An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee

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Date: 1997
From: Speaking of the Short Story: Interviews with Contemporary Writers
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Reprint In: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 38. )
Document Type: Critical essay; Interview
Length: 3,809 words

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[(interview date 1997) In the following interview, Mukherjee discusses the writing process, violence, feminism, and how her stories help to understand the immigrant experience.]

Born in Calcutta, Bharati Mukherjee attended the University of Calcutta and Baroda where she received a master's degree in English and Ancient Indian Culture. In 1961 she came to America to attend the Writer's Workshop and receive both the M.F.A. and the Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa. Mukherjee represents and writes about the (in her words) hybridization of the new American. In examining this new identity, she says she wants to explore the consciousness of those who are not of one ethnic group or another, but of many different ethnicities. She is the author of two volumes of short stories--Darkness (1985) and The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), for which she was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award--and of four novels--The Tiger's Daughter (1972), Wife (1975), Jasmine (1989), and most recently, The Holder of the World (1993), a postmodern meditation which she researched for eleven years. She is also co-author, with Clark Blaise, of two nonfiction books--Days and Nights in Calcutta (1986) and The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (1987). The recipient of Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and Woodrow Wilson Fellowships, she currently teaches English at the University of California at Berkeley.

[Byers-Pevitts]: In 1992, when you were in Iowa for the Second International Conference on the Short Story in English, I was enchanted with your reading/presentation; also, I had read The Middleman and Other Stories, Jasmine, the novel, and Darkness, the first short story collection. There was a wonderful interview I heard on NPR with you discussing the ethnic cultural impact of your stories and your concern about multi-culturalism. In our interview, I'd like to focus on several areas, one of them being the cultural diversity of the numerous populations revealed in your work. But first, will you give a description of your philosophy of writing, how you arrived at that philosophy and a statement of what it encompasses?

[Mukherjee]: I know what my aesthetics are; I don't have a philosophy. But book by book, I've learned how I write, how I see stories within the text of life. To be totally honest, when I'm actually writing, I'm not conscious of the calculations but I'm just either going with a character who's taken over my whole mind or I'm hearing a voice. Short stories start for me in so many different ways: the birth of the idea for the short story may be just a line or a title I want to use. For example, because I don't drive, I'm more alert to things inside cars: "Objects in the mirror might be closer than they appear." Phrases like "objects in the mirror ..." speak to me in unclichéd ways. So, the genesis is either an idea, an image, a phrase, a character, a compelling voice. Some stories I do in one or two sittings, others may take months to find the right voice. It's in the thickening process, the revision process, and I love revising stories, where I make the aesthetic calculations.

Normally, how long does it take to revise a story? Do you take a different time to write and revise each story depending on the subject?

"The Management of Grief," the one which is most anthologized, I did in two sittings. Almost all of it was written in one sitting because I was so ready to tell that story. Clark [Blaise] and I co-authored a nonfiction book on the event that's not mentioned, specifically, the terrorist bombing of an Air India jet, so all the feelings for the characters and the details of what happened in the hospital (I'd visited the hospital), were all at my fingertips ready to find their way in at the right moments of the text. The there are others, like "The Middleman," the title story, the most autobiographical of my stories, in some way, because it came directly out of my having been stuck in Costa Rica among rather complicated, difficult people. That I wrote and wrote and wrote in the third person and then I realized that having a Bengali woman there, even though true, was totally implausible in the story. It wasn't until I found the first-person voice, this character of the Iraqi Jew, the middleman, that the story wrote itself in one sitting.

Once you had the voice.

Yes. So mine are all voice stories and it (the writing) is in finding the voice. And sometimes, it comes to me ready-made. I wake up hearing this character yell inside my head and there are other times when I know to put the manuscript away ...

... and wait. In the revision process, for example, in "The Middleman," did you do much revising after it became right? After you had found the voice?

Some cutting.

Do you do cutting as you revise?

Yes, some, and sometimes only one sentence will remain because I don't look at the last draft.

So it is a revision and rewriting process.

It is rethinking. I want to start again. I'll open a new "file," in other words, rather than going back to add into the old "file."

Are many of your stories autobiographical?

All my fictions are, in a sense, in a very loose and large sense, autobiographical, because they're about emotions or ideas or situations that matter to me, and I'm very comfortable, unlike a writer like Clark [Blaise], writing directly about my life. And so, for me, art becomes, or fiction writing becomes, a matter of finding the most compelling metaphor, the most precise metaphor. The hardest thing for me is to write about my family, about myself, without any of that evasion or wall.

So you work and weave for the subtlety, for the change, and the metaphor to apply for meaning.

Right.

Do you feel that you always write with metaphors in mind? Any metaphor for this particular idea?

Well, if you asked me the first question now, I would say my philosophy is: all fiction is metaphor. It is about disguising in order to reveal the essential truth of an experience or of an emotion.

How did you develop your voice as a writer? How do you see your progression?

Well, I started writing very early. I was a precocious reader and, from the age of four and five I was reading, not just Bengali novels, but European novels in Bengali translation. And I was an obsessive reader. There was nothing else that I could do or enjoyed doing. The world of books was more real to me than the people in the world around me. As a result, it seemed to me the most natural thing as a shy young girl in a very crowded household of forty to fifty people, to then make up my own world because I knew how to write faster than most people.

And you found your solitude in that, too.

Yes, and I started my first novel when I was eight to nine years old. But now, thinking back, it would seem the most natural thing to do at the time, but that was for "self," in order to find the privacy that I couldn't get in a crowded household, rather than for telling a story. Story by story, that became for me the way of fighting the problems in the world or understanding, decoding the world. I got them published in magazines from age twelve. It was a given to me, the way other people decide at age three they're going to be bus drivers; I knew I was going to be a writer. In my adult life, I came to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop because I wanted very much to come and also, because, accidentally, we heard that this was the only place in the world that offered writing within the university so you could get a degree for writing and go back home with something to show. And book by book, now, I realize that these are stages, these are sort of chronicles, if you like, of the stages of changes that I have made, or been forced to make, within myself. These are the transit stops or crosses, stations, in my process of Americanization. I'm talking about not only what I think of the story, but what issues overwhelm me, obsess me as story material and sentence structure. And so (I'm going to talk about some of this in the evening lecture), if language is identity, then I can see how language and therefore, identity's changed, novel to novel or book to book. And I have invented my own version of American English. And that's why I feel comfortable (with my American English writing) instead of mimicking Richard Ford or Ann Beattie or mimicking as we were taught to do by the nuns when very small children in Calcutta. Write British English, write like Dickens, write like Jane Austen.

Write like this good person who writes.

But British.

But, very British.

And with whole sentences with many clauses.

Would you talk about finding the way to write sentences, the development of the voice through those writings?

Well, simple things, like, in my first novel, an omniscient narrator was the most natural way because I saw the world as having that kind of order. I was in control of class, category, and character states, just as my life was being controlled by an order up there. And I could think in those kinds of multiple clauses with semi-colons and so on. And it is, bit by bit, as I've lost that wisdom, that distance, and become closer to my material or allowed my feelings, and just my own life, to be expressed instead of always having to be as I was trained, to cover, to dissemble, to be polite. The choice of point of view has become first person. That's the most comfortable to me, as opposed to that god-like omniscience. And just the energy of the sentences; they're sentences now full of energy and emotion which I would not allow myself because I had been taught by the British education in independent India that that was uncivil.

Is that part of the upbringing that you had to escape to develop your own structure and voice?

Yes. Yes. And, in a sense, my love of America is really my rebellion against British colonialism. It is a liberation from structure. Because we don't have that same direct history between India and the U.S. as India does with Britain.

When looking at your work, thematically, I see some emerging influences or themes. One is what I call a feminist theme. I apply the label "feminist" because the viewpoint is frequently a woman's point of view, as related to women, sisters, friends, mothers, daughters, the wife, the dominant voice in the story other than the male, the daughter, the prominent focus. And also, themes and stories of family oppression, stories of societal oppression being told from a female point of view emerge throughout your work including one's search for autonomy as a female.

Yes!

Do these female voices, and these feminist themes come from conscious decisions to write about women and to also write about race?

They are. They're not conscious, but they are dominant issues in my own life and in my own growth. I grew up in a very traditional genderist, or sexist society where even the law, when I was a little girl, did not allow women many rights. Women couldn't inherit property, they couldn't divorce, and so it was an extremely hierarchical, sexist society. And I saw, up close as a child, incredible wife-beatings and abuse of women, daughter's dowry batterings. And so, that anger of my mother's, for example, I shared and I have found another way of expressing in fiction. A less dangerous way, perhaps, of expressing or getting redress. It was not a conscious decision, like a thesis that says, "I'm going to take on and expose men," but these (themes) are what formed me. These are the oppressions and concerns, emotions, rages, hopes that formed me; therefore, they're somehow going to shape, color, whatever I write. The autonomy, a woman looking for autonomy, I realize even in my staying on in the U.S. I came as a student, I was supposed to go back after two years, marry a traditional Bengali ...

An arranged marriage?

Yes. "Falling in love" is, of course, about hormones, neurochemistry, whatever emotions love is all about. The phrase I like to use is that those kinds of accidents are, really, fulfillment of unacknowledged desire that I wanted to stay. I knew that if I went back, I would, again, be controlled by those other forces. To stay on in the states, even though we were poor, desperately poor, living in quonset huts for graduate student housing in Iowa City (ramshackled places) and still liberation. And I'm one of those who have chosen to be American. Chosen to make my life here, not because there's economic betterment, I've taken an enormous social and material demotion. But, because of the psychological reinforcement, the space, the grieving, I can be who I want to be and make mistakes and that's alright, because I'm accountable for my mistakes.

They're yours.

I can't blame others.

That's an autonomous decision for you ...

Yes. So the female autonomy that you said is absolutely accurate. And I'm not sure that even with The Tiger's Daughter or Wife I realized what the characters were doing. All these characters, male and female, are versions of myself. But in the later books, Darkness, for example, for me, there was a real breakthrough. In 1985 it was too early in the history of U.S. publishing for a book about non-European communities, so the U.S. publishers said, "It was a marvelous book, but we are not going to be able to sell it because no one wants to read multi-cultural fiction."

Oh, yes.

You see? So it's only less than ten years in which things have changed.

And now people are saying, "We want to use ..."

Yes! Now they want to reprint. They want ...

"We want her to visit our university and to read her stories here and to speak to our students and work with them. And we want her books here as part of the literature that our students can read."

Right, this book was a breakthrough in a sense that I was writing about people who, whether they liked it or not, whether they succeeded or not, knew that they had made that move; that there was a split in their life between country of origin and country of residence. All these characters in Darkness are about salvations, Pakistanians, Indians, Singhalese. But with The Middleman, I felt confident enough, now, to write about both sides: European or traditional Americans, as well as newcomers like me and the change the country is going through as a result of this new influx of non-traditional influence. So they became about America--The Middleman, Jasmine--rather than about new influence.

And the placing of oneself into America out of this other culture which then, of course, is what America is all about.

Except that we've forgotten that. See, I see my work as being a little different and this may have been included in the NPR interview, different from the Italian-American fiction, the Chinese-American fiction, or the Greek-American fiction. All that is in the tradition of the second-generation, third-generation writing, imagining the country of origin of their ancestors. We haven't had real immigrants writing about the immigrant experience in a long, long time, because, either they haven't had sufficient English or they've been engineers, doctors, and devalued exercises of imagination. And so, I am, in a sense, in that very first group to write; immigrants writing about the immigrant experience and not as diary, not as anthropology, but, I hope, as work of art.

And not as a second-generation voice, but as an artist's voice outside that experience.

I see myself as having very much affinity with the Eastern European immigrant women who went into the Midwest.

What other authors do you relate to in that sense?

Well, a lot of Willa Cather. And there are so many people that I feel very close to even though their writing is totally different, the backgrounds are totally different, like Flannery O'Connor. I connect to that kind of moral energy where the invisible world of good and evil is made manifest in fiction. I loved Flannery O'Connor who, I didn't know when I first came to the workshop, was an Iowa workshop graduate.

Did you ever meet her?

No. But I wish I had discovered her earlier.

And her undercurrent sense of violence ...

Yes! Yes.

... is prevalent, and I find that in some of your writing, too. It is the thing that's just under the edge and is about to explode that makes that voice so important.

Urgent. And, I want to think, there's a moral center in my work, but that that moral center doesn't always coincide, in fact it often collides, with the socially accepted set of rules.

And the world at large.

Yes.

How do you connect that with the work that some people are trying to do to make this a more de-racist society? In other words, I would use that terminology to eliminate the sense of "haves" and "have nots" with, in the sense of owning race, owning self, the authority of being the superior. How do you connect that in your writing?

I'm going to ...

You're going to talk about that tonight.

Very much so! We're going to zero in on that.

Well, they're going to love that. Good. That's what I see in your writing which I think is so important.

Yes. The salient points I want to make in response to your questions are: I think, like Salman Rushdie, that for a fiction writer, there should not be any monopoly of ethnicity or gender. You can write in any gender, any race, any class, if it is persuasive as fiction. If you can make the reader believe in that story, the world of that story, then that's the criterion for value or failure. I'm against commodification and commercialization of ethnicity and race, and I'm against politicians and academics, especially Marxist theorists, whom I'm calling in my lecture tonight, assassins of the imagination, who insist on devaluing literature, reducing novels and stories to straight sociology and anthropology. They want to omit the literal; they don't even bother to read the text, but they want to know the class of the author, the gender and race of the author, and judge the work according to, "Does the author have rights?" So, I'm against literature of revenge, and I'm against politics of hate. And I'm going to counsel tonight, plead tonight, that we all let go of that part of our history that is about anger and desire for revenge which creates a reverse racism.

Yes.

... and reverse oppression, and instead, that we work together to reformulate what it is. What is that social contract that we, as a community of Americans, want. And if the old social contracts are no longer relevant, let's remake one. There has to be a sense of community of all of us together as opposed to aggregates of antagonistic self-sufficient groups. Good writing cannot come out of writers who want to create characters who are representative of entire groups. Jasmine is only Jasmine. Jasmine should not be the spokesperson for all Indians or all non-white immigrants into this country. Then I'm writing propaganda. Then I should be writing political pamphlets. And that's where I think an awful lot of ethnic studies theorists for self-serving, careerist reasons have appointed themselves as spokespersons for their entire communities and as oppressors of fiction. But I'm going to go into that later.

What kind of response have you gotten on your latest work, the novel, Holder of the World?

Some are saying it is re-imagining the Puritan history of colonial Massachusetts and that community, out of which Hawthorne constructed a very constipative, not constipative, but restrictive Puritan tale. I'm saying how multi-cultural those times were, how exuberant. It's a post-modern meditation on the making of America through a pre-American, looking at the life of a pre-American, American woman. It uses virtual reality as work because I didn't want to do a straight historical novel. And I wanted virtual reality, because many of the new immigrants are involved in that kind of technology, twenty-first century technology, and I wanted people to be able to experience history rather than have pallets of history, tombs of history, limp data, laid on them.

It also becomes almost a metaphor of the virtual reality for their lives.

Yes. Yes. There was a lot of interaction we're finding out, through non-fiction books that have come out just in the last few months, how much interaction there was between colonial families and Indians, American-Indians. And how one of those, Reverend Williamson's daughter, didn't want to come back after she'd been kept hostage and had married an Indian, how people had to wear Indian leather bands if they did return (to their own society). That kind of contact between different cultures also took place because those were the times when Massachusetts, through the British East-Indian Company, had enormous trading traffic with the coast.

How long did it take you to write Holder of the World?

It took me eleven years of research and much of it was done in the University of Iowa libraries and of course, every library that I've been to, including archives in England and Holland and France and India.

What are you working on now?

On a novel that I hope I'll finish by the end of the spring semester on the Vietnamization of America, but it's about a woman serial killer.

What is her ethnicity? Or, I should not ask that?

Yes, because I want to talk about--as I see my children growing up or as I see the hybridization of the New American, I want to explore the consciousness and relationship with American identity of those who are not securely of one ethnic group or the other, and that who are not African-American, who are not confidently Latin-American or Asian-American, but who are many, many different ethnicities together, which is the real America.

Which is the real thing. It is the point of the whole thing.

Yes. I mean, in a sense, trying to go beyond that kind of tyrannical identity with ethnicity, biologically--trying to go beyond biological identity.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420032632