Aruni Kashyap is a writer, editor, and translator. He has published two works of fiction in English (The House of a Thousand Stories, Viking/ Penguin Random House, 2013 and His Father’s Disease, Westland, 2019), one work of fiction in his mother tongue, Assamese, (Noikhon Etia Duroit, Panchajanya Books, 2019) and he has edited an anthology of stories concerning insurgency narratives from Assam (How To Tell the Story of an Insurgency, HarperCollins, 2020). After life spent in Guwahati, rural Assam, and Delhi, he has transplanted himself to Athens, Georgia, his current state of residence. He aspires to speak to the growing complexities of life in India while living as an immigrant in the USA. I had an informal chat via WhatsApp with Kashyap, phoning between Athens and Melbourne, where I live. The differences between the American and Indian mentalities were at the core of our conversation, from the ranges of foods we eat to the ways that we perceive the academy, literature, and the greater world.
Kiran Bhat: Sorry for interrupting you as you eat your dinner. How are you adapting to the new food habits of your country? Getting used eating Tex-Mex and McDonald’s, collard greens and fried chicken?
Aruni Kashyap: I’ve been used to this food for some time back. Back where I grew up, there were all of these American joints where we used to get fried chicken, and sometimes once a year, I’d get it. But I really like tandoori chicken, which isn’t really fried, but battered with Indian spices. It is really tasty. You know, growing up in India, you have an enormous range of chicken variation. It would take you almost 200 days to finish every type of chicken recipe. So you come to this country, and none of the chicken has any taste.
KB: My parents and I talk about this often. Whenever we go back to India, we can taste the difference almost instantaneously. Bananas, carrots, apples — they all suddenly have very strong and defined tastes. Whereas growing up in the USA, I never liked eating vegetables that much. You just get used to everything having the same taste.
AK: Yes, in India, you can smell a plate of mangoes from a distance. Here, I have mangos, but they have no smell.
KB: But that might be because they are imports. If you had peaches in India, they also might not have any taste.
AK: No, the only fruits that are imported to India are kiwis, strawberries. I don’t have much experience on imported fruit. Maybe cherries, too? I don’t know.
KB: Yeah, it’s really difficult to say. When I would be talking to my friends in Mumbai about eating avocado, they would talk about it like eating it was an import. But my mother grew up eating avocado, and avocado is often grown in the southern states of India.
AK: Yes, people in Mizoram also eat avocado.
KB: I didn’t know that.
AK: Yes, Mizoram has avocado orchards, I have heard! I don’t know if avocados were natural to the region, but what’s fascinating about the subcontinent is that each region has its own dishes, and fruits, and vegetables.
KB: Yes, you really can’t make generalizations . . . so, speaking about Mizoram and the Northeast, it makes me want to get to know your biography better. Where were you born? Where did you go after? Where else have you been?
AK: I was in Assam most of my life. I grew up in various different places in the state. Then I moved to Delhi to study, studied in Minnesota, worked in Delhi, before I got this job at the University of Georgia in January 2018, where I teach creative writing and literature.
KB: Yes. So you pretty much spent most of your life in Assam, then Delhi, and now you’re in the US. What was it like moving to a foreign country for you? What were your expectations? Were they reached, or did you end up having mixed feelings?
AK: I think I have mixed feelings. Where I was working in Delhi, I was comfortable, and I enjoyed being with my friends. Delhi is a hard city but also can be exciting. When I came to the USA in 2018, I was unsure if I would like it here; the only thing exciting was the new job. I had no idea about Georgia except from novels and popular culture. I was lonely and sad for the first few months in Athens, and those were hard days, but it was teaching, reading, and writing that saved me. Now, I have a set of good friends here, and I feel quite settled.
KB: But there must be some good things about working and living in the USA. For example, you’re probably seeing students of all walks of life, from all parts of the world, and that must be very rewarding.
AK: Well, in India, I was teaching in an international university, so we did have people of all walks of life. But America is a land of immigrants, so of course, there is more diversity if we are referring to things on a global scale. The American undergraduate student population, the STEM fields are perhaps more diverse than the humanities. English and creative writing departments could be more diverse.
KB: I can understand that. You do teach in Athens, which is a small town in Georgia. I did my undergrad in NYU, so I might be reflecting on that experience.
AK: Oh, yeah, everyone loves to live in New York. And the discipline of creative writing is very white, and it’s not diverse at all. In fact, I often talk or write about this. At AWP [Association of Writers & Writing Programs] 2020, a few friends, who are all creative writers from South Asia, curated a panel on teaching global literature in the American creative writing classroom. I couldn’t attend it due to the pandemic, but I plan to write on this topic more to raise awareness. I try to enrich my classes by creating syllabi that [are] diverse, but this shouldn’t be a burden only on the writer of color. Above all, generally speaking, creative writing departments all across the USA are predominantly white.
KB: I can relate to that too. When I was doing a publishing course at the University of Melbourne, there were only two or three people in each class who weren’t white. And the white people were almost all white Australians. But I’m okay with these things. I think if you’re a writer, you’re going to be living your life and harnessing everything you can from the world to say what you have to say. I don’t think you need to go to a creative writing workshop. The ones that really need to be heard ultimately find a way.
AK: Why didn’t you come to the US to do your Masters?
KB: Well, I was born and brought up there, so by the time I turned eighteen, I really just wanted to do other things with my life. I’m from Georgia, you see, and when I was growing up in the ’90s, it really wasn’t an easy time to be there. Now, Jonesboro is so different. You see people from Korea or Puerto Rico or Vietnam. The local diner serves bibimbap on its menu. That’s not the Georgia I come from. The Georgia I was raised in was number fifty or forty-nine on education ranking lists. Now, people from all over want to come live there. It’s so similar to what’s happened to my native place, Karnataka. Again, thirty years, no one was coming from Bangalore, and now the city’s mostly foreigners. And it’s created such a tension, in both places. There’s a fundamental conservatism and stiffness to Karnataka and the US South that has trouble integrating foreigners, and I don’t see it resolving anytime soon.
AK: There are some ways that Georgia is better than India. At least it isn’t illegal to be queer. One can marry anyone!
KB: It isn’t illegal to be queer in India now, either. . . . Again, when I was growing up in Georgia, it was very hard to be gay too. You’d get beaten up at the smallest signs of femininity. And people used slurs all the time. Things change because movements happen. You have to fight for it. Like if all of the gays of New York moved to Berlin or Paris in the 1960s, then Stonewall wouldn’t have happened, and the USA wouldn’t have improved as much as it has now. So yes, India is also in the middle of that movement, and it won’t improve if all of the Indians come to the West.
AK: But I am referring to something else. You see, now, in India, if you’re a person of privilege, it may be safer to be a queer person. But what about people in the villages, what about people of the lower castes? Section 377 is gone, but the police still extort them. They ask them to have sex with them, or to pay them a bribe. You can’t live in India with freedom unless you have money.
KB: And you can’t ignore the fact that with COVID destroying the economy, even that is bleak. Every day I worry what the future is going to be, and it’s so sad because I really love India and living in India and now that’s going to be very hard. But it’s a sad reality we simply have to deal with.
AK: Yes, yes, and that is a hard thing to deal with as well, as a writer.
KB: Which also leads me to my next question. Tell me more about the books you’ve written, what they’re about, and what you’re trying to achieve.
AK: Well, I primarily write about the Northeast experience in India, from the perspective of a writer from Assam. And I also like to write about the experience of Indians in the United States, again, from the perspective of someone in a small place in the middle of Georgia. I am rooted to Assam. I grew up there, I speak the language, and there is a very Assam-centric way that I look at things. And this is a very empowering thing, because growing up there, we saw a very different aspect of the Indian state, which is basically the violence the Indian state has inflicted on the people of Assam, because of a separatist insurgency that started in 1979, which impacted my family growing up. So in some ways, I wanted to address that violence, that violation of human rights.
But I do like to say I’m a very basic storyteller. I write about all of these topics, but at the same time, my goal is to write about what it was like to grow up in this part of this world, what it means to survive violence and then move to the capital of India and then move out of India to a really small city in the American South.
These are basically some of the topics that I cover in my work, but obviously, when I think about it from a distance, it looks like I’m writing a lot about human rights, justice, storytelling, queer issues, etc. Basically a lot of marginal issues that we don’t see in Indian English writing.
KB: If you had any advice for a writer in training, what would you tell them?
AK: Read stories carefully, like a storyteller. By which I mean that you should pay attention to how the story is told. The only way of becoming a writer is to write regularly. Often, we fail, but we should fail better every day. If something is not working, delete all of it and write again. If you don’t enjoy doing this, then you must reevaluate your choices. Maybe find something that you enjoy doing. Art is hard. It is okay to write badly. Not everything we write has to be published. Read extensively. You must be omnivorous in your reading.
KB: Are there any other poets or authors who particularly inspire you? If so, how?
AK: Toni Morrison, whose book Song of Solomon changed my life and saved it, too. Amitav Ghosh, who permitted me to write Assamese novels in English. Louise Erdrich, who inspires me to write unapologetically from my indigenous self.
KB: What are certain novels or themes or tendencies in literature that you think are being ignored these days? What do you wish more people read?
AK: I wish American publishers and readers sought out more translations. I wish American publishing professionals didn’t treat literature like a restaurant experience where they can control the spice levels. American publishing industry’s idea of diversity is myopic, and they [ . . . ] don’t publish even Anglophone works that come from different literary traditions because it challenges their established ideas of what is considered “well-crafted”. When an agent or editor in New York means Indian writer, they mean Jhumpa Lahiri; not Mahasweta Devi.
KB: And what book are you working on now?
AK: Right now, I’m working on multiple books, but I just finished writing a short novel called How to Seduce Barack Obama. It’s a tentative title. It is based on a woman in India who is obsessed with Barack Obama. She actually exists. I read about her in the newspaper. And when I read that she actually changed her last name to be connected to Barack Obama because she is such a big, obsessive fan, I was really intrigued. And when in November 2016, after the American election night, there was an absolute disbelief in the world about Trump’s victory, I started wondering how this woman, who is madly in love with Obama, would feel. The story started from there.
KB: Sounds very interesting. Well, I wish you all the best with it. Thanks so much for giving me your time. I look forward to seeing more of your work.
ARUNI KASHYAP is a writer and translator. He is the author of His Father’s Disease (Context/ Westland Books India, 2019; Flipped Eye Books, UK) and the novel The House With a Thousand Stories (Viking/ Penguin Random House, 2013). He has also translated from Assamese and introduced celebrated Indian writer Indira Goswami’s last work of fiction, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar (Zubaan Books, 2013). He won the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship for Creative Writing to the University of Edinburgh, and his poetry collection, There is No Good Time for Bad News (Future Cycle Press, 2021) was a finalist for the 2018 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize and 2018 Four Way Books Levis Award in Poetry. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Catapult, Bitch Media, The Boston Review, Electric Literature, The Oxford Anthology of Writings from Northeast, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, The Guardian UK, and others. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Georgia, Athens. He also writes in Assamese, and his first Assamese novel is Noikhon Etia Duroit (Panchajanya Books, 2019).
KIRAN BHAT is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. He has currently traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. He is primarily known as the author of we of the forsaken world . . . (Iguana Books, 2020), but he has authored books in four foreign languages and has had his writing published in The Kenyon Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Colorado Review, Eclectica, 3AM Magazine, The Radical Art Review, The Chakkar, Mascara Literary Review, and several other places. His list of homes is vast, but his heart and spirit always remain in Mumbai, somehow. He currently lives in Melbourne. You can find him on Twitter.