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Samrat Upadhyay

Samrat Upadhyay

Samrat Upadhyay

In your new collection, Mad Country, there is the story called “America the Great Equalizer,” which is your first story set in America. What made you finally decide to write a story set in America?

“America the Great Equalizer” is my first story fully set in America, although in my previous work my characters have done some traveling to America. When I lecture or do readings in the U.S., my Nepali readers, especially the younger generation, have asked me why I haven’t written about them. My answer has been that Nepal’s hold on me is too strong to break. When Ferguson happened, I began thinking. Race issues in America tend to be couched in the binary of black and white, and the other shades of colour are often not a part of the conversation. I envisioned a young Nepali student, with baggage from his own personal life, trying to come to grips with this big racial divide. It seemed like a natural extension of the other stories I was writing during that period. Many of these stories, although set in Nepal, also investigate the various identities that orchestrate our experiences.

I read somewhere that you switched to writing your fiction longhand before typing it. What prompted you to do this and how does it help your writing process?

Ever since about halfway through Buddha’s Orphans, I have been writing fiction longhand. While I was writing that book, seeing my words on the screen made me feel as if it was already moving toward a finished draft, which made me anxious. I knew the novel was far from finished. So, to return to the feeling of original composition, I decided to write the novel by hand. I bought cheap notebooks and large packets of pens from Cosco. It was wonderful to return to the immediacy of pen on paper. Sometimes I wrote in large handwriting; other times in small. Sometimes, I deliberately went off on a tangent and wrote stuff that didn’’t seem tightly connected to the novel. The entire process loosened something up inside me, assured me that my words were not concrete, that they were malleable. It also helped when I started typing my handwritten work because I instinctually was doing minor editing as I typed. Since then, I always write my original draft by hand.

How does one write and/or teach multicultural literature? Have you ever assigned your students to write a story from the point of view of a character from a wholly different cultural, ethnic, or other background?

I do encourage my students to write from perspectives other than their own, sometimes simply as an exercise, to see how successful they can be, or what kind of research they need to conduct to do justice to that perspective. The texts I assign for my courses are invariably multicultural, international: Ishiguro, Gordimer, Rushdie, McEwan, Ha Jin, etc. I think it’s very important for American students to know of the varied literary aesthetics and concerns that exist around the world.

Two of your books—, Arresting God in Kathmandu and Buddha’s Orphans— have overt religious references even in the titles. How has religion influenced you in your work, if at all.

Nepal is a very religious country. Temples abound. People go to temples. People are chanting…I am interested in how gods and goddesses feature in people’s lives, and how I’’ve seen even among Nepali communities here that religious symbols are some of the most easily transferable symbols. So, you go into a Nepali household and there’s Ganesh, and there’s Saraswati, and there’s Lakshmi. But I’m more interested in people seeking transcendence in their everyday lives, and how the physical realities around us can also be opportunities for us to find and discover that transcendence. I’’ve been reading a little bit on Buddha’s philosophies, and I’m interested in the whole idea of suffering; and that’s why there’s a crucial moment in Buddha’s Orphans where the main character is reflecting upon the suffering of this one particular character, and I thought that applied to the suffering of all the characters, even those who are not overtly suffering.

Have you considered or tried to write any novels in your native language?

I used to be good in Nepali when I was attending school in Nepal, but I lost the facility once I came over here. I’’ve tried writing in Nepali, but I’’ve found the only kind of writing I do in Nepali is journalistic. I have actually have sat down and translated one of my stories into Nepali, and that worked out fine because I knew how the work was in English. But translation takes a long time. I spent a lot of time translating one piece. Nepali is my mother tongue, but English is my first language. By this time, it has become the language of my intellectual make-up and my professional make-up, so it feels as though I can do more with English than I can with Nepali.

About the Interviewee:

Samrat Upadhyay was born and raised in Nepal. He is the author of The City Son, which was shortlisted for the PEN Open Book Award. He has written for The New York Times and has appeared on BBC Radio and National Public Radio. Upadhyay teaches creative writing at Indiana University.