I know you’ve spent many months in India helping your parents and siblings take care of your brother after he was seriously injured in early 2016.
Mukherjee: Absolutely. Family issues have been huge. My brother, an avid sportsman and one of the leading academics in India, has severe brain trauma after his bicycle was hit by a bus. My parents are ninety-one and eighty-one this year, so it has been especially brutal for them. I went to India thrice last year, and taught for a semester in Delhi so that I could be close to my family.
Rumpus: Which makes your output and stamina all the more remarkable. With so much going on, do you lay out plans, look at the week or month ahead and decide you’ll spend x amount of time on the Northwestern project, get this story draft to a certain place, submit a poem to this journal? Also, I’m wondering if you consistently feel more passionate about one area of your work than others?
Mukherjee: Yeah, definitely. It’s always fiction. You know I just got back from teaching a creative writing course in Delhi…
Rumpus: I don’t think I realized it was creative writing—you usually teach in the areas of language and linguistics, right? Had you taught creative writing before?
Mukherjee: I have been teaching short courses at Calcutta University for the past three years, and I have taught short public workshops in Amsterdam and in Kuala Lumpur. But this was the first semester-long creative writing class. One of the things I wanted to instill in these kids was, if you don’t find joy or passion or both in the actual work of writing, it may not be worth pursuing, especially not if you think you’ll make money. You get enormous rejection; you can get eaten up with envy towards others that are doing better, or seem to be.
Rumpus: As you were saying earlier, it’s so much easier to get puffed up when we’re twenty or thirty than when we’re fifty!
Rumpus: And you don’t know that until you are fifty. And then you weather rejection…
Mukherjee: Yes! And my class in Delhi was at IIT—which is similar to MIT, very difficult to get into, something like a two percent acceptance rate—so in addition to being young, these kids were the cream of the crop. They had hubris in spades. They were like, Hey, we’ve got this! I tried to tell them, this is not something you just sit down and do and the gods will reward you. That’s why you have to have a passion for it, to find joy in the work itself, because it doesn’t necessarily pay you back in any other way. Going back to your question about passion and scheduling time: Yes, when I’m working on a new book, and things are going well, I think, Okay, I’m going to sit down at eleven tonight, and I can work until dawn if I want to—that thrills me. Nothing else thrills me in quite the same way. Even though the academic work pays the bills and you get to attend interesting conferences, the thrill of just being in the imagined landscapes of your mind, churning away for five or six hours—well, you know how addictive this is!
Rumpus: Back in your twenties, getting your master’s, then working toward your PhD, did you have that passion for fiction then?
Mukherjee: When I was awarded a teaching assistantship at Texas A&M, I had originally gone for a PhD in Modern English Drama; both my bachelor’s and my master’s were in English literature. I’d always loved reading, and that gave me a chance to read and say Oh I’m studying. Once I started the PhD, and probably even when I was working on my master’s, I started to feel that all the deconstruction and Derrida—I probably shouldn’t be saying this—but it just felt like so much bullshit. Anybody is free to intellectually masturbate, but I’m sorry…
Rumpus: You do not need to defend yourself to me.
Mukherjee: Exactly. Okay. I would sit in these classrooms and think, Really? You’re tearing apart something to such a degree that it’s not joyful anymore. Anyway. One of the first courses I took at Texas A&M was Old English, which was supposed to be a very difficult subject, and I was afraid I was doomed to fail a class in my first semester. I lucked into a teacher who was amazing, Katherine O’Keeffe, who’s now at Notre Dame, and I found it very easy! I could almost immediately see all the root connections to Sanskrit, to the Indo-European languages, and I thought, I know this stuff without even trying! Well, I had to try, but without killing myself. In my third semester I took a course in sociolinguistics from Kathleen Ferrara, and I fell in love. Then I found Barbara Johnstone (who’s now at Carnegie Mellon) as my advisor; she was a fabulous mentor. I moved from literature over to linguistics. My PhD is still in English, but with a concentration in sociolinguistics.
Rumpus: A subject for which I searched out a working definition in advance of our interview. According to the OED: “Sociolinguistics is the study of language in relation to social factors, including differences of regional, class, and occupational dialect, gender differences, and bilingualism.”
Mukherjee: Right. I loved the fact that I could work with migrant voices, and social change, and education. And in a way I believed, naively perhaps, that I could Be the change, you know? I could give small communities a voice, whether anyone was listening or not, but I felt I was doing something. It was exciting, intellectually, but not the same as writing. I’m passionate about it, still, but writing creatively, I can literally go on for days and barely come up for air. Academic writing doesn’t do that for me.
Rumpus: I know you read across multiple genres, but do you read many “political novels,” if it’s okay to use that term?
Mukherjee: No problem with the term, and yes, I do. I just finished Submission, by Michel Houellebecq, which has one of the most racist protagonists I’ve ever read. It’s like reading Lolita, where you hate the protagonist and everything he stands for, but you can’t put the book down, because it’s so gripping. It’s about a world in 2022, where the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over the French government. Very political, very disconcerting. I can’t take a steady diet of such novels, and sometimes I go to pure “chick-lit” for plain old fun.
Rumpus: From the cover of Shambala Junction, it looks like you may have managed to combine the two.
Mukherjee: [Long laugh] Have you seen the book trailer? It’s got the cow, it’s got the rickshaws…
Rumpus: Which reminds me of one thing I want to make sure we talk about. And that’s the dialectic of the last couple of years about the whole notion of “political fiction.” A few years back, Richard Bausch wrote: “Eschew politics. The person who has it in his mind that he will write to engineer better human beings is a despot before he writes the first line. If you have opinions, leave them out of the workplace… You are in the business of portraying the personal life, the personal cost of events. So even if history is part of your story, it should only serve as backdrop.”
It’s important to hear what Toni Morrison says about the subject: “What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t.”
In your article for SkyLightRain, you talk about how you came to write Shambala Junction, starting from a place of outrage after reading an article about child trafficking and international adoptions. It sounds as if the flippant tone of the article—the notion that unfortunate children gain more pleasant lives by being moved to an affluent household in a foreign country—provided you with the impetus of utter indignation. It sounds as if time was required for pulling back from didacticism. You said: “I wrote the first draft in about three months in Amsterdam, then I edited this novel over four years, toning down the rage and making the characters blossom into real people. A novel like this taught me that there are far too many victims in these stories to be a novel about the East vs West or the Consumerist North vs Impoverished South. This story needed nuanced characters, and I was very aware of how easy it was for me, as an author, to have them climb onto soapboxes.”
So I’d love to hear what you think of this ongoing should-we-or-shouldn’t-we discussion in the writing community. And following on that, if you’ve already begun hearing reactions to Shambala Junction from readers or other writers, has anyone brought this up, any resistance to the politics of the story? Have readers objected to the background upon which the story occurs, or felt like they were being fed a particular stance, or told to think a certain way?
Mukherjee: All writing is political, whether we recognize it as such or not. You and I, in our writing, have chosen to bring socio-politics to the forefront, through strong characters. As Toni Morrison said, you need to write the books you want to read, and I am sure that was true for you when you wrote Cementville, which is set in 1969 and questions war and class and racism in America in ways very relevant today. I am aware of my privilege in being an Asian woman with a voice that can be heard globally; there are far too many women, especially in Asia, still silenced by society. Writers like Nadine Gordimer, Margaret Atwood and Arundhati Roy have been role-models in how to write political and feminist novels brilliantly.
Shambala Junction was released less than two months ago, so the reviews are starting to trickle in. I haven’t encountered any resistance yet, but I will be on an international book tour after the book releases in the US in April, 2017. In my experience, it is often with live audiences that question and answer sessions get heated!