What’s Between the Covers: A Conversation with Naben Ruthnum


In the past year, the Toronto-born story writer Naben Ruthnum, whose work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily and Granta, has published Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race, a book-length essay that uses the spice to talk about Gordon Ramsay, the canon of “currybooks”—including the novels of Monica Ali and Jhumpa Lahiri—authenticity, race, and cultural gatekeeping.

For any writer from an immigrant background, Curry speaks with eloquent concision and far-reaching erudition about the anxieties that beset us before we even set a word on our laptops. When he writes as Nathan Ripley, those anxieties are replaced by fears of a more visceral kind in his debut thriller Find You in the Dark, which is a smart, cunning story of cat and mouse between a serial killer and a tech bro amateur detective.

Recently, Ruthnum and I conducted a conversation by email, before and after a Toronto book event, during which we discussed the most plausible conspiracy theories, the guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen, and what makes for a “literary thriller.”


The Rumpus: On the face of it, your two books are about as different as books can be. One’s a long essay on curry. The other’s a thriller about a guy who gets off on digging up bodies left undiscovered by serial killers. I would say the one thematic thread these books have in common is an aversion to what you describe as “currybooks,” of which you write: “they teach us to predict the contents of what we are about to read, and they prescribe the limits of what we are—of what I am—supposed to publish.”

There’s a version of that for writers of my ancestry, too. I feel like there are some Asian writers who very easily fall into writing according to industry dictates. With me, there was an attitudinal aversion—with some element of self-loathing in the mix. Was there any particular reason why you initially steered away from writing “currybooks?”

Naben Ruthnum: I’d add “audience reception” to the list of what Curry‘s about, because I always want to stress that I was also talking about the different experiences that readers of color—in this case, brown readers—expect from books by brown writers. There are a many diasporic brown readers who come to a text by a brown writer looking for a reflection of an experience that they’ve lived, or that they’ve read and that has resonated with them—I’ve had more than a few distinctly non-white readers ask me why I haven’t written more stories like “Cinema Rex,” the one piece I’ve ever done that’s set in Mauritius, where my parents come from.

When I talk about brown experience in the West being so multifaceted that it’s indefinable, I’m making a transparent pitch for my own work: obviously, I’m a writer of South Asian descent, and that is going to underlie the way I look at the world, what I write about the world, and how I see it. The protagonist of my thriller is white for a reason—if he was a brown guy with a beard, or if he was black, the book would end with him being arrested on page ten for his sketchy activities.

Rumpus: Don’t hate me but I kinda want to see the intersectional Asian guy serial killer novel. “His parents don’t like the killing but he’s got a professional degree!”

Ruthnum: Ha! I do have an unconventional Asian American character in Find You in the Dark who was one of my favorite characters to write—but he is, at best, murder-adjacent.

Rumpus: I saw myself on the page. Represented.

Ruthnum: I’d like to think that there was no self-loathing in my choice to write and publish the work I make, but I can’t be sure. I really believe that I write the ideas that come to me because they have come to me, and not out of a wish to avoid the “real story” I should be telling: but I think that audiences and publishers sometimes see me (and perhaps you) as avoiding our actual work when we end up writing work that doesn’t fit into a certain idea of what a racialized writer should be writing.

Rumpus: Not me. Though I think you have yet to work in your affection for cats and metal into your work.

Ruthnum: I keep those things where they belong: in annoying biographical statements. Actually, this is no longer true—my next thriller is titled after a lyric from the Florida band Death, so metal has finally wormed its way into my work.

You started your career at a much younger age than I was when I started mine—I’m interested in how your first novel, Baroque-a-Nova, was acquired and received specifically in relation to race matters. Did reviewers or editors prod at this element of your identity and its place in this book? And did you feel that it was difficult to stand up for the book you had written when you were a relatively young writer with a new publishing deal?

Rumpus: Oh yeah, people wanted to know “how do your [anti-art, unsupportive, and, above all else, Asian] parents feel about you being a writer” or why I didn’t write about railroad workers at the turn of the century. (For the record, the people who wrote about the Gold Rush and railroad workers were paving the paths for ungrateful Asian writers like me.)

Funny thing: Asian people read my books, sometimes because they see an Asian last name. And maybe because they read a diasporic Asian-ness in my writing. Is it an outsiderliness or some introversion? Maybe it’s for reasons similar to why I admire Kazuo Ishiguro, whose work, after his first two novels, have no explicitly Asian protagonists. I’m married to someone who’s not Chinese, a woman who is expressive in her emotions and not afraid of voicing conflict, and every time we are at odds I want to blame it on my Chinese-ness or or the astigmatism of having a bicultural background.

Like you, I don’t feel like there’s a “real story,” lately I’ve been feeling the need to do my small part in placing people who look like me onto the page. In The Plague, I took an existentialist classic featuring exclusively French men in Algeria (so there are no Arab or Berber characters) and tried to imagine it in Vancouver with two East Asian protagonist, and one South Asian. Maybe it’s because I don’t think I can write white people like I thought I could. I can’t do Chinese-Chinese characters either. I think I might only be able to do these hyphenated people who don’t get either culture correctly.

And that brings me to my next question: I want to know how your interests as a writer intersect. You write under two names. Some of your short fiction has both crime and literary elements in it. But Curry is a very literary book and Find You In the Dark is a very well-written book that doesn’t have the thematic grasping required for “literary thriller.” A lot of literary thrillers are often, well, not very thrilling—they have more atmosphere than plot and some sort of action-packed third act. Even though you make a persuasive case about how curry itself defies authenticity, are you a purist when it comes to thrillers? Do you ever come to a point in a thriller and think, “I better avoid this joke, or not go into three pages of interior monologue?”

Ruthnum: Thrillers have room for almost everything I like about writing, fortunately. I like character-driven stories with plots. But I do know exactly what you mean by the pitfalls of “literary thrillers,” and I think that they too are often a result of a drive for categorization that lets down both reader and writer.

Rumpus: I think of Denis Johnson as someone who wrote some books that could be categorized as thrillers that are too dense with atmosphere and light on narrative switchbacking. Don DeLillo’s Libra, too. And I like those books.

Ruthnum: Yeah! I think that when I do manage to finish a literary novel, it will look something like what you describe in Johnson’s work, or what I see in a Greene or Highsmith thriller. Books that may not make it on to the thriller shelves if they were published in the current market, but which have qualities of suspense that are integral to how they work as novels.

But on the other hand, it’s surprising how many linked short-story collections or quiet, interior novels about memory and absence are packaged as plot-driven mysteries—until I think about it for a moment, and then it’s not surprising at all. But while thrillers may be more sellable, it benefits no one to create false expectations around what’s between the covers of a particular book.

There’s almost nothing I let myself do when I’m writing a thriller that I wouldn’t also do when I was writing a literary short story, but I think that’s because the story itself creates the conditions and limits that I work under. So in the case of Find You in the Dark, there’s room for jokes and interior monologue—the main character and his wife have a relationship where they take many shortcuts through humor, and the collision of weirdo obsessives that drives the plots means that even the interior monologues directly drive conflict.

Did Camus have a particularly strong place for you as a younger reader? When I think of a book that I’d want to revisit and recast myself, it would have to be one that dug deep into me when I was young. As a former French Immersion high school student, I both admired Camus and never gave him his due: L’etranger was a set text for us, and I loved it, especially in comparison to the Quebecois family historical epics that were also required reading. But I never went on with reading him, because of the classroom association.

Rumpus: I read Camus’s The Plague as an eighteen-year-old as part of a foundational reading course in my first year at university. That’s around when books made a big impression on me in the same way Neil Young and Lou Reed did a few years earlier. In that course I read it alongside The Brothers Karamazov, and what I like about it was how both novels featured highly charged situations that allowed people to speak about lofty subjects like truth, love, and morality. After that my reading interests veered toward more ironic writers, an appetite that burned through the first half of my thirties. At some point having kids changed me as a reader. I find it hard to read about children in pain, especially when it feels gratuitous. I was absolutely riveted by Justin Cronin’s The Passage, for instance, but I felt all the pain inflicted on one of the child characters was needless.

It’s funny: my remake of The Plague, obscure as it is, has invited a few comparisons to dystopian and speculative fiction. It has already disappointed some readers who didn’t think a story about epidemic and quarantine could have so many characters walking around, talking. Of course it’s about a town struck by the plague that’s sealed off from the outside world, so that makes sense. I even wrote parts of it that felt to me like “literary” horror; there’s a version of it in my head where it goes further in that direction. Where the conversations are cut out, and there’s a “patient zero” introduced and a hunt for a serum. In this version, the plague becomes another, less medieval disease. But that’s not the book I wanted to write. For me, I had J. M. Coetzee’s Foe and Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation as models: books that both critique and pay homage to a classic novel. Whereas I liked Camus’s big ideas, I wanted a cast of characters who weren’t all white men. I also wanted to explore how calamity strikes a population asymmetrically: everyone loses, but some people lose more.

Ultimately, I’m not sure I can write the kind of book that has characters in life-or-death situations, with each chapter leaving the reader breathless. There are times I wish I wrote like that. A lot of the time those kinds of books leave me a little cold. The Girl on the Train, for instance, which I thought was very well-written.

There’s also the kind of page turner where you’re transported into another world. I’m nearly finished reading Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, and it’s one of those books you read past bedtime after promising you’d only read another until the end of the chapter. The magic in that family saga is that you like everyone of those incredibly realized characters and don’t want them to be defeated by history and racism. I don’t think I can write like that, either.

What makes a work a page-turner for you?

Ruthnum: I think a book in any genre that creates momentum ends up being a page-turner. Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser is an outlying example, because the punctuation doesn’t ever provide a sensible stopping point, and the story is so absorbing and funny that you don’t ever feel like stopping. That’s the kind of thing I wish I had the skill, courage, and talent to attempt.

We recently read together, and I was wondering what you think, in general, of launches, readings, festivals, that whole part of the literary world. I never really did readings until I had books, but I think that’s pretty unusual—most writers first form their communities and relationships with the public through doing and attending readings. There’s something about this that gives me the willies and runs counter to the way that I think of and value literature, but I think I am being a bit silly to feel that way.

Rumpus: I teach creative writing full-time, so I am on the front lines of leveraging the social capital of being an author, and of knowing the rights and responsibilities of being a community member in good standing. I like going for drinks with other writers, some of those social events. I feel terrible at readings because my mind always wanders. My wife likes to write with others, whereas I think that the best part of writing is that you do it alone and are perfectly content (unlike other activities… cue teenage boy laughter).

I find it hard to take seriously writers who think of their readings as “performances.” Or who self-identify as bon vivants or raconteurs. (Incidentally, I always have time for your curmudgeonliness.) The reading is like the part of the free vacation where you get the pitch for the time share.

One final question: Find Me in the Dark is set in Seattle presumably for commercial reasons, but maybe also for the sake of plausibility. I notice a couple of Canadian references here and there: a Wayne Gretzky mullet comes up, for instance. For you, are there any anxieties or issues with authenticity that come up writing a novel set in the US?

Ruthnum: It actually wasn’t a commercial reason that caused me to set the novel in Seattle—it was the place that made the most sense for the story I was telling, in that the kind of killings that my main character was fascinated with have a long history in and around Seattle. And, of course, it did make sense from a commercial standpoint as well.

But I was definitely nervous about getting the setting right. Writing about any city or place you haven’t lived in should be something that writers get nervous about, unless you are writing from the perspective of a tourist or a visitor. I combined book research with a couple of stays in the city to get generalities and a few precise details right, and as for all those forest scenes—well, that’s British Columbia playing Washington, but I think the reader wouldn’t know it.

You’re enough books in now that you must have a sense of what it is that readers and publishers ‘want’ from you: has this sense dictated what you choose to focus on writing, and when? For example, have you found yourself writing a non-fiction book when you’re eager to get to work on a novel, or vice-versa?

Rumpus: Sometimes as a freelance writer you get thrown something from nowhere that just changes your month or year. I just got a last second request for a reported feature that’s turned me back to journalism. It was not expected but what I needed. I am between books.

I am not commercially successful enough to say publishers or readers really “want” anything from me. I have such a strained such a strained relationship to audience that’s a result of publishing expectations (my own and publishers) and a desire to try new things. You can’t say you’re just writing for yourself because then you’re like J. D. Salinger in his shed for forty years. So I am going to say I write for me-adjacent people: hyphenated folks; hairy East Asian men; socially awkward people; middle-aged people who hand over to their kids electronic devices so they can finish a book. I don’t want to waste their time.

Kevin Chong is the author of six books, including the new novel The Plague, a contemporary retelling of Albert Camus’s classic 1974 novel. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and kids. More from this author →