Sameer Pandya — An Interview + A Story

By
Christopher X. Shade

Sameer Pandya’s story “M-O-T-H-E-R” follows an Indian-American family in California whose mother, Uma, has high ambitions for her teenage sons in their spelling bee competitions. The story is ripe with dramatic, cross-cultural, and family tensions which are all, inevitably, universal. The story appeared in the Epiphany 2007-2008 Winter/Spring issue, and then as the first story in Pandya’s book The Blind Writer: Stories and a Novella, which was long-listed for the 2016 PEN Open Book Award. This year, Pandya was selected to be the 2017 PEN/Civitella Fellow, to join artists of varied backgrounds and disciplines in an international dialogue that transcends boundaries.

I had the pleasure of conducting an interview via email this month with Sameer Pandya, who replied from his home in California. He currently teaches literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Part of the work that stories do, part of the work I am trying to do, is to denaturalize what we expect stories about certain groups to be. I try to be as detailed as I can about Indian American life. And as a result, hopefully, I can get to the particularity of that life.

Christopher Shade (Epiphany): When your story M-O-T-H-E-R was accepted at Epiphany by fiction editor Elizabeth England and editor Willard Cook, what do you remember of this experience as an emerging writer appearing in print within those pages? Where you were in your writing career at the time?

Sameer Pandya: Having a story accepted by a literary magazine feels like pure magic. Both Elizabeth and Willard were genuinely excited about the story, and suddenly the ideas and drafts, starts and stops all became worth it. At that point in my writing career, I had published two short stories. A third meant that maybe, sometime in the future, there could be a book if I kept at it.

Epiphany: This story went on to appear first in your collection, The Blind Writer: Stories and a Novella. The book was published by University of Hawai’i Press, appearing in their editorial series “Intersections: Asian and Pacific American Transcultural Studies.” How did your manuscript find its way to the University of Hawai’i Press, and in what ways does your collection feel at home there?

Pandya: Many years ago, I put together a collection of nine stories and sent it to the Bakeless Literary Prize that Breadloaf used to award. Miraculously, I was a finalist. I did not win, but in my mind I said to myself: “I’m on my way.” Never say that to yourself! In the years that followed, I kept working on the stories. I removed half of them and wrote the novella that now anchors the book. The collection finally felt ready. In 2012, it was a finalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction at Sarabande Books. I was getting close. As is the case with short story collections, I had a good bit of trouble finding a home for the book—both at the major houses and the independents. A colleague of mine at UC Santa Barbara had read the book and pointed me to the University of Hawai’i Press, which has a terrific editorial series that has published a lot of great Asian American writers. The editor liked the book and helped shepherd it through. The book certainly feels at home at Hawai’i, and particularly in “Intersections,” because the characters are dealing with the particular crises of being first- and second-generation Indian-Americans.

Epiphany: In September, you were selected to be the 2017 PEN/Civitella Fellow. This means that PEN will be sending you off to work for six weeks in a 15th-century castle in Umbria, Italy. I understand that the place is a civitella, which is a fortified, walled community. You’ll be working in residency with 12-14 international artists, writers, and composers. What writing projects are you working on now that you might take into this residency?

Pandya: Depending on where I am in the process, my primary attention will be on Victoria Terminus, a novel I have been working on for the past several years. Set in India between 1918 and 1948, the novel is about a bomb, an unlikely friendship, and the journey of a man dealing with a grave, youthful mistake. I have also started working on a much more contemporary novel on racial politics at a tennis club and a college campus. I think of it as being a racialized Straight Man (Richard Russo's hilarious campus novel). I am so genuinely looking forward to long days of reading and writing and having the chance to talk to folks from across the world about their work. I know it's a cliché, but I’m looking forward to the gift of time the most.

Epiphany: In your writer’s process piece for the “M-O-T-H-E-R” story, you mention that the idea of it was prompted by a real-life event: on TV you saw a boy fall down while spelling a word at a spelling bee, then get up and finish spelling it correctly. I’m curious how much of your other work is informed by real-life events. How much do historical reality and events inform Victoria Terminus, your novel-in-progress set in India between 1918 and 1948? And what is important to you about returning to that historical period?

Pandya: The question of history is an interesting one. This year, both George Saunders and Colson Whitehead have published novels set in the 19th century. I am sure they have their own reasons for having looked back to this period, but what I find interesting is that they both look back in order to say something, at some level, about the present. That’s what I find most interesting about fiction that looks to a particular historic moment. It leads us back to the things we find most salient in how we live now. With my novel, I am looking back for a couple of different reasons. First, the novel is a work of fiction loosely based on the personas of my grandfathers, one who ran a photo studio in Bombay and the other who was a lawyer and an anti-colonial freedom fighter dedicated to non-violence. Second, in all the talk we have had in the past two decades about Muslims and terrorism, I wanted to tell a story of Hindus and terrorism, partly to complicate the ways in which we so quickly couple Muslim and terror.

Epiphany: You were born in India, and as you mentioned, your work (especially the story collection) has dealt in various ways with issues particular to the Indian-American experience. Conversations and concerns (and writing!) about the hyphenated experience in this country continue to emerge and dominate our media—news, social, and otherwise. What is your perspective on this shift? Why is it important in this country, now?

Pandya: When I was doing events when The Blind Writer came out, I often got some variation of this comment: “Your characters don’t even seem that Indian.” I always wondered what that meant. If they weren’t Indian, then what were they? American? Universal? What were the markers of a character being Indian? Wearing a sari, speaking in an accent, being naturally spiritual? Part of the work that stories do, part of the work I am trying to do, is to denaturalize what we expect stories about certain groups to be. I try to be as detailed as I can about Indian American life. And as a result, hopefully, I can get to the particularity of that life. At the same time, I want to question some of the expectations the reader has about Indian Americans. “A Housewarming” (a story in the collection) is fully populated by Indian Americans. But the story itself is about envy and failure and one very nice watch.

All this new immigrant, hyphenated literature is trying to plow this new imaginative territory, figuring out the cultural and social details of a group, while engaged in the act of storytelling. In our current political climate, where our understandings of “others” is hardening in some bad ways, the shift toward this type of writing becomes vital to how we know and understand each other.

Epiphany: What words would you offer to new and emerging writers in this space?

Pandya: Go headlong into it. We need you to help us imagine new futures.

Epiphany: What books are you reading or thinking about now?

Pandya: I find myself going in waves with reading. I don’t do it for a long while and then I do a lot of it. On a trip recently to the Bay Area, where I grew up, I downloaded several stories from the New Yorker fiction podcast. At one point I was driving around San Francisco. My son was in the back seat and I started listening to Karl Ove Knausgaard reading from the beginning of V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. It was one of the most profound reading/listening experiences I have had in years. A Norwegian writer reading from a book by a Trinidadian writer as his character tries to make a home in the English countryside, as I drove around these neighborhoods that had once been my home. So much lovely dislocation there. I read so much Naipaul when I was younger and I returned to it for a bit after hearing the story. I am teaching A Bend in the River this quarter. Also, I am a little late to the Rachel Cusk show, but I just made my way through Outline. And I have been reading campus novels: Straight ManLucky JimDisgrace. And I’m particularly excited about Teju Cole’s new book of essays.