Tag Archives: The Pathless Sky

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.

How to Give a Character a Job

8 Dec
Chaitali Sen's The Pathless Sky updates the star-crossed lovers tale with a novel set amid political turmoil and the possibility that geography and politics might still be overcome.

Chaitali Sen’s The Pathless Sky updates the star-crossed lovers tale, in a novel set amid political turmoil and the possibility that geography and politics might still be overcome.

Just as oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface, so do jobs occupy the vast majority of our waking hours. Yet in novels and stories, we tend to write about only the dry land—the family members, relationships, and conflicts that we often view as separate from work. Some critics claim this is due to the novel’s bourgeois roots. In this view, writers (for instance, Henry James) have often been people with wealth, who never had to get a “real job,” and so their novels reflect their lives of leisure. The opposite approach is to give characters low-paid, backbreaking jobs that reveal the oppression of society, as in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

It’s true that jobs carry social connotations and political implications (today as ever), but this is not the only way to view work. What if the character likes the job? Or, what if a job is neither terrible nor great but, simply, part of the fabric of the character’s life? To write about work in this context, we need a different approach than ignoring labor altogether or using it as a metaphor for society.

Chaitali Sen demonstrates how this approach might work in her novel The Pathless Sky. You can read an excerpt from it here.

How the Novel Works

The Pathless Sky is set in an invented country, a purposeful and careful choice made by Sen (which she wrote about here). In her essay, “Why I Set My Novel in an Unnamed Country,” Sen writes, “My fictional setting was some sort of strange hybrid that probably revealed more about my own psychology than a singular geopolitical entity.” As with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Before I Was a Gazan,” which I wrote about last week, the goal is to view a character not as a political entity but as a unique individual. The politics don’t disappear, but they are no longer foregrounded. As American readers, we tend to view characters from non-Western countries as representatives of an entire group of people, just as we tend to view characters who are restaurant servers and cooks, farm workers, and bankers as representatives of their work groups. The challenge is to allow readers to see character first and then the character’s job.

Watch how Sen does 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. His papers were mostly technical, minor in scope. He seemed to relish the practice of geography, the tools, the products, the meditative fieldwork, the craft rather than the theory, as if he wanted to know only what was there and capture it with an artist’s hand, with little interest in the forces that created it. His talks were so tightly focused, so fixed on one object, in this case a single, intensely detailed map of English Canal illustrating the difficulties of mapping around an urban center where the geology is often obscured, that he often left his listeners wondering if he’d been speaking in a long, extended metaphor and they’d failed to grasp it.

The passage begins with details that have nothing to do with the character’s work as a geology professor. Instead, they’re focused on his appearance and what it reveals about his personality (spry, wiry, attracted to heavenly bodies). These traits are immediately juxtaposed with the nature of his work (technical, minor). It’s an unlikely pairing that leads to unexpected phrases (“relish the practice of geography”) and the terrific image of his students “wondering if he’d been speaking in a long, extended metaphor and they’d failed to grasp it.”

Sen has given her novel room to create character and a job for that character. Neither is a manifestation of the other. Each has the integrity of its own existence, and when they’re brought together, tension is created.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s give a character a job, using The Pathless Sky by Chaitali Sen as a model:

  1. Describe some aspect of the character’s physical existence. This could mean appearance: how he looks or how she carries herself. It could also be a reflection of the character’s interior life. For example, how often have you read a book with a dreamy character who sits and reads in the midst of some social gathering? You can do better. In the film Breach, Chris Cooper plays a FBI agent who sold secrets to the Russians, and when he walks down the hall with a coworker, he leans into the other man, continually pushing him into the wall. The character’s internal life is given external force. This is what Sen does with Dr. Malick’s hair. The force of his personality becomes externally animated: his hair seems to attempt to leave the Earth’s orbit. So, try to see your character as active, rather than passive (or with passivity that is consciously chosen). What details would the character’s acquaintances notice? How would they finish this sentence: Whenever we ___, she always ____?
  2. Attach adjectives to the character. I know that Ye Olde Workshop Rules ban adjectives, but that’s a bit like banning salt from food. Over-seasoning can ruin the product, of course, but a little bit can accentuate the natural flavors. In Sen’s passage, spry and wiry highlight the description of hair that follows. Without the adjectives, the image might pack less punch. So, try making a list of adjectives that might match the trait or description you’ve just written. How can you add one or two of these words to a sentence about the character?
  3. Introduce the job. Keep in mind that the job is not entering a neutral space. You’ve given it a charge with the description of the character. How does the job react? Is it charged a similar way? Does it carry an opposite charge? We think in similar terms in real life. When we learn someone’s job, we think, “Yeah, that makes sense,” or we’re befuddled. It doesn’t really make a difference which option you choose. What matters is that you’re conscious of the choice. Whether the job is a neat fit or an unlikely one, make the nature of the pairing clear to the reader.
  4. Develop the relationship between character and job. If the job is a neat fit for the character, describe the ease with which the character goes about her work. Or, describe how the meets the characters needs, whatever they are or how the character excels at the job. If the job is an unlikely pairing, describe, as Sen does, how the character surprises people in that workplace with how he carries out his duties. Or, how do the character’s traits make him unexpectedly good at his job?

The goal is to give a story space to create both character and a job, opening up more possibilities for tension and conflict.

Good luck.

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