An Interview with Hirsh Sawhney
The year was 1994. Hirsh Sawhney was in junior high school when Kurt Cobain’s suicide made international headlines that April. Just a few weeks later in a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, the boy with the locker next to Sawhney’s took his own life with a gun. “He was a sweet, weird kid and a talented musician,” Sawhney explains in the author’s statement of his new book, “and the people I’d striven to befriend had bullied him.” The violence didn’t stop there.
In the community of Indian immigrants in which his family then lived, a “fundamentalist form of Hindu politics” was gaining traction. Even thousands of miles away, certain groups backed up their beliefs by wiring funds back to India to support nationalist parties “responsible for violence and discrimination against Indian Muslims.” Decades later, consumed with grief over his father’s death,” Sawhney began to fictionalize pieces of his disturbing memories into what would become his debut novel, South Haven: “These tragic and violent situations have haunted me, and South Haven is a meditation on what they might reveal about each other and our modern world.” The sensitive, poignant, resonating novel arrives on shelves May 3rd.
Siddharth Arora is just 10 when his mother is tragically killed in a car accident. Until her death, he was just a regular tween, growing up in a suburb of New Haven with two parents and an older brother, and neighborhood kids he called his best friends. Beyond mourning for his beloved mother — even as he blames himself for hoping her hospital job might call her in so he could avoid their weekend art lesson — among his peers, Siddharth becomes that kid with the dead mother. He wants nothing more than to fit in, but the kids around him view him merely as an easy target. The one other student who he might call a friend is a pariah of a girl who is too mature, too talented… and proves even easier to bully.
While Siddharth attempts to manage the social intricacies of adolescence, his life outside school changes quickly. His school psychologist enables him to become friends with her slightly older son — an angry young man-in-the-making with a tough veneer and quickly developing bad-boy habits. His older brother goes off to the University of Michigan and rarely comes home. His father estranges himself from even his best friend, stumbles fitfully through a book he’s been writing for years, angers the administration at the college where he is a professor, and begins to date another woman. Siddharth feels betrayed — even though he knows her well.
In this not-so-brave new world, Siddharth comes of age, searching for impossible answers, longing for connection, and feeling quite unsure what the future holds. He is, not surprisingly, Sawhney’s cipher: “grappling with his grief allowed me cope with my own.”
Can we start with some basic information first — how did you choose this path of writing?
I entered college as an electrical engineering and computer science major, and I thought I would also study philosophy. I took a class called “Great Books of Latin America,” opting out of a more conventional Great Books sequence. That class opened my mind and was one of the things that brought literature closer to the center of my world. By the end of college, I was tired of academics — of being connected to words in a language in a somewhat lofty fashion. I wanted to stay close to words and language, but in a more grassroots and earnest way. I started teaching ESL. Teaching ESL was wonderful. I taught classes to asylum seekers in London, and then in an adult education program serving undocumented immigrants in Brooklyn. These experiences helped shape me as a thinker, a human, an instructor. And yet the words and books kept calling me back. I started writing essays and fiction in my free time, and I realized I couldn’t do anything else.
You’ve written at least one story I’ve read — “Gautam Under a Tree” — which was included in the collection, Delhi Noir, which you edited. How and when did you decide to take the leap from short story to novel?
Looking back on it, novels have always been my thing. I like reading other people’s short fiction, but the characters, plots, and themes that I gravitate towards tend to be novelesque in size and scope. This particular novel started off as a short story about two adult friends — two men — who are reconnecting in a rapidly and uncomfortably gentrifying Brooklyn. I wrote a line about them — about their backstory: “Their parents had, in fact, dated earlier, even fucked.” After writing that line, I decided it was my responsibility as a writer to explore what their childhoods might have looked like, with their parents dating and all. This meandering started off as a page. Then it became five pages. Soon it evolved into the long obsession that is my novel.
So South Haven, the city, isn’t real. You created it as a suburb of New Haven, which is familiar territory for you as you were born there, and the fact that you grew up in nearby Orange. Did your family have a sizable Indian American community growing up in Orange? Just how far did you have to go for the nearest Indian American grocery store?
Yes, there were definitely Indian Americans around us. Not tons, but definitely a few. And there were close-by grocery stores. We had to attend Diwali functions every year with other Indians. I must confess: I found my Indian heritage rather shameful while growing up. If you had told the 10-, 15-, or 18-year-old me that I would end up choosing to live in India for four years — or marrying a woman of Indian descent — he never would have believed you.
Let’s explore that young self a bit, because your “Author’s Note” reveals numerous autobiographical-ish overlaps you’ve incorporated into South Haven. For example, a few of your adult characters make incendiary remarks about Pakistan and India as Siddharth listens in and later even parrots — that Jews and Hindus have a shared hatred of Arabs. Just how much of that sort of politics/history/cultural bias did you grow up with?
I saw a lot of that growing up. We sometimes tend to think of Islamophobia as a post-9/11 thing, and yet it was already visible in the suburbs in which I was raised. Indian Americans who are Hindus often espouse extremely negative and simplistic rhetoric about Muslims. I should add that many of my family members in India — and many upper-middle and middle-class Hindu Indians — share similarly unfortunate sentiments. These prejudices have always made me uncomfortable, but only as an adult did I learn how simple-minded and wrong-headed these ways of thinking actually are — and I feel a responsibility to confront members in my community about their prejudices, and to expose their prejudices to the greater world. The mainstream media has conditioned us to associate conservative and discriminatory behavior with Muslims, but in my novel, the only people who are actually discriminatory and reactionary are Hindu immigrants and white Americans — and these choices are reflective of the realities that I had experienced while growing up.
So we know what your characters think — which makes me have to ask: What do you think of such seemingly untouchable icons as Gandhi and Shakespeare?
I grew up around people who were skeptical of Gandhi, to say the least. My parents and grandparents are survivors of India’s hideous 1947 Partition into India and Pakistan, and many individuals who lived through these events have projected their anger and trauma onto the political leaders of that era.
I notice that reaction to Gandhi — and Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister — is often Manichean or bifurcated. We see hagiographies about these individuals, or diatribes against them. These men were politicians, so they are inherently flawed. They introduced new and radical ideas into the world at large, and they organized millions of people in support of an anticolonial movement. These are no small feats. And yet their choices and postures did help contribute to the awful Partitioning of India. They were, potentially inevitably, coopted by the colonial power structures against which they were at war. What I’m trying to say is that I hope writers and readers can arrive at more nuanced understandings of these individuals, and I think they are currently doing so.
Shakespeare: ugh, that’s a big one. Let me say that I have often found the great canon of English literature rather alienating. On a visceral and personal level, I get disengaged when I read Shakespeare. In my 20s, when I wanted so badly to be a writer, I did my best to reread Shakespeare and force myself to enjoy, but it never ended up working for me.
“Manichean”! What an amazing word! Do you know Anu Garg of his fabulous A.Word.A.Day website?
Don’t know Anu Garg. The notion of Manicheanism was something I picked up on when reading the early Latin American and Spanish modernists, such as Ruben Dario, who rejected dualistic ways of thinking and have had a tremendous impact on my development as a writer. Dario, [José] Marti, [Antonio] Machado — these are individuals who really spoke to me when I was trying to actively cultivate my literary palate in my early 20s.
And how true that hagiographies of Gandhi abound. I seem to be one of the few that has read anything from his not-so-saintly early life, especially when he was writing hate-speech in South Africa!
Gandhi’s time in Africa in supremely fascinating. Indeed, the trajectory of South Asians in South and East Africa generally is. My wife is a fourth-generation Kenyan, and I would love to write about these worlds at some point.
Moving from Gandhi to a very different sort of icon — you have at least two mentions of a Donald Trump of another era in your book! What prompted those? Did you write those parts of the book before these crazy elections?
TRUMP! You know, Trump has loomed large over the North American landscape for so long. And I do think the young people of my generation, who went to primary school in the ’80s, heard these names flowing around all the time — Trump, [Ivan Frederick] Boesky, [Michael] Milken. And there was this hero worship of these unscrupulous men who represented greed and wealth, and this worshipping of absurdly materialistic consumerism. (Marty McFly drove a DeLorean in Back to the Future.) It was totally in the air. Children at the time stopped wanting to be firemen or astronauts. They wanted to be rich. And I think these changing desires not only say something about the culture of that time, they also might inform us with some vital information about our horrendous current moment. Yes, Trump was there from the beginning.
I feel like politics — including religious differences, racism, sweeping phobias, wars, political history, strains of current anti-Muslim fear — create another looming character in your novel. Being a global writer today demands that sort of involvement on the page. Do you think separating politics and literature is ever possible?
For me, politics and fiction are inseparable entities. Yes, I am interested in psychological realism and well-rounded characters, but these characters inhabit realities that are defined by politics and history. Accordingly, in order to understand these characters and effectively shape them, I need to know about their politics. I need to see them fight about politics. I need to know about the collective histories from which they emerge.
Okay, so here I’m separating politics from literature, and want to talk about why Indian/South Asian American literature has been and remains hot. Jhumpa Lahiri threw open “mainstream” doors with her insta-Pulitzer and many, many, South Asian diasporic writers have followed with continued phenomenal global success. Do you think the hotness will continue?
Big question. South Asian literature from the subcontinent itself has been enjoying some prominence for more than a decade or two in Europe and the US. And yes, Lahiri burst the door open for second-generation and diasporic writers. I think the American literary map is inevitably a more diverse tableaux based on changing demographics — and despite an extremely conservative publishing establishment. And yet I am also suspicious about the role of the South Asian in literature and popular culture. Sometimes I wonder if South Asians become a “safe” minority for mainstream, predominantly white, North American culture. The South Asian on television or film might allow readers and viewers to tick off some sort of diversity box. And yet the way in which South Asians are represented portrays them as not too different and threatening, and therefore readable or watchable. Could my meager successes as a writer be a function of such processes? I would hope not, but one has to be vigilant.
Do you think reception for your own novel might be have been different had it been published 10, even 20 years ago?
Well, I’m still waiting anxiously to see how thing go once the novel is officially published. But, that’s hard to say. On one hand, there was a less crowded marketplace 20 years. Hm… Many writers I admire often tell me that things were easier 20 years ago. That they got more support from the mainstream publishing industry. In some ways, there was more money in publishing and books before — before the great contraction of 2008, and before the almost total corporatization of the literary a world, a world in which shareholders of stock have a significant stake.
I could get started on indie publishing, and how houses like Akashic [Sawhney’s publisher] are so stoically battling against pernicious trends in publishing. I am so grateful for Akashic, for indie publishing. Thanks to Akashic, I can look myself in the mirror and smile when I think about my writing — on most days, at least. They allow me to do work that is true to my heart, and they help get my work out there to the public.
And once your work is out — because this is so often the case with ethnic writers — you will be compared to authors like Lahiri and other already-successful South Asian diasporic novelists — Ghosh, Rushdie, Roy, Sharma, Suri, are just a few that come to mind. Any thoughts on that? And what might you tell those comparers about what makes South Haven stand out from the rest?
I would welcome comparisons to some of these writers, a few of whom have left an indelible impact on my imagination. Midnight’s Children — though I don’t know how I feel about it now– was essential in my formation as a writer. Ghosh thinks so seriously about history as he writes fiction, and forces readers to reconsider their most fundamental assumptions about history. And Roy — she is just so hardcore. The God of Small Things is brilliant and timeless, and her nonfiction writing is fearless. I guess what I’m trying to say is that — though I don’t want to be placed in some sort of ethnic ghetto as a writer, and I think my work is American, Indian American, and also just plain writing — I do consider myself a writer within the context of South Asian literature, and I would be proud to engage in conversations with these great writers.
Urdu literature, mainly in translation, has had a huge impact on me, [including] the writings of the great Urdu writer [Saadat Hasan] Manto, and a lesser-known writer, a woman named Qurratulain Hyder. Hyder, in particular, has taught me so much about the importance of locating characters and plots inside of provocative historical and political contexts. In a similar way that [Michael] Ondaatje, [J.M.] Coetzee, or [Annie] Proulx might do.
What’s different about my work? Well, that’s something readers will have to say. But I will take a stab at addressing this issue. To generalize for a moment — and there are always exceptions to every rule — I believe North American contemporary fiction is certainly preoccupied with psychological realism and the role of an often triumphant individual. Other literary traditions that have helped form me — the Urdu writers I have mentioned, postcolonial writers — are often more interested in questions of history, politics, community, and identity. In writing this novel, I hoped to do both. I hope to rigorously explore the evolution of various individual psyches, and also shed light on the socio-historical and allegorical implications of these characters’ lives. I suppose then, that my writing is very connected to my identity — it is inevitably connected to what’s going on here in the US, and it also is dependent on dynamics from places that are geographically distant from the city of New Haven.
And do you read Urdu that’s not in translation? Other languages with which you’re facile?
I can struggle through Urdu stories that have been transliterated into Hindi and have done so from time to time — but 99.5% of the reading I do from South Asia is translated into English. (There are some great new translators out there right now, including Jason Grunebaum, Matt Reeck, and Aftab Ahmad!) I read in Spanish and try to read a few novels in Spanish each year. This summer, I might take on the Anagrama edition of [Roberto Bolaño’s] The Savage Detectives.
In your other life, I see you’re teaching English and writing at Wesleyan. Might the school be the inspiration for Mohan Lal (Siddharth’s father)’s university? And dare I ask… any similarities between you and Mohan Lal as a teacher?
Mohan Lal’s university is a tiny fictional place that is not at all connected to Wesleyan. Mohan Lal does care about his teaching, and so do I. I love to teach. I need it to stay grounded, to disconnect. My six hours in the classroom each week are hours when I’m not checking email or anxious about anything. I am totally in the moment when I’m teaching. And talking about structure and form in the creative workshop does help me clarify my own perspectives on writing.
Is balancing the teaching with the writing a challenge? How do your students influence/inspire you — or not? — with your own literary work?
It’s a juggle certainly, and when I was writing the novel I was teaching much less, and didn’t have a full-time appointment anywhere. But teaching is fulfilling in so many ways, and the income it provides enables me to write the things I want to write — not the things I have to write to pay the bills. The main thing that teaching does — and interacting with students — is take me outside of myself. Teaching quells egotism for me. The ego and narcissism are enemies of healthy living and good writing, to my mind. I just accepted a tenure-track job at Wesleyan, and I feel blessed and immensely grateful for this position. I only have good things to say about the university — my colleagues and students there.
So, first solo book tour coming up! Expectations? Fears?
I’m just excited to engage with my people about my work. Fears: this part of the process makes me feel frenzied. I’m checking email all the time. Waiting for reviews to appear. With this sort of mindset, it’s difficult to get down to solid and measured creative work. And I want so badly to be back in a book, because it is so sustaining and nourishing to be inside of one. I must confess, though: After working on this novel for five-plus years, I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak with people about it.
I was very nervous about my family members reading my novel. They have read and approved, so the hardest part’s over.
Not to add any pressure, ahem, but because your new groupies-to-be will demand to know. What about that next book?
I’m working on something. As I learned this time around, who knows how many of my original ideas and intuitions will make it into the next book. But I’m thinking about a novel about a young Indian American woman who moves to Delhi for love, and to work as a journalist. And there is a second narrative, about her father’s migration to the US in the late ’50s, where the specter of McCarthyism is still looming large.
I try to get down a thousand words a week on it these days. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I write on a device called an AlphaSmart Neo. It’s very archaic. Takes two AA batteries that last for 700 hours. It has no internet connection. No internet is very important for me!
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.