ari borders, henna patterns and juicy mangoes: Peruse the shelves at a bookstore, and these are the images that frequently adorn the covers of books by South Asians. These books tease and tempt—could they be the next great South Asian novel, a la Arundhati Roy or Vikram Seth? Too often, though, the covers disappoint, and the stories within induce cringes at their formulaic repetitiveness.
So when The New Yorker praised Rishi Reddi’s Karma and Other Stories for its “quiet power” and “understated prose,” old hope was rekindled. Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai called Reddi’s debut collection of short stories “sad, sweet and tender.” And it is. Reddi’s work contains very little of the “masala” that spices the other books in this genre; there are no mangoes, red chilies, cows or scheming in-laws. Instead, her stories explore the quiet traumas of characters often ignored, in diasporic literature and in our lives: the sorrowful and dissatisfied widow, the fumbling unemployed older man.
An environmental lawyer for the state of Massachusetts for more than a decade, Reddi began writing this collection in the early mornings, before reporting to her “day job.” Perhaps writing in those silent, early hours influenced how subtly some of her stories unravel.
Nirali spoke to Reddi about her childhood, her stories, her writing process and her thoughts on a publishing market saturated by South Asian authors.
What were you like as a kid?
I was a really good kid. I was a little shy because I was an only child, and I was pretty quiet. I took horseback riding lessons, piano lessons and dance lessons. I was a good student, and it wasn’t until college that I started questioning things. I always loved books more than would have been approved of, because really, you’re only supposed to like them enough to gain an education from them. But I remember loving stories and fiction more than I was supposed to and I didn’t feel like I was going to live the life that Indian society expected of me.
Did you write as a child?
I once wrote a poem about my puppy dog that my father still has. I also remember I had this pink spiral notebook and in it I started a novel about a girl named Leela. I got to chapter three. I was pretty good at starting those projects but not very good at finishing them.
One of your stories, “Devadasi,” is about Uma, a 16-year-old who is forced by her parents to go to India after experiencing her first kiss. How did this story develop?
“Devadasi” is the last story I wrote and the one I was most unsure about. When HarperCollins bought the book, there were only six stories in it, and I was in the middle of the seventh story, which would turn out to be “Devadasi.” I had trouble getting it out and I think it’s because it was the story that was closest to home. I think so many girls come back from India feeling a little dirty, and conveying that and the conversation between Uma and her Guruji was more difficult than I expected. It was only after the deadline that I changed some scenes in that story and finally liked it.
In “Lakshmi and the Librarian,” a mother of grown children pushes herself to reach out to the town’s librarian in his time of need. Did anyone in particular inspire the character of Lakshmi?
Lakshmi is kind of a composite of many different women I knew, but the librarian character really fueled the story. I was trying to think of a character who would be attractive to Lakshmi in her middle age, and I really like how weird and quirky the character of Elias Filian (the librarian) turned out.
If anyone had told me when I was growing up that there would be this wave of Indian American women around my age who were writing books, I would have been totally surprised. As a child, I never thought that our perspective as South Asians would ever influence mainstream American culture.
Which story is your favorite?
My favorite story in the collection is “Karma,” which is why I chose it as the title for the book. I love that the story has birds in it, and it means a lot to me that Shankar (the main character) is lost and kind of stumbles into his life in the U.S. He didn’t plan on coming to the U.S., and I think that’s what happens to a big chunk of immigrants—they somehow just end up here. So I like that he feels lost, and I like how he is quirky—that he would save birds.
How did you come up with the idea of saving birds?
I read an article in The Wall Street Journal about a guy in Toronto who had started a nonprofit to rescue birds during the migration season. His nonprofit saves the birds and sends them on their way. It was a crazy story, but very compelling to me, especially because of my environmental background.
What do you think about the trend of South Asians authoring books about the diaspora? Some bloggers have dubbed it “curry lit.”
Well, if anyone had told me when I was growing up that there would be this wave of Indian American women around my age who were writing books, I would have been totally surprised. As a child, I never thought that our perspective as South Asians would ever influence mainstream American culture.
I think a reason why there are so many South Asian women writers is that we’ve all come of age around the same time. As children of parents who immigrated to America in the 1960s and 1970s, we did what was expected of us: getting a job, getting married, etc., and now we can do what we want to do.
Indians also have a new place in the global culture, which I think explains the increased interest in literature from the Subcontinent. Obviously, Bollywood has been big for the past 15 years or so, but now a series of economic factors are affecting the way Indians are perceived by mainstream culture. America used to be the primary force in the world’s economy, but as India becomes a bigger player, whether through outsourcing or through flexing muscle as a nuclear nation, I think people are becoming curious about it.
You mentioned the term “curry lit” as a way to describe the general content of many of these “diaspora stories” and I think it’s a perfect description, but I think there are definitely all types of writing coming from South Asian writers. I know Akhil Sharma wrote a few pieces that were published in The New Yorker and appealed to a wide audience—but I’m not sure if that same audience was ready to read his first novel, which dealt with grittier subjects.
A lot of these “curry lit” books feature similar covers: mangoes or other exotic fruit, sari borders, henna and the color orange. What was your experience like when trying to design your cover with HarperCollins?
I had a wonderful experience with Ecco (HarperCollins). They were extremely respectful with all of my wishes, but there was a slight disagreement at one point over how the cover of my book should look. We had first come up with a design for the cover which I loved, but for some reason didn’t work with the marketing department. They then suggested a cover that showed an Indian woman, dressed in a Punjabi dress, with one silver toe-ring on her feet. The typical Punjabi dress is not traditionally worn in Andhra Pradesh, and all the characters in my book are Telugu and from Andhra Pradesh. The woman in the Punjabi dress was standing on a dock, with sunflowers falling from her hands into the water, but I’ve never seen sunflowers in Hyderabad, though I’ve definitely seen them in Kansas. I knew if any South Asians saw this cover, they would laugh at it. Once I explained these issues to Harper, though, they were extremely apologetic and understanding. Together, we designed the current cover—which I love—and which, ironically, has a more Mughal than Indian design.
I knew if any South Asians saw the original cover, they would laugh at it.
What is the novel you’re working on now about?
It takes place in the 19-teens and 1920s and is about the first community group of Indians that ever came to America and settled in southern California and Sacramento. The community was made up of Sikh men who weren’t allowed to bring over their spouses, because of strict immigration laws. So they married Mexican wives because Mexicans were technically “brown”—and you weren’t allowed to marry outside of your race. They then had bicultural children, who, growing up, had no interaction with other Indian kids because immigration from India had ceased due to strict laws. While I was in law school, I read about a case involving a Sikh man from this community. The man was a World War I veteran, owned property and was married on U.S. soil, but since he was not Caucasian, the U.S. court ruled that he was not a citizen and therefore couldn’t own property. I was really fascinated by this case and this past November, I took a field trip with my mother and baby daughter to the Imperial Valley to do some research for the novel.
What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?
I would say to keep the part of your brain that creates stuff separate from the part that sends out your manuscripts and collects rejection slip after rejection slip. You have to keep trying, because the competition is fierce. I think “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy” got rejected 21 times before the Harvard Review picked it up, and then it appeared in The Best American series. So if you believe in your writing, if you think it’s good, just keep on doing it. You have to keep on persevering.