Thursday, August 4, 2016

Interview with author Sayantani Dasgupta

In a candid conversation with Sayantani Dasgupta, author of the book Fire Girl : Essays on India, America, and the In-Between. The book henceforth is called 'Fire Girl' for reading convenience. The book is a collection of her essays written over a period of time and have appeared in various publications. The essays are about her personal life experiences in India, America and, as she calls it, everything in between. To read the complete review of the book, visit Book Review : Fire Girl : Essays on India, America, and the In-Between - Sayantani Dasgupta.

-- Interview with author Sayantani Dasgupta --

Q: Out of the 15 essays in your book, why did you choose “Fire Girl” as the title essay?
A: Initially, the manuscript was titled after a different essay in the collection. But one of my fabulous editors, Kelli Russell Agodon, suggested Fire Girl. She thought it would be catchier and I agreed immediately.

Q: How did you feel when you first held the copy of “Fire Girl”?
A: Weird. A little proud. Thankful that I wasn’t alone in the moment and that my husband was there with me. But also, very homesick because I had dreamed of this all my life and my parents had dreamed it with me so when it finally happened it was disappointing that we were far away from each other in two different continents.

Q: Apart from “Fire Girl” what else have you written?
A: Within a week of Fire Girl’s acceptance, I also had a chapbook accepted. Both the books came out back to back this July. The chapbook is titled The House of Nails and it’s a collection of 15 or so short pieces (each roughly 500-700 words). They are about my childhood in Calcutta and New Delhi, about being a kid in love with books and ghosts, the Catholic school I attended, and what it meant to grow up straddling multiple languages and identities. There was always an ever-present threat of violence in the background. My family moved to New Delhi in 1985, shortly after the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi and the ensuing riots. I was very young then but the knowledge that something horrific had happened not too long ago was always at the back of my mind. When Babri Masjid was demolished, I remember reading The Times of India with this gut-punching realization that riots weren’t just something that happened “back then.” They were real, ever present, and a burden that my generation had to bear as well.

Q: What can we expect from you in the near future? Any other book lined up?
A: Yes, I have three projects lined up. The first is a novel that I wrote almost as a protest against the fetishization of India, yoga and all things Namaste that I see often in America. Once someone came up to me and said with a “deep” expression, “I love Ganesha. She is so lovely.” This kind of half-assed knowledge irritates every iota of my existence. So I wrote this tragi-comedy novel about a conman who pretends to be a guru to ensnare rich tourists but his plans fail and he ends up in a doomed relationship with a foreign exchange student. I am currently seeking a publisher for this. I have also just started writing a second novel. It’s about a sixteen-year-old Sikh girl growing up in America, who loses her brother to a hate crime and has to figure out how to keep her family together. The third project is a collection of short stories that’s nearly complete. Each story has a female protagonist, who in her role as a mother or wife or sister or neighbor does something unforgivable. It’s been fun figuring out what drives these women, their motives, and the repercussions of their actions.

Q: When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? Or were you destined to become one?
A: I wrote my first story when I was six years old. It was written in red ink because that meant you were a serious grownup like a school teacher. The plot was a mishmash of multiple fairytales. When I read it out loud, the reception at home was thunderous. I thought, gosh, I must never stop writing because clearly, my family needs my stories. Basically, I never let go of that delusion.

Q: How was your experience of getting “Fire Girl” published?
A: Hard. The manuscript was rejected several times until Two Sylvias Press accepted it. There were days, weeks when I almost didn’t want to research another set of publishers and send out the manuscript again. But I did. Again and again. Seeing the book in print has made all the earlier disappointments go away.

Q: The essays in your book, are all about observations and debates that question the norm. What made you do so?
A: I have always been a bit of a rebel. Even as a kid, I didn’t want to be the quintessential “good girl,” you know, the kind that’s celebrated in middle-class Indian schools, homes and everywhere else. I have always equated good with boring. It also helped that I read a wide variety of books and that my parents raised me in a liberal home. When I came to the US, especially to a part that’s not New York or Los Angeles or any of the big cities, it offered an incredible opportunity to examine my new life as well as the one I had left behind. Plus, my creative writing program challenged all my previous assumptions of what does and does not constitute as literature or what can and cannot be written down.
Interview with author Sayantani Dasgupta
Interview with author Sayantani Dasgupta
Q: Tell us about how writing is a part of your daily life?
A: Early on in my life as a student of creative writing, I received two very valuable pieces of advice. The first came from my professor, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Kim Barnes. Kim said, “If you treat writing like a hobby, meaning you will only write when you have a free day, that day will never arrive. Think of your writing as your work and you will automatically find time for it.” At the Centrum Port Townsend Writers’ Conference one year, I heard the celebrated Nigerian writer Chris Abani tell the audience that he writes everywhere, be it inside his study or a crowded hospital corridor. Following Kim and Chris’ footsteps, I try to write every day. But if some days I miss, I don’t beat myself up. I am writing even when I am shamelessly eavesdropping on conversations (good character details for fiction) or when I am reading a terrific book and admiring a certain sentence construction or when I am observing the body language of strangers or filing away a story of an octopus escaping from an aquarium in New Zealand. Who knows where and how I might be able to use it?

Q: How did you finalize the cover of the book? It is abstract and attention grabbing! Did you have more options?
A: The book cover got finalized between my publishers and the supremely talented artist Abhishek Chaudhary. And yes, I was consulted. There were a couple of other options but Abhishek’s design really spoke to me and my publishers, and addressed the contents of my book perfectly.

Q: Other than writing, what else do you do professionally?
A: At present, I teach in the English department at the University of Idaho although my professional life began as an editor in the publishing industry in India. I also edit creative nonfiction for the Seattle-based literary journal Crab Creek Review. I have organized and taught creative writing workshops at homes, bookstores, libraries etc. and would love to do more on that front.

Q: Your book “Fire Girl” is non-fiction, what compelled you to share these stories with the world?
A: Back in 2011, when the essay Fire Girl came out, I remember being somewhat self-conscious and uncomfortable. On the one hand, I was proud that it had been published by a well-known literary journal. But I was also uncomfortable because while it was about Draupadi—the heroine of the Mahabharata— it was also deeply personal. It listed some of the harrowing experiences I had had while growing up in New Delhi, and how the Indian deification for strong women in mythology does not necessarily extend toward real girls and women. Several people liked the essay but the feedback I value the most came from a friend raised in a super conservative family. She wrote, “At times, it felt like you were telling my story.” That sentence had a huge impact on me. If my writing could connect like that with someone, I had to continue doing what I was doing.

Q: Do you read as much as you write? Which are your favorite books? Who are your favorite authors?
A: I read more than I write. I would say this is vital. If you want to be a writer, you have to read works by your favorite writers, and those outside of your comfort zone. I have read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake far too many times to count. My other favorite writers include Mohsin Hamid, Aravinda Adiga, Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson, Daphne Du Maurier, Satyajit Ray, and Jules Verne.

Q: Do you prefer reading e-books or the traditional paper/hard back book?
A: Both. Good writing is good writing regardless of the format.

Q: Two things that you like and dislike about “Life”?
A: I love trying new foods, meeting new people, discovering new places and writers. I am opposed to ignorance, bigotry, fundamentalism, and picky eaters.

Q: If you have to give one reason to our readers to get hold of your book, “Fire Girl”, what would it be?
A: I think each of us is a combination of multiple themes and influences, which is why we aren’t simply black or white but complex shades of grey. My book weaves together the themes of home, abroad, monsters, mortals, goddesses, and demons because I am all those things. I hope my readers find echoes of their lives in my words.

Q: Any message you would want to share with our readers?
A: In the social-media driven world in which we live, where we are constantly bombarded with images of people’s success, it’s easy to feel insecure and jealous. Trust me, I have been there. My only message is that when your friends share their good news, celebrate them with open hearts, congratulate them with sincerity. First of all, it will make you happy. Envy is neither a good friend nor a light burden to carry around. Second, when the time comes for you to share your good news, your friends will reciprocate with equal ardor. Basically, don’t be an asshole.

Q: How can our readers connect with you?
A: I am on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

-- End of Interview with author Sayantani Dasgupta --
You can order a copy of the book from Amazon.
8:17:00 PM / by / 4 Comments


  1. Great job with the interview and thanks for bringing this to us. I loved the author's viewpoint and her irreverent attitude. I wish her and you all the best.

    1. Thank You Vibha, glad that you liked the interview.

  2. Thank you for this , "I received two very valuable pieces of advice. The first came from my professor, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Kim Barnes. Kim said, “If you treat writing like a hobby, meaning you will only write when you have a free day, that day will never arrive. Think of your writing as your work and you will automatically find time for it.”

    You are awesome as always Sayantani....



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