Author Shruti Swamy's talent for the short story form has attracted an astonishing array of literary honors, considering her relatively brief literary career. The following bio is taken from her website:
The winner of two O. Henry Awards, Shruti Swamy's work has appeared in Agni, the Kenyon Review Online, the Boston Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. In 2012, she was Vassar College's 50th W.K. Rose Fellow, and has been awarded residencies at the Millay Colony for the Arts, Blue Mountain Center, Hedgebrook, and Willapa Bay AiR. She is a Kundiman fiction fellow, and a 2017-2018 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University.
Editor’s Note: In car rides home from creative writing classes in San Francisco back in 2010, Shruti and I developed our habit of episodic, though unremitting conversation. Our talk has since transposed into correspondence via email now that I live in Istanbul. Likewise, this interview took place over a few email exchanges, the first of which was merely a list of question topics for Shruti to choose from. I wish to extend heartfelt thanks to Shruti for her responses as they form a small manifestation of the same thread of dialogue that started more than seven years ago.
Erica: You have a very keen sensibility for the English language. Do you feel your use of language is an innate or a developed part of your craft? How so?
Shruti: That’s very kind of you to say. I think I can trace a lot of my abilities and interests in language and story to my father. Both my mother and father are very good at languages for exactly opposite reasons: my mother’s mind is wholly mathematical and systemic, it loves logic and rules, and so comes to learn languages through understanding their structures; my father, on the other hand, has an intuitive and musical sense of language. He’s a gifted musician who can pick up an unfamiliar instrument and start to play it: he can also mimic the sounds, inflection, and texture of a language he is introduced to without understanding the words. His delight in language is palpable and we played together with words when I was young and still do, mashing them together, punning them, deforming and reforming them. Not only my facility but also my joy of language comes from that.
Erica: What comprises work? What is the work of a writer? How do you accomplish your work?
Shruti: This is a difficult question, because I think we’re all trained to see work in a certain way, and the bulk of creative work falls outside that image. I spent two years “not working” on my novel, by which I mean sketching out things in my notebook, reading, trying to wrestle with my mind, starting and throwing away many dozen pages, and feeling despair that I would ever write it. Then in eight months I wrote about 50,000 words: the words I didn’t realize I had been gathering through those dry years.
Still, did writing those pages feel like work? I would love to name every act of attempt as work, which I believe it is, as much as the pages, which, though they are tangible, are also easy to discount—are they “good”? The attempt, the sitting and reaching forward with the mind, the stilling and looking both inward and outward, the listening: I want to name that as work. More and more, I’m trying to focus on the outcome less than the process, for my own sanity.
Erica: Who have been your most important mentors and how have they influenced you?
Shruti: With all due respect and love to my writing teachers, my mentors have always been books. My writing has been wholly shaped by the right book at the right moment: In Search of Lost Time being the most transformative one artistically and personally. I am somewhat of a late-bloomer as a “serious reader,” by which I mean, I didn’t understand how or why to read “difficult books”—that is, books that required patience, re-reading, and could still have the tendency (though not always) to baffle—until I was in graduate school, and for this I would thank my teacher Peter Orner, whose way of deep, serious, attentive, and joyful reading continues to inspire me.
For a long time I wanted a mentor, I think in the way in many traditional Indian art forms a student has not a teacher but a guru, a master craft-person whose guidance is intense and total. I think it can probably be useful to have that kind of artistic relationship when one is starting out, but now I know myself and my own voice pretty well, I find my relationships with my peers more useful, people whose words have weight but not the swaying power that a mentor’s does. You want to be able to listen to yourself most of all.
Erica: Do you have any advice of your own or advice you’ve received that you could share with aspiring writers of short fiction?
Shruti: I don’t! Young writers know what they need, and if they don’t exactly know, they’ll find it if they look for it long enough. I’m sure they’ve been told to read deeply, to seek out like minded friends and readers, and to write as much as they can: and I’m just as sure they know this without being told. When I was in college I was told often that the writer’s life was a difficult one, even in the best-case scenario. Yes, and it was true, and a lot more things that people told me. But the things I’ve learned myself: how to listen to myself, how to be a deep and patient reader, how to maintain a consistent sense of self as a writer, even when I’m not working—these and all the other things a writer needs to make her art, I found on my own as each writer has to. Like searching and searching until you find bits of gold.
Erica: The word ‘alienation’ can suggest anything from estrangement to powerlessness, even meaninglessness. How do you define alienation?
Shruti: My parents were both aliens in this country: legal, tolerated aliens; I, a citizen, am an alien too in upbringing and in inheritance. I assimilated early, but I remember the pain and confusion that arose from the dissonance between my home-life and the larger world, I feel now a vivid sense of loss at what I cut away to understand myself as American. And not-quite American still, and also too American. So: alienation is standing dark in a room that is otherwise full of white people, to which you have been invited and to which you almost belong, or equally standing in a room full of Indian relatives conversing in a language you don’t understand, but whose faces match yours. (And somehow it is not: sharing a life with a white husband.) The pain and power in otherness makes many people into writers: it is the source, explicitly or not, of all of my stories.
Erica: In “The Laughter Artist,” published in Kenyon Review, your protagonist states, “I was a wild girl; she was afraid for me. I couldn’t stroke away her fear. I learned fear from her, my mother.” She is a performer who is at once revered for her abandon, but also consumed by a fear that is passed down to her. Could you talk about what inspired you to pursue this interesting juxtaposition of fear and willful abandon within the story?
Shruti: I love that word, abandon. I had been carrying two halves of the story with me for a while—the idea of the laughter artist, and the idea of a person in the immediate aftermath of sexual violation—and something made me put them together, the combination excited me. I think stories work best when two incongruent things—fear and violation, in this case, with abandon and wild artistry—are sort of rubbing up against each other.
Erica: In another one of your stories, “The Siege,” published in The Boston Review, you adapt parts of the ancient Hindu epic of Ramayana. What drew you to this epic, in particular? Are you drawn to ancient epics, myths, or legends in general? Why?
Shruti: The Ramayana is an amazing and enduring work, so full of human complexity, errors made by gods and heroism shown by demons. I took only the tiniest portion of this long story to examine all the things packed tight within it: there are so many events, characters, perspectives, and versions throughout India far beyond it: so many jewels on the strand of a long, nearly infinite necklace.
I was raised on myths like the Ramayana, and the myths of my family. Over and over again I am struck by how natural it is for us to see ourselves and our lives through the lens of story, and to find meaning from the act of telling.
Erica: In our generation, people rarely discuss the practice of prayer outside of the context of a religious affiliation. Do you practice any form of prayer? Does prayer influence your writing practice?
Shruti: This is a beautiful question, because in fact, writing is my prayer. It is the act of moving forward in belief that there will be something on the other side to meet me, even if I can’t see it.
Erica: You are quite a film buff. How did this passion originate? Can you name a few of your favorite movies and explain why they’re your favorites?
Shruti: I’m extremely flattered that you think I’m a film buff. Actually I’ve come quite late to the power of film and my knowledge of the world of cinema is very limited. Isn’t that wonderful, to love something and not be an “expert” in it, to let yourself follow your own hungers.
What I’m finding with many movies, especially older ones, is that they force me into stillness the same way that books do: long novels and poetry in particular. For me there is a struggle against the slowness. Then, something changes, so softly: I feel that shift, I’m not bored, because I have matched myself to the rhythm of the movie, and so I start to absorb the fantastic beauty of its images, and mood, and the nuance of face and light. Some tiny interaction between two people, something that could be somewhat mundane, suddenly holds me. I find this astonishing every time, though I shouldn’t.
Recently I’ve been watching the movies of Satyajit Ray, many of which are available, with subtitles, for free, on YouTube. My favorite movie of all time—perhaps my favorite work of art in any medium, if such a designation isn’t nonsensical—is Pather Panchali, which is, incredibly, his very first movie, the one which he pawned his wife’s jewelry to finance, and the one through which he taught himself the craft of filmmaking. I am moved by his faith in his work, and so moved by the work itself. The character of Durga in particular. The world he conjures is lush and private, and the viewer is allowed in—only so much. These words seem inadequate, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have the right words for Pather Panchali.
Erica: What are you currently reading?
Shruti: I went a little nuts at the bookstore I just visited in Boston (Raven Books): I bought a huge volume of Ursula k. LeGuin’s stories, a Bengali novel called The Forest Woman, Indira Ganesan’s Inheritance, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, by Wilma Sokenström and translated by J. M. Coetzee, and books of poems by Cornelius Eady and Wislawa Szymboska. I’m partway through 2666 [by Roberto Bolano] and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia [by Moshid Hamid]. This is a little bit of a hysterical list, as I prefer to be calmly plodding my way through just one thing.