When I was asked to interview you for the Nightmare Author Spotlight, I definitely made very loud screeching noises of delight—I am a huge fan of your work. Your stories have a delicious range: the humor and food in “Never Yawn Under a Banyan Tree”; the building, eldritch dread and stunning, unsettling reveal in “Leviathan Sings To Me in the Deep”; the sweetness and hilarity of a high school romance (complete with robot dinosaurs!) in “Sphexa, Start Dinosaur”; the compact, necromantic delight of “Pigeons”; and now “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar”—which is a wickedly wonderful story about heritage and diaspora and eating people. Do you decide on specific elements or themes when writing, or do you find they develop naturally as a story progresses? What elements do you find yourself drawn to in your work (whether obvious or not)?
I tend to start with a cool idea, then develop it. For instance, “Ten Excerpts” started with me going “I’d really like to write a story in the form of an MLA bibliography,” while “Leviathan” was “I want to write something dark and Dishonored-y involving whaling ships.” Often, the story ends up changing so much in the process of writing it that the final product bears no resemblance to the original idea—for instance, both of my upcoming stories in Fireside initially started out as the same story-seed (pun entirely intended) about motherhood, faerie plants, and odd children, but then split into two as I worked on them!
As for themes, I feel like it hardly needs stating at this point that food crops up a lot in my fiction. Not just food, but the cultural assumptions and strictures surrounding appetite, hunger, and consumption—“Ten Excerpts” is a pointed middle finger at how colonialism Others and declares monstrous the very cultures it, itself, is in the process of devouring.
The paper titles and sources have absolutely wonderful (and sometimes punny) titles, many of which I would like to read! I take it you have much experience writing academic papers—can you tell us about how you chose the structure for this story, and what were some of the bonuses or challenges that resulted from a unique format?
As I like to tell people, I just survived a three-year MFA in Illinois. During that MFA, I took a literature course on the American Gothic, and later, did a number of independent studies of my own design to follow up on specific subgenres of this that interested me. All of these involved producing an annotated bibliography at some point, so I got pretty good at it, and also increasingly fascinated by how annotated bibliographies consist of interlocking components that tell a story larger than the sum of its parts. Because academic notions of objectivity be damned—a story is exactly what a bibliography is telling, one that has been deliberately constructed.
This wasn’t my first exposure to academia; I have an MA in English Lit from back home in India. As such, I was uniquely positioned to notice the despairingly white, cishet, male, and Western limitations of my professor and classmates’ perspectives as we critiqued material that often dealt with transgressive gender, atrocities against people of colour, and colonialism. This got me thinking about how Western academia has been a tool of colonialism, and how racist perspectives and practices are absolutely built into its existing frameworks.
I’d already had the idea to write a story in the form of an annotated bibliography. Now I realized that I could do a lot more by using content to subvert the form, rather than playing it straight. Using the master’s tools to flip the bird to the master’s house, if you will.
What I loved is how we get subtle glances of the history and lives of the characters, and the threads bringing it all together grow clearer and more sinister as the tale unfolds; the story is rich in detail and creepy elements, and it lingers in the brain, a dark and sensuous satisfaction. When you write short stories like this, are you tempted to explore the characters more in future work, or do you find that once a story is told, it is closed for good? Somewhere in between?
Oh, definitely—I have a longing to write a whole series of sequels to “Never Yawn Under a Banyan Tree,” for instance, following the adventures of Meena and Rupsha. “Ten Excepts,” though, is about how colonialism-in-academia steals and rewrites conquered people’s stories—and how diasporas also engage in (albeit much more positive) processes of retelling and remaking their heritage into their own, new stories. We never will know the truth of Regina’s story; all we have is versions of it that people have made up to serve their various purposes. Besides, sometimes, you can make an ending more effectively horrifying by stopping just short of explicitly revealing what happens next, and letting the reader’s imagination do its worst instead.
Care to tell us about one of your most memorable meals?
Oh no, why would you ask me to choose? Okay, I’m going to cheat. First, here’s one of my perennial favourites: mutton biryani, Bengali-style; full of potatoes and ghee and saffron. Second, here’s the most memorable thing I ate recently: deep-fried ricotta fritters at a pub in Ann Arbor. They were so good!
I see you have stories forthcoming in Fireside and The Dark, which is very exciting! What else is next for you? Any long-form projects in your future?
Hah! Maybe if I can conquer immigration stress enough to finish this novella. Ask me again in a year.
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