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Interview: Bharati Mukherjee Runs the West Coast Offense

Written by eastern writer on Wednesday, February 06, 2008

In Desirable Daughters, National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Bharati Mukherjee (The Middleman and Other Stories, 1988) introduces three sisters caught between cultures. First, Parvati shocked the family by choosing her own husband while off at boarding school in America, circumventing the father's matchmaking duty. Tara, on the other hand, let her father choose her husband - but then she divorced him, though she must never admit as much among family or friends.

Bharati MukherjeeAs for Padma, the beautiful first daughter, her secrets are only now being exposed. When one day an enigmatic young man claiming to be Padma's orphaned child appears in Tara's living room, suddenly Tara's entire conception of her family is called into question.

A domestic thriller, a portrait of shifting cultures, a rather unconventional romance...Mukherjee likens her commingling of wide-ranging elements to a style of football made famous by Joe Montana. "The aesthetic strategy for this book was using the width of the field - of history, geography, diaspora, gender, ethnicity, language - rather than the old fashioned long, clean throw. That's what I've been trying to do from Middleman on."

"I also have two sisters," she explained. "I'm playing with author-protagonist relationships in ways that I haven't before. I think it's because I want to write an autobiography, but I just can't bring myself to. You create masks. It's a story about three sisters following different paths, each somehow important to me."

Publishers Weekly raved, "It should take nothing away from the achievements of new, young writers of South Asian origin to state that Mukherjee eclipses all of them in her new novel, the highlight of her career to date."

Desirable Daughters
Desirable Daughters
by Bharati Mukherjee
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The Middleman and Other Stories
The Middleman and Other Stories
by Bharati Mukherjee
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by Bharati Mukherjee
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Holder of the World
Holder of the World
by Bharati Mukherjee
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Days and Nights in Calcutta
Days and Nights in Calcutta
by Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee
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The Cold Six Thousand
The Cold Six Thousand
by James Ellroy
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The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
by Louise Erdrich
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Dave: I didn't know until recently that you taught at McGill University in Montreal. That's where I went to college.

Bharati Mukherjee: Really?! I was there for fourteen years. "The Management of Grief" is a Canadian story, and it's probably the most anthologized of all the ones I've written.

Dave: I just read that last week for the first time.

Mukherjee: My husband, Clark Blaise, and I wrote a nonfiction book [The Sorrow and the Terror] about the terrorist bombing of an Air India jet that took off from Toronto on its way to Bombay with 329 people on board, ninety percent of whom were Canadians of Indian origin. The bad guys were Canadians, but Sikh, militant Khalistanis in politics. It was the bloodiest terrorist incident until WTC.

We interviewed all the terrorist cells, including an interview with the guy who financed the bombing and has just this November finally been arrested. We talked to the bereaved also. The book was a nonfiction bestseller in Canada. We were under death threat for two years. When I sat down to write The Middleman and Other Stories as a collection of stories about diaspora, "The Management of Grief" came out in one sitting. It was a very sad story to write.

I would have been on that plane if I hadn't left Canada for the U.S. five years before - that's the plane we used to take to India, the first one after school closing. I lost a friend on that flight.

Dave: Having created two products from one body of research, a short fiction and a longer work of journalism, how do you account for the life spans being so different?

Mukherjee: What survives and what doesn't? Yes, they've long forgotten the nonfiction book, which was dangerous to write, but the story lives on.

The persuasive power of fiction was heartening. The nonfiction book that tracked all the cells and the ways in which money is raised, the carelessness of CSIS versus the RCMP versus the local cops...The story of individual families or individual victims lived on and spoke to people in ways that the statement of facts didn't.

Dave: A different kind of terrorism plays a role in Desirable Daughters.

Mukherjee: I think because Clark and I were so involved in tracking the terrorist cells in the U.S. and Canada - the Khalistani terrorist cells, to specify - we were aware how vast the network is, how active they are. We visited gas stations in upstate New York that were safe houses and temples where fund-raising was done from the congregants in order to send a good portion of it to buy arms and fund terrorist activities.

I used part of what I had experienced myself in Jasmine, the hot dog vendor who is a refugee, a terrorist. Here [in Desirable Daughters], when I used the Dawood gang I was anticipating the Daniel Pearl kind of kidnapping, which is going on. The Dawood gang was involved very recently in the attack on the American Center in Calcutta, my hometown. But it wasn't until the World Trade Center was demolished that the average citizen began to realize how, like Tara, you can be living your life, immersed in your own personal conflicts - Should I go back to my husband? Why did my Hungarian lover leave me for someone else? etc. - while unknowingly you are enmeshed in someone else's incredible fantasies.

Dave: Tara's lover, Andy, is telling her, "Nonattachment. Don't get caught up in it." In terms of managing your stress, that's certainly a nice approach, but the problem, at least in Tara's case, isn't going to go away by itself. She wouldn't have ended up any better by ignoring it, let's put it that way.

Mukherjee: At all. I've always been a little impatient, not totally understanding, of exotic interest in Oriental philosophies. If it works for a Californian, great, I'm happy for that person, but you'll find that most South Asians in California, especially Silicon Valley, they're very much into participating in capitalist, liberal democracy.

Dave: Tara acknowledges that Andy has seen a whole lot more of India than she has.

Mukherjee: Yes, it's true.

I wanted to write about the age and culture of diaspora at a hinge moment in both India's and America's history. Things are changing so fast.

In the nineteenth century, Tara Lata, the Tree Bride, had an identifiable enemy - the bad guys were the British. Colonialism must be fought. Because of misfortune, she was freed to live her life as she wanted to; she could devote it to helping the freedom fighters.

Nothing is so clear-cut in the 1990s and the twenty-first century. Tara, the narrator, is very cosmopolitan. She knows Gilbert and Sullivan, and she also knows how to do Indian singing and dancing and all that, but she doesn't have the focus; she doesn't have the tradition that she thought supported her. She's the only one of the sisters who listens to Father and lets him find a husband for her. Later, she realizes that those traditions were either fraudulent or not worth hanging onto intact. The Indian cultural traditions don't support any of the sisters, women in that age group, the way they did the patriarch, the Tree Bride's dad, or the Tree Bride herself.

It's that moment in diaspora: white America is not the America of the mythological melting pot that my character Jasmine had bought into in the late eighties - discard your past if you can, or suppress it, and reinvent yourself as often as you need to (and some of those reinventions are hopelessly excessive) until you find a new autobiography. Here it's no longer possible. Neither America nor the non-European immigrant accepts that melting pot myth. It's been discarded. So how do you find a balance to give you meaning in your life, and at the same time not wind up feeling isolated?

Dave: Tara speaks repeatedly about the American quest to discover "Who am I?" Where she comes from, in India, that question would be nonsense. It's all so clear-cut and spelled out.

Mukherjee: That's what she wanted to flee.

What happens with the sisters in the book is that once pulled out of that bubble-wrapped condition where you're not given an opportunity to make mistakes - the older two sisters still manage to make mistakes, but Dad is able to hide the mess almost completely - once they're pulled out of that protective situation, they act out all their fantasies. Only America gives you the opportunity for those kinds of wonderful, melodramatic errors.

Dave: The narrator is younger that you, but her Indian upbringing was quite similar. You've placed her in the same Loreto school, for instance. In Days and Nights in Calcutta, which is autobiography, not fiction, you explain that you weren't taught Indian history.

Mukherjee: I was growing up in the fifties when history books had to be rewritten because the texts were all British. I took overseas Cambridge University exams. We were supposed to do only British history, in which the Indians are savages. For a year or two, there was incredibly tricky deconstruction that we brown students had to make. And the poor Irish nuns, being caught in between (they were very colonial even though they were Irish), realized that it was inappropriate to be using those texts, but Indian history texts by Indian historians hadn't yet been written. The compromise was, Alright, we'll opt for the European paper and forget British and Indian history. Later, in Western India, I had to take graduate level courses on ancient Indian culture and learn the history on my own.

Someone like Tara, because she's growing up so much later, has had schoolbook history - though she's not the brightest; she's not a rocket scientist - and she'd have also had comic history. These are wonderful, government issue books in which all the historical characters, the great heroes, are done as comic strips. Not funny, but as pictures. That's how the children learn history.

There is a kind of vacuum. And there isn't the passion the first generation had about nation-building. Now, your ambition, your fantasies, your dreams are about When I get to Canada or When I get to the Silicon Valley. And I'll go back later or be shuttling back and forth. It's being comfortable with your bag packed and feeling that you're master of two continents, which is never possible.

But they don't know their Indian history at all, you're right. Parvati and Padma, they don't talk about it except to say, "Oh, I'm Indian." Especially Padma, the drama queen in New Jersey.

These things enter the story draft by draft as I write. I never go back to look at the preceding drafts.

Dave: You don't go back to your written copies? So you're writing those early drafts, basically, to create a vision that lives in your mind, upon which the next incarnation will be based?

Mukherjee: And therefore I know what the story is. The version of Desirable Daughters that survived...I thought it was all finished. I handed in my final draft to the Hyperion editor, and I went off to Innsbruck. Then I got the manuscript back with one or two little questions, and I sat at this incredibly comfortable desk in Innsbruck and I rewrote the novel entirely, including plot.

Dave: In how long?

Mukherjee: In five weeks.

Dave: And how much did it change?

Mukherjee: It's not cosmetic changes and it's not fussing with sequencing. I'm always rethinking character, and the character dictates the situation. I'm going by the psychology of the characters.

Dave: Is that typical for you? As you got closer to finishing, did characters or events sneak up on you? Were you surprised by any of the late changes?

Mukherjee: The process of writing was very different this time. I fell in love with the character of the Indian husband. Tara leaves him in a huff because she has fabricated an image of him as a kind of father figure, and she's decided in her quest for freedom that the gated community in Atherton is prison. I had no idea when I started out that she would try to woo him back in that scene in Rivoli Street.

He surprised me in the ways in which he integrates American football or aspects of American culture onto his very Bengali self, for example that bit about Chet Yee and Bish watching Joe Montana on t.v. and getting CHATTEE because of the west coast offense...the width of the field instead of the length! Later I was talking to someone and I realized that the aesthetic strategy for this book was also using the width of the field - of history, geography, diaspora, gender, ethnicity, language - rather than the old fashioned long, clean throw. That's what I've been trying to do from Middleman on.

Dave: Early in the novel, the narrative voice is interrupted by an italicized comment:

I have done something here for which I should apologize. I have structured a surprise event in such a way that it will seem to you obvious and inevitable. You will wonder how we missed it, and I might not be able to communicate the shock, the bolt of lightning that sent me to Bangladesh last year, that set me to writing this book, and started everything else in motion.

Mukherjee: Why did I do that?

Dave: Well, the next sentence reads, "You will wonder how we missed it." So is the story about how you missed it, then? As a writer, what's your goal in not only undercutting the surprise but calling special attention to it?

Mukherjee: When I had first written the Tree Bride section [the first chapter] I didn't realize that what would become important for me was not merely the Tree Bride as the iconic myth - the free person who turns adversity into opportunity - but by the end of that draft, Tara, the modern narrator, realizes that she now is the family chronicler. In writing up history she is going to reframe it in order to tell herself a myth to survive by. That's why the I became far more self-conscious in the later draft.

Dave: You say that, but step back: That's Tara's excuse. What's your excuse? Is there a detachment between yourself as author and Tara as narrator at that stage or are you genuinely speaking for her?

Mukherjee: I am. I have to. And as someone pointed out in Iowa City two nights ago on NPR, Tara was also the name of the protagonist in my first novel [The Tiger's Daughter], and that character was very much me, too, so it's obviously a kind of alter ego that I wasn't totally aware of when I embarked on this. Other than the three sisters... I also have two sisters, and we've had our estrangements even though we've always pretended to be so close-knit.

I'm playing with author-protagonist relationships in ways that I haven't before. I think it's because I want to write an autobiography, but I just can't bring myself to. You create masks. It's a story about three sisters following different paths, each somehow important to me.

Dave: Jasmine and Tara both encounter an Indian culture in the United States that is more Indian than India. Jasmine can't deal with it; she has to escape pretty quickly.

A few years ago, you published an article in Mother Jones called American Dreamer, arguing that you're an American writer, as opposed to an Asian-American writer, explaining that your "rejection of hyphenation... is really a demand that America deliver the promises of its dream to all its citizens equally."

Mukherjee: India is only partially important. I'm not writing about nostalgic past, and I'm not writing about only the Indian-American ghetto. I wrote that essay after the publication of Holder of the World, which was really rewriting The Scarlet Letter from a perspective that Hawthorne, an Anglo-Saxon, would not have seen seventeenth century America, when because of trade routes the world came to places like Salem. That's why I was objecting. Desirable Daughters is the product of an Indo-American writer and that's what it's about, having one foot in each culture, whereas Leave It to Me, Middleman, Jasmine, and certainly Holder of the World are not.

Unless people uniformly address the Joyce Carol Oateses and the John Irvings of the world as European-American writers - which frankly doesn't mean anything - then calling me an Asian-American writer when "Asian" means so many different races, religions, and generations of immigrant history? I just felt that was racist. But I don't go there anymore. I've made my point.

Dave: Have you read anything especially good lately?

Mukherjee: I teach full-time, so a lot of my time is dedicated to preparation and grading and so on, but I like - this is going to sound bizarre - James Ellroy very much. I like Louise Erdrich's work very much as well. The U.S.-based Indian writer whom I don't know is Manil Suri, but I liked his book [The Death of Vishnu]. He seems very intelligent.

Dave: Tara says she's tired of explaining India to Americans, but to most Americans India is a total mystery. It's enormous, for one thing, but also incomprehensibly divided along very subtle racial, religious, and historical lines.

Mukherjee: And regional... The narcissism of the smallest differences so that even in New Jersey they're making fun of other Indian subgroups!

Dave: It's not as if similar divisions don't exist among Americans, but Indian writers addressing an American audience have to somehow make it all comprehensible without distracting too much from the story. You certainly can't assume that the average reader coming to your novel will know much of anything that these characters take for granted.

Mukherjee: No, and you can't assume they'll be interested in knowing. But it was important to the character, and therefore there was no way to leave it out. It would have been inauthentic.

Bharati Mukherjee visited Powell's on April 4, 2002.


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