Friday, January 17, 2014

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, An Unlikely Goddess

Eight Years Later, a Goddess is Born
By Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

I started writing my first novel in 2005. They were fragments of two voices, the main characters, which I discovered during a writing workshop. The man and woman were each presenting to the reader their version of why their relationship had failed. A few months later, I had a manuscript of alternating chapters.

Enter the writing coach. He explained to me why my idea wouldn’t work. He was the expert and while I disagreed, I didn’t have the courage to continue on the idea on my own. I put the manuscript to one side.  I started a blog. I became very interested in writing a novel set in Qatar.

Two years later, with six eBooks under my belt, I came back to the manuscript. This time I had developed a process for working with fiction.

I had a cultural reader, someone versed in South Indian culture. She took a year, but together we went section by section and strengthened pieces.

I worked with another editor, and he and I fixed the tense errors (fiction is told in the past tense, as a widely accepted convention) and other structural problems in the story.

I sent the beta version of the manuscript out to two readers who were also fans of my other books. They hated it; wanted more development, still felt the writing could be improved.

I went to another editor, someone highly recommended. We went through it again.

By now the book had “slipped” or missed it’s publication date. When this happens in traditional publishing it puts the marketing schedule in an uproar. As an indie writer, the only person upset was myself.

But I kept working on it. Refining it. Because by now, so many people had heard and read my other books, I didn’t want to let anyone down.

And, people had heard of my work but not read anything. I couldn’t imagine putting off new readers.

I toiled and waited for the editor’s sick child to recover, the proof reader to get her own computer, the designer to reply; all the people in the supply chain upon who my book coming to life depended.

The moment finally came; nearly 8 years after the first words were written, and 2 years after I began my self-publishing journey in earnest, An Unlikely Goddess was available on Now the real work: getting people to read, review, and love Sita’s story as much as I did.

Did that Really Happen to You?

I was at a book talk a few weeks ago and someone in the audience asked the author, a survivor f the Khmer Rouge, how much of the book “had happened” to her. She was referring to a novel in which the main character suffers abject abuse and horror while still a child. I was appalled at the question; it seemed voyeuristic somehow, as if the suffering of the character, and the thousands of unnamed people in real life, didn’t matter as much as if the author hadn’t experienced suffering herself.

The “did that really happen?” is one of the most awkward questions you can ask a writer after reading his/her book. We want the reader to be lost in the narrative, not wondering how much of it is autobiography.

My latest release, An Unlikely Goddess, will no doubt spark a similar set of questions. The story of an Indian girl who immigrates to the United States with her parents, suffers much heartache, and finds solace in academia, is not that different from own. Sita’s trajectory, however, is a composite of many people’s journeys as immigrants, not only mine. In some ways she is the Everywoman of the female coming of age for South Indians.

I found this story also important to tell because it shows how the immigrant experience is not always the making good on the American dream we have come to expect from the “Model Minority” of Asians in the United States. The recent interest in Indian Literature in English, depicts a very specific part of the Indian diaspora – often well educated, Bengalis – did not speak to my experience or those who I knew growing up.

This book is a testament to all of the above.

Could you shed more light on Hindu culture?

People often confuse being a speaker of Hindi, which is one of the 16 official languages of India, with the religion, with being a Hindu, which is someone of the faith of Hinduism.

Hinduism is an ancient religion which is polytheistic, or believes in many Gods and is mostly practiced in India but also in Nepal and places with Indian influence like Bali or Singapore. There are male and female deities, like the goddess Sita, who the main character is named after, and like the Greek gods, there are many, many stories about their origins, lives on earth in human form, and the ways they can help people.

Many of the gods have allegorical positions or they stand for certain values. Sita, for example, is a paragon of womanly virtue. A parallel might be the Virgin Mary for Catholics; she is seen as above reproach and the perfect woman (the comparison ends there, no virgin birth for Sita).

I named my main character Sita because she is a “good girl” who struggles with how to come into her own, whether as an Indian, or an American teenager. Her struggle is one anyone who has ever tried to fit in can relate to.

Do you have any personal experiences involving unwanted daughters?

I was the second daughter and it’s no secret that my family was eagerly expecting a boy since all of the 10+ cousins were also girls. I wrote a short story, “Truth” about unwanted daughters and the dangers of the ‘sex test’ in Asia (which allows women to know whether or not they’re having a boy) in my collection Coloured and other Stories. Throughout India, China, and other parts of Asia, girls are often viewed as a burden because of the high price of dowries and marriage practices where they are given away to the other family. “A daughter is the wealth you give away,” a character says in the novel Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan. This is a mentality is changing but is at the heart of sexism against women all over Asia. And certainly a key part of Sita, my protagonist’s, story.

How did growing up as a child of immigrants in the US impact your work today?

Being the child of immigrants transforms you. You’re both the expert in public  - even if your parents speak English, Americans prefer to interact with an accent neutral speaker – but also the novice inside the home. These dual roles divide you while you’re young but juggling them helps you prepare for the many roles we hold as adults.

People who are disconnected from others or tying to make their own community, as I found I had to as a child of two cultures, are a recurring theme in my books. Struggling to find a safe space between expectations and ambitions, duty and free will, are also conflicts I experienced as a child and ones you see in my characters.

You are currently living in the Middle East and are a working mother of two. How does this impact your work, not just from the time crunch angle but as to what you choose to write about?

I am fascinated by the ways in which personal experience come into contact with community expectations. Whether you are Indian or Arab, there are community standards for behavior – especially for women – that you cannot ignore. You have to reconcile how you will live your life but also honor those principles which you find valuable. Not easy, but very important.

Because all of my stories start with a question which I don’t know the answer to, writing for me is very personal. If I don’t sit at my desk and figure it out, no one else is going to. Or they may not come to answers the same way that I would.

My story has no one else but me on whom to depend to make it into the world. For me writing is a privilege. I’ll give up watching T.V., sleep, even a meal, if it means I can get to writing. Not a long term strategy, but a good one when deadlines are looming.

In portraying strong women, are you trying to give a role model to your daughter, or to your son, about how to treat women?

We have two boys, but I also have three nieces, and absolutely, my work is about letting them know what’s acceptable for male/female relationships. I also want them to know that they can live their own path; they don’t have to follow everyone else’s footsteps. The journey of the rebel is sometimes lonely but the rewards are priceless.

How does where you live impact your work?

Being in Qatar has been excellent for my work because it has allowed me the luxury of time. When you live far away from home, family, friends, Christmas commercials, you get a chance to design your life. I never feel as though I have enough hours in the day but I’m not spending them in a gridlock commute or other timewasters. This part of the world is also much more generous with holidays so even if I’m working particularly hard one month, there’s usually a long weekend or big break coming up in which I can make up for time spent away from my family.

How do your cultural identities infuse your work?

My characters reflect my interest in the world and the way I see cultures mixing. They are rarely safe in a cocooned world and often they come into direct contact with someone completely different from them, but someone who they love immediately, whether as a friend or romantically. All of that has been true for me; in our differences we can also see celebrations of uniqueness. 

1 comment:

  1. Having worked--off and on--on one of my manuscripts for twenty years, I can commiserate with the time spent getting your book to market. Hope it does very well!

    Nice interview!