English literature from Nepal has, by and large, been scattered, hard to find, and altogether easy to overlook-until now, with the publication, by US-based Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Company, of Samrat Upadhyay's short story collection, Arresting God in Kathmandu. Released in July as the first fictional work by a Nepali author to be published in the west, the book is finding its way to the front shelves of major American bookstores, and into the homes of avid fiction readers across the country. Arresting God in Kathmandu focuses on familial, romantic and cultural entanglements in modern Kathmandu. It is praised by a reviewer in the following terms: "In an assured and subtle manner, Upadhyay anchors small yet potent epiphanies in a place called Kathmandu, and quietly calls it home." The book can be ordered by Nepal-based readers through amazon.com or other internet bookshops.
Samrat Upadhyay is known to me only through our email correspondences as we co-edited Secret Places, the Manoa literary journal's special issue on Nepali literature, due out this upcoming winter. He studied at St Xavier's and later worked at The Kathmandu Post, going to the US at the age of 21. One of his stories was included in the Best American Short Stories anthology of 1999. He currently teaches at Balwin-Wallace College in Ohio, where he lives with his wife Babita and daughter Shahzadi.
The interview below was conducted over email.
Tell us what it's been like to have your book come out.
The book is a result of ten years of writing short stories. One story in here, "The Man with Long Hair," was the first story I wrote as a master's student. I was lucky to find a publisher for a story collection at a time when many are unwilling to touch short stories from first-time authors. The manuscript went through extensive revision, with excellent guidance from my editor Heidi Pitlor, before it even resembled a book, carrying the kind of thematic resonance we expect even in a story collection.
I'm still amazed that people all across the US are walking into Borders and Barnes & Noble and discovering my book. I've begun to receive emails from readers across the country. Reviews are appearing in major newspapers. I'll be starting my book tour soon. It's a happy time for me, coinciding well with the birth of my daughter, who is arresting in her own ways.
Tell us about the themes that you're exploring as a writer.
I am interested in the intimate moments of Nepali people's lives, especially of middle-class Kathmandu, as that's the world I know well, the world that lives with me even in my long sojourn abroad. At some level, I suppose I am deconstructing some common stereotypes of what Nepali people are supposed to be like, especially those in mainstream travel narratives. You know, the "happily spiritual" people with that winning smile even in the face of intense poverty. My characters are spiritual all right, but their spiritual self reveals itself concretely in their everyday struggle with love and desire. I am especially fascinated by the question of how we find transcendence in the tangible physicality of life-in small objects, or in movements of emotions, or in the tenor of someone's voice. Amorous love, and the sexual intensity that accompanies it, especially seems to be an excellent conduit for transcendence, for in it we attempt to dissolve ourselves into another being without fear of losing our ego. That's the "place" I'm exploring in Arresting God in Kathmandu.
There is a gap between the language of your characters and the language you write in. How do you approach this problem? What are your thoughts on writing in English about Nepal?
When I first started writing, I had to stop and think about what a character would say in Nepali, then methodically translate, in my own mind, how that would come across well in English. These days I'm able to simultaneously translate as I write, although at times I do run into interesting difficulties.
Using English to write about folks who don't speak English isn't a politically loaded issue for me, as it is for some people who claim that writers in English are one step removed from reality. This not only presupposes that there's one reality for a culture, but also prematurely discounts any fresh perspective that such writing can bring to the richness of a literature. Once we begin to prescribe our own version of Nepali-ness for Nepali writers, we become didactic and moralistic-bad stuff for writers.
In the past few decades American literature has made greater space for minority writers and writers from other cultures. Do you place yourself in this vibrant multicultural American literary tradition? Or do you see yourself emerging from a Nepali tradition? Where do you place yourself (if you place yourself at all)?
I haven't thought of my placement at all. I do read with interest works by writers of colour and from different cultures. But I also enjoy tremendously works by Anglo-Saxon writers. I've recently discovered, for example, Louisiana writer Tim Gautreaux, who writes very funny stories with characters I can certainly identify with. While I don't know how much I emerge from a Nepali literary tradition-I'm an American-educated, creative-writing-school product-I am very much a Nepali writer who writes in English, whose physical and emotional geography is Nepal.
Are you working on anything new?
After writing two novels that I've decided are no good, I'm working on a new one that has a Nepali schoolteacher getting into all kinds of trouble. The novel, I'm discovering, is a beast dramatically different from the short story. But there's also fun in this discovery.