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January 26, 2015

Zee JLF Conversations: Mira Jacob

Text by Nittal Chandarana

“We were nobodies out there. I think I started writing so we could exist.”

Verve chats with author Mira Jacob at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2015

On writing
“I want to say something amazing like ‘death of my father!’ or ‘avenging my mother!’ but I grew up East Indian in New Mexico which is a very sparsely populated state in the first place and there were maybe four Indian families there the entire time I was growing up, so we were invisible. There was no ‘us’ or ‘story of us’ and I started writing because I felt like a real person. Everywhere you could see the narratives of the American kids, you could see the narratives of the Hispanic, even the Native Americans seemed to have more of a narrative than we did; we were nobodies out there. I think I started writing so we could exist.”

On Pete’s Reading
“I handed it off to others in the city and I go all the time because it’s still like church. We built it because we didn’t have a place to hear stories in our daily life. It’s every other Thursday. It is one of those places where you can get so much stimulation. You don’t often get to hear just a story and it’s really great because it looks like a tiny little church and you go sit there and listen.”

On being labelled as a diaspora author
“Everything that any American-Indian woman writer does, it’s like our seven degrees of separation over there. I just write the stories that move me and those happen to be the ones that have to do with this weird time of Indians moving to America. If I knew about something else, and I assume I will at some point, because I can’t remain this brainless forever, I’d write about that! But I write about the stories that matter to me and usually those are the stories of disjuncture and the stories that feel like a little bit out of your skin and unable to process the world around you.”

On her new book
“I have two different books that I’m working on right now. This book (The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing) took me ten years to write. I’ve been married for twelve years now. Somehow, writing another book, I just think it’s like getting married again. The graphic novel is a way for me to have a really super hot affair before I get married again. I’m really excited about it. I hope I can pull it off. It may end up being nothing. You know, you go on these chases, but basically, it’s these series of conversations that I want to get down on paper. And I draw a lot. I want to do that because I want to head somewhere I haven’t been before. At the same time, I’ve had these characters… the way that I work is that I have these characters stuck in my mind and they haunt me. And I have these characters haunting me for two years and I’m dying to tell their stories so I’m trying to get those out.”

On her tryst with Indian culture
“I’ve been born and brought up there, but I keep coming back (to India) every other year. In fact, last year I came to India thrice! It’s funny because it’s a culture of almost…longing for me. I know culture more as a series of feverish dreams that my parents narrate to me; ‘this is what it’s like’ and ‘this is what it felt like’, and I can imagine it all. Because if I left America and took my family somewhere else, I’d be haunted by all that I’ve lost. So, it’s the culture of being haunted.”

On the line between fact and fiction, and the characters in her last book
“I always want to give someone a percentage for that, but in Sleepwalker’s Guide…, everything was made up. All of the other characters beside the father were purely fictional I don’t know these people. I really love them though. And no, I’m not Amina. She was frustrating! I’m a talker, I’m confrontational, I’ll get into it with anybody, and she just is so shut down and when you find her, she’s so heartbroken. And I love her, but I found her very frustrating! Every time she was there, I wanted to shake her and say ‘just do something!’ And then I had Dimple, thank God! If anything, I’m like Dimple, but I wouldn’t even say that, because Dimple can really be a pain in the ass sometimes. The mother… I loved Kamala! She’s a nut! Akhil, I’ve never met him before but I feel him in my heart and I somehow feel he is wandering around looking for his family. All of that was fictional but the father, none of those things actually happened to my father, but the mannerisms of that father, the way of looking at the world was absolutely like him.”

On her favourite character from The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing
“Yeah, I have no problems picking favourites! I love Kamala; she’s a nut! I love her because I think, so many times we are terrible at loving each other. You have this inclination of what needs to happen for someone and you will do it, just ignoring all of them to take care of them, and I feel like she’s that mother who just really loves her kids and who’s absolutely deformed them with her love! And I feel an intense sympathy for that because I’m a mom now and I can see how it happens. I have a six year old.”

On managing work and home
“I was working in corporate America for ten years while I wrote this book. I ran huge websites editorially and I wrote this book from eleven o’ clock in the night to one in the morning. I had to work from eight to eight in the day and then come back to my kid, and it was rough, and I’d still do it again because I don’t think you can really… I don’t know of many people who can make a living off of only writing.”

On the Eapens
“Oh, I’ve let it all out. I think that people love the family so much that they ask if I’ll do a sequel, but there’s no sequel for them. The Eapens after Akhil’s death, they’re a completely different family. No one’s ever the same after a death; there is no normal after a death. It bears very little resemblance to the old family. It’s like being in a closet full of clothes that no one fits into.”

On reading and contemporary authors she enjoys
“Yes, I still make time for reading and I scare my husband by how much I read. I have between three and four books that I’m reading at any given time. When I really get time, I can go through two books in two days. There are a bunch of contemporary authors that I love. I love Sherman Alexie. He’s a Native American writer in the States and he’s brutally funny. It’s terrifying because he writes about terribly sad things and so you’re laughing through these incredibly dark things and you realise that this is the survival instinct he has and I have the same instinct but he has a really beautiful way of handling pain and also infiltrating the reader with some of what he’s doing. And Junot Diaz; I love Junot Diaz, as well for that same thing. And Chimamanda. She wrote Americanah. That might be my favourite book that I have read last year. I thought it was really fantastic. It does this great thing, that I have not seen done in literature — she tells a love story. It’s not a stupid love story, a dismissible love story, a love story which she got too embarrassed to write; it’s a political, heavily charged, highly loaded love story. I admire her to death for dong it. ”

On the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival
“I’ve wanted to come to Jaipur for my entire life so to be able to come here for my writing is such a fantasy. It’s my second festival in India. I was so moved. I’m going to tear up talking about it and I don’t mean to. It is so incredible how Indians read. Just this happening out there; this doesn’t happen in the rest of the world. They’re so intelligent and curious and so devoted, and it is amazing to come here. You feel like a human. A writer anywhere else in the world would feel invisible and like they’re wasting their time because you have no idea, the rest of the world has moved on. My book did great there too, and I had a fine time. It’s come out in Italy and France and hopefully it’ll be fine there too but here, these people are incredible. They read and they read with their hearts. You have to know this. When all these foreign authors come here and see this, we all go back to our hotels and just sit around the table weeping with gratitude for how amazing it is. It’s a freakish honour to be here and you just feel so bewilderingly in love with the Indian population.”

More from Mira Jacob: Twitter chat with Verve, Verve‘s book review of Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing and a previous conversation with Mira.

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