Anita Felicelli is the author of Love Songs for a Lost Continent (Stillhouse Press; winner of 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award), and Chimerica (WTAW Press). Born in South India, she is a Tamil American fiction writer and critic who grew up and lives in the Bay Area. Her nonfiction has appeared in the NY Times (Modern Love), Slate, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a VONA alum. Her work has placed as a finalist in multiple Glimmer Train contests and received a Puffin Foundation grant, two Greater Bay Area Journalism awards, and Pushcart Prize nominations. She’s a graduate of UC Berkeley and UC Berkeley School of Law. She is working on a novel and short story collection. Website: www.anitafelicelli.com/; Twitter @anitafelicelli.
Namrata Poddar writes fiction, nonfiction and curates the interview series called “Race, Power and Storytelling” for Kweli. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Poets & Writers, Transition, VIDA Review, and elsewhere. Her story collection-in-progress, Ladies Special, Homebound, was a finalist for Feminist Press's 2018 Meriwether Award, and will release from Speaking Tiger (rights sold for South Asia). She holds a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA from Bennington College and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures from UCLA. Website: www.namratapoddar.com; Twitter: @poddar_namrata
NP: The South Asian American short story is a fairly young genre, even if the Asian short story is probably the oldest and largest literary legacy in the world. As I think of second generation voices in particular, writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Rajesh Parameswaran and Nina McConigley instantly come to mind who published their story collections in the US before you did. Unlike new white writers who often leave “mainstream” writing workshops equipped with a toolbox that draws directly from a Euro-American literary history, did a young literary ancestry within the American context ever hinder your writing process? Or did it liberate the latter?
AF: I find the youthfulness of South Asian American fiction exciting; we can explore stories that truly haven’t been seen in American literary fiction before. Raj and Nina’s books are stunning, original, must-read contemporary story collections. In my case, no other authors are currently publishing literary fiction in which a surrealist’s sensibility is threaded through with both Euro-American intellectual history and Dravidian history and myth. It is challenging not to have any direct models; half the time, those readers who aren’t South Indian have no prior exposure to elements of what I’m writing about. But I’d rather see writing as a place of freedom anyway.
NP: You didn’t come to writing from a more conventional path of the MFA, but from a professional background in law. How does this impact your writing?
AF: People often assume this, but I didn’t come to writing from the law. I knew from around the age of five I was a writer and have been submitting to literary magazines and contests since I was in high school. I’ve taken many workshops with MFA-educated writers over the last twenty-four years (my first at age 18), so what’s different, I think, is that I haven’t had the connections or long-term mentorship associated with MFAs. I’m an excellent student, so I’ve probably made many more serious blunders than I would have made going through a program, and I’m sad about my hard-headed need to make my own mistakes, but MFA programs weren’t at all the norm for people of color in the 90s. Law school was always a backup to writing—I wasn’t going to take the Bar exam until I impulsively signed up. I didn’t complete my State Bar licensing application on time either. For a year, I cobbled together a living with writing, temping, and paid medical studies. I later became a litigator at small trial firms for eight years because the Bay Area is expensive, and I needed the money. But clients need and deserve everything from their attorneys; my fiction during those eight years suffered, and I woke up to realize my backup life had become my unhappy real life, so I quit litigation in order to have time to focus on my fiction. As a litigator, you do meet scores of fascinating people and encounter tremendous amounts of conflict. I’m bored by literary fiction with no conflict and well-behaved characters—I suppose I’m blessed to have borne witness to so many different species of conflict and horrific behavior.
NP: Who do you see as your literary ancestors? And your literary siblings? Why?
AF: Traveling far back, my literary ancestors might be a blend of 19th century idea-besotted authors like George Eliot, as well as Franz Kafka, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Gabriel García Márquez. Thematically, writers like Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin are literary cousin-ancestors. I think of Kazuo Ishiguro, Percival Everett, Jonathan Lethem, and Helen Oyeyemi as similarly motivated literary siblings; with every book, these authors are playing with genre and language, trying to discover something new. Due to the way their mixed backgrounds refract and sparkle in their work, Danzy Senna and Arundhati Roy are also literary siblings.
NP: In a publication landscape where writers are repeatedly told that short story collections don’t sell, what was your experience in getting a story collection published? What were some of the unexpected challenges and happy surprises along the way?
AF: I consider myself a novelist first, but I found my novels, not the story collection, and not my poetry collection, which BlazeVox published in 2010, the most challenging to find homes for. Thanks to the wonderful editor of Kweli, Laura Pegram, I found my agent because of Love Songs, fifteen years, and five manuscripts after first querying agents for novels. Just months after signing in 2017, it was a happy shock to win the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart award for my short story collection. Stillhouse was one of three small presses to which I’d submitted the collection myself before getting an agent. I love the press; they wholeheartedly supported my book and understood it.
NP: I love how your story collections speak to an Asian, American and an Asian American world, yet also cross borders to explore characters in Europe and Africa. Similarly, in exploring power dynamics between different characters, your short fiction covers a range, dealing with issues of race, gender, caste, class, place, migration, body type, sexual orientation, age, and more. What were some of the challenges you faced in writing difference within your stories, whether it was about a place or an aspect of identity you weren’t as familiar with?
AF: My challenge with every character in my collection was the fiction writer’s: I’m not other people, my characters are not me. The fiction writers I admire aren’t using fiction as cover for straight autobiography or memoir, but instead alchemizing the chaos, trying to get to something nonfiction can’t. That said, I’ve lived with an awareness of power dynamics and difference from birth. Observing difference is not a challenge to overcome, but precisely why I write — to make some sort of dramatic, psychological, individual sense out of the plural worldviews, the heterogeneity I’ve observed. I have a multi-caste, multi-religious background—multiple caste and religious identities within my family; for context, inter-caste marriages made up only around 5% of marriages in India in 2014. I’m in an interracial marriage. I’m an immigrant who’s traveled to places I’ve written about. I have family in African countries, lived and traveled all over Western Europe, and have family in India. I ask friends, family, exes about living inside other identities when I have questions, but I’ve also lived my whole life planning to write fiction about anything interesting eventually, keeping haphazard notes on awful things people say, what people cooked for dinner, details of break-ups, and so on.
Perhaps a greater challenge in writing the collection was trying to balance my desire for a postmodern yet Tamil-inflected aesthetics of difference for the collection as a whole with my need to find the right voice to tell each protagonist’s story. I wanted to explore how competing memories can inform the personal impetus towards reinvention or staying on-script. Most of the past, the collective memories in these stories is submerged, underwater, cut Hemingway-style from the final stories, but I hope a thoughtful reader senses the depth of the iceberg without explicit direction. If not, I hope I’ll have more books to get it right; the wise author Chris Abani once advised me to take the long view of my writing career.
NP: On a more personal note, you are a working writer and mother of three children. How do you sustain a regular writing practice alongside the relentless and often invisible labor of motherhood and a more communal side to the writing life that involves literary citizenship, participation in social media, promoting one’s work, etc.?
AF: I’ve been writing stories for thirty-seven years, and I’ve been a nonfiction ghostwriter as my full-time job for nine years, so it would be unbearably strange for me not to write. I’ve been able to sustain writing through parenting (and with an autoimmune disease and disabling mood disorder) because I have parity with my writer spouse in parenting, plus the help of my parents and a small village. I wouldn’t be able to keep writing, however, if I hadn’t also forsaken everything that brings normal people pleasure. I gave up all my hobbies, stopped working out, don’t travel, don’t live where I’d prefer. I’m behind in movies, television, fashion, whatever’s cool for grown-ups, and frequently make a fool of myself as a result. For me, social media often needs to take a backseat, just by virtue of hours in a day, but I believe strongly in literary citizenship, in emulating the kindnesses shown to me by showing up for other writers.