Tania James could send many postcards. She was born in Chicago, raised in Louisville, lived in Boston and New York while obtaining degrees from Harvard and Columbia (where she received her MFA in fiction in 2006), and now resides in Washington, DC. Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that her first collection, forthcoming from Knopf (May 2012), is called Aerogrammes. I highly anticipated this collection from James, whose debut novel, Atlas of the Unknowns, was described by The San Francisco Chronicle as “the most exciting since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth,” and I wasn’t disappointed. James’ characters—turn-of-the century Indian wrestlers, traditional Indian dance instructors, chimpanzees from Sierra Leone, and self-appointed editors of DIY scriptology magazines—struggle with identify and family in funny and heartbreaking ways. Their blood runs like ink into your bedsheets, and although your threadcount ruined, you can’t quite toss it away.
You know, a few stories in, I wasn’t completely sold on the title—Aerogrammes. But after I finished the book, it dawned on me how brilliant it was—the characters, who are primarily of second-generation Indians in America, all have a story that they believe in, cling to, that makes them feel good, and the challenge is excepting the story they are actually living. There is often a sort of glossed-over, stereotypical feel to how each culture–American and Indian–perceives the other. Aerogrammes were popular in the United States in the 1940s, which colors them with a feeling of an innocent, simpler reality. They also convey a feeling of exotic intrigue because they were mostly used for airmail (and particularly because you prefer the British spelling). How did aerogrammes become such an important symbol in your work?
When I was first tossing around title ideas with my editor and agent, they suggested that people might not know what the word aerogramme means. Oddly that never even occurred to me; aerogrammes were such a memorable part of my youth. My uncle—a big guy with a big personality—would write in this fairy-sized handwriting so as to fit in all his news; he wouldn’t waste a millimeter of space. Those letters had an aura about them of both intimacy and distance, which I think is a tension that animates most of my stories.
I’m intrigued by all the associations you’ve drawn from the title, especially that airbrushing aspect—how we imagine ourselves, and how we want others to imagine us. That was on my mind as I was mulling over the title. I also think of an aerogramme as an attempt at connection across a gap that will never be closed completely, and in that way, the title seemed thematically capable of carrying the whole collection.
Were there any stories that were particularly more difficult to write in, either from voice or subject matter or something else? Do they all come from the same span of writing or a particular time in your life?
The first story—”Lion & Panther in London”—was the toughest in that I’d never grappled with history before. It was exciting at first to come across a whole world in which I could immerse myself, and to learn the grammar of Indian wrestling. But I was also tied to the lives of two real people who don’t appear all that much in history books and yet who continue to exist in the memories of many Punjabi folk. (Their names were Gama the Great and Imam, two national champions from Punjab.) I kept trying to render the wrestlers as peripheral characters, perhaps out of respect or intimidation or both, before I realized that I’d excised most of what had interested me in the first place: the wrestlers. So when I refocused the story on the personal relationship between those two wrestlers, who were also brothers, the heart of the story pulled into focus.
I was taken by the precision in the language in the stories—not frilly, not overly sentimental, but clearly packing a punch. Can we talk about the evolution of your writing style—was it influenced by studying at Columbia, and/or are there certain authors/mentors to whom you respond? Is English your primary language, or do you also speak Hindi? [or another Indian language—I'm told there are hundreds of dialects!] I’m always fascinated by how writers discover their lexicon—
I guess my trajectory, style-wise, is similar to many a writing student’s in that for a long time I was very devotedly and relentlessly mimicking other people. At Columbia I was introduced to writers I’d never come across before, like Lydia Davis, Italo Svevo, Ben Okri, Deborah Eisenberg, George Saunders. Even the writers I’d known were somehow made new to me, like Virginia Woolf and Henry James. All of them, in various ways, exploded my notions of what a story or an essay could be, and so shape-shifting was inevitable and exciting and, I think, necessary to my development.
But just as important as those books were my teachers (like Nathan Englander and Sam Lipsyte) as well as my peers, and how their responses guided me towards seeing what was worth pursuing in my own work. I still tend to slip into other voices from time to time, depending on the demands of the story. I’m aware that I have a particular voice I can’t shake, no more than I can really describe or analyze it, but I’m also aware that I can slant it in different ways, according to the story I’m trying to tell.
As to my language capabilities, I’m sort of proficient in Malayalam, my parents’ first language. I can speak and understand what I call Kitchen Malayalam, but ask me to swear or share a political opinion, and I got nothin.
That’s too bad! It’s always useful to know swear words in as many languages as possible. Of course, since we’re talking about language, I’m going to segue-way into the dreaded identity question. Do you feel there’s a conscious effort to market you as an Indian writer, or specifically an Indian woman writer, a la a Jhumpa Lahiri or Arundhati Roy? How would you like readers to approach your work?
That depends on who’s doing the reviewing/interviewing. I don’t think that my publisher was waving the Indian Woman Flag, but there were other times when I was very clearly presented that way. I had a lovely interview with an Italian newspaper, which ran my interview alongside a giant photo of Aishwarya Rai (super-famous Bollywood actress) whirling around in a still from the movie Mistress of Spices. It certainly caught the attention in a way that my book jacket would not have. Some moments like that are funny, and sometimes they’re not. I don’t dwell heavily on the subject as it’s often outside of my control, but I don’t totally ignore it either because I think it’s important, as a minority and as a woman, to know how I’m being represented or perceived.
As to the other question, I’m aware that every reader, including myself, brings her preconceived notions to whatever she’s reading. None of us live in a vacuum. But my ideal reader would be one who approaches my work with a willingness to let those notions be complicated or altered by what they’re about to read.
I know you just spent 8 months in India on a Fullbright fellowship. What was your exposure to Indian literary culture there? Are there different taboos for say, an Indian writer working in India than one who is based in the U.S.? Roy, of course, received a lot of acclaim (and criticism) for focusing on “love laws” (including caste and incest) in The God of Small Things–in fact, she even faced an obscenity trial for writing about Christian and Hindu lovers. As an Indian and/or American writer, is there anything that might be difficult for you to explore in your work?
There has indeed been loud criticism of Indians abroad attempting to represent the India they left behind. Are they writing of mangoes and nasty toilets simply to appease or affirm the fascinations of a Western audience? To me, good writing is good writing, and I don’t care much who the audience was meant to be. As a reader, if I feel I’m being given a lengthy cultural lesson, I tend to lose interest in the story, but excess didacticism is a flaw I’d dislike in anyone’s writing, be they an Indian or a New Yorker or a Martian.
There’s another (and to me, more interesting) side to the criticism, and that is the question of publishing itself. Are Indian authors being given the same attention and opportunity as their expat counterparts? I can’t really say. From my meager experience in talking with an Indian literary agent, homegrown authors are emerging and taking advantage of the Indian reading public, like Amish Tripathi, author of the wildly successful Shiva Trilogy. There are also some excellent venues for publishing creative work, like Tehelka, and local literary festivals that try to steer the spotlight toward more marginalized writers. So perhaps the perceived center is shifting in some ways, so long as Indian literary agents and Indian publishing venues continue to grow.
As to your other question, I don’t feel beholden to any cultural taboos. The only things I actively avoid are the painful particulars of other people’s lives, people who are close to me and who might recognize themselves and feel exposed by my work. I did enough of that in college. As a film major, I mostly made personal documentaries featuring various family members and it wasn’t until their faces were projected on that giant theater screen, in front of hundreds of my peers, that I realized a sense of responsibility in bearing someone else’s story. I suppose I do draw from life (and distort it) at times, quite often in fact, but there’s a gut feeling I can’t ignore when I’ve tampered with something that I know should remain off-limits to me.
So what are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel that involves wild elephants who tangle with humans. That’s all I know for now!
You can find out more about Aerogrammes, Atlas of the Unknowns, and Tania James at her website.