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
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
“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.
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)