An Interview with Chaitali Sen

10 Dec
Chaitali Sen is the author of the novel The Pathless Sky.

Chaitali Sen is the author of the novel The Pathless Sky.

Chaitali Sen was born in India and raised in New York and Pennsylvania. Her short fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, The Aerogram, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other journals. She is the author of the novel The Pathless Sky.

To read an exercise about giving jobs to characters, inspired by The Pathless Sky, click here.

In this interview, Sen discusses how playing with time can inject energy into a novel, why she invented a country for The Pathless Sky, and the challenge of avoiding a checklist of elements for certain types of stories.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with a dramatic opening chapter and then, in the next chapter, moves back in time. Most of the novel, then, is spent on the path back to that opening event. Did you begin with this structure, or did you come to it with an eye toward hooking the reader as firmly as possible?

Chaitali Sen

I wrote that prologue (though it’s not technically a prologue – a flash forward?) after I completed the first draft and was taking a break from the novel. During that time, I read a craft book about different narrative structures which suggested the linear, chronological structure was the most plodding way to telling a story, basically the least energetic. I don’t think I agree with that anymore but at the time, I was feeling that the build-up to the central conflict in my story was too slow. My first draft was doggedly chronological, starting with the characters meeting in college and concluding with an ending that has since changed. I did need to fix some pacing issues, but at the same time I felt the slowly rising action was important and I didn’t want to rush it. That opening flash-forward was the first thing I wrote when I started the second draft, and immediately I did feel the energy coming back into the novel, which I needed for the writing of a new draft. That prologue ended up being an important touchstone for me during the revision process. It kept reminding me of where the story was headed – of its dramatic arc and its themes – and I hoped it would do that for the reader as well. Once I wrote that opening chapter, I never considered taking it out.

Michael Noll

I love the descriptions of the characters, especially how much joy they seem to carry with them. For instance, when John introduces himself to Mariam and walks with her, you write, “Her step was so exuberant that he had trouble keeping up with her.” Dr. Malick is described like this: “Dr. Malick of the University of Sulat Province was a spry, wiry man in his fifties, with thin strands of hair that seemed drawn to some heavenly body wanting to lift him upwards.” This is beautiful writing, but it’s also in sharp contrast to the urgent, oppressive, uncertain opening chapter. Was this intentional?

Chaitali Sen

I love that you used the word “joy.” I don’t think this contrast was intentional. At least, I wasn’t aware of it as I was writing. But I was trying to examine how these larger political and historical forces seep into our daily lives and wear away at people’s joyful aspirations. This is something I’ve witnessed and experienced in my adult life. It has become an essential part of my worldview, so I think it comes out in my writing on a subconscious level.

I once heard an interview with the African-American painter Jacob Lawrence in which he said the most important thing for an artist to do was to figure out their worldview. At the time I thought he was simply stating that the artist needed to be engaged with the world and responding to it with their art, but now I think he was also saying that the way you see the world becomes a kind of muse, providing inspiration and motivation that you can’t always access on an intellectual level.

Michael Noll

Chaitali Sen wrote about her decision to invent a country for her novel at The Asian American Writers' Workshop.

Chaitali Sen wrote about her decision to invent a country for her novel at The Asian American Writers’ Workshop.

When it comes to writers of color or writers from certain countries, there’s an expectation, at least among American readers,that the writers will serve as a kind of authentic guide to their community and place. In an essay for The Asian American Writers Workshop, you write, “I had been aware of these expectations, and felt a crippling pressure to write exclusively about my experience as a child of Indian immigrants.” I’m curious about that word: crippling. The Native American writer David Treuer wrote in his book Native American Fiction: A Users Manual about the memoir, The Education of Little Tree. When it was published, it was beloved by the Native American community—until it was discovered that the author was a white former Klansman. The problem, Treuer wrote, wasn’t so much the authorship of the book but the fact that there seemed to be a genre of Native American stories, easily imitated because it had a checklist of common plots, characters, and settings (for instance, spiritual characters or characters who are purely and wholly “Indian” live far from the village, away from other people). Given your choice to set the novel in an invented country, I wonder if you felt something similar. As you tried to conceive of a story to write, did you feel that to write about your experience as a child of Indian immigrants meant to tell that story in a particular way, to craft your story to fit a kind of checklist or genre?

Chaitali Sen

This is such a complicated issue for me. The body of work by South Asian Americans has been extremely limited until the last couple of years, when there has been a sudden flourishing (which may be an overly generous word to describe a handful of books) of quite varied and remarkable narratives. I think South Asian American literature is suddenly opening up and it just can’t be defined narrowly anymore. Authors such as Nina McConigley, Bushra Rehman, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Mira Jacob, A.X. Ahmad, Sharbari Ahmed, Nayomi Munaweera – and many more are certainly showing me that what I once perceived to be the narrow expectations of South Asian American writers is perhaps not true anymore.

Having said that, there have been writings, discussions, and inside jokes that a book by a South Asian writer must have certain elements – a checklist of sorts – including lots of mentions of food, intergenerational cultural conflicts, identity crises, colorful clothing, etc. And while I think writers like Bharati Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri who were the early pioneers of South Asian American literature wrote multi-layered narratives, the critics tended to focus on themes of difference and the struggle of immigrants to adapt. Along with that comes this troubling oversimplification about the contrast between American culture and South Asian culture. In reality, culture and society in both the United States and the countries of South Asia are extremely complex and multi-faceted. I think that was the trap I felt more crippled by, of having my writing become a representation of all Indian Americans or speaking for the Indian American or South Asian American experience, and of drawing pat conclusions about either place that I am not meaning for the reader to draw. When there are so few writers of a certain background, that writer has the unnecessary burden of speaking for his or her race. I do find that when I write stories about Indians and Indian Americans, there is always some mention of the cultural aspect when people are responding to it, even though I’m not thinking of a particular detail in the story as a cultural detail. I don’t think people respond to white American writers in the same way. The details in their stories are not considered to be cultural markers. So that’s part of the crippling aspect. However, my current novel is about an Indian American woman and I’m really enjoying writing it.

Michael Noll

The novel is, at it’s heart, a romance, and the obstacle to that romance is politics. Mariam comes from an area of the country that once rebelled and where the locals are mistrusted by the government. This conflict grows throughout the novel, but the details about it are spare. We don’t learn, for instance, a great deal about the culture of English Canal and Sulat Province or about the nature of the resistance. In that way, the novel seems to have something in common with dystopian science fiction/fantasy: what’s important is the impact of oppression, the struggle to live under it, and that struggle is common to all places and people. Is that a fair statement about the novel? Did you ever try to invent a more in-depth culture for Sulat?

Chaitali Sen

Wow, this is a hard question. In short, I think it is a fair statement about the novel, and I would have to say I never did try to invent a more in-depth culture for Sulat. In building up this imaginary country, I think culture was the hardest for me to invent, because as you can probably tell from my response to the previous question, my relationship with the concept of culture is somewhat troubled. : ) So I focused on things like geography, geology, and on perceptions of characters about these places. For example, the perceptions other characters have of Sulat may or may not be accurate according to Mariam’s or John’s experience there. But I think you hit the nail on the head when you say, “what’s important is the impact of oppression, the struggle to live under it, and that struggle is common to all places and people.”

December 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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