The Essential Values
Interview by Patrick Burns
About Author Padma Viswanathan
Padma Viswanathan was born in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, and grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, with no intention of becoming a writer. After completing a sociology degree, she worked in research, as a librarian, and in educational and social-action theatre. This continued until she joined a local playwrights’ circle and wrote the first scene of her first play, House of Sacred Cows. It was in writing this scene that she discovered—to her relief—a discipline to which she could commit.
Shortly after this first epiphany came another: it finally occurred to her to ask her grandmother about their family history. The story her grandmother told, about her own grandmother, a Brahmin widow left with two small children after her astrologer husband’s death, inspired her to write her first novel, The Toss of a Lemon, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Pen Center USA Fiction Award, Amazon.ca’s First Novel Award, and for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award (Canada and the Caribbean).
Padma’s work has received many awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Canada Council for the Arts, as well as residencies at MacDowell, Sacatar, and the Banff Center for the Arts. She won the 2007 Boston Review Short Story Prize, and other of her stories and articles have been published in journals and magazines across Canada and the U.S.
With the publication of her novel in Canada, she was named a New Face of Fiction for 2008 by Random House, her Canadian publisher. The Toss of a Lemon met with many positive reviews there and made several bestseller lists. Now published in the U.S. by Harcourt, the book has received starred advance reviews, has been named to the “Indie Next List” (formerly Book Sense Picks), and has been selected for several First Editions clubs.
Padma’s husband, Geoffrey Brock, a poet and literary translator, lured her away from Montreal, where she was living when they met. She followed him to San Francisco; he followed her to Tucson; there was some tarrying in India, Brazil, and Italy, but they are now settled in the startling and verdant Arkansas Ozarks, where they care for two ever-amusing bairns, as well as a cat that came with the house, a snake that came with the garden, and several fish readily available retail.
Terrain.org: At this point in your career, you’re most well-known for your novel, The Toss of a Lemon. Prior to this you wrote a handful of plays that were performed in Canada (House of Sacred Cows in 1997; By Air, By Water, By Wood in 1999; and Disco Does Not Suck). How did your experience writing plays affect your work as a novelist? How do we see place differently on stage versus on paper? What are the challenges developing characters for the stage versus in a novel?
Padma Viswanathan: I tend, in my fiction, to offer entrée into at least one if not more characters’ psyches, so characterization can be pretty direct. Even if my characters talk a lot and do things, the reader gets to hear what they’re thinking and how this might be different from what they’re saying or from what others think they’re thinking. On stage, where you don’t get much but what the audience can witness: dialogue and action. I’m not much of a playwright, but at least I never resorted to soliloquy! (Although if I were better, I probably could have gotten away with it…) One director I worked with on early drafts of House of Sacred Cows said, once, “Padma, you’re trying to write your novel again!” It was a wordy play. The other two short plays were not so much so, but the message was clear: I have left writing for the stage to people who are of the stage, which I never really was.
Terrain.org: I heard the author Stephen Elliott say, “You’ve got to have a job while you’re writing your first book . . . and your second . . . and your third.” What were you doing while you wrote this first novel, and how did you sustain the energy of a single project over ten years?
Padma Viswanathan: I was, let’s see… working in community and educational theatre; teaching ESL; freelancing as a journalist; going to grad school; teaching writing courses; and occasionally receiving grants not to have to do much of the above for certain blessedly focused periods of time. The book—its characters and their dilemmas—simply continued to hold my interest through the years it took me to complete it. There was never really a time when I had to make myself work on it. I just had to find the time.
Terrain.org: In The Toss of a Lemon, you illustrate the extensive customs of the Tamil Brahman caste. These customs are highly specific and extremely rigid—the widow Sivakami, for example, is forced to shave her head and she is forbidden to touch anyone during the day—yet they seem to provide several characters with a sense of place and social order, in addition to what we would call oppression. Which of these Tamil Brahman customs survive today in modern India? Among Indians who have immigrated to places like the United States and Canada? What can we learn from these customs that can be applied to modern Western society?
Padma Viswanathan: An awareness of caste as well as vestigial practices of various sorts survive, here and in India, although the strict segregation I describe and customs such as the isolation of widows have largely broken down under the combined forces of anti-discrimination laws, urbanization, and general social progress. You’re right that the old order gave people such as my characters a sense of identity and a code, one they would call moral and ethical. This was true not only for Brahmins, even widows, but also for others, such as Sivakami’s servant, Muchami, who is from one of the agricultural classes but also takes great pride in his place as one of the underpillars of the social hierarchy.
I’m not sure there’s anything specific to be learned from those customs: the essential values, such as respect for elders, loyalty to clan and place, the puzzling beauty of ritual and tradition, are ones that transcend this place and culture. I tend to think it’s the particularities that are fascinating, even while it’s those essential values that make it possible for us, in a very different time and place, to identify with these people who seem so different from us.
Terrain.org: You have lived in Nelson, British Columbia; Edmonton; Montreal; San Francisco; Baltimore; Tucson, Arizona; and Fayetteville, Arkansas, to name a few. Your central character, Sivakami, spends most of her life in the same Indian village of Cholapatti. How has your living in so many locations helped inform your main character’s placement in a single location? On a broader scale, do you think your moving around drives an interest in focusing on a single location and culture?
Padma Viswanathan: Outside of North America, I’ve also spent months at a time in each of India, Brazil, the Philippines, the U.K. and Germany, and have always tried to fit in, wherever I was. (Hmm: I just realized that, by contrast, I’ve never felt any need to try to fit in here in my own continent!) It’s not that I would censor myself, exactly, but it has always seemed more interesting to me to try to figure out how others live, what their world-view is, how they see their landscape, than to try to impose my worldview on them.
In India, I spent a lot of time in rural settings and in the homes of my elder relatives. Because of my personal stake, it would often be quite emotional for me to keep my feelings (on caste prejudice or the place of women, for example) under wraps, though this was also the one place I was least inclined to silence! But it also felt important to me to show my relatives the respect and love I genuinely felt for them, even while I made it clear I didn’t share their beliefs. I brought this whole mix to bear on the book: although my main characters effectively never leave the village where they spend their lives—and I do try to show, with compassion and empathy, how they lived and thought—the book is narrated from North America and from a time much later than the events of the story (although the story appears to be told in third person for the most part, the narrator eventually reveals herself).
Outside of this book, though, my work moves around: I have written stories set in Brazil, various parts of Canada, and the U.S., as well as in places that don’t exist on a map. My new novel is set in western Canada.
Terrain.org: You are married to the poet Geoffrey Brock. Do you find poetry informs your own views of the world, your own writing? How do writers of fiction and poetry view place differently, or is there more at work in a literary sense than simply the genre of writing in determining how place and culture are viewed?
Padma Viswanathan: Probably all writers view place differently, regardless of the genre they work in. The title of my new novel, Losing Farther, Losing Faster, is a quote from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” which I recite most mornings before I begin work. I don’t think I read enough poetry (but then I don’t feel I read enough of anything, and I read every chance I get). Still, I find I crave the way lyric poetry stops time, particularly as a counter-value to the thrumming narrative drive of fiction. It helps me a lot to read literature in which felicity of expression is the primary goal: more fiction should aim for that. My favorite novels achieve it. I recently read a novel in verse, Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune, that combined both genres’ gifts so marvelously I had to throw it aside and bury my face in my hands.
Terrain.org: You maintain a blog. How does maintaining such an accessible, real-time medium affect your writing, or does it? More importantly, do you find that “new media” such as blogs and social networking help or a hinder a writer?
Padma Viswanathan: It’s probably only appropriate to call it a blog because that’s in the URL! I called it a “monthly column” when I started it, and still only managed to write six essays for it over the course of last year. I’m really not interested in communicating with the world at large on a daily or semi-weekly basis: if I can talk to my husband that often, I’m happy! There are some remarkable writers who thrive on loads of that sort of contact; I’ve always thought of myself as fairly social, but I’m positively hermetic on the blogscale! I guess I’m glad that all the social networking stuff is there for people who find it energizing; I just tend to dabble and withdraw cyclically, which is confusing to everyone, including myself.
Terrain.org: Also, your column is titled Notes on Failure, inspired by the quote from Samuel Beckett that says, “Fail Again. Fail Better.” And, yet, your first novel was reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review by a Michael Gorra, a writer who has written introductions for the classic works of Graham Greene, William Faulkner, and Joseph Conrad. Could you explain what you mean by “failure” as it pertains to you as a writer and artist?
Padma Viswanathan: Hmm: well, Michael Gorra did not love my book! And even if he had, what would that really have meant in the big picture? I found his criticism quite interesting, actually; it gave me more to chew on than some of the raves, even if I like an ego-stroke as much as the next person. (I am going to try to be better about not reading my reviews with the next book, but it’s very hard, particularly when all my friends and family wants to talk about them.) But I guess that’s your answer right there: artists have to be able to “fail” all the time, because there’s no such thing as a “perfect” work of art for all people or all time. I find deeply irritating any notion that there is.
My blog wasn’t actually inspired by that Beckett quote: I was reminded of it, after starting the blog, by a revered mentor, D. D. Kugler. (He directed my first play, House of Sacred Cows.) He told me he is always trying to challenge his students’ notions of “perfection.” An artist needs to let go of ideas of perfection, as well as external measures of success or failure, in order to find the courage to say something that might turn out (at least for someone) to be true.
Terrain.org: You have an entry titled “Cleaning House,” in which you discuss the complexities of hiring someone to help you with house cleaning. In it you refer to Barbara Ehrenreich, an American journalist who writes often of the marginalized working class—especially women, and her experiences going “undercover” to clean people’s homes. In what ways is your work similar to Ehrenreich’s in discussing social issues, given that novels—good novels—are not polemic? Is it similar at all?
Padma Viswanathan: Wow, I’m flattered at her work and mine being discussed in the same paragraph, but I have to say I don’t think there is much similarity. I don’t think my writing would ever stimulate action on matters of social or economic justice, the way hers would, even though those were the matters that preoccupied me through my teens and twenties. I spent all my time, back then, working for global and inter-community equality but found myself frustrated—as happens—with slowness of progress, setbacks, and (sometimes) the people I worked with, until I realized how interested I was in the reasons for those frustrations.
It was around that time that I wrote the first scene of my first play, and understood that I needed to write literature, that it was going to be the only way I had to make sense of the world as I saw it, that I was likely to have greater success trying to elucidate the reasons, in human psychology, in history, in accident, for injustice than I was in trying to remake the world.
I hope that doesn’t sound cynical. I don’t think I’m cynical! I’m profoundly grateful for work such as Ehrenreich’s, but it’s also true that Nickel and Dimed, for all its complexity and verve, is not really written to be read by people like those it features, whereas my work is. For various reasons, though, as you say, good novels “fail” to be prescriptive.
Terrain.org: In an interview with Dave Rosenthal for Red Room—and as you mentioned previously—you say that you are working on a second novel called Losing Farther, Losing Faster about an Indian man named Seth, who lives in contemporary western Canada. He is a devotee of a very popular Indian guru, and, when the novel opens, he learns that his guru has been accused of a highly ambiguous sexual misdeed. You mention that your character has to try to come to terms with his faith in light of the accusations. How does writing about a character’s meditations on faith affect your own sense of faith? More broadly, in what ways does writing a character like Seth affect you?
Padma Viswanathan: Seth is very different from me and, as with all my characters, I have a great affection for and curiosity about him, which is what makes me want to write a book about him. He is facing an enormous dilemma, one that I will never face. He’s not based directly on anyone I know, and yet the book draws, in so many ways, on the history and conflicts of my community and family. It’s been fascinating.
Terrain.org: Beyond Losing Farther, Losing Faster, what’s next for Padma Viswanathan?
Padma Viswanathan: I have a bunch of short stories I’ve been writing: not sure if they belong in a single book or a couple. I have another novel I’ve been waiting for over ten years to have a chance to write. I’ve just published my first translation (from Portuguese) and would love to do more. I have notes toward “Notes on Failure” piling up in the wings. A big long to-do list, and all this is on hold in favor of finishing Losing Farther, Losing Faster.
Think I’ll go play with my kids.