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N magazine interviews a Suave Story teller Saborna Roychowdhury

Here is the original interview that Beyniaz had initially sent to N Magazine. The editors asked her to shorten the piece.

The interview is on page 49 and review of The Distance is on page 51 of the September issue.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background. How did you start writing, especially since you have majored in Chemistry? How did the Pushcart nomination come about? Isn’t it extremely difficult to get this prestigious nomination?   

I had just moved to Boston and I was looking for a job. I thought taking a fiction writing class would be fun. I took my first fiction class at Grub Street, Boston. There I met Jeffrey Kellogg, who was a very supportive and inspiring teacher. In a writing exercise, he asked us to close our eyes and think of an image and then bring it to life with our words.
“Write about what you see and feel. Who is in the picture? What is he/she like?”
The image that I saw that night was that of a 15 year old maid who once worked for my aunt back home in Calcutta. Her father used to come every month to collect her wages.
The girl often complained to my aunt how her father never thinks of her wedding or her happiness-just uses her as a supplier of paper notes. My aunt was worried about her and tried to mediate between the father and daughter but the father was not ready to listen.
 One day, my aunt found this teenage girl hanging from the ceiling fan in her little terrace room. Her body was still warm and her breathing shallow. My aunt did CPR on her. By the time the doctor came, the girl passed away in my aunt’s lap.
The father and political party supporting him ignored the suicide note and demanded a large sum of money from my aunt.  I knew that night that I had to write the girl’s story. When it came to sharing the story with my class, I was worried. I was a chemistry teacher -this was my first attempt at writing a short-story. But my teacher Jeff gave me great feedback and other people in my class seem to like the story a lot.
“Send it off to a journal for publication,” Jeff urged me. “See what happens.”
So it was because of his encouragement, I mailed the story to three journals. Within a month New York Stories called and said they want to go ahead and publish my piece.   I did not know anything about Pushcart prize or nomination then. I was happy the story was published. At the end of 2004, I received a letter from New York Stories.

 “Each year New York Stories receives 3,000 manuscripts for consideration. We publish approximately 25. We nominate six, the best of the best, for the Pushcart prize, and yours, we are happy to say, was among them…” (Danny Lynch, Editor)   When I showed the letter to Jeff, he said, “Getting a Pushcart nomination for a first short-story is highly unusual. It’s time for you to write your first novel.”  

 Was your family encouraging? Was it difficult bringing up your children and writing at the same time? Did you have to walk the tightrope between career and writing?  

Around the time I finished writing my book, “The Distance” I gave birth to beautiful twin daughters. I cannot even begin to describe how they changed my life. In the beginning, the twins kept me awake at night. I was always tired… my thoughts were hardly coherent, my speech even less. I was completely cut off from the rest of the world.
 The twins did not let me read a book, pick up a newspaper or even watch television. For a year, I just worried about wet diapers, frequent feeding and tub baths. Writing was the last thing on my mind. Now the twins are almost four. I do have some time to write. But I fear that the twins have altered me permanently. I have become very complacent, very contented, and very happy with life. They have killed that darkness inside me that fueled the arguments in my book. They have made me a happy writer.  

Are any of the characters in your novel based on people you know? Mini, especially seems to be based on a person you have known.

 The events and characters in my book, “The Distance,” are not based on my experience. They are vaguely based on newspaper articles, something I heard from a friend or a cousin….often the story and characters are entirely a product of my imagination. I come from a joint family system....grew up with aunts, uncles and cousins in a big mysterious house. Instead of watching TV, we liked to talk.
 During power blackouts, we sat around the kerosene lantern and shared stories. And perhaps, unknown to me, I was listening when they were talking. Somewhere deep inside the stories stayed locked for years.....then they appeared on the pages gussied up by my imagination.    

Did your own experiences as an immigrant fuel the descriptions of Mini’s life in Canada?

  I came to the U.S. when I was only 19 years old. Back home, I was considered beautiful, funny and popular. I was in my high school drama and dance team. But as an undergraduate in West Virginia, I felt everything about me was wrong. In the restroom, I compared myself with the white beauties putting on make-up in the mirrors, next to me. I felt my hair and skin were the wrong color. My accent, my experiences, my take on most issues was very different from that of my classmates. In crossing the Atlantic, I had somehow lost my eloquence and my sense of humor. I was just the “weird” Indian girl. Maybe that’s why I can look at the American society from the “outside”, the same way Mini does.       

Why did you choose Vancouver as the setting for your novel? 

I was a Vancouverite once. My husband did his Ph.d from University of British Columbia. I did my B.Ed from the same university. We used to live on the beautiful campus surrounded by the pleasing and surprising combination of both ocean and mountain.  This was the prosperous part of the town, filled with palace-sized houses that had high walls and private beaches
 It was only when we went to Main Street to get Indian groceries or to grab a plate of chaat that we realized how the other part of Vancouver lives. This was the first time, in my contact with Western style of living, that my eyes could sense the tremendous disparity between the uptown and downtown….the two Canadas and the two different realities. So I placed my character Mini on Main Street to show my readers what Vancouver downtown feels like. 

 Your writing style is much like that of Jhumpa Lahiri. Who are the writers you like to read? Are there any writers of Indian origin among these? 

 I read Jhumpa Lahiri,  Rohinton Mistry, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Kiran Desai. I would also like to add, two emerging Indian authors to watch out for- Nabina Das and Kaberi Chatterjee.  

Your book has been so well received that now we all want to know when the next one is going to be published.

 Thank you so much. Unfortunately, as I said in a recent interview, I can’t discuss the story I am working on right now. I am trying out a twisted and complicated plot for my current work. There are many loose ends that have to come together and fit in nicely. Writing is like building a bridge. Like an engineer, I have to put the pieces together and then bolt them in. If the pieces don’t fit, the bridge will collapse. I don’t know what will happen in the end – if my bridge will stand or collapse. So it is better not to share it here.                      

An Online Interview with Author, Saborna Roychowdhury

Recently, I had reviewed Houston based Indian American writer, Saborna Roychowdhury’s debut novel, The Distance, for Hyphen Magazine. (Read the review here). I sent a few questions to the author online. She graciously agreed to answer them.....(Con't)

Click here to see the interview