Sayantani Dasgupta in conversation with Tara RobertsSpring 2022
Sayantani Dasgupta was born in Calcutta, India and raised in New Delhi. She arrived in Moscow, Idaho in 2006 to enroll in an MFA program at the University of Idaho and ended up living there for twelve years. Today, she is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she writes both fiction and nonfiction. She is the author, most recently, of a short story collection, Women Who Misbehave, which was published in 2021.
Tara Roberts is a freelance writer and part-time lecturer in the University of Idaho English Department, as well as the editor of Project FARE, a nonprofit digital magazine about food in Idaho.
I want to start with one of my favorite moments in the book, in “Miss Josephine,” when the narrator remembers how she and her friends suppressed their greed for ice cream as young teenagers but kept going to the ice cream shop out of lust for the boys who hung out there. What are your favorite sins to write about—and what are your favorite sins to commit?
I think lust definitely is a great sin to think about, because I feel most women are not given the agency to do that. And I don’t think it’s mostly Indian women or women of a certain age, but women overall, all over the world. I think lust is something most of us are encouraged to hold back and conform, and I don’t think men have similar limitations imposed, as far as their imagining of the sin is concerned.
From a writing point of view, I think lust is great fun to imagine, because what everyone’s lusting for is different, and who gets to be their object of affection is different. When I’m writing fiction, to be able to inhabit these different characters and their different worlds, and think about what someone like this would be attracted to is, I think, a great mental exercise and a huge challenge. I’m not these people, but I have to think like different people and what they could find attractive in other people. It’s a little bit like in real life, when you sometimes see couples and you kind of wonder what brought them together. Because on the surface, you can’t see it, you can’t see the attraction, but maybe there’s something else to them. It forms such an interesting challenge in my mind.
My favorite to commit? Oh, I think gluttony. Why is it so good? I was in India for a little while this winter, and most of me was so happy with all the food choices there. But a small part of me was also missing all the American foods I have come to love! So I think my happy place would be somewhere in the middle of the world where I just have access to all the gluttonous goodness everywhere.
Me too—so let’s talk about food in your book. It’s absolutely everywhere. I made a list: lamb biryani, spaghetti and meatballs, puffed rice snacks, apple strudel, canned tuna, and then your last story is all about hunger. What makes food such a powerful and malleable image to work with?
Food is such a telling statement of who you are as a person. I think you can fake a lot of things in life. You can pretend to be sophisticated or not through a variety of lenses. But what food you love is a very good revelation of who you are as a person. You can’t pretend to love things to eat and commit yourself to that. Or maybe you can but that will just not be a very happy life. I think food is also interesting because, again, it’s a challenge imagining what different people in different circumstances would be attracted to. If I’m not these people, but I want them to be convincing, then I want to know what they eat for breakfast, what they eat for lunch, dinner. What are their guilty pleasures in terms of treats, what is their favorite cake, those sorts of things.
One time Kim Barnes had us think in these lines in class, because she said if you’re writing fiction, you have to know about the toilet paper brand that your character uses. That is the level of detail you must know. It doesn’t matter if there is no mention of toilet paper in the story. But the more you know, the more your reader will know that you know. Even when I’m not necessarily incorporating everything that a character loves to eat, I definitely imagine what all they love to eat so that I get a fuller picture. And of course there are people who don’t care about food that much—I don’t understand such people, but I’m told that they exist. So I think I’m just going to remain suspicious of them because they don’t fit into my orbit and understanding of what good characters in fiction should be.
I have to ask the big misbehavior question, which I feel like is a given, but an important one. We see a dramatic range of so-called misbehavior throughout the book—from little things like breaking cultural norms to selfishness to some very big crimes that I don’t want to reveal. How do you define what it means for a woman to misbehave?
Growing up, the world of women that I saw on television, in real life, in books, in my neighborhood, school, everywhere, it seemed that there were so many secret messages. There were things that were not being said out loud, but they were implied; they were to be understood. There was a lot of reading you had to do based on your equation with the person. And I think that was true when I came to the U.S. as well. I felt women have to live here, too, by their own code. You can’t say everything that comes to your mind. You can’t do everything that comes to your mind.
One of the things that was most surprising to me when I first came to the U of I was how few women were in upper administration. If you don’t grow up in America, the narrative of America that you receive is it is this progressive, egalitarian land where everyone gets the same opportunities. And yet I remember going up to a room where all the university presidents’ pictures are kept, and there is only one lady in that entire area of gray-haired white gentleman. The whiteness was not difficult to understand, given it’s northern Idaho, but the lack of anybody except one female president was kind of shocking. The university has been around for a while, so it just didn’t make sense for that to be the case.
I think anyone who, in any which way, even the minutest way, protests against what is expected of her is misbehaving. I’m so drawn to that behavior, and I’m here to champion that behavior, especially selfishness. I think my entire book is a tribute to selfishness. Selfishness is a lovely thing. I think—no, I know—when I was growing up, the model of femininity that was shown to me over and over again, on television particularly, was one where the women who were sacrificing for their brothers, for their fathers, for their husbands were like goddesses. These were the best women. I saw that behavior in women in my life. And I think you miss out on a lot if you are not selfish, because if you don’t take care of yourself first and foremost, that’s terrible. You are not able to give to others what they probably need and want because you have not served yourself the way you need to. So I’m here to say that selfishness is beautiful and everyone should embrace it.
You also write about women who say they want to be a good girl or a good woman. What does it mean to be good?
Particularly in the story “Shaaji and Satnam,” there is a moment where Shaaji, even when she’s committing something deeply problematic, she’s thinking of how she can be a good girl. I’ve seen a lot of people, including myself, who have been raised with a fair amount of discipline, and what it means to be on your good behavior, etc., that before committing anything, we’re in our heads thinking, “What will my dad say if he finds out?” I think that’s what, to an extent, it means to be good—it’s the conditioning in your head, that’s been done by your teachers, by your family, by yourself, the policing that you’ve done on yourself, and you’re constantly measuring whether that is good behavior.
I love that even though we grew up in such wildly different places, we had, I think, similar expectations of policing our own behavior as children that that just hang on. So what do we do about that? How do we deal with enculturated expectations of goodness?
I know how to deal with that. We read a lot. We read books by people who don’t look or sound like us. In my case, the first clear message that I can do something else than what perhaps a lot of girls my age wanted to do was when I read Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Captain Nemo, who is a prince of Indian origin, was going to just kidnap people in his submarine and take them off to Antarctica and explore the world. That was amazing. I wanted nothing more than Captain Nemo. And the fact that in the book he’s described in such a hot way made it even hotter.
You read books that are unexpected, that have nothing to do with your reality. I think you read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy and all kinds of wild fiction that gives you all kinds of permission that realistic fiction and creative nonfiction don’t. You imagine yourself doing epic things as a kid. And all those things stay with you. I’m all for reading all the wild literature that’s possible in the world.
Now I want to talk about secrets. I’m thinking in particular of in “A Hard Kind of Love,” where we follow this man who’s married to a writer who mines conflict in their marriage for her stories. This is kind of a common question to ask writers, but a lot of times we treat it like it’s universal and it’s really not—it’s something everyone decides individually. So for you, is anything sacred or private? How do you teach your students to navigate that?
Yes, a lot of things are definitely sacred and private. I might write about them, but I might not publish them. Oftentimes, when I’m angry at someone, I will compose a detailed email to that person. I’ll never send it. But having written that out, it helps in sort of calming me down, seeing things in that conflict that were probably my fault as well. A lot of things within the family are sacred and private, and I’m not there yet where I can write about them publicly—which is not to say I’m not writing about them privately. I think all of us should be writing about these things privately.
With students, I encourage them to write their entire truths in the first drafts that they don’t have to share with anyone. But I think there is much to be said, from a writerly point of view, about the benefit of our first draft being everything that you can think of on that subject. And let that be a 50-page draft for a two-page essay if need be. Once it’s out, you still have full control of your material. And you can choose what you want to share with the world.
So I’m a big fan of multiple drafts, and multiple private drafts if need be before the public one is shared. Big fan of students reading a variety of work by incredibly courageous writers like Cheryl Strayed and Kim Barnes. And knowing that once you tell your story authentically, people might still judge you, but they have no control over you. They can’t do anything to ruin you. You own your story. Putting out honest writing is a bit like being a straightforward, honest person in the world. Some people will like you, some people won’t like you, and that is their effing problem. You get to be yourself.
Because Moss is a journal about the Pacific Northwest, I have to ask a Pacific Northwest question. Your book shows us a little bit of the Northwest: from the inside in “The Waitress,” in a tacky bar full of dark secrets, and from the outside in “Another Life,” with the postcards the narrator gets from her brother. How else does the Pacific Northwest sneak into this book?
I didn’t think the Pacific Northwest was a huge part of the book until I moved to the South. But of course it was. I realized this when I finished the book and submitted it to my editor. The Pacific Northwest was a part of the book the whole time I lived in Moscow, because how can you write about anything in your life without taking in the background and the surroundings in which you find yourself? The Northwest also featured heavily in my first book, Fire Girl, because Fire Girl is a book about making sense of this in-between life between India and America. I think if instead of Moscow, I had lived somewhere like Seattle or San Francisco, where there are so many Indians, my understanding of myself would have been different. But because I landed in Moscow, Idaho, with maybe 10 more Indians in the town on a good day, it made me understand myself in a in a more fundamental way than I think I could have been allowed anywhere else, and get a sense of the kinds of people I value and the kinds I don’t want in my life. That understanding has also been cemented over time because of living in places like Idaho, where I am one of very few people who look like me.
In the South, I go back to the Northwest because I lived in the Northwest twelve years, and I have tons of friends and good memories and lots of good people in my life, and I carry all that memory, all that goodness, in my heart. Which is not to say that the Northwest is an uncomplicated place. It’s also not to say that liberal pockets like Seattle, even parts of Moscow, parts of Idaho, don’t have their own prejudices, don’t have their own racism. All of these things definitely filter into everything I write.
I want to wind down with a fun question—my students right now are writing an essay about a song, and I’ve been talking to them about the metaphorical backpack that everyone carries around, with books and movies and products and TV shows and fads and all these things that make their way into our writing and our personalities. What’s in your backpack—what are the things that shape you as a writer? What do you wish more Americans would engage with?
I really want Americans to start looking at maps and atlases and globes. I absolutely want people to stop saying things like, “I didn’t know there were more than 10 languages in the world.” Or “I cannot point to Canada on a map.” These are both things I have had people say to me. I do not want ever for anyone to ask me if India is a real country.
But I think overall for humanity, I would just like people to be more curious. I think that would be lovely. You can just give into any kind of curiosity. Why is that bird flying in that odd way? What is something around your own world that is of interest to you or piques your curiosity?
In my own backpack: Hindi films, for sure. Indian music—and I make the distinction between Hindi films and Indian music because India has many languages and many cultures, and Hindi is just one language. Folktales, fairy tales, Hindu mythological tales that I grew up reading as a kid. Books by British authors that I grew up reading as a kid. I love Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, all sorts of adventure novels, like Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which I’ve already mentioned, and The Swiss Family Robinson, which is so wonderful. I remember reading that one and telling my dad, “What are the chances of us landing on an island and then rebuilding our lives?” And my dad, who was an engineer in a big city, must have been like, “Oh God, I do not want to live in an abandoned island and have to figure out how to farm.” That family’s protecting themselves from giant pythons, and there is a pet ostrich—everything that can happen happens to that family, and that was so amazing, but I don’t think my dad was particularly keen on that being our future life.
Food, of course. I need some spicy food. I can probably do three days of standard American food, maybe. But the fourth day, if there is nothing with lots of peppers and spices in my diet, I’m just going to cry. I say three days because based on residencies and such things, where they have provided food, for the first three days I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have to cook!” but then by the fourth day my inner voice says, “Oh my gosh, I want to cook.”
I think colors, fragrances, these sorts of things. When I first came to the U.S., I thought America did not have a distinct smell. I thought Moscow particularly did not have a smell. Because Delhi has smells—food smells, people smells, all kinds of things—and Moscow felt very antiseptic and very clean. And it seemed that, what would this world know of anything that’s painful or problematic, because everyone is so shiny and gleaming and the houses are perfect and the backyards are perfect and everybody for some strange reason eats dinner at five. I think now after having lived here for so long, I maybe understand that a little bit.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Seven.