January 2007

Shannon McDonnell

features

An Interview with Rachel Manija Brown

When Rachel Manija Brown was seven, her post-hippie Jewish Californian parents moved her from sunny Los Angeles to a dusty ashram in The Middle of Nowhere, India. Ahmednagar, to be exact, nine train hours east of Bombay/Mumbai, where she was the only foreign child in a hundred-mile radius. They were Baba-lovers, followers of Meher Baba, an Indian guru most known for coining the insipid phrase “don’t worry, be happy” and as being the guru of Pete Townshend. The next five years would fill a book, literally.

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost is, as its subtitle says, a tale of an American misfit in India. Life is difficult enough for a young person, much less one uprooted from everything familiar and plunked down in the middle of idealistic hippies, strict religious fanatics, sweltering heat, large wildlife, multi-armed gods, mosquitoes, dirt, and cranky librarians who growl outside her window nightly. Greatly influenced and inspired by Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors, Fishes is part coming-of-age story, part travel journal, part exposé, part tragicomedy, and part fairy tale. But it is all true.

Rachel Manija Brown spoke to Bookslut over e-mail about her experience writing her memoir. More information and deleted sections from the book can be found on her website www.rachelmanijabrown.com.

One would expect some kind of backlash from the Baba community, considering your frank account. What, if any, was the response from the Baba-lovers? Any on-going reactions?

Baba-lovers are divided on the topic of All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: honest account of a difficult childhood, or sleazy work of blasphemous slander.

The ones who are most passionately opposed to my book often haven’t read it. They send me e-mails like this: “I haven’t read your so-called 'memoir' and I’m not going to. But from what I hear, you had a blessed and wonderful childhood, so I don’t know why you chose to viciously attack Baba and your sainted mother. I suppose it was for the money. Well, you may think you don’t love Baba, but he loves everyone, even you. Some day you will see the error of your ways. Until then, I feel sorry for your mother. My own children were raised in Baba and often tell me how much they love Baba. By the way, I met you once when you were five, and you were a horrible little brat. It’s clear that you haven’t changed. Jai Baba!”

I also get letters from non-Baba-lover adults with Baba-loving parents. They are some of my biggest fans, and often write with hilarious or poignant stories from their own childhoods.

However, Baba-lovers have also written to say that they enjoyed Fishes and thought it was very honest. A couple have even said that reading it brought them closer to Baba. I confess to mixed feelings about that reaction.

Did you have any plans or motives beyond just telling your story?

For most of my life, I did not discuss my childhood in any detail beyond that I had grown up in India. I was afraid that if I told the truth, people would think I was irreparably damaged or at best, weird. But keeping silent made me feel as if a substantial part of my life was a shameful secret. I didn’t personally feel ashamed of what happened; but I was afraid that if I told the truth, strangers would think badly of me, friends would think I’d been holding out on them, the entire Baba community would become even more annoyingly passive-aggressive to me, and I would break my mother’s heart.

But I felt smothered in secrecy, and I bitterly resented that the Baba community seemed to think I was a child saint with a blessed life. In the end, it was a story that I desperately wanted to tell, and to as wide an audience as possible. So I told it.

I also hoped that other people with rotten or merely peculiar childhoods might read it and be comforted by the realization that they were not alone. Likewise, I wanted to prove by example that no matter what awful things happen to you, it is still possible to lead a perfectly happy life.

And oh, all right, I confess: I hoped that Oprah would pick it up and it would become a worldwide bestseller and a smash movie and make me rich and famous and a sought-after date by whatever movie star I happened to be fantasizing about at the moment. (Daniel Craig, my e-mail is on my website. Write me!)

There are always huge questions of memory in memoir writing. Accuracy, conflicting memories, what to include, etc. Did you struggle with this? How did it resolve?

Memory is indeed fallible, and different people remember events differently. If three people go to a wedding, the caterer might have vivid memories of the canapés and none of the ceremony; the bride’s ex-boyfriend might recall the groom as a stammering halfwit who resembled a chimpanzee manhandled into an ill-fitting suit; and the groom’s father might end up with his memories of the ceremony associated with memories of the groom as a little boy. Those three people would give totally different accounts of the same event, but those accounts would all be valid and honest.

Given that, I didn’t worry too much about my book being the absolute last word on what actually happened when I was a child. That would be as impossible as creating the absolute last word on that hypothetical wedding; and it would have been no closer to the truth than what I did write, which was an honest to my recollections as I could make it, without pretending that those recollections were the Ultimate Truth.

I did fact-check as much as I could. But if my memory differed from someone else’s, unless I had reason to think they were more likely to be correct, I went with my version. After all, it was my book.

As for what to include, I started by writing down everything that I remembered. Then I cut the parts that seemed irrelevant, uninteresting, repetitive, unnecessary, or unfair. The result is not the whole truth, but I did my best to make it nothing but the truth.

Did writing clear up your memories or make them muddier?

When you begin writing or recounting or pondering past experience, you often recall buried details and emotions. Some techniques I used to clarify memories or access more of them was to start with a single moment, then rotate my visual field and look at my surroundings: above, below, and on all sides. I considered what I was seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. I tried to recall what happened immediately before, and immediately after. Those means allowed me to more vividly recollect the sensory detail and emotion of my childhood.

Though the act of recollecting and writing did clarify my memories, it also locked them in place to a certain extent: the versions of my memories in All the Fishes Come Home to Roost now seem definitive, even to myself. I might have to forget how I wrote it if I ever wanted to recall it in a more pure form.

The Interludes (sections where you narrate from a more recent, adult stance) seem to sort of stick out of the original narrative, but are obviously useful, as they answer many natural questions that pop up with reading the book. Was that a tool you planned in the beginning, or did they manifest later or for a certain reason?

They were not in the original manuscript that I sold to Rodale, but were added when I did rewrites after selling it. When I, my agent, and my editor looked at the book, we all felt that it had a crucial gap: it never explained what drove my parents to the ashram. That wasn’t something I knew when I was a child, and my understanding of it as an adult was largely based on events that happened long after I left the ashram, and were far too complex to summarize in a few paragraphs or even a few pages.

I explained this to my agent, Brian DeFiore, and he asked me what events I was talking about. I told him what had happened when my mother had visited America when I was an adult, and how we had both gone to visit her father. It was a long story. When I finished, he said, “That has to go in the book.” And I realized that he was right: it wasn’t part of the main narrative, but it and the stories which comprise the other interlude chapters were essential to understanding why the events of the main narrative happened.

I interspersed them throughout the book rather than putting them at the end because it read better that way, and gave readers information they needed to know when they needed to know it, rather than frustratingly withholding it out of a slavish devotion to linear chronology.

How many edits did you have to do? Are there any huge gaps or stories that you had to leave out?

I compressed the timeline in places. For instance, we didn’t actually move into the Compound upon my arrival in India, but spent our first six months somewhere a couple miles away. But because there were no stories in the book that actually occurred at that other location, and we stayed in the Compound for the other four years and six months that I lived in India, I didn’t mention it and instead said that we moved directly into the Compound.

Other stories were left out because they weren’t important, weren’t interesting, or made the same point as other stories that I liked better. I also had to cut some stories that I liked but felt were not essential because the book was getting too long.

The question I constantly asked myself was, “Does this edit I’m thinking of making substantially change the facts of what, to the best of my recollection, is what really happened?” If the answer was yes, I didn’t do it.

Your website is full of resources, “deleted scenes”... Do you think that enhances the experience? Was that your idea or the publishers?

Absolutely my idea -- Rodale is known for its social conscience, not for its web-savvy. I enjoy reading essays and notes and blogs and so forth on other writers’ sites, so I did my best to make mine entertaining.

Are you planning on another book?

Absolutely. But I superstitiously don’t like to discuss projects without contracts, so I can’t say what it is, other than that it’s fiction.

What other projects are you working on? Has All the Fishes opened up doors to other opportunities?

Regarding new opportunities from Fishes, it’s hard to tell. I had been writing professionally (in TV) for several years before it came out, so it didn’t launch my career, but rather extended it in a new direction. As for other projects…

I and my TV-writing partner, novelist Sherwood Smith, created an animated show which we are developing with the Jim Henson Company. I probably shouldn’t name it just yet.

I and an artist, Stephanie Folse, have created several manga (Japanese-style comic) series, which are in various stages of pitching and development.

Butterfly Kick is a sports manga about the lives, loves, and tournaments of the students of a Los Angeles karate dojo. We wanted to show young women doing realistic (rather than fantasy) martial arts, having fun and kicking ass. I study Shotokan karate myself. 

Project Blue Rose, which can be mail-ordered via my website, is an action-romance manga about secret agents in love. They’re both men, by the way. We usually describe it as The X-Files if Mulder and Scully were hot men having an affair with each other. Only with more falling rose petals.

I also did the English adaptation (from a literal translation) of a Japanese novel, Hiroshi Ishizaki’s Chain Mail. It’s psychological suspense about some Japanese schoolgirls who begin collaborating on an online thriller whose events begin to bleed into their real lives. That’s coming out in January from Tokyopop.

You mentioned Augusten Burroughs as an influence. Any other major influences?

The structure of the chapters, which I tried to make function as somewhat self-contained short stories in addition to being a linear narrative when strung together, was taken from All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot’s classic memoirs of being a veterinarian in the Yorkshire countryside.

Harlan Ellison’s raw, confessional introductions to his short stories were a big influence on me when I was a teenager, and may have set me on the path to memoir-writing.

Any talk of a movie version?

I’ve had some nibbles of interest, but no options so far.

Have you ever considered returning after writing the book?

I’ve never considered not returning to India. Its dust is in my blood -- probably literally. There are places I’d love to return to (like Kerala, that gorgeous tropical socialist paradise), friends I’d like to see again, and huge swathes of the country that I’ve never seen at all. The only reason I haven’t been back yet is that the last couple years, I’ve spent all my travel money on Japan and Taiwan.

On the other hand, I could lead a perfectly happy life without ever returning to the ashram. But I have a feeling that fate won’t allow me to escape that easily.