The Rumpus Interview With Neela Vaswani

AIMEE ZARING BIO ↓  ·  August 11th, 2010  ·  filed under BOOKSRUMPUS ORIGINAL

Neela Vaswani is author of the award-winning short story collectionWhere the Long Grass Bends (2004). An education activist in India and the U.S., she lives in New York and is the founder of the Storylines Project with the New York Public Library.

Her new book, You Have Given Me a Country, is a blend of history, memory, myth, and Cultural Studies. The memoir blurs borders of genre and identity, exploring what it means to be bicultural in America. The book follows the paths of Vaswani’s Irish-Catholic mother and Sindhi-Indian father on their journey towards each other and the biracial child they create.

The Rumpus: As a writer of fiction before this book, did you have any misgivings about writing a memoir and sharing your personal narrative and family history?

Neela Vaswani: Definitely. Moving away from the protective mask of fiction was a real adjustment.  But oddly enough, the hardest part about writing nonfiction has been reading it in public–standing up at a podium, looking out at the crowd, and thinking “They know this is true because I just said so!”  You feel naked, or like there’s a booger peeking out of one nostril or something.  And I think there’s a larger issue of judgment. I worry, with nonfiction, that if people don’t like the work, they don’t like the author.  I’m not in the writing business to be liked, but with fiction, there’s a distance between the work and author that allows for a greater sense of safety, I guess you’d call it. Anyway, I’ve gotten used to the feeling now.  I have learned to accept the booger.

Rumpus: Before the book’s prologue, you write, “What follows is real, and imagined.” In light of the controversy surrounding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and the increased blurring of lines between fact and fiction in the memoir genre, did you feel a certain responsibility to mention that your memoir is a hybrid? What do you feel is more important to convey in a memoir—emotional truth or factual truth?

Vaswani: It’s funny, but in a way, I think I’m more honest in fiction than nonfiction.  No, honest isn’t the right word.  Bare is better.

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