Practicing Literary Citizenship: A Conversation between Sayantani Dasgupta and Raksha Vasudevan
Sayantani Dasgupta: I was already familiar with Raksha’s work prior to even submitting my application to be a mentor. I had read, and taught Raksha’s searing essay Steps to Becoming Fine: As Lived by My Mother in two of my creative writing workshops. I was struck not just by the beauty of the language and the segmented structure but also by its clever use of second person point of view and by its sheer authenticity. When the opportunity came to be paired with Raksha, I grabbed it with both hands. I knew I’d get to learn more about her work, writing interests, and future projects, and I was not disappointed. Given Raksha’s breadth of interests, ranging from economics to mythology to geographic identities, it’s been a terrific learning process for me as well, and I am glad for the opportunity to carry on our conversation.
Raksha Vasudevan: Before the mentorship, I’d long looked forward to Sayantani’s contributions in online spaces such as Twitter and the Creative Nonfiction binders Facebook group. I already deeply admired both her writing, particularly her essay Goddesses, and how she used her platform to consistently boost other female and POC writers. Learning I’d been matched with her in the W2W program was thrilling: to be mentored by another South Asian woman who I already knew to be a gifted and dedicated writer (and professor) was a tremendous gift.
Our wide-ranging conversations during the fall and winter of 2019 provided so much inspiration and warmth as the days grew colder. Sayantani pushed me to take the writing opportunities that came my way, to celebrate my writing successes, to read more widely and rigorously. Above all, she challenged me: what did I want to write a book about and why was I uniquely fit to tell that story? Which figures had history marginalized and how could my work help correct these wrongs? How did I see myself in community with other artists and what were my responsibilities towards that community? Like any good mentor, she had reflected on those questions for herself. For both of us, there were no easy answers, and I am glad for that, just as I am glad to share this slice from our conversations with the world.
What does “community” and “literary citizenship” mean to you? Have the meaning of these terms changed for you since you first began writing?
RV: I must admit this isn’t something I started really thinking about until recently. Writing is solitary for all writers, but not having done an MFA (which usually offers a “built-in community”) or living in a city known for its art (and artists), I just assumed writing would be a lonely pursuit. But I quickly realized that was neither sustainable, nor necessary. Denver’s literary community is actually quite vibrant: classes at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, events at Tattered Cover bookstore and BookBar have been so useful in meeting other authors at all stages of their careers. One of my favorite events is a monthly mixer for writers of color: the space it provides to discuss issues and share opportunities with other writers breaking into a still largely-white establishment is so exciting. Online, Twitter and the CNF Binders group have provided amazing leads for stories and places to pitch them. I think often of Morgan Jerkins’ essay on whether Twitter is more valuable for writers of color than an MFA.
Literary citizenship is such an interesting concept in this age: I think it used to mean just buying the books of writers you want to support—and of course, that’s still hugely important—but the concept also now seems broader to me. More than half the reading I do is online, and of course, authors have no way of knowing you read or appreciated their work if you don’t make an effort to let them know. So, when I read something I can’t stop thinking about, I send a note to the author and post the piece on social media. I also try to share writing opportunities: editors looking for pitches, calls for submissions, residency and workshop opportunities etc. I’m also in a couple of writing groups, which is really useful both for my work and for supporting the work of writers I want to see succeed.
SD: I am glad you mentioned that you let authors know when a piece resonates with you. I do that a lot too, and of course, having access to your favorite authors is so easy thanks to the internet and social media.
I guess I have had a “writing community” since 2006 when I started my MFA program even though I might not have called it that. The folks I bonded with the most during that time are still my closest friends. We were all very serious and disciplined when it came to writing then, and we still are. Along the way, there have been many writing-related heartbreaks but we have read drafts, brainstormed pitches, and pushed each other. I have also been teaching creative writing in some shape or form since 2009, and that has created its own community. I am in touch with many of my former students, and of course, for any teacher, nothing comes close to beating the joy and pride than seeing your student’s work out in the world.
The definition of “literary citizenship” has evolved for me in the last few years. Last year, it was volunteering, with AWP’s writer to writer program being one such platform. This year, it’s taken the shape of interviews. I have committed to reading and interviewing twelve South Asian authors whose books have recently come out or they are forthcoming in the near future. It’s my way of drawing attention to my part of the world and doing my bit, however tiny, to spread art and literature. It came about one Friday afternoon after reading yet another ghastly piece of news and deciding that instead of feeling helpless and stewing in rage, I shall do something constructive.
Do you think there’s any tension between self-promotion and being a good literary citizen?
SD: No, not at all. In fact, it’s weird if you are, say, on social media only to promote yourself. Of course, there are writers who do just that, who join Facebook and Twitter and what have you three months before their book is due because their agent has told them to do so. I will also say this, it’s really important to not be petty about who has “shared” your work on Instagram or bought your book, etc. That is one endless rabbit hole, and going down it will only make you frustrated and miserable. I love the model I see being followed by a lot of writers I know and admire. If I were to put it in mathematical terms, it’d be something like, for every unit of self-promotion, put in twenty units of attention to others’ work.
RV: That model also seems a lot more sustainable. Promoting my own work is both a little boring and stressful – obsessing then over how many clicks or likes will I get is indeed a dangerous rabbit hole. Whereas boosting a piece I admire is a lot more fun and I’m not as attached to the outcome. That said, I’ve also started to think of self-promotion as part of being a good literary citizen. If I want my work to reach the people who will benefit from reading it, then it’s part of my literary responsibility to get it out there. And, not to beat a dead horse, but in a published industry where works by people of color are still so under-represented, we have to take it on ourselves to make sure we’re being read.
Who are your literary role models? I suppose I am specifically asking for role models who are not just terrific writers but who use their writing to further a cause(s).
RV: I deeply respect writers like Arundhati Roy, Taslima Nasreen and Meena Kandasamy who are overtly political and have risked so much to make their work. Robin Wall Kimmerer and Barry Lopez have immensely deepened my awe of and care for the planet. Devi Laskar, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and Dinaw Mengustu are masters at creating characters that straddle different heritages, homes, languages. Rather than simplifying identify for readers, they invite readers into all their complexity—that, to me, is a worthy cause.
SD: I love that you mentioned Nasreen. I am especially fond of several of her essays. I will also add Aravind Adiga to this list. After I finished reading The White Tiger, I kept thinking this is the book India has needed since forever. Why wasn’t this available when I was growing up so it could have taught me more about the world around me, how to look at it and read it, and consider, really keenly and deeply, the inner lives of strangers and acquaintances alike? I also felt this way after reading Chaman Nahal’s novel Azadi. I was in college when I read it. I was getting my bachelor’s degree in history, and I remember thinking why hadn’t any book ever made me feel this way about India’s history and the Partition of 1947 even though I had been taught so much about it in school?
RV: Now you’ve got me thinking about one of my all-time favorite writers: Rohinton Mistry. I can’t believe I forgot to mention him earlier! Similar to your experience of reading The White Tiger, the first time I read A Fine Balance, I was just in awe of how he’d managed to build this “other” India, which at once felt so familiar and utterly unknown. I liked his collection of short stories, Tales from Firozsha Baag, even more because they all follow different characters of a single apartment complex. Like you, I was amazed that a writer could so expansively and generously imagine the inner lives of other people, even fictional people. Maybe that is the ultimate “cause” and “reason” of literature.
How do you represent your characters on the page? Do you ever feel burdened in terms of how to write them so they do not perpetuate stereotypes?
RV: I’ve been reading Toni Morrison’s collected essays, “The Source of Self-Regard,” and she comes back to this question often. In one essay, she describes her intention to create “a world both “culture-specific and ‘race-free.’” When I read that, I thought, “yes!” Of course, it’s a very difficult thing to pull off: to situate your characters in space and time, to contextualize their interactions and inner lives, the choices they make, without mentioning race or ethnic background. This is something I hope to get better at. It’s not a burden any more than making good art is burden. Reading work that reinforces stereotypes is not only repugnant, it’s boring! So are implications that writers of color and nonfiction writers don’t have to contend with these challenges as much as white writers, or fiction writers: there is so much creativity in personal essays and memoir, just as many choices to be made as in fiction. And obviously, writers of color are not interested in just recounting their trauma or “exotic” experiences: we want to make art.
SD: This is a great answer. I have been burdened more about this issue as a professor of creative writing than as a writer. When I design my syllabi, I spend an agonizing amount of time figuring out the reading list. I try to teach a wide variety of books, and it’s important to me that my students understand that the one book from Egypt we are reading in class is in no way representative of the entire complexity that is Egypt. I am saying this because this has actually been my classroom experience a few times. If a husband and wife in New Delhi are having an argument on the page, and the husband’s next move is to hit her, I really don’t want to be asked, ever again, if “domestic abuse is the norm in Indian marriages.” It isn’t. There are simply good and bad marriages there like everywhere else.
I worry less about this as a writer. It is very important to me that my reader feels respected when she is reading my work. She could be anyone from anywhere. But because most of my readers have been from India and the US, I have worked hard to make sure my Indian readers don’t feel insulted. It should not seem to them that I have over explained myself or my context in order to be understood by my western readers. At the same time, I don’t want my non-Indian readers to feel the world I am creating on the page is so obscure they are not welcome in it.
RV: Well, I can say that I have felt both seen and like I was discovering a new story, quite unlike my own, in your writing. And I think that’s the mark of a gifted writer, and an excellent literary citizen. Thank you, Sayantani.
SD: Thank you, Raksha. This has been so rewarding. I wish you the very best.
Born in Calcutta and raised in New Delhi, Sayantani Dasgupta is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between—a Finalist for the Foreword Indies Awards for Creative Nonfiction—and the chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Hindu, The Rumpus, Scroll, Economic & Political Weekly, IIC Quarterly, Chicago Quarterly Review, and others. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and has also taught in India, Italy, and Mexico.
Raksha Vasudevan is an economist and writer whose essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Colorado Review, LitHub, Los Angeles Review of Books, High Country News, NYLON and more. Her work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net award. She was born in India, raised in Canada and currently lives in Colorado.