home Arts & Literature, Asia, Books Shanthi Sekaran on The Prayer Room, writing, and the state of indian lit

Shanthi Sekaran on The Prayer Room, writing, and the state of indian lit

Shanthi Sekaran has a lot to celebrate this year. This past spring, MacAdam/Cage published her debut novel The Prayer Room to wide acclaim. Readers are quickly absorbed by the winding story of George Armitage, a British graduate student studying in India, whose sexual relationship with local student Viji results in marriage, a quick visit to meet George’s parents in Britain, and then a move to the United States for George’s professor job in Sacramento. Viji gives birth to triplets while adjusting to the cross-cultural transplant, but things really get interesting when George’s father, Stan, unexpectedly shows up on their doorstep. Moving between countries, points of view, and even time shifts, Sekaran’s novel is remarkable for its gorgeous prose and the poignancy of its characters.

Sekaran’s accomplishments in publishing are only the latest addition in what was already an impressive literary resumé. After completing undergraduate work at University of California-Berkley in 1999, Sekaran pursued an M.A. in South Asian Studies at Berkeley and then enrolled in the prestigious Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program. In 2002, she received the Elliot Coleman Fellowship. Her short story “Stalin” was then featured as part of the anthology Best New American Voices 2004. Since 2005, she has lived in London while working on a PhD in Creative Writing in the School of English Language, Literature and Linguistics at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She currently lives in the U.K. with her husband, Spencer, and their sixteen-month old son.

She recently spoke with Allison McCarthy about the writing process behind The Prayer Room, themes of race and post-colonial tension in the work, and the Indian-American literary community:

Allison McCarthy: I don’t normally ask this at the beginning of an interview, but since I really loved this book, I need to know – are you working on your follow-up right now?

Shanthi Sekaran: Well, I’m working a little on the second novel, I’m actually really excited about it, but am waiting to get a little head space so I can get it right, so it’s in the fermentation stage right now. I’ve been writing some short stories, for the first time in years, and that’s proving to be a lot of fun, and I’m learning a good deal in the process. The PhD is in its last year – actually The Prayer Room started out as my PhD project… and I now have to do a research project to accompany it.

I’m writing about immigration, memory and food, comparing two immigrant groups: the British ex-pats of the Raj, and Indian immigrants to America… It’s the lesser of the two projects, the primary focus being on the creative side of things. So it’s going to be a masters-sized paper, examining the relationship between memory and food in the literature of the two immigrant groups. The focus will be literary, but I’m also doing some social/historical research.

Allison: How long did you work on The Prayer Room? What was the process like?

Shanthi: The Prayer Room actually started out as a short story, but an unwieldy one that contained way too much. I didn’t want to chop it up, so I expanded it. From when I seriously started a manuscript, I’d say it took about 3 years. As with most novels, the writing process was a mixture of inspiration and grunt work. It was a layering process – I started out with a basic plot, wrote it, hacked a few pieces off, rewrote, and filled in, until it felt like something whole. I definitely didn’t work chronologically. At times, I’d imagine a scene and write it without even knowing if it would end up in the book… I think mystery has a big role to play in this book. I didn’t want to reveal everything about every character and their motivations.

Shanthi Sekaran
Shanthi Sekaran

Allison: How would you characterize your work with the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program? While you were a student, did you find that you were making the transition from writing short stories like “Stalin” into writing your first novel?

Shanthi: Doing my MA at Johns Hopkins was a process of continual growth. Before I went there, I was a reader, not a writer. “Stalin” was actually one of the first short stories that I completed for Stephen Dixon’s writing workshop. I think it took a lot of patience on the part of the faculty and my fellow students, and a generally nurturing atmosphere, but I felt ready to start my novel-length project soon after. Having said that, I think every new novel presents you with a sense of not being ready, of perhaps not being qualified. And then you start it, and build it bit by bit, and figure out, eventually, that you have something worth running with.

Allison: I’m curious – what’s a typical schedule for you on working days?

Shanthi: I wake up (involuntarily) around six, then get the baby fed, dressed, and off with his sitter. I spend a couple hours at a time writing, and early in a book, I like to be out in public – I have a few particular cafes that work well for me. But later in writing a book, or even late in a story, I like to be alone, in a quiet room.

I’ve always worked part-time or full-time while writing, so I tend to have two or three “writing” days during the week–and I tend to write for just a few hours at a time; I definitely can’t do the day-long-night-long writing sessions; mostly because I’m so easily distracted, but also because I find that writing is a physically rigorous activity. It really does require a certain kind of physical stamina.

I find that I need work in order to write. I need a ‘real world’ existence to help me value my writing time. Writing is a privilege and a luxury when I’m working, and I’d like to always view it that way. I really don’t ever want to see it as my trade… It would be more of a stress, to have to think about whether my next story is going to help pay the rent. Having a regular paycheck does take away from my writing time, but it frees me mentally, and takes some of the mundane pressures off my creative work. I also firmly believe that you need to immerse yourself in the real world if you’re going to be a writer–or at least visit it once in a while.

Allison: As you were writing, how did you see Viji, George, and their extended families navigating the post-colonial tensions of their migrations to India, the United Kingdom, and the United States?

Shanthi: My main goal was to move my characters through the basic steps of life: falling in love, having a family, establishing a home, and then facing a disruption to that home; the element of post-colonial tension entered the picture because of where these characters came from, and what their fellow countrymen had done in past generations. I think in the case of George and Viji, the history of Britain and India provided an opening to their relationship. In their case, colonial relations could be seen as a positive driving force. I think that if there’s any real post-colonial tension, it shows up between Viji and Stan, but not directly. The tension between those two characters exists on a personal level; however, knowledge of Britih-Indian post-colonial tension casts a certain shadow on their relationship, from the reader’s point of view. That historical tension exists, but mainly because a reader brings such knowledge to the reading. It’s kind of like the “If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it” question…

Allison: Another thing I noticed was Viji’s commentary on race in Maple Grove — she’s repeatedly mistaken for Black, like the grocery store cashier, or Guatemalan, like Lupe: her reactions to this range from anger and defensiveness to indifference. How did that evolution in Viji’s character come about?

Shanthi: I tried to be as honest as possible about racial tensions between immigrants in America — at least within the confines of my own experience. I think there’s a misconception out there that America is a black vs. white society, or a brown vs. white society, and that minorities have no opinions on each other.

Emerging now, in film, literature, music is the reality that minority groups have very definite ideas about other minority groups. Racism takes so many different forms, and exists in varying degrees, with a range of ramifications. I think that it’s natural for immigrants to build a set of prejudices in their adopted society; I think it’s a survival tool carried over from our less enlightened caveman days. Anyway, I wanted to be honest about that in my portrayal of Viji, and her attitudes towards blacks and Latinos and other minority groups. In terms of her personal evolution, I think she does grow. It’s part of her process of loosening up, learning to actually use her brain rather than just reacting, reacting, reacting. I guess, in a way, she learns to be more like George.

Allison: How do you feel about The San Francisco Chronicle’s comparisons of your writing to Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Divakaruni?

Shanthi: I think it’s a tough time to be an Indian-American writer right now. We’re past the tidal wave of Indian lit from the early 90s, we’ve seen very accomplished writers like the three you mentioned, and now people are asking: what now? What do you have to offer that we haven’t already seen?

On the one hand, I think this is a legitimate question. On the other hand, I wonder if this question would even be raised if I weren’t Indian-American… The SF Chronicle review was, essentially, questioning whether my writing deserved to be published, given that other Indian writers are on the scene. A question like that operates on the assumption that Indian/Indian-American writers all fulfill a single purpose, and that perhaps that purpose has already been fulfilled.

I dislike being boxed in with other Indian-American writers. I am a writer, and yes, I write about Indians, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t bring something new to the scene. I guess I feel like this question wouldn’t be asked of other groups of writers. I also realize that, as Indian writers come to the forefront of Western literature, they do have to face a certain amount of scrutiny; it’s a by-product of recognition. The era of fascination with the exotic India is over. Now people want deep and satisfying literature. That’s a wonderful thing, but really, I’d like to just be a writer, modifier not included. But then, we live in a world of modifiers…

Allison: Any advice for budding creative writers?

Shanthi: Probably one of the best pieces of advice I received was that sometimes you have to write some bad stuff before you get to the good stuff. And really the more you write, the more creative you become. Also, always keep some paper and a pen beside your bed for those ideas that come to you when you’re almost asleep.