Finding My Voice, Laura Pegram Interviews Neela Vaswani

On September 26, 2012 I invited Neela Vaswani to join me for a lunch interview at the Harlem brownstone that has become Kweli’s sanctuary. Neela arrived early that September afternoon, with flowers in hand. I had been in the kitchen warming up the garlic naan and was just about to put the samosas in the oven. Neela volunteered to help and together we brought the steaming bowls of Channa Masala and Saag Paneer to the dining room table. We ate and laughed and talked about "living light" and comfortable shoes, language and the music of Nina Simone, the Storylines Project Neela created with the help of her friends, and how her husband Holter's marathon runs renew him after his chemotherapy treatments. After lunch, we moved into the parlor for the interview. Neela sat down cross-legged, “Indian style” in a comfy chair, while I fiddled around with the recorder on my phone. We talked at length about “writing from a place of love,” picking out the raw material for story, and more. Neela Vaswani is the author of “Where the Long Grass Bends,” a stunning collection of short stories, “You Have Given Me a Country,” a beautiful mixed genre work that seamlessly blends memoir, history and fiction, and “Same Sun Here,’” a lovely middle grade novel in letters that she co-authored with Silas House. She lives in New York City with her husband, Holter Graham.   


LAURA PEGRAM: Thank you for sharing time with Kweli this afternoon. Your work is beautiful and imaginative and soul-filling. I was introduced to your art by “The Pelvis Series,” a short story that appeared in the O. Henry Prize collection. Your author note stated that the story was born after reading a magazine article about the dwindling chimpanzee population in Africa. Chimpanzees were losing their natural habitat and being hunted for food (in some cases because people were starving, in others for “bushmeat trade”) and “exotic markets” (chimpanzee hands sold as ashtrays). The article made mention of an American Sign Language (ASL) chimpanzee at the end. How did you approach the research for this story? Did you conduct in-depth interviews with linguists and ASL workers or did you already have the raw material for story in hand?

NEELA VASWANI: I think that I already had the raw material and the base anthropological knowledge. My mother loves anthropology and we had a shared obsession with Jane Goodall when I was a kid. We just sort of soaked all that up. In college, I’d been a double major in English and anthropology until my junior year when I was just overwhelmed with course credits and trying to go abroad for a semester, so I let the anthropology major go. But I still had all the training, so I had a good foundational basis for the story. But I didn’t know anything about American Sign Language and I didn’t know anything about these pygmy chimpanzees, or bonobos, who were using lexigrams and this language called Yerkish to communicate. It was so fascinating. My story was first published in Epoch in 2004, and then three or four years later I started seeing stories on TV about these bonobos. But it had been much more obscure at the time that I was researching this story. At the Science and Technology Library, I found about four books on Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who had been working with the chimpanzees with Yerkish. I just devoured these books and found some videos randomly and took what I could. I’m really glad that there wasn’t too much out there because I didn’t get bogged down in the research, which could have happened, and then I would have lost my imaginative connection to the story and to the material and might not have moved forward with it at all. But because there was such a limited amount of resources, that helped me. So I devoured what was there and had my already pretty strong foundation of knowledge so that I was comfortable enough with the material. It was integrated in my imagination already. 

LAURA: I came away from the story knowing more about lexigrams and their use in helping children who are struggling with autism. 

NEELA:  The little girl Jamie is severely autistic in the story and so she’s learning it to help her with communication. I read about severely autistic kids and bonobo chimpanzees learning to communicate through Yerkish in one of the Sue Savage-Rumbaugh books.

LAURA: You saw Eve, the doctor of linguistics working with language-impaired children, and Lola, the bonobo, as a family. And then when Lola’s son was born, Pan was an extension of that family unit. It is one of the stories that I love to read again and again and again and again. Imaginative and beautiful.

NEELA: Thank you so much.

LAURA: Given your background, I had assumed that this story came to you, more or less, in a full form so that you really didn’t have to do much research. But you had to do some additional legwork.

NEELA: Yes, for sure. That’s the most research intensive story in that collection. But it was so enjoyable to me. And it really did come from that magazine article. I can’t write unless it is coming from a place of love. I was so troubled by what I read in that magazine article, but it was still really wrapped around a love for chimpanzees. So that’s what always drives me whenever I am writing anything. But that’s what was driving me through the research too.

LAURA:  The love.


LAURA: In your memoir, you write about love.

“Nothing is too hard for love. Not threats, not a lifetime of alienation, not money, not religion, not skin, not ruined reputation, not illness, not gigantic corporations with a long reach, not famine, genocide, poverty, government, not the power of one’s raising. Nothing is too hard for love. Nothing.” 

We see this love in evidence when your grandmother is diagnosed with mouth cancer in 1957. The radiation treatments back then were in their infancy and she lost half of her jawbone, half of her tongue and it was difficult for her to talk. You write: “She spoke in shotgun blasts. Bed now. Love you. Stop that. Good.” And your grandfather never left her side. We also see the love between your parents. Despite the climate of the country, they married in Maryland in 1973. You write that “in marrying an Indian citizen, in later bearing a mixed baby, she broke her religion. Broke from the long line of close-knit Irish-Catholic Sullivans. Broke the extant anti-miscegenation law in Maryland’s constitution, struck down six years earlier but still in the pages and memorized by law students.” Can we talk about Loving vs. Virginia and the laws that were still on the books when they got married?

NEELA: They were right after all the Civil Rights Acts. Loving vs. Virginia. 1967. So it changed federally, nationally. But just like with the Jim Crow laws, it varied from state to state. They just kept things on the books in their constitution. I think Alabama was the last state to lift the anti-miscegenation law sometime in 2000. 

LAURA: In your memoir, you also write that “My mother saw everything through the prism of history and culture. Her pledge of allegiance to story. To her, all people were historically joined.” My father “saw everything through the prism of science and the body. His pledge of allegiance to story. The way to make him remember a person was to state their disease. ‘The one with jaundiced skin. The one who had bad arthritis.’” How do you “see” everything and what prism(s) do you use? Do you share the prisms of your parents?

NEELA: Very good question. Culture is the first thing that comes to mind. I am always thinking about culture and I am always thinking about power, especially in terms of race, class, gender, religion, sexuality. That’s what I see first and most strongly. But I think that my pledge of allegiance is also to story and language. Sometimes it is the language of words. Sometimes it’s the language of images, the language of music or dance. From that place, I start applying the lens of culture.

LAURA:  Paule Marshall talks about language and culture and the beauty and wisdom within everyday speech in her essay “From The Poets in the Kitchen.” I would like to look at the language of words now, . . . and specifically a segment from a radio interview where you discussed the different Englishes within your family: your father’s English, your mother’s English, your English, other relatives from India and your grandfather’s Brooklyn English. Throughout your book we hear the beauty, power and wisdom of these different Englishes. The poetry. How did you marry all of them together so seamlessly? 

NEELA: I was raised in a house with four different Englishes. My Irish grandfather lived with us from the time I was born until he died when I was 18. And my Indian grandmother came to stay with us for a while as well, and her English was really an English of silence. She didn’t speak English. She understood more than she let on, but she liked to irritate my mother, so she would withhold that. [laughter] So that mixture of voices and Englishes is how I speak and how I think. It is so much about voice and ear, you know. I’m always listening to the way people speak, the language they use as if it’s music, keeping my ear trained to it and trying to pick up their rhythms, their patterns, how they use euphemisms. My mother is always big on aphorisms and old timey sayings and so just all those little different aspects. 

LAURA: The music of it. And the poetry of it. That’s one of the reasons why I love to ride the bus.

NEELA: There is this one little anecdote that I sometimes share with my students about Harold Pinter and how his style of writing changed in his plays at a certain point. He was interviewed years later by someone who asked him why that happened. And apparently he sat and he thought about it for a while and he just said, ‘I stopped riding the bus,’ which I thought was so beautiful. So I just think whatever language you’re steeped in becomes a part of you and becomes a part of your own language. But then there is an individual aspect to it and I know that as a writer, for me personally, finding my voice was about finding my language and my phrasing, my music, my beats, what was specific only to me and the way that I use language. Once I had tapped into that and developed the ability to hear my own voice in terms of my own language in my head and just let if flow through me onto to the page, that’s when I really felt like I’d found my way as a writer.

LAURA: You speak of finding your voice. Does that voice, phrasing, music change as you continue to develop your craft? Are you always growing and stretching and experimenting?

NEELA: Absolutely. I think that if you’re not ever changing and growing as an artist, you start to die a little bit. I’m a genre wanderer and I like the freedom of art. My first book was a collection of short stories, my second book was mixed genre / memoir, and my third book was a young adult novel. I’ve never thought of myself as someone who gets bored, but I get restless. I like being able to move between genres and I like the challenge of writing in a genre that is completely unfamiliar to me. So I always think that I’m starting from scratch whenever I sit down and write something new. It feels like I’m having to learn how to write all over again, but I like the challenge of when you start in a new genre.

LAURA: A genre wanderer.  Sweet.

NEELA: Yes, and what you learn in one translates to the others as well.

LAURA: You also work in photography.

NEELA: Yes, I love to take photographs. But I’m an amateur photographer. I can’t draw or paint, much to my sadness. Photography is something I can do that is visual. And I really like to do that.

LAURA: Do those images also speak to you in a way where you find story come up from the image?

NEELA: Definitely, and with the memoir there were moments where I would come to a point in my writing and I would feel kind of strangled, but not in a mute, no-words-for-this kind of way. In those moments, I found either a photograph I had taken or one of my old family photographs matched the mood I was trying to convey on the page. So when I placed the photographs in the memoir, it felt like an act of translation in a way, but it also felt like I was starting the sentence in one language, the language of words, and then finishing it another with the language of image. But they were of a piece, they were connected. 

LAURA: It was a lovely marriage of text and image. I would like to segue from the marriage of text and image to the marriage of music and fiction. Can we look at one of your short stories, Twang (Release) for a moment? I heard Nina Simone singing Suzanne at this point in your story.

“There was a song he sang to me. The only part I remember is, “. . . and she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China, and just when you want to tell her that you have no love to give her, she gets you on her wavelength, and lets the river answer that you’ll always be her lover.”

What came first as you crafted this breathtaking narrative? The song Suzanne, or Aileen—the willful girl in your story who hunted and listened to trees, and survived the loss of her mother and her tall, bowlegged lover—or this in-between place?

NEELA: Aileen’s voice came first.  That story was a gift in the sense that once I heard her voice, the piece flowed forward.”

LAURA:  Speaking of gifts, can we talk about the Storylines Project? We touched on it a bit over lunch.
NEELA: Sure. The actual event only happens once a year, but the purpose of it is to bring together young adult or children’s book authors with the adult literacy ESL community at the NYPL. So we’ve had Naomi Shihab Nye, Ashley Bryan. This year is Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers. We assign a book and the students work on writing exercises, work on reading and understanding the book. Depending on their reading level, they might get through the entire book or just work on a couple of pages. We do Read Aloud and Think Aloud, so there is an element of discussion and conversation which is really useful for the ESL students, not as helpful for the adult literary students who are already fluent in English speaking. And we also design writing exercises for everybody. So the author who is coming for the year and whose book is being distributed to all the students, they are also the judge for the student writing and then they select four big winners, six honorable mentions and there are cash prizes for them. Just to help with the bills and encourage an education population that is frequently overlooked. There aren’t any rewards for them in the same way there are for other writers. And it is a privilege to work with them. As a community, they are so hard working and so brave. They are adults who are willing to start over and do something terrifying and something that a lot of people have had decades of shame about, to face their fears, face their demons and learn, continue to learn and grow. 

LAURA: You are giving them such a gift.

NEELA: They are giving me a gift and they are giving a gift to themselves and to their families that I find so powerful. There are eight centers for reading and writing, but now there are 27 connected with English as a Second language (ESL) programs now in the city.

LAURA: 27!! Look how it has blossomed under your care. 

NEELA: Yes, and the NYPL is one of the only free programs in the whole city. There are a ton of programs, but they are very costly and for adult literacy students who tend to not have high paying jobs and for ESL students who tend to not have jobs or citizenship security, it’s impossible to pay those fees and prices. In the NYPL all the tutors and all the centers are volunteers. A lot of retired teachers participate. Just continuing to give back. It is a really amazing community. And thankfully, funding is still holding right now. It was scary with the downturn. A lot of programs at the library got cut, but this one is still going strong. The adult literacy and the ESL students often say I’m here because I want to help my daughter or son, my grandkid with their homework, and I don’t want them to struggle the way that I struggled. That is just so moving to me.

LAURA: If only we had more stories in the media that spotlight that reality, that truth, as opposed to all the others that dominate the headlines.

NEELA: It would make a big difference. The stories they tell and the language they use is amazing. All the winning stories are at the website. They are just incredible. I had given them one assignment at one point: write about an important moment in history that you lived through. One of my students in my classes at that time was Senetta Smith—an adult literacy student from Mississippi, from a sharecropping family. I can’t quite tell how old she is, but she is probably in her 70s, and she wrote an essay about how Emmett Till was her neighbor and how he left for the summer to visit his grandparents, and the moment when another neighbor heard about what happened to him and came riding over on a horse to tell her family. My God! Her story is on the website. It is so amazing and powerful and important. I sent her piece to the Smithsonian because they have Emmett Till’s coffin there. I’m not sure if anything will happen with it, but the story was just powerful. I’ve been teaching MFA students for 11 years now in programs all around the country and I’ve read some powerful stories, but her voice, her language, that story sticks with me more than any other. And they’re all like that.

LAURA: I can’t wait to read Sennetta Smith’s story. 

NEELA: They’re all like that. She is from the first year. Silas House was the author that year.

LAURA: Ah, . . . Silas House, the writer you collaborated with on Same Sun Here.

NEELA: Yes, I needed a friend for the first year because I wanted to make sure I’d gotten all the kinks out before I started reaching out. 

LAURA: It helps to start with your friends. [laughter]

NEELA: It does. I’m sure you know that. And Silas said “sure, I’ll be your guinea pig.”

LAURA: Let’s talk about your second collaboration with Silas House. “Same Sun Here,” is a middle grade novel in letters. It weaves together two disparate voices with humor and heart. Meena is an Indian immigrant girl living in New York City’s Chinatown and River is a Kentucky coal miner’s son. You dedicate the book to “children who carry another home in their hearts and for courageous adults learning to read and write.” How did this collaboration with Silas House come about? 

NEELA:  Silas and I teach together at Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing program.  We’d been friends for years and collaborated on some smaller projects together.  Given the nature of a brief-residency program, we actually got to know each other through emails and letter writing.  So we had our own kind of pen-pal background to draw upon.  Back in 2008, I had an idea for an epistolary YA or Middle Grade book.  I knew my character, Meena, but I was having trouble coming up with the character she was corresponding with.  It suddenly occurred to me that for a novel-in-letters, two writers could be better than one.  I pitched the idea to Silas who said he was about to start writing a Middle Grade book about a boy dealing with mountaintop removal mining in his community. So the timing was right and we dove in.  We decided not to discuss plot with each other, or our characters; we decided to just write to each other in character and let the plot unfold organically.  Approaching the writing of the book that way gave our correspondence energy, a real back and forth.  We also actually mailed the majority of our characters’ letters to each other via regular mail. 

LAURA: What projects are you working on now?

NEELA: I am currently messing around with a picture book, which I think is actually an early reader. But I’ve really been enjoying the process, and thinking about the interplay between text and image again. I’m almost done with one, I think, and I am taking notes and working on a couple of other ones. I have a rough draft of a screenplay which I’ll work on for years, but I am fiddling around with that too. I am also working on a novel. It hasn’t grabbed me fully yet. I’m not immersed in it. I’m not in that place I love to be in where the pull of the novel and the pull of its world is almost stronger than the one in front of me. I’m still casting about and finding a way in, but I know the characters. I spend a lot of time with them every day thinking about them and I’m sort of thinking about the structure. So I’m working on it. I can tell it’s going to be a slow start, but it’s moving along.

LAURA: Thank you, Neela. I am grateful for you and your art and for the time you so generously shared with me and Kweli today. So very grateful.

NEELA: Me as well. Thank you so much.