Namrata Poddar, curator of the “Race, Power, and Storytelling” series at Kweli — an online journal by and for people of color – is on the rise. You may have seen her fiction in “Best Asian Short Stories,” her fashion commentary on Instagram at @stylegully, or her takedown of the colonial writing maxim, “Show, Don’t Tell,” at Lithub. Or you may have seen this California-by-way-of-India, France, and Mauritius girl doing yoga on the beach.
Poddar and I connected over our hopes for a wider lens on the diaspora — encompassing not just India and the US/UK but all of the places our community lives, loves, and thrives — as well as our experiences as first-time novelists and mothers during a pandemic. I recently joined her for a conversation about her debut novel, “Border Less,” out in March 2022 with 7.13 Books.
View this post on Instagram
*The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Your debut, “Border Less,” is coming out next year, but you’ve been writing for years now, from many perspectives: as a writer of shorter fictions, yes, but also translator, a scholar, a critic, fashion blogger, and an interviewer. What does the novel specifically, as a form, and this novel, in particular, allow you to explore, or to express?
In almost all of my writing, I talk about decolonizing literature. The fun with fiction was a possibility to imagine other scenarios of P/power and to “tell it slant,” to savor the freedom we experience as writers when there’s no obligation to convey “truth” as it happened. Writing fiction allowed me the psychic space to move away from whiteness to truly focus on our brown communities, to critique us for ways in which we re-enact the colonial power dynamics within our communities too.
“Border Less,” for those eagerly awaiting their own copy, is a multi-vocal exploration of a South Asian community stretching from Mumbai to Mauritius to California, and the ways in which these places and voices are depicted is a real highlight of the book. How does your injunction to writers not to get bogged down in “show don’t tell” intersect with the voices throughout “Border Less?”
I started “Border Less” with a story collection in mind, although the book had a mind of its own and I had to learn to listen to my writing over the voices in my head, mediated by the literary establishment and what it hallows as good storytelling. “Plot” here happened after most of the book was written, where characters and their situations of conflict seem to recur, and connect organically, I was often told, through certain themes. Once the early drafts of individual stories or vignettes were done, I’d to figure a way to connect it all—the easiest part within this book’s journey. As for show-don’t-tell, I wrote against it in my essays because a visual over an oral/aural component is over-emphasized in white-dominant writing workshops, but in my fiction, I try to do both, show and tell in ways that emphasize a non-white over a white lineage of storytelling, even if non-white v/s white in postcolonial writing are seldom easy binaries.
As a total ABCD, I loved the way in which you skewered so many aspects of ABCD culture. How do you approach writing this type of cross-cultural humor? (A lot of it is parent-specific: Did you find your sense of humor shift when you became a parent?)
So glad to hear that you see a certain humor in the book. Humor is such an intrinsic part of an individual, unique to each, that I didn’t try consciously to do humor in my writing; if it’s there, it’s because it’s a part of the self that does the writing. As for humor changing with becoming a parent, I would say the change resides in the fact that it expanded my sense of humor. Motherhood impacted my life, my worldview and my identity in such dramatic ways; it continues to remind me to take myself less seriously.
View this post on Instagram
You share Marwari identity and an LA location with many of the characters in “Border Less” – what are facets of these roots that didn’t make it into the book?
On roots: I believe no book can do full justice to the idea. I mean, how do you write a place with all that the a place encodes – history, geography, topography, language, culture, ethnicity, humor, clothing, social codes, to name a few? The best any writer can do is to offer a glimpse. I hope mine does this for Marwaris—rooted in my ancestral home of Rajasthan, and those uprooted and living elsewhere, but also for Mumbai and Southern California, places where I’ve lived longer than any other part of the world, another kind of rootedness.
Finally, we’re here in Brown Girl Mag, and your publisher, 7.13 Books, includes another brown girl, Hasanthika Sirisena, on its editorial board. Which desi short story writers, novelists, poets, in America but also in the Indian Ocean, in India, and elsewhere, are creating things you’re excited about?
Among the newer voices, especially those writing and publishing outside of India, Divya Victor for deftly weaving critical thinking and poetry to center a South Asian American experience, Aruni Kashyap for exposing state repression in Northeast India; Rajesh Parameswaran for re-imagining the contemporary American short story; Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent work as I relate deeply to the pull toward a foreign language and what it does to our preconceived notions of identity. Last but not the least, writers from the Indian Ocean region because the region has a much older and richer legacy of migration, and I love stories by South Asian diaspora who center a global South over a global North. Thinking here of Ananda Devi, Shenaz Patel, Nathacha Appanah, and Kama La Mackerel, all of whom are doing excellent work with moving away from the white gaze in storytelling.