Herpreet Singh writes fiction and personal essays, exploring the intersection between culture and geography, especially the Indo-American experience in the deep South. Her work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner and The Intentional. She coaches clients who are trying to write their own true stories in the book form. She’s a mother and partner and is at work on a novel.
To read Singh’s essay “Choking Out the Natives” and an exercise on creating multifaceted characters, click here.
In this interview, Singh discusses beginning an essay, using subheadings, and the challenge of writing about family.
The part from that essay that will stick with most people is your father-in-law’s line about dots. But what I really admire is how you set up that moment so that it has as much shock value as possible. It seems like you do this by treating him with humor and admiration at the beginning of the essay: the description of his commercials and the fact that he adopted your husband. Did the essay always begin this way?
It did. But initially, the set-up was intended to bring readers into Christmas. My in-laws’ Christmas tradition is humorous. It’s generous. It’s problematic in some ways. But it is also something I look forward to. It’s unlike any family Christmas I’ve ever heard about. I’d wanted to write about it for sometime, though I wasn’t sure what I had to say about it, beyond, “here is this crazy, wild, fun time.”
When I sat to write, I felt I could not convey the grandiosity or special appeal of Christmas without giving readers a glimpse of my father-in-law. So much of who he is and what he does could easily seem ordinary; but actually, he is innately creative, and he finds outlets for his creativity in his business endeavors and with creating events and traditions like this for his family. I was surprised that the set up led to a less flattering trait, his bigotry.
As I wrote about my father-in-law, it opened a portal to explore my husband. I started wandering as I wrote, exploring aspects of my husband and in-laws and being a part of their family that I hadn’t intended to explore. I permitted myself to go with that wandering, revealing the larger question: how does one take root in a family, whether one is brought into it, born into it, or has married in, especially when that person does not fully ‘fit’? In particular, I explored my specific experience of this more universal experience, and thus came the line about dots. The essay is exploratory in the truest sense.
You use subheadings in the essay: Mixed Babies; Red, White and Fused; Foreign Relations, and so on. Are these headings part of your drafting process? In other words, do you write the essay in sections? Or do you add them later as an organizational tool or as a guide to the reader?
Have you ever watched someone braid hair? My dad is a natural storyteller, but his stories, delivered orally, unfold in a long, interlacing ramble. I have always admired the way he draws listeners in, and we feel like we are, at first, just taking in the scenery as we follow. Then we realize we are actually observing clustered strands being braided together.
In school, we are usually discouraged from taking this approach, and it’s too bad. A meandering writing style is most natural to me; I attribute it both to my dad’s storytelling and to the geography in which I grew up. South Louisiana has its own meandering way of being. You can go to New Orleans for a full day, and by the next morning, you can feel like you’ve done so much and nothing all at once. In writing, this works for some readers and turns others off.
But I did not draft in sections or with subheadings. Because the essay took so many turns, after it was written, I felt it was important to offer readers some directionality, road markers to indicate, “Hey. We’re taking another turn; just stick with me! There is a clear destination. We will arrive!”
Adding those organizational headings did help the revision process. It forced me to identify the core truth or message in each section, and from there, I was able to cut whatever was too divergent or simply irrelevant.
One of my favorite parts of the essay is Chris’s explanation of why he’s not racist. He tells a story and then, you write, “Not satisfied with his explanation, I remember he shrugged and said, “It just made an impression on me.” I don’t think Chris can make any more sense than I can out of who he is in relationship to his family.” I love this because it resists explanation and knowing. And yet essays, by their very nature, seem designed to explain things. Did you struggle at all with finding a balance between trying to convey some things with a degree of certainty (this is how it is) while leaving other things open ended or unexplained?
I think an argumentative essay is meant to explain definitively, to offer a thesis and to prove it. An exploratory essay, particularly one that is also personal, ought to foster the use of language and observation and feelings and analytical skills to try to understand a subject, to simply think on the page. Of course, you go back, clean it up, see what part of the exploration yielded nothing or took you too far off path. But the writer should not go in knowing what he wants to prove. He should go in knowing he wants to better understand something, and that maybe that something is not entirely knowable.
I never intended to write about the night at the bar and what my sister-in-law shared. I don’t even think I knew how deeply it still bothered me, or how closely I associated that night with my in-laws’ Christmas. But there it landed on the page, and I gave space to it; I let it take up geography.
Then I wondered why it still mattered. Why was I holding tight a single painful memory when I loved this family and recognized the ways they loved me? After writing, I recognized the reason was my son. (And once I made sense of this, I revised to include his arrival earlier in the essay.)
So, no, I didn’t struggle to find a balance between certainty and uncertainty; I hold the worldview that some things, some people, some experiences, are not fully knowable, or that they possess many contradictory truths.
I did struggle to find a balance between attempting to understand what could be understood and accepting what I could not understand, and in presenting these in the essay, I aimed to not demonize my family. The more intentional balance struggle was whether I drew these people in with kindness while I also drew in some hard truths about them and my experience.
The most surprising revelation to me in the writing was to state of my father-in-law, “I don’t love him.” Those words landed on the page without conscious forethought. Five years after writing the essay, and seeing it published now, I struggle with that single line. I think I’ve made progress in my acceptance, because I do know that I love this family completely, and my father-in-law cannot be extracted from the unit. In fact, they are all who they are, to varying degrees, because of him.
A lot of people who write personal essays struggle with knowing that their family or friends will read the work. How have you handled this issue? Will your family read this essay? Do you talk to them about it’s published?
I am fairly new to publishing; my work has only begun to gain some traction. So with the publication of this essay I learned something: in nonfiction I intend to publish, I need to read it with this question in mind: Do the details and particulars included give life to the essay and its larger meaning that outweighs the real lives of the people the essay depicts? If the details only add color, like nice accessories, but could be hurtful to the people they depict, remove them. On the other hand, if the details contribute to the larger meaning and are delivered with fairness, leave them in.
There are several line edits I would make to this piece to remove purely “colorful” details (such as the Christmas “cocktail” I talk about my brother-in-law having), or else to ensure that particulars are balanced (such as referring to my nieces as “loud-mouthed and not-so-tactful” which both lumped several people together and did not explicitly relay their good intentions or traits). With these kinds of changes, the exploration and complexity in the essay would not have been diminished.
I’m not sure whether I will, in the future, talk to people ahead of time. That may be something I consider on a case-by-case basis.
My family did read the essay, though I had not intended them to. Ultimately, I think this is a good thing. It gives me space, not as a writer, but as a human being and family member, to live truthfully in a way I have not, to change the trajectory of these relationships and how I exist as a part of that family. And as a writer, I don’t regret writing or publishing personal work. I know there is a larger message that will reach an audience that is starving to have it; as an Indo-American who grew up in south Louisiana, I was thirsty to see myself and my experiences depicted. When I did identify my own experiences and truths in another’s writing, I felt the enormous relief of not being alone in the world. That is a largely why I write and why I share my writing.