Geeta Kothari is the nonfiction editor of the Kenyon Review. Her essay “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” is widely taught in universities and has been reprinted in several anthologies, including in Best American Essays. She is the editor of Did My Mama Like to Dance? and Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters. Her short story collection, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories will be published in February 2017 (braddockavenuebooks.com), and you can find her at geetakothari.com.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on I Brake for Moose. I really enjoyed it. I’m always interested in a book’s, especially a first book’s, journey. Can you tell us how Moose found a home at Braddock Avenue Books?
Geeta Kothari: Thanks so much, Curt. I’d been sending the book out for two years and it had been a finalist in a contest when Jeff asked to see it for BAB. I knew Jeff in passing because we both worked in the same place, but it seemed awkward to send the collection to someone I saw regularly. What if he hated it? So I hesitated, waited a year, and then, at the urging of a mutual friend, finally sent it in.
CS: May I take you back to your early days as a reader and writer and ask what specific collections and authors influenced your work? What elements of those influences remain with you?
GK: I had a very traditional, British education through high school, which means I read few short stories and almost no contemporary writers. I read a lot on my own, though, and I discovered Ruth Prawer Jhabvala while traveling in India with my parents. In college, I majored in African American Studies, so the writers I was reading then—Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and especially Paule Marshall, who wrote about Barbadian immigrants in New York—were very also influential. I have to think that the themes of displacement and alienation that people notice in my work have their roots in these early readings. But I think Bharati Mukherjee, who wrote The Middleman and Other Stories, had the most visible influence on this book. That collection gave me permission to inhabit other lives, not just my own.
CS: Many of the collection’s stories dealt with themes of estrangement—of people, often immigrants, who felt like outsiders looking in. What is it about this perspective that draws you? What points are your stories addressing in these scenarios?
GK: I am interested in discomfort and how people negotiate it. And how the events of the larger world—social, political, economic—play out in personal lives. When I first started writing, that estrangement was personal; I felt it my entire life, no matter where I was—in New York, where I was born; in India, where my parents came from and where we visited family; in England, where I lived for five years. I guess it’s a lens for looking at other lives now, less personally motivated, but always there.
CS: You’re a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ll contend that teaching is its own—often underappreciated—art form. Do you find the teaching of writing has had an impact on your own work? If so, how? And I’ll ask the same question in terms of your role as editor at the Kenyon Review.
GK: I learned nothing in graduate school, so teaching became a way for me to teach myself. I had to learn how to read closely in order to be prepared for class, so of course this helped me. But also with prompts and exercises: I rarely do anything class that I haven’t tried myself. Teaching gives me a reason to reach beyond my comfort zone, both as a reader and writer. Kenyon has been great for helping me articulate what’s working in a piece. We reject so much good writing, and you can’t help but see your work differently when you see how an otherwise excellent piece fails.
CS: I’m always interested in the very basic decisions a writer makes. While many of the pieces in the book are written in the third person, others are rendered in the first. What considerations are most important to you when you’re making the decision of what point of view to use? Do you ever work out a story from one perspective only to realize you should have used another? What elements worked to change your mind?
GK: I don’t gravitate to first person as a writer. I think it’s really difficult to manufacture, so unless I hear the story in my head in first person, I’ll default to third. In most of my first person stories, I heard the voice and even if I’d wanted to change the point of view, I wouldn’t have been able to. The stories had to be in first person. The most deliberate example is “Home is Another Country on TV.” I remember I’d been re-reading “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin and I fell in love with cadence of his sentences and wanted to capture the tonal variations of the story, the sorrow and anger.
So, no, I didn’t change the point of view in any of these stories. But I do think it’s a good idea if something isn’t working. I’m trying to do that right now in a novel I wrote several years ago; it needs a limited omniscient narrator. The problem is the register and cadence of the first person in that book seems kind of necessary (it’s got one first person narrator, but sections told in third person from different characters’ perspectives). I have to let go of my idea of this particular narrator and that’s where I’m stuck right now.
CS: Another basic decision deals with structure—I’m thinking of the title story and “Border Crossing”—and the question of when it works best to stray from a traditional story construction. What was it about these stories that steered you toward a more nontraditional structure?
GK: “Border Crossing” started as a postcard. It was an exercise I did at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop: write one one-way postcard, then write five or six more that advance the story. Once that voice emerged, the structure made sense. She needs the space to sort out how she feels, she’s on the road, and she’s really angry.
“I Brake for Moose,” however, was a total struggle from beginning to end. So I’d say desperation made me do it! It began as a straightforward narrative, meaning I wrote—handwrote—pages and pages and pages. I think I used up two or three legal pads just searching for a way to tell that story. I had the moon as a central image, the boyfriend, the Friendly’s (which was a HoJo’s, but I spent so long writing the story, I realized that would date it too much). Then I taught Joyce Carol Oates’ “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction,” which is written in labeled sections and I thought, why not?
So, the short answer: sometimes, structural decisions are made for you, and sometimes you have to make them.
CS: What’s next?
GK: I’m finishing a book of essays, which will look a bit like the story collection—a mix of traditional and nontraditional structures. And I’m almost done with my latest draft of a nonfiction book about my mother, who came to this country from India in 1950 to work for the United Nations and spent her whole life trying to return. Needless to say, estrangement and displacement have emerged as central themes in both of these books.
Curtis Smith is the author of three novels, five story collections, and two essay collections. His most recent book is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Bookmarked, part of Ig Publishing’s new series where authors are invited to write about a book that influenced their lives and careers. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son.
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