David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Miriam Darlington’s The Wise Hours, which Robert Macfarlane calls, “A beautiful book; wise and sharp-eared as its subject.” In her quest to understand the elusive nature of owls, Darlington watches and listens to the natural world into the rhythms of her home and family inviting readers to discover the wonders of owls alongside her while rewilding our imagination with the mystery, fragility, and magnificence of all creatures. “Darlington–” says Jonathan C. Slaght, “–writes with intimacy and beauty.” Caspar Henderson calls The Wise Hours, “A delight.” The Wise Hours is out now from Tin House. Early on in today’s conversation with Jai Chakrabarti, I comment on how his stories engage with class, race, gender, nationality, religion, immigration, and capitalism in such an embodied and character-centric way, that we engage with these questions as the people in the stories themselves encounter them with all their nuance and contradictions, that the stories are never about those things as much as the stories are shaped by them. Because I was curious about how he pulls this off, this conversation unexpectedly becomes an incredible exploration of story craft, and perhaps more than most of the prose conversations, one that I suspect writers will return to as all of these craft questions are very much told and explored within the context of the stories themselves in an embodied way themselves, so this conversation I suspect will be just as enjoyable to someone who wants to engage with the themes of this collection which often circle around questions of families and family making, whether inherited families, families of choice, or families we aspire to have both in the United States and in India, stories that surprisingly have us talking about everything from poetry to cognitive science, from classical Indian aesthetics to Jewish ritual, as well as for listeners interested in a deep dive into questions of characterization and how to do it well. Particularly when portraying people who aren’t you and even more so, a people living under the legacy of a trauma that you don’t share. For the bonus audio archive, Jai contributes readings of two poems by the Polish poet and translator Jerzy Ficowski who was also the biographer of Bruno Schulz. One of these poems is dedicated to the memory of Janusz Korczak who we discuss quite a bit today as well. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter gets the resource-rich email with each episode full of things referenced during the conversation as well as places to explore once you’re done listening, and every listener supporter can join our collective brainstorm of who to invite next on the show. Beyond that, there is a huge number of other possible things to choose from: the bonus audio archive, writing consultations, rare collectibles, to becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public. You can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now for today’s conversation with Jai Chakrabarti.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, novelist, and short story writer, Jai Chakrabarti was born and raised in Kolkata India, but has called New York City and now The Hudson Valley his home for most of his adult life. He has a degree in computer science from North Carolina State University and has worked in the field for the last 20 years. He has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and was a public space emerging writer’s fellow. His 2021 debut novel, A Play for the End of the World was met with great acclaim. Long-listed for the PEN/Faulkner Award, named the Jewish Fiction Award Honor Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries, and winner of the National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction, Meg Wolitzer described A Play for the End of the World as a book that looks deeply at the echoes and overlaps among art, resistance, love, and history. The Washington Post compared it to Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland and described A Play for the End of the World as a book that asks, “Can art truly matter in a time of intense upheaval and turmoil over the failures and force of a government?” “The novel seems to ask us: Are you struggling in this moment? And it answers, here, let me help you bear this.” Carolyn Ferrell adds, “Jai Chakrabarti’s deeply moving novel poses the age-old question: can art save the world? His characters—masterfully connected through landscapes of war agony and unimaginable happinesses—ultimately reinforce the wisdom that stories are our way out. Storytelling will redeem us.” And it is stories, short stories that Jai Chakrabarti is here today to talk with us about. His short fiction has appeared in one story, Conjunctions, Gulf Coast, Electric Literature among many other places. The title story of his new collection, the one we are discussing today, A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness has itself had enormous success. Winning the 2017 O. Henry Prize, included in Best American Short Stories 2017, a winner of a Pushcart Prize, and thus reprinted in the 2018 Pushcart anthology, and finally, as if that were not enough, it was performed by Symphony Space’s Selected Shorts by the actor Bhavesh Patel. His story lessons with father also appears in the story anthology Small Odysseys edited by Hannah Tinti, with a foreword by Neil Gaiman, alongside such writing luminaries as Michael Cunningham, Carmen Maria Machado, Aimee Bender, and Edwidge Danticat. So it’s with great excitement that we invite Jai to Between the Covers today to discuss his debut story collection, A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness. Jonathan Lee says of the book, “With a poet’s sense of compression and a wonderful feel for the catastrophic gaps that can open up between countries, people, and behaviors, Jai Chakrabarthi’s A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness is a moving, immersive, timely collection about what we hear and don’t hear when we try to talk to one another.” Marie-Helene Bertino adds, “I meant to read only the first story of Jai Chakrabarti’s masterful collection, A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness, but the characters quickly swept me away. They linger and charm, find and refuse their happinesses, parent themselves and others in endless, enigmatic ways. This is a collection that turns on breathtaking mettle and heart-rending delicacy. I can’t imagine a reader who wouldn’t find something precious in these pages.” Finally, Qian Julie Wang for Lit Hub’s Most Anticipated Books of 2023 says, “In these fourteen short stories about families and how to make them, Chakrabarti brilliantly illuminates the moments—big and small—that define our shared humanity. Poignant, incandescent, and unforgettable.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Jai Chakrabarti.
Jai Chakrabarti: Thank you so much for that generous introduction, David. It’s great to be with you.
DN: So the stories in this collection, even though one to the next, they shift point of view quite a lot, whether in regards to class, gender, race, religion, or nationality, they cohere I think because they feel like they arise from shared concerns and questions to me, almost as if the author were trying to engage with these questions by changing the scenario one story to the next, one story to the next in as many ways as possible. I’ve been trying to think if there could be a framing of the collection as a whole that might capture them all. For me, I think back to description of your childhood, something you wrote at Medium where you share an anecdote about how in Kolkata you went to a school that was in the Guinness Book of World Records because it has 13,500 students, or it did then, and over 500 staff, and arriving on your first day of kindergarten, you were terrified by the thousands of students you saw in every direction and your excitement quickly turned into a desire to run, to flee. But a school attendant emerges from this huge crowd, grabs you, and holds you in a tight grip. But then your mother, seeing that you’re not ready for the transition, grabs you as well and you say, “Caught between two forces, tugged toward the orthodoxy of school and pulled back by mother toward something else — emotional relief, a return to solace? I didn’t go to school that first day, but I would commit myself the next, a little more aware of the world.” To me, that image of you literally pulled between two forces, those of external expectation and those of internal desire and also fear, it feels like it captures something about all of these stories and I have a place like I want to go with this but first I wanted to see if this sounded crazy to you to connect this moment as one possible frame that could describe the unspoken connective tissue that holds the collection together story to story.
JC: I love that framing and I’d never thought about it until you evoked it in that way. But there is a kind of pulling, a tug of war for all of these characters in the collection. I think that I feel empathy for them because I have been in that situation in my life in different circumstances, whether it’s as an immigrant, whether it’s as a lover, or as a parent, and so I get to be with them in all of their failures and sometimes their lack of awareness of who they are and how what they might be doing is actually not in service of their goals and desires. I’ve been in all of those moments and so I think that allows me to empathize with them even as they struggle to succeed.
DN: Well, I’d like to start with the first two stories, your most celebrated story, the title story, and the following story, Lilavati’s Fire, the first takes place in India, and the second in the west with an Indian American family. I would say on the surface, they share little in common. The first is about two men who have a clandestine relationship in India meeting every Thursday and carving out that one day for their love for each other; and one of them enters a marriage of convenience with a woman who knows of their relationship that allows them some cover. But the other increasingly wants to have a child and be a father with his lover, to ask the woman to bear a child, that they would somehow—and it’s never really clear how—co-parent together in this context as two men. The second story is more of a classically defined heteronormative nuclear family, where once the child has left the home, the wife, feeling like she needs something more than the role that has befallen to her as a woman and as a wife, starts secretly trying to build an airplane in the garage using the diagrams made by the daughter of a 12th-century Indian mathematician but telling her husband that she’s just in there learning how to paint. Yet despite being in different countries, these two stories, despite being from the point of view of different genders and of people of different gender orientations, they both, like many of these stories, share this clash between a desire, a dream, and a world not only not built to accommodate that desire but perhaps actively structured not to. One thing I noticed very late very recently, even though I have had the book for a long time, is that the cover of the book, which is very abstract and colorful, has a very small human figure floating in an in-between, between two very large spheres. I don’t know if I didn’t see the figure because I have an early galley versus the final version but either way, I wonder if it speaks to something, it’s not the same as a tug of war you were a victim of as a child, but nevertheless inhabiting a space between two spheres. I wanted to bring these stories up as an example of a way in which that seems to hold these two stories together that really, in so many ways, are about something entirely different.
JC: I loved discovering that small character on the cover, this figure that’s floating in between spheres or maybe it’s a child in some faraway place, I don’t know. I think you’re right that both stories struggle with the sense of desire in a world that is not situated to satisfy that desire. In both stories, there is a movement toward the imagination that the imagination allows a kind of escape and a kind of possibility that can’t be easily realized through the constraints of relationship. That while those relationships are vital, essential, you need your partner for so many reasons, or in the first story, you need your boyfriend for many reasons, and yet, there’s something about those relationships that doesn’t allow for a kind of completeness. There’s something more that the protagonists of both of those stories want and they go back to their imagination. In one case, it’s the conception of an airplane. My dad who is a Sanskrit scholar, told me when I was a kid that, “Okay, not only did Bhāskara, this 12th-century mathematician, write about math, he also had a daughter who was also a very capable mathematician and came up with the first designs of an airplane.” When I heard that, I thought, “Oh, there must be a story there,” where the character in that story, it is the discovery of those diagrams, the rediscovery of those diagrams that allows her to have a place in her imagination that she can go to.
DN: Well, I want to ask, I have a theory I think about something you’re doing around the imagination and the real. I know you teach short story structure and have thought deeply about short story structure. I want to ask step by step as we talk today about some of your thoughts about the short story. Especially because the way you’re able to engage with big questions of class, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, immigration in a way that feels very embodied, organic, character-centered, and alive with nuance and contradictions of lived life feels very impressive to me. But the place in your stories that most makes me think you have a philosophy about the story or a well-articulated aesthetic and preference is with their endings. For now, I want to ask you about them. Publishers Weekly said of them, “Throughout, Chakrabarti builds complicated and intriguing emotional situations, and his disquieting, unresolved endings leave the atmosphere unspoiled.” I’m not sure that exactly captures where and how you decide to end your stories but one thing that they share besides being unresolved is they don’t often end on an event or a plot development, and there a lack of resolution often means that like you, who ultimately goes back to the 13,500 student school, your characters don’t find liberation the way they see it in their dreams, or more often than not, their dreams are vital but potentially have unforeseen consequences. Yet mysteriously, the endings aren’t sad or sad because of this, or sad at all necessarily. The main character in Lilavati’s Fire doesn’t build her plane, learn to fly, and become an independent woman. She doesn’t soar in a linear way around this activity. But something does happen in the endeavor, something crucial happens in the endeavor but not necessarily as an event. If there’s anything that I’m convinced around your stories is that you have a philosophy or an instinct around how and when a story should end. I guess I would love to start there and for you to fully push back if I’m completely off base.
JC: I think that there are a few different aspects that inform my aesthetic around endings in particular. One is my experience of poetry. Before I came to fiction, I wrote and studied poetry. One of the things that I came to appreciate from the lyric poem is this movement and search for the ineffable. That’s the thing that you can’t really quite say in words but the poem is working toward and all of the lines are moving in that direction and yet speech isn’t sufficient for it. The ending of the poem is really the construction, the gate that takes you toward the ineffable but isn’t the ineffable itself. That was deeply important for me that the ending points you in the direction but isn’t itself the complete resolution. More from my childhood, I was influenced by this notion of Indian aesthetics which gets developed by people like Abhinavagupta, and this idea that what you’re really trying to go for is an evocation of an emotion in a reader but that particular emotion isn’t something that can be fully expressed on the page. Very similar to this concept of the ineffable in poetry, if you can’t fully express it on the page, then you shouldn’t really try to go there all the way, that you should maybe point some arrows in that direction but then allow the reader the ability to enjoy and construct that final moment in their own imagination.
DN: Is that what you mean when you’ve said in some conversations that your endings are one-beat endings?
JC: Right, that the other beat is really for the reader to have that deeper intimacy with the characters. Because we as readers have to be given the respect to continue on with the stories and to figure out where the characters ought to go.
DN: Well, when you were in conversation with Martha Anne Toll, the author of Three Muses, you mentioned a poem by Robert Bly called The Third Body in relationship to art making. But I also wondered about it in relation to the way your stories end, endings that I think suggest this third body that it enmeshes two people or two forces. The poem is about a couple that has found a deep harmony in age, a harmony, unlike most of your characters, an unspoken contentment where Bly says in the poem, “Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know.” Then later, “They obey a third body that they share in common. They have made a promise to love that body.” I think of you saying that you first began writing stories when you were nine years old just arriving in the United States with less-than-adequate English, Bengali being your mother tongue, and how writing stories becomes a solace, a place, perhaps I’d suggest a third space, a third body, not Kolkata, not the United States where things could be engaged with at a distance and transformed. But also I wonder if perhaps beyond solace, this use by you of the word transformation might suggest that this third space is the place where you can also have agency where you might not otherwise have agency in your life. I’m guessing you didn’t choose to move to the United States when you were nine, for instance. I’d love to hear about that poem in the context of how you saw it in relation to art making if any thoughts come up, but also whether it might be related to how you develop a character’s arc. Your characters have dreams. Sometimes their dreams, as justified and vital as they are, make their lives worse. Sometimes they’re revocably so. Sometimes they make them better but in ways they could have never dreamed of. But in both scenarios, it feels like it suggests this third thing, a fabric that they’re a part of that they might not be able to see until they try to wrench themselves free from it.
JC: Perhaps, what we’re going toward in the ending then is this notion of the third body. I think that if the sadness is tempered in some of these stories, it is through this site of the fabric as it is, that the thing as it is that you see in that moment as the character, the Ding an sich, the way that reality is in that moment and maybe that’s why the sadness is tempered, I hadn’t really connected that poem to the larger tapestry of these stories but I love the connection that you’re making with the third body. That was a poem that was read at our wedding actually because we thought about how it’s so important to cultivate not only your partner but also to cultivate the third body because it’s through that cultivation that you move toward a deeper union. Maybe in the context of these characters, through their struggles, they’re moving toward a deeper union with themselves even if it’s a rapturous relationship.
DN: Well, the idea of stories as solace or consolation is something I discussed a lot with the Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov who was recently on the show, but it also makes me think of the uncanny origin story for your novel, that you’re at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel with your wife who is Jewish and is also a descendant of survivors of the death camps, and there you learn the story for the first time of Janusz Korczak, a children’s book writer and the principal of an orphanage in Warsaw who ends up in the Warsaw Ghetto with the almost 200 children of his school. Many times he’s offered a way out, a sanctuary, both by influential friends and even by an SS officer who recognized him as the author of one of his favorite children’s books. But every time he declines unwilling to leave, and in the end, him and all of his students are deported and murdered at Treblinka, but while in the Ghetto, he had the children put on a play by the Indian poet, playwright, philosopher, and painter Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel and a giant of Bengali literature, but you were captivated understandably by this notion of Korczak choosing to play from India and a play, The Post Office that you not only knew well but had performed as a child in India, that you could be standing in Israel with your Jewish wife following the paths of trauma in her family, and then probably end up in the memory of your own. I wonder if that play, which is about a dying child in quarantine, which does not remotely have a happy ending in the traditional sense, though there are ways you could view it as a happy ending, and the ways the play’s rhetoric suggests one, a play that is about dreaming but where the child still ultimately dies, and yet something so terribly sad on the surface is something used as a third space of solace for these children who are themselves going to die, if this ending is related in some way to your ending philosophy, or if not, if ultimately you still, not just as a nine-year-old but now see stories in this way, the way Korczak saw them, that he would have that instinct to tell a story like this story with his children. Then also I guess I would tag on the end, if you share Tagore’s belief in artists as social reform, I don’t know if that’s why Korczak was attracted to Tagore but certainly was something that was important to Tagore.
JC: Starting with the ending of Dak Ghar or The Post Office, it is very connected to Rabindranath’s notion of the afterlife. He’s someone that through his career writes exhaustively about death, dying, and mortality in general and I think if there is a hopeful note, it’s because he’s taking a broader notion of death and dying than we might typically encounter at least in Western literature. At the same time, I think there’s a lot of sadness that, at least I, as a reader, as a participant, or as a witness of the play being performed also feel in that moment. I think both things are true and perhaps, it’s the container that allows for both that sadness to exist but also for that container to have this notion of agency against death thinking of a different version of what it means to die than what one would typically think of in a linear life, and that sense of hopefulness that all allowed Korczak to choose that play for his children. First of all, it’s an exercise of the imagination, which let’s do a project together, let’s put on a play of a faraway place, and that in and of itself is an incredibly beautiful and uplifting act. But I think the ending is all of those things. It is that sadness, it is that hopefulness, and it is through and through this sense of agency that as I am walking into my own death, I am going with my head held high. One of the canonical images from Korczak’s life and from Holocaust literature, in general, is when Janusz Korczak is walking with his children to the embarkation point and how they are described as being orderly, calm, and confident in themselves, and so that becomes a kind of agency even in the face of death.
DN: Well, I wondered when I started your collection, if we would see both Indian and Jewish threads like we do in the novel. Indeed as we get more into the middle of the collection, we very much do. But before we talk about the Jewish elements in your stories, I wanted to talk about your philosophy of characterization because I suspect your philosophy must be how you’re able to engage with huge historical events well, not just the Holocaust in the 30s and 40s, but India in the 1970s and the genocide in Bangladesh that according to the government of Bangladesh killed as many as three million people which would make it the largest genocide since World War II, and the subsequent Bangladeshi refugees arriving in India, which is part of your own family story, the varied locales, Poland, India, New York in your novel and in the collection too, which doesn’t engage with what I just mentioned, you’re inhabiting different cultures, different ages, different classes, different religions, different genders, and it never feels top down. I never feel an info dump and I never feel like anything is allegorical. I wonder if this has to do with your views on character and characterization. For instance, you said in one conversation that you try to avoid representation in your prose, that you avoid associating characters with ideas. I wondered if you could flesh this out further for us, what you mean by that but in more detail, and why this is important to you for your own path as a writer.
JC: I think it’s a tricky business because, on one hand, it is simple to say that I don’t want to associate a character with an idea, a political leaning, or any kind of conceptual view, but on the other hand, I as a writer have all of these notions of ethical notions, political notions, social notions, and even in the moments in which I feel I can be very immersed in my characters, even in those moments there are surely ways in which my world view is leaking through. On one hand, I love the exercise of steeping into characters as if I am walking in their skin. I think of the Galway Kinnell poem The Bear where he is walking around in the skin of a bear he’s hunted and how that is some metaphor for the creative exercise, the creative enterprise. On the other hand, I feel very conscious of the fact that that’s also not entirely true. What I love about the third person point of view, and almost all of these stories are told in the third person, is that it allows you to flirt with the truth of that situation by stepping in very, very close, almost as if you’re writing in the first person, and then to have a little bit of distance, and in that little bit of distance, you are being I think a bit more naked to the reader. Even though it is still in the constraint of what I might describe as a realist story so it’s not speculative fiction in that way, I think that distance a point of view that the third person allows gives me as a writer the ability to go in very deep to have this Galway Kinnell bear-like experience of character, but then also to be honest as myself as someone with political, social, and ethical views about the world.
DN: Well, talk to us about keeping journals in the voices of your characters, in the first person in this case I think. A lot of which apparently doesn’t end up in your stories, though sometimes it does end up, I think some of it has ended up in the novel. But nevertheless, you bring it up frequently in a way that suggests this might be vital for your process, even if you’re writing in third person in the book, to inhabit the voice in first person in some fashion, to be inside the bear journaling for the bear.
JC: Right, I think what I’m really trying to do is this idea of the sublimation of the self. I’m trying to erase myself as much as possible and in doing so to have this very deep communion with someone that exists only in the imagination. It’s a great privilege of writing to be able to do that to build the character in a way in which you could, as I like to sometimes say, invite them over for dinner and feel like it’s a meaningful conversation. As I do that, I feel like it’s a great gift to erase the self, to be in the skin of the character, and at the same time, I feel that there’s a kind of dishonesty there as well to remain and pretend to be journaling in through first person as that character’s voice, which is why when I actually turn it into story or into the novel, it’s almost always in the third person to give that space of narrative distance to allow the reader to have access to the me, to the to the Jai Chakrabarti me and not to the writer who’s trying to sublimate himself to the character. [laughs]
DN: Well, I know you had anxiety with your novel writing about Poland, writing about trauma from a time period, a culture, and a people that weren’t your people. Part of addressing that anxiety was doing various forms of research. You talked to your wife’s grandmother who had been in Auschwitz and was still alive. You spoke to other survivors. You read Holocaust literature. You went to Poland. You met with Janusz Korczak scholars. I wondered if there were any instances that leap to mind about the collection, something that was particularly challenging or important to research when it comes to the short stories. Does anything come to mind that led you to do some version of this when writing some of the stories?
JC: The short stories were in some way an opportunity for me not to do historical research, to go more into the personal. I suppose that one exception to this would be the Kabuliwala character who is a character that also serves as an homage to Rabindranath Tagore’s story. Since I was invoking the Kabuliwala, I wanted to go back and really study the story and understand how Tagore came to write it. But in general, as I was writing these stories, I had one track in which I was doing a lot of historical research and another track where I was going pretty deeply into myself and into characters who were stuck in situations that felt familiar to me.
DN: Well, the stories feel like they emerge from an era in your life. I say that in a good way that they feel like they belong together in some way. But I wondered how they actually, in real life, exist on a timeline in relation to the novel, did you shuttle back and forth between one and the other? What span of time do these stories occupy on the calendar of your writing life, earliest to latest?
JC: I did shuttle back and forth between the novel and these stories. As I got really stuck in the novel, I would work on a short story and then come back to the novel. What was happening in my life as I was writing these stories is one, we were trying to conceive and were struggling to conceive, and that was a multi-year journey. Then we had a child and we were completely unprepared for the reality of having a child. We were figuring out how to be parents. That very common journey that so many people go through, I was going through as I was working on this novel and I didn’t have a way in the course of the novel to really talk about those things, to have a way to express some of those emotions. The collection gave me a framing to enter that.
DN: Well, as you’ve mentioned, you started out as a poet and you told Martha Anne Toll that the transition from poetry to writing a novel was writing short stories, that unlike a novel, you can see a story shape, its elements, and different beats. Yet despite the way a story structure can be more easily analyzed than a novel’s, it still allows for a lot of experimentation. Then in an interview that you did with the Catskill Culture Club, you characterize novels like fractals, that they tend to have an expanding symmetry with subplots building upon each other, but that stories have a more discreet shape. You’ve talked elsewhere about how you subscribe to the E. L. Doctorow school around novels where he says, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” But in this Catskill’s Culture Club interview, you mentioned Alix Ohlin, the story writer, and how she creates diagrams for her short stories, and that you do this too with short stories. The novel, you’re driving in the fog, and in stories, you’re constructing a potential mental blueprint. Talk to us about this a little bit. I’m sure people are very curious. How do you do this? Why do you do this? How do you know how to do this?
JC: Yeah. I should clarify that when I talk about the E. L. Doctorow quote, the driving in the fog, I’m largely talking about the first draft process where it is important for me that the subconscious has an opportunity to find its way onto the page and that the experience of discovery for me as a writer is a deeply pleasurable one because of the opportunity for surprise. But then when it comes to revision, all of these fun things like drawing story shapes are important for me for both the short story form as well as the novel. The way that I got into this is that I studied cognitive science and computer science in college and I came across the work of Barbara Tversky who is a researcher. One of her famous sayings is that spatial thinking is the foundation of all abstract thought. She’s looking at research that suggests that long before we’re verbal, we understand how to communicate about the world in terms of the directionality of things, young children can pour a glass of water or indicate that even before they can ask for a glass of water, and that there are ways in which when we are expressing information spatially—which does not come naturally to me, I’m not someone who orients towards visual thinking or spatial thinking in most contexts—that it’s triggering a set of neural structures that engage more deeply with creativity. When I came to understand that, not only creativity but also of learning more broadly in general, that when you do that, when you draw a diagram to express an idea, let’s say you want to explain how the US government works, if you draw a diagram to express that, it’s not only more likely that you’re going to be able to communicate that better to someone else that they’re going to learn about it better, but also that you as the one who drew the diagram are going to retain that information better as well. This notion of drawing stories I think is pulling on that idea that as I’m drawing these shapes, which are mostly abstract shapes, I am getting this opportunity to learn something about the story’s structure. Even if I’m only communicating it to myself, that experience allows me to get deeper and potentially get unstuck because I might see a shape that doesn’t feel harmonious to me, that there might be a geometry that’s coming out of those drawings that doesn’t feel like it’s the geometry that I want to go for in the story.
DN: Are you drawing a shape based on what you’ve already written, let’s say in the fog phase, are you then drawing a shape to discover what the shape is versus say when you write a sonnet, you have the shape and you’re conforming what you’re writing to an inherited shape?
JC: I am not starting with the shape in mind, I’m allowing my subconscious or simply random chance to create whatever that shape might be. Generally, what I find is that the shape is not harmonious after the first draft, that there’s something about that shape in the story that needs more attention. It might be a digression in the story that doesn’t fit or a character in the story that doesn’t fit. Usually, in those drawings, I start to get a sense of what those strands are that don’t feel like they’re contributing to the aesthetic beauty, to the beauty of the shape.
DN: You’ve mentioned in passing Chekhov’s triangles, which I’ve never heard of. Is that ringing a bell?
JC: Yes, I guess that would be like the use of triangles in Chekhov stories where you have basically three characters who are in some way in relationship to each other.
DN: Is that something that you use?
JC: I think of what are the shapes that are linking my characters in a story pretty obsessively, yes. I think the triangle is a really classical, beautiful, and wonderful shape, and then there are all of these other shapes that you can utilize that you can have a lot of fun with. But I think to make a party, you need three people and so I think the triangle is a shape that’s endured for that reason but there are lots of other geometries that we can step into.
DN: Yeah, well, to return to actual stories in the collection, one reason this book feels like it emerges from a given era, which you’ve already made a nod to, is that almost every story is about family making and questions about having children in various ways. The first story with the gay couple and one wanting to be a father, the second, the mother is reimagining her life once her child has left home but she also was never able to have a second child as she desired. In Lost Things, the narrator fails to conceive and Mrs. Gupta has lost her three-year-old child. Some of the love relations are two people falling in love where one already has a child. Some stories are about people making families of choice or necessity that are not about romantic love or about blood but rather affinity and circumstance. In an overnight bus, it’s two guys leaving their wife and kids to become monks when one of them feels like his wife has too much agency and confidence. But the ones that felt like the most difficult to pull off narratively but were also the most dynamic and interesting to me were around questions of nation, race, whiteness, and capitalism. I think of the adoption story in Daisy Lane when a white American couple goes to Northern India to pick up the baby they intend to adopt and learn that the baby might have an older sister, a girl who seems upset by their presence and they worry they are being tricked by the place to take two children. Secondly, the story The Import about a mixed-race couple, an Indian-American husband, Raj, and a white wife, Bethany who call their nanny coming from India the import, the hope for them of getting a nanny is to return to the way things were before they had kids. But they’re shocked when they learn their new nanny has a daughter back in India who she misses and hopes to talk to at least once. I think again about this notion of the third body in the third space between two things when I think of these two stories and also the story Prodigal Son as well where in the first two stories, there’s utter surprise that these people have lives beyond the functions they imagine for them in their own lives. That these people, the adopted child or the nanny are meant to be discrete individual beings, not beings woven into a fabric with a connective tissue between beings. That one could pretend so much that they could be lifted up, then inserted into their lives so cleanly and easily. That’s a shock to their system when they discover these other lives beyond the dreams and stories that these white people have for them. In Prodigal Son, it feels like the reverse of this. A white man who has been adopted spiritually into a family in India, the father is a musical mentor of the white man in India and the ways that the white American can inadvertently cause harm to their family in ways that might reverberate forever for them but you get the sense that he might be able to go home and forget about it or try. My two-pronged unrelated questions are one, talk to us more about the infinite ways you construct and deconstruct family, and address the question of children, and two, I know you don’t want characters as representations of ideas and I don’t think you do have these characters. These white characters are people with countervailing feelings, complicated, believable interior lives but it also feels like you’re speaking to something about relations across race, class, nation, and privilege here in these three stories.
JC: I thought a lot about the privileges as it related to parenting and being able to have a child. I was thinking about people in the world who cannot have a child for economic reasons, financial reasons. These questions of class and who can have a child in this world, how that child’s experience is going to be informed by their parents, and where they live in the country in which they’re born felt deeply important to me in this collection. Growing up in India, in a middle-class household, there was a particular experience that we had with those folks who would be described as domestic help. In this country, I wanted to play around with that, to take this notion of the nanny and see if they were in the Indian context, the context that I was familiar with, how that might be imagined in a Brooklyn apartment. In general, it was taking some of these concepts that I’d grown up with and seeing how it would be like in a very different cultural context, and how the reverberations of that would speak to characters in the story.
DN: Well, just to add, I do think that you explore this question around the privilege of people who are able to have children but the flip side is also you allow us to imagine what sort of circumstance would force someone to leave their child, not wanting to, to take a job somewhere else.
JC: Right. This notion of adoption, which comes with multiple stories, stories that tend to be very different from each other, the person who is giving up their child, I was interested in that story, as well as the story of the person who is bringing someone new into their family. Both are worthy stories to tell and both were important for me to explore.
DN: Perhaps as a segue between talking about characterization and moving to your engagement with Jewish culture in the collection, in one interview you gave around the novel, you notice a picture of Martin Buber behind your interviewer, an interviewer who had just brought up Zadie Smith’s essay Fascinated to Presume around the notion of inhabiting the position of the other in one’s fiction. I don’t even need to ask you whether you subscribed to Zadie Smith’s position because I think it’s clear in this collection that I think you do, or at least, maybe you’ll qualify it, but you seem in the position of being fascinated to presume like Zadie Smith is, and you’ve seen that picture of Buber brought up the notion for you of the I-Thou versus the I-It relationship. Can we write an other that avoids the dangers of an I-It relationship? That should be the goal of the writer in relation to characters is what you said at the time. I wondered if you had any further thoughts on either Buber or I-Thou relations or even in other ways besides research, that you find a way to safeguard yourself, that you haven’t propagated stereotypes that help you tilt the odds toward seeing any character, even one’s most unlike you or particularly those characters in an I-Thou way.
JC: I am aspiring towards this I-Thou relationship that Buber describes and I love the question of, “Well, how do you get there as a writer? What are the safeguards or principles to follow as your crafting characters?” Perhaps this notion of surprise is at the center of it for me, which is that if you’re not being surprised by your characters as you’re getting deeper into them, then that might be a confirmation that you are presuming, that you think you’re containing multitudes but instead, it is a recitation of stereotype. Going back to something we talked about earlier which is the character journaling exercise, I think part of what that exercise does for me is it opens up the possibility of surprise. Who are you that I didn’t think you were and why are you that way, both in the context of who you are as a person but also in terms of the sum of your cultural, ethnic, political identities, etc? I think that for me, it’s that search for surprise that is the most important part of being able to write characters who are different from me, a 40-year-old Indian male living in America.
DN: Well, in your conversation with Martha, you mentioned as an aside, and you don’t go into this, that one of your big pet peeves is the notion of likability with characters, that characters need to be likable. You said that was a conversation for another day and I’m hoping that today is that day. That if you started at the time, you wouldn’t stop. But thinking of the writing of the other and also earlier about being against characters that represent something makes me wonder about your anti-likability thoughts, especially because well, every one of your characters is flawed. I can’t think of any that are particularly difficult to be with and I would even add that their flaws seem to be part of why I like being with them.
JC: I suppose my feelings about likability come from this idea that likability may be associated with virtue. That to be a likable person, you are representing some of the virtues of what an upstanding citizen ought to be. I am more interested in the flaws in those places in which characters aren’t representing those virtues. Going back to classical Indian aesthetics, this was a core idea which is that there would be some fiction that would be written really, just to represent the different notions of ethical virtue. In this day and age, we would probably consider that to be quite problematic as a medium of fiction. That’s largely what I’m responding to when I say likable. That I am not drawn towards characters who are virtuous in any normative sense of that word and drawn toward people who are willing to be complicated, and do problematic things in the context of their relationships, things that get them into trouble.
DN: It’s true. I can’t think of any virtuous characters in that sense in the collection and I’m happy for it. [laughter] I attended many of your events around the novel. It isn’t possible to attend them all because the number of events you’ve done is incredible. But what’s interesting is just how wholeheartedly the Jewish community has embraced you, and by extension, how many of these events are Jewish events. The others stand out because of this and are nice because they tend to foreground other aspects of your novel. For instance, when you talk to Jenny Bhatt for Desi Books or the conversation you had about immigration for the New American Economy with Andrew Lim and Nawaaz Ahmed. But you’ve done events with the Jewish Book Council, B’nai Torah Congregation, Yeshiva University Libraries, The Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, the Graduate Theological Union, Center for Jewish Studies, the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, and this just barely scratches the surface.
JC: That is the tip of the iceberg. [laughs]
DN: Yeah, without even mentioning your Jewish Book Awards. I think of how Zadie Smith in her argument in that essay for the importance and mysteries of imagining the other, the mystery of the fact that the character she feels closest to that she created, that feels most connected to who she is of all our characters, is the protagonist Alex from The Autograph Man who is a Jewish and Chinese man, none of which Zadie Smith is. But I wondered if you could speak to your experience, both as the writer bringing Jewish characters alive in your work but also the joys and/or challenges, comforts, and/or discomforts of being sought out by so many Jewish organizations to speak about your work with them.
JC: I had so many anxieties, not only about writing the book, the novel but also how the experience would be when it came out into the world and I would be in conversation. Because as Zadie Smith was talking about it as she has done herself, I was in this novel in pursuit of characters who are very different from me. I feel an immense sense of gratitude to the Jewish organizations and communities who have welcomed me, and for whom parts of this book have resonated. I feel that as a writer, this pursuit of Jaryk, the protagonist of A Play for the End of the World, in some ways was the most difficult writing journey that I’ve had to go on because he was so different because of the weight of his trauma. When I think about story structure, there are lots of logical reasons why I made some of the structural choices that I had made. But in that book, the decision to bring Lucy on as a point of view character was largely to allow me to write that novel with a little bit of distance from Jaryk because while she is someone who’s endured suffering, there were ways in which walking in her shoes was so much more palatable, so much easier in ways in which I could breathe, that I couldn’t do in Jaryk’s point of view. Having that separation between Jaryk and Lucy was the way in which I was able to write that novel, then of course, later on, there were structural reasons and dramatic reasons for it but it was an extraordinary challenge. I didn’t know how hard it would be at the time that I began that work. It certainly has changed me as a writer.
DN: Well, as the Jewish reader of the collection myself, it’s fascinating to me because there were many things you describe that I have no personal experience with. For instance, a woman in a mikvah or a woman removing her wig. The Jewish stories are much more observant and steeped in, for lack of a better word, an old-world sensibility, and coherence that isn’t the Jewish life that I experienced, say books by Grace Paley, Saul Bellow, or Philip Roth. I wasn’t surprised that you named Malamud and Singer as two writers you’re influenced by, who I think share these qualities in the way Jewish life is represented. But I also didn’t know if you were being influenced by them or simply just enjoyed their writing or simply that your wife and your wife’s family are simply more observant than my family was, which I think my family was like the typically unobservant, “Get the bar mitzvah. Go to the High Holy Days.” I know you’ve mentioned that you have Shabbat dinners for instance and I don’t know if it’s too personal or even ultimately relevant to know how your family life is shaped by Jewishness. But where do you see the influences of this specific iteration of Jewish life, one that feels I think connected to observance in Torah, I partially wondered if it was a literary preference because of the stories you want to tell and how you want to tell the stories engaging with philosophical questions, ritual, and custom in the way that you do with the Indian characters and the Indian-American characters, or more that the Jews in your stories are like the ones in your family.
JC: All of those things are true at once. I have The Magic Barrel right here on my desk as we speak. Just a short story about Bernard Malamud at The Magic Barrel. I first came across that book at a used bookstore many years ago and I have continued reading those stories over, and over. Every time I read those stories, there’s another way in which I appreciate them because as I have deepened and grown in my own experience of Jewish practice, they have changed for me. I think you can read Malamud without any appreciation of Judaism but to do so likely misses his context and so many of the motivations by which his characters do what they do. Both in terms of my own experience of Judaism but also in my more general interest of philosophy and religion, I am drawn toward the mystical and the more mystical sides of philosophy. I think it’s those mystical texts that connect very deeply to this question of the ineffable that we’ve been talking about. In those moments in the Malamud stories where we’re left with characters hanging and it feels like there’s a mystical question that’s just been asked, like there’s a rabbi in the room asking a mystical question, I think that’s also a way to talk about endings which is, “What is the truth of life?” Every ending is answering that question in some way that it feels like a spiritual exercise to get to the ending of a story. At least, that’s my experience with Malamud in particular. I would say that yes, it’s both my experience of Judaism, my interest in religion more from the perspective of nondualism, mysticism, and the more ancient philosophy. At the same time, it’s also a kind of ritual and a grounding. My parents, they’re both philosophers and didn’t bring a lot of rituals into my childhood. The inheritance of Jewish ritual has been deeply enriching for me because it’s been a way in which I’ve been able to keep track of the seasons both in terms of a year but also the seasons of my life. All of those things are true.
DN: You’ve both talked and written about how you had a Jewish wedding in the states, then an Indian wedding in India, and that you and your wife, as part of ultimately deciding whether to spend your lives together, hiked a difficult hike to the source of the Ganges. The book has Indian stories, the collection has Indian stories taking place in India, Indian-American stories, stories between India and America, between Indians and Indian-Americans, some of which intersect with whiteness in various ways. It has Jewish stories that are fully so and also a story Searching for Elijah, about a Jewish man who falls in love with an Indian widow and single mother who he knows from selling sauces at the farmer’s market. Bringing her to meet his family, the tensions are mainly class tensions in the story rather than racial tensions or if they are racial, they’re coded as class. His mother non-negotiably wants her to convert and for her son to get up bar mitzvah. The bride-to-be, of course, worries about losing herself and her traditions. We see the flip side of this too with another story where some parents of an Indian man are deviously trying to sabotage his relationship with a white partner. These cross-cultural new families, perhaps like yours, are full of interesting tensions and possibilities. I suspect that these stories must have arisen at least, partly in questions of how to envision together, how to raise your child cosmologically, ritually, or in customs. I just wondered if that was too linear of an assumption to make on my part, that this might be another way of circling through many vantage points, the coming together of two different worlds to make a third world.
JC: The third body, yes.
DN: The third body.
JC: I really appreciate that you called out A Mother’s Work and Searching for Elijah because I think those two stories need to be read together. They almost feel as if they’re a couplet because of the fact that both explore a restrictiveness when it comes to who is allowed in, and the tax, if you will, of being welcomed into the community. In my own life, what I have found is that the question of children raises these questions of what kind of values that I care about, that my wife cares about. For us, as we started to think about having a child, then as my wife became pregnant, that was really the moment that all of those questions came to the floor. I don’t think it’s an uncommon experience but the child materialized these differences and potential conflicts and forced us to find the third body when it comes to what we value. Those two stories in particular were ways in which I could speak to what isn’t the third body for us, so in other words, what wasn’t the path that we chose for ourselves. In general, I think about stories as a technology that gives us a way to talk about the permutations of the lives that we could live but choose not to live. Oftentimes, when I’m thinking about writing a story, it’s the thing that I didn’t do. But imagining that can be awfully fun.
DN: Yeah, I love that framing. Well, you’ve written about after the birth of your son, you are unable to write for a while and you found yourself instead translating things from Bengali into English including some poetry by Tagore but mostly more contemporary poetry, and that translation from your first tongue into your current one brought you back to writing. I guess I wondered what that speaks to, for you, if you have a story that attaches itself to why that would bring you back to writing, and also how, if at all, Bengali feels like it affects either your English or your storytelling in some way.
JC: There was an exercise that Vijay Seshadri brought to his students that involved translating Polish poetry, I think it was Czesław Miłosz, but from the original Polish into English by means of using dictionaries because none of his students spoke or read Polish, so this was really a way of looking at word by word and trying to find the meaning, and doing so in a pre-Google translate time. I think part of why he assigned that exercise is because when we’re looking for meaning in such a close way, when we’re literally having to pause and look up every single word in the dictionary, it completely changes our approach to the line, and the ways in which we might value the line might be in some way exponentially increased. What I found in that exercise of translation for myself after my son was born is slowing down. I mean firstly, I was sleepless but I needed to think about every single word. I couldn’t move on to the next word until I’d spent a lot of time thinking about what this word is in another language. For me, I think it was coming back to the art of attention and coming back to the love of the line that allowed me to write more lines. Bengali is interesting as a language in that there’s a lot of flexibility about word order. That given at least, in the more older form of Bengali, the inheritance of Sanskrit, that you have a lot of metrical games you can play with, so the sound of the line becomes really important. There are a lot of ways in which you can move words around. You have the permission to move words around and still have a cohesive line. I am very interested in the sound of the line itself. I think something that I had to, at first, unteach myself when it came to fiction was an over-reliance on the sound of the line as it related to taking away clarity. Where I think I’ve tried to find a compromise is respecting the sound of the line but in fiction, also respecting that you can’t just move words around everywhere, then still have a cohesive thought, still have a cohesive experience with the reader. But this notion of Bengali is really an oral tradition of those poems. Hearing, for example, ghazals in an audience with 2,000 people and the poet pauses and says a line of Urdu or a line of Bengali again and everyone knows it, that experience of the oral tradition and the importance of sound are very deep in me.
DN: Well, I want to ask you about some other influences too. Again, in your conversation with the Catskill Culture Club, you talk about how you wrote science fiction stories in elementary school and embarked on a novel in middle school but that as a first-generation immigrant, pursuing writing would have been the equivalent of jumping off a bridge for your parents, so you had to also pursue another field, and that at around the same time, you started to code which became a parallel path. But before we talk about coding, I wanted to talk about this anecdote about your parents because as you’ve said, both your parents are retired philosophy teachers or philosophers, so at least, in an American context, they themselves aren’t in a practical professional field. They weren’t lawyers or doctors. I love that philosophy professors are worried about their son being a writer. But I’d love to hear how growing up with these philosophers has influenced your writing or reading. I know you’ve cited Hume and Kant as influences for instance. I don’t think of either of those two philosophers as great stylists, certainly not like reading Plato, Nietzsche, or Blanchot. Tell us about how philosophy, Hume or Kant, or otherwise has or hasn’t found its way from the atmosphere your parents created for you growing up into your writing style or ethos or maybe even some sort of philosophical concept has become part of your writing concepts.
JC: Firstly, I want to acknowledge the irony that philosophy professors would worry about their son being a writer, right? [laughter]
JC: That’s interesting and probably speaks to the immigrant class experience. I want to talk about one particular moment in one particular technique and I’ll go back to Descartes. I first read Meditations on First Philosophy with my dad when I was a teenager. What Descartes is doing in that book is he is challenging the skeptics by taking on the strategy of the skeptics. He’s saying that well, imagine nothing is true. Let’s say that there’s a demon who is presenting the world to us and changing our transducer, our perceptual mechanisms, and imagine we’re living in a dream, so essentially, there are no bulwarks of reality as we know it. He is battling the skeptics by taking on their favorite techniques, then he is reconstructing the smallest fragment of what is for him a truth. That’s where you, of course, get to the very famous line, “Cogito ergo sum.” Like, “Well, even if all of these things are true, even if there’s a demon, even if I’m living in a dream, there’s still the thinking self.” Of course, there are now many, many ways in which that position has been critiqued. But I think that overall approach that he took which is, “Let’s start from the very, very basics and question everything, then search for the first little bit of thing that is true” is I guess how I think about story-making in general which is forget everything, question all of it, and find the first thing that feels true, then build from that. I think that was Descartes’ strategy that then another 400 years of philosophy advanced on. But that impetus of starting from the foundation, starting from the beginning is really important to me. It’s so important to me that in the moments of my life that I felt the most unmoored, I have gone back and almost rehearsed the way in which he got to that first kernel of truth to see if I can find something that speaks to me in my own life. It certainly influences the way then in which I’m thinking about constructing a story from that same exercise.
DN: Well, you’ve also written about writing and coding, pursuing both, and how they are both in your mind world-building endeavors. You’ve written an article called You Can Take More Than One Path which argues against a culture of hyper-specialization where you think back to your childhood in India and how all of your favorite Bengali writers had other jobs, and that there was no linear life that you’ve found that you would want to live or wish to live, that this multiple and meandering path is more rewarding. All that said, unlike past guest, Vauhini Vara, who is a long-standing technology reporter and who brought all of that technological insight, both into the story she told, one like yours that takes place both in India and the United States but also into the narrative architecture of how she told the story too, the way she tells the story has this technological conceit, unlike Vara, it seems like you keep your computer life discreet. I think you even use a slightly different iteration of your name in your professional life and there’s a conspicuous absence of technology in the collection. There is more of a sense of, as we’ve talked about, religion, custom, ritual, mythology, tradition both Jewish and Indian, then there is a sense of modernity that is heavily mediated through technologies which made me wonder partly if you feel like introducing those technologies would break some sort of spell in the stories but also more, if you have the desire to bring them together, much like you and your wife hiking to the source of the same river, do you think we’ll see writing and coding find themselves in the same place?
JC: Firstly, I think going back to your observation around the influence of the Bashevis Singer or Malamud, I think that’s part of the mood in which I enter the short story and perhaps why it does feel like it’s from an older time and place because I do think that, as you’re saying, the specific technology implements that we surround our lives with, they don’t always feel of a piece to be when it comes to character moments and moments in which we are completely being altered or transformed and this idea of, again, coming to the third body is likely not possible if we’re staring at our phones or being interrupted in some way by technology. Maybe the removal of the more modern technology conceits is in pursuit of this idea of attention, of wanting characters to be attentive to each other, and believing that sense of attention is what allows them to be in conversation with transformation even if they don’t ultimately enter into transformation. Then as it relates to this question of writing and technology, I think of Ted Chiang’s story The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling where he has two braided stories, one is about a journalist who is writing a piece about a particular technology that allows you to record all of your memories, then there’s this other story that is about indigenous culture and they are discovering writing for the first time. I think in that story, he’s making the argument that writing itself is a kind of technology which I wholly agree with. Given that, I don’t feel particularly precious to know that this technology is going to transform and change as we as a culture and society change. As someone who researched neural networks when they were in a much more primitive state, I am very, very interested in seeing how things like GPT-3, GPT-4, and all of those artificial intelligence advancements that we’ve made are going to influence the mediums in which we express ourselves creatively. I am interested, concerned, curious, all of those things at once.
DN: Would being interested, concerned all at once manifest in some future narrative of yours, engage with it, do you think?
JC: The novel that I’m working on now is engaging with that subject wholeheartedly.
DN: Oh, great.
JC: I felt in some ways that I had avoided that engagement as a writer up until now. In the last few years, I think we’ve seen a pretty significant transformation. When I was studying cognitive science in college, there was this famous paper by John Searle called The Chinese Room where he was basically arguing that computers are just simulations. They’re just repeating things based on a very surface-level symbolic understanding. In the last few years, the last five-ish years, I think what we have seen is an acceleration of a certain technology that not only moves beyond the Turing test, I mean that’s long left behind, moves beyond John Searle’s conception that he put forward in The Chinese Room and asks us to find a new notion of what it means to be intelligent as humans and what it means to be human distinctly.
DN: Well, as an ending, and I’m not sure this is a question exactly but rather I think mainly an act of admiration and praise, but as an ending, I wanted to make a nod toward the ending of your book, the final story which for me is my favorite story, I would go so far as to say a perfect story, and one that I feel like brings together everything before it, yet breaks my heart in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated and I won’t forget, I’m hesitant to talk about it because I want to preserve it for people, to find it in their own way, in their own time, but I did want to mention something very noteworthy about it. At least, I believe this is true. I don’t think there are any recurring characters in this collection. The stories are only linked through theme or inquiry but this final story does have a recurring character from a previous one. While the collection as a whole is pretty purely populated by characters from India or Indian-Americans, Jews, and some more vaguely-defined white Americans, this recurring character stands out not just because he reappears but also because he is none of these people by a nation, culture, or religion. He’s an Afghani Muslim and in one story, he’s a secondary character who the two men escaping their wives to become monks think steals from them on the bus. But in the final story, he’s the main character in a different context, someone who in so many ways I think stands outside of what you’ve explored in all the other stories before, yet at the same time, someone who becomes central to those questions and for me the most memorable character in the whole book. I wondered if you could speak to him or about him, what he means for you, or for the collection as a whole. I’m just so impressed by this story.
JC: Thank you. The Kabuliwala character was inspired by a Rabindranath Tagore’s story by the same name. It’s one of Rabindranath’s most famous stories in which there is this Afghani character who comes to visit a house in Kolkata. Every year, it starts to form a relationship with a little girl and that relationship is threatened as the girl grows older, and as she develops her own likes and interests, and suddenly, the visit from this Afghani refugee character is no longer as interesting to her. It’s heartbreaking. It’s one of those stories that, looking back, I feel have shaped the way I think about fiction. This idea of being in pursuit of heartbreaking as an aspiration for a writer, I think Rabindranath does it so beautifully in that story. I wanted to explore that character more and imagine, “What if he wasn’t the one who was visiting the little girl? What if he had a child of his own?” There’s something that Michael Cunningham talked about in our MFA program which is that imagine every minor character is a major character in their own book. The overnight bus, the Kabuliwala appears as a minor character but I always wanted him to be a major character in one of my stories because precisely, I think he brings all of these other things, experiences, and view toward the world that the other characters in the collection simply do not have access to, and also because it’s a homage to Rabindranath’s story, so all of those things together in that last piece which is also my personal favorite as well.
DN: Oh, really, it’s your favorite one too?
DN: Just so we can hear the sound of the prose, let’s go out with the last paragraph of the second story, Lilavati’s Fire.
[Jai Chakrabarti reads an excerpt from A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness]
DN: Well, thank you, Jai for being on Between the Covers today. I just love this collection and the time we’ve spent together.
JC: Thank you so much, David. This was a lot of fun.
DN: We’re talking today to novelist and short story writer Jai Chakrabarti about his debut story collection A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. For the bonus audio archive, Jai reads two poems by the Polish poet and translator Jerzy Ficowski, which joins bonus material from everyone from Ayad Akhtar to Teju Cole to Jorie Graham. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community, including collectibles from everyone from Ursula K. Le Guin to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, the Tin House early readership subscription, getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. In addition, every supporter can join our brainstorm for future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each episode. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.