Mothers who have suppressed their former wild ways, young wives who don't trust their new husband and in-laws, dancers in India, and women who fall in love with trees -- these are some of the characters in Shubha Venugopal's stories, which bring us back and forth between India and America. As we read, we see the "hair in two braids, heavy with coconut oil and thick as bodies of snakes I found in the garden and tickled with sticks;" we smell the "amla and henna, her clothes of dalchini -- her cinnamon masalas; we hear "the dog snor[ing] sporadically, and sometimes so loudly that her eyes opened, baring whites glinting with surprise," and we're hungry for the vegetables sautéed in "sweet Hoisin, tangy Lemon Basil, a spattering of chili oil. Dark tamarind paste, hot as molasses. Cumin fried brown" -- especially when it all begins to simmer.
Although Venugopal got her PhD in English literature, it wasn't until after her first pregnancy that she started creating her own material. Since then, she's received her MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College and has written numerous short stories, some of which can be read at her website. Venugopal's work can also be found in the anthology A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, and she has been a finalist in fiction competitions by Glimmer Train and The Atlantic Monthly. She is the winner of the 2008 Ellen Meloy Literature for Social Change Award and a finalist for the 2009 Robert Olen Butler Short Story Prize.
Venugopal teaches literature and writing at California State University, Northridge, and is currently working on a short story collection and a novel. Excerpts from Venugopal's short story collection, The Name of Longing, will be performed at the New Short Fiction Series event on February 14th.
APA: When did you start writing?
Shubha Venugopal: I really started writing right after I had my daughter, six years ago. Somehow after I gave birth to her, pages started pouring out. I don't know what happened; it was amazing. [laughs] About a year later, I joined the Bennington MFA Creative Writing program. By then, I was pregnant with my son, and during that time, I produced 400 pages.
There was something about giving birth, the pregnancy, that really unleashed something. Before that, I was getting my PhD [from the University of Michigan]. I was doing academic writing and some creative non-fiction, but the creative writing really started after my daughter.
APA: When you were getting your PhD in English, you must have been looking at literature, but in a different way.
SV: Totally different way. Yeah, it's interesting. I don't think a lot of people do that. I started out with the analytic, theoretical aspects of literature, and I really noticed a divide, between the professors who studied literature analytically and the writers. There's very little crossover.
Now, in my own career, I'm using all aspects, and I think it helps because I can talk to literature students about how they would approach this as a writer and I can talk to my writing students about how you would approach it as a critic. It's hard because it uses different parts of your mind, which makes it really hard for me to write. [laughs] I'm always over-analyzing it, while I'm trying to write it. And you're always reading these brilliant writers. Maybe that's why the pregnancy helped. I was too distracted to think about it, so I just wrote.
APA: Where do you find inspiration when you write?
SV: My culture. The inspiration comes from many writers, but what I write about primarily is my culture. But I also have pieces on motherhood and relationships, and often that's the focus, even though they might be Indian.
APA: You grew up in the US, but did you visit India a lot as a kid?
SV: We went back every couple of years. For me, especially when I was younger, I always had this odd feeling of looking like an insider but being an outsider. And nobody would know that. People would look at my cousins from India and ask them if they were American, because of the way they dressed, and nobody would ever ask me that, because I was dressed very traditionally. [laughs] So I would blend in, even though I didn't feel like I blended in. I also grew up in a lot of Midwestern places where there were very few minorities, back in the 70s. So you put together those dual feelings of always being an outsider and an insider.
APA: Your writing is very sensual, and you make a lot of references to nature and food.
SV: A lot of people have commented on that. Jill McCorkle says, "When I read your writing, it always makes me hungry!" [laughs]
I've always spent a lot of time outdoors, traveling, doing adventure trips in nature -- for example, a 30-day kayaking trip in Alaska. It provides a way of looking at the world outside of societal constrictions. One of the books I teach is Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and her character has that exact idea of being in tune with nature. It allows her to escape all the restrictive elements of society. That's something I feel very connected with.
The sensuality, I think comes out in the colors and the landscape that India has inspired in me -- maybe more as an outsider coming in and just seeing the beauty of it. The food is the same way: the sense of it, the taste of it, having the insider/outsider perspective. You come home, and you smell the scents that you just don't smell in other places. I'm very in tune with the five senses and what's around me, and that's what comes out in my writing.
APA: How did you end up teaching in the Pan African Studies department at Cal State Northridge?
SV: I've always been in the English department, and this is the first time I've been in Pan African Studies. I teach literature and writing, purely, but in the literature classes, I focus on African American writers. In the writing classes, I teach a very multi-ethnic group of writers. But not only multi-ethnic: I teach about different religions, different classes. Using identity as my focus, I can bring in writers from all over the world. I recently taught from an essay about homeless people, which is another form of "otherness." And I love that, because I can bring in Asian American writers, Native American writers, Jewish writings, everything. So, even though I'm in African Studies, I have a lot of flexibility in my writing classes.
But yes, I think the faculty, staff, and students are always a little curious about me, because I'm teaching African American literature... but I'm Indian! But I think it's wonderful, because the students can see that the literature is open to people who want to analyze it, who enjoy it. It's not a closed field. My first exposure to literature that would be considered multi-ethnic was African American, because that's all that was taught in school. I also bring in my experiences as an Asian American a lot. I'm trying to expand into critical areas that combine Asian American and African American literature.
The one thing I'm really curious about is this: writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Divakaruni have their Indian characters, but their non-Indian characters are usually Caucasian. But I think in today's world and culture, I'd love to see people bring in other ethnic groups, as they interact with the Indian characters. I'd like to do that. It's hard because each community has their own history and background, and people are a little bit shy about using those. But why? Why should we be? That is an ambition of mine.
APA: Who are some of the writers you're inspired by?
SV: My favorite writer has always been Toni Morrison. I just think she's amazing. And I like Alice Walker and Jamaica Kincaid. In terms of Indian writers, I love Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Divakaruni. I also love Sandra Cisneros, Amy Tan, and Maxine Hong Kingston. So many people have influenced me.
APA: Can you tell us about the novel you're working on?
SV: The main situation is that there's this young girl, about six years old, who sees a cross burned on her lawn in West Virginia in the 70s – which happened to me, although I was too young to remember it. But when she sees it, she thinks of the fire god Agni [laughs], so she's very excited that he's come to bless her front lawn. Of course her parents are upset because it's a cross. So what happens there – when fire is sacred in one culture but used [in another] as a racial insult. But the little girl doesn't know that. She sees the world through mythology, so I try to bring a lot of those myths into the real world she's facing, as she negotiates being American and being Indian.
APA: Is mythology something you grew up with as a kid?
SV: Strongly. I was a classical Indian dancer for many years, and all of our stories are enactments of mythology. Plus, my parents were really religious and always told me these stories. So I grew up hearing them, believing them, and I'm very interested in mythology -- which is another reason I love Chitra Divakaruni. She has this whole book set in Indian mythological times. I'm really curious about how myths affect your perceptions of the Western world -- or the real world.
APA: That reminds me of a couple of stories on your website that I read: "Lalita and the Banyan Tree," about a woman who falls in love with a tree, and "Story of a Love Fruit," which is about a man who falls in love with a fruit.
SV: Those are my own myths. I liked writing "Lalita and the Banyan Tree" because it came really freely. I wrote it almost all in one sitting, and that rarely happens. "Story of a Love Fruit" is another one where I'm making my own myth. It's very symbolic. I was thinking about several women that I've known, especially in my family, and the difficulties that they've had, and I combined it all into this fruit. I think it was after I wrote that, where I thought: well, if a man falls in love with a fruit, what if a woman falls in love with a tree? So the two stories go together.
For more information and to read more of Venugopal's writing, go to her official website here.
For more information about February 14th's New Short Fiction Series event, visit the official website here.