Art Talk with NEA Literature Fellow Samrat Upadhyay

By Paulette Beete
a Nepalese-American man with glasses
Samrat Upadhyay. Photo courtesy of Mr. Upadhyay

“We get so preoccupied with the material world where we have to worry about money, and we have to worry about shelter, and all of that. I think art allows us, at least temporarily, to go beyond that.” – Samrat Upadhyay

Often hailed as the "first Nepalese writer in the West," Samrat Upadhyay, who grew up in Kathmandu, considers himself as much a product of America as of Nepal. His American training as a creative writer aside, his novels, set in his native Nepal, explore issues that are very much part of the American conversation these days, including class inequality and how politics play out on an individual level. While the FY16 NEA Literature Fellow acknoweldges that his perspective may be somewhat fragmented due to inhabiting two lands, Upadhyay is also grateful for that fragmentation, which, in his words, can yield "truth, and possibly even beauty." Dubbed "a Buddhist Chekhov" by the San Francisco Chronicle, Upadhyay is currently at work on his fourth novel, which takes the perspective of a rural widow who learns about her husband's secret life. He has also published two collections of short stories, the first of which, Arresting God in Kathmandu, won him a Whiting Writers Award. We spoke with Upadhyay by telephone about the importance of character in his work, when he knows a work is done, and why caffeine is an indispensable component of his art practice. NEA: Let’s start by talking about how you became a writer. SAMRAT UPADHYAY: I think if you ask most writers, we'll say that we've been writing since childhood. I grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal, and I used to write in both Nepali and in English. I remember penning these very cute poems in Nepali about my neighborhood, and how everyone treated me nicely. I attended a Jesuit school in Kathmandu and so my focus shifted to English when I was a teenager. I ended up reading a lot of books in English, literary books like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, as well as commercial books like Robert Ludlum, and The Hardy Boys. When I came to the U.S. in the '80s, I thought I would study business, but I wasn't good in any of my business classes. So I thought, "Well, what do I love doing?" It seemed like if there was one country where you could actually study what you loved, it was the U.S., so I started studying literature…. I went to study journalism, and then I ended up taking a creative writing class, and the professor there encouraged me. So that's how the journey began. NEA: Where does the work of fiction start for you? UPADHYAY: All of my work has been located in Nepal so I would say that the landscape of Nepal is extremely important, and that's what generates the material. I don't plot out my stories, or even my novels, and so I'm very much a character-based writer, I suppose. I start with a character and I just let the character suggest the story. NEA: Can you talk about the character, or the starting place, for the project that you're working on now? UPADHYAY: I'm working on a novel, and I thought I was more finished with it about a year ago than I really was. Basically I had an image of a woman whose husband has died, but I wasn't sure what the cause of the death was. I knew there was some degree of class difference between the husband and the wife because I've always been interested in class difference in Nepal. So the first draft was merely trying to explore what is the cause of the death, and then the writing became interesting. It’s slightly dystopian in a landscape in Nepal, which I have not explored before…. The character is acquiring more depth even as I write, and this is my second or a third pass at it. Right now I'm writing to tie together the plot and the landscape, but I'm finding that while I'm doing that, I'm actually exploring the character even more. What’s amazing to me in terms of the writing process is how each book that I've written is so different, and it presents its own challenges. When I was a very young and naïve writer, I used to think that all I had to do was publish my first book, and then after that, I would have mastered the craft, and it would all come easy. It’s been exactly the opposite where each book seems to get more difficult. It’s almost like you're learning the craft all over again, but that's what makes this thing exciting for a writer like me who has already written a few books. NEA: How will your NEA fellowship help you move your work forward? UPADHYAY: First, it's just a tremendous boost to my writer ego to be recognized by the NEA. I think the fact that it was… based on the work alone is in itself a tremendous boost to me as a writer. This is something that I value tremendously as an award, and it means a lot in that sense. The writing life is, despite any success that a writer has, it's filled with doubts and hesitation and deep periods of insecurity. I tell this to my students -- that there are days when I feel like I can't write a sentence. To have this sort of affirmation of your work is just really valuable. I should also mention that me receiving the NEA award was also picked up by a major Nepali newspaper in Nepal. Its value is recognized all around the world, I think. And more importantly, I'll be able to take off time to finish this novel. NEA: Do you have any sort of writing ritual? UPADHYAY: I get up early and I drink a lot of coffee and tea, and then I start writing. I think it was a few years ago I switched to writing by hand because the computer screen was giving me too much of an impression that this is already a final product. I was getting stuck in my writing so I decided that I wanted to write by hand for a while and I found a lot of pleasure that I had been missing and a lot of opening up because I don't have to think of it as a complete draft or a final draft when I'm writing by hand. It still feels like I'm exploring, and I think I allow myself to go in interesting directions when I'm writing by hand. By the time that I go to type [the manuscript], I'm already doing one edit on it. NEA: What would you say your obsessions are as a writer? UPADHYAY: That’s a great question. I think my obsession is how our inner world interacts and merges with the external world and how we create our own realities. It's a kind of spiritual outlook, but then I don't want to come out spirit-heavy in my work. A lot of the time I'm writing about class and I'm writing about political structures, and about family. I'm always interested in how the world of the [spirit] is interacting with the physical world outside and how they're informing each other, that ultimately they're not that separate. I come from a country that has seen a lot of political turmoil over the years, and I am interested in that. I'm also very much interested in how individuals respond to what's happening in their surroundings. So the political world is a part of the physical world and  it's in a way also a creation of the mind. NEA: In interviews you’re always referred to as a Nepalese writer, yet you're also an American. How does that dual identity inform your writing? Do you feel any pressure as "the first Nepalese writer published in the West," as you’re often called? UPADHYAY: There is some pressure, but I constantly remind myself that I am not writing for a particular audience and most importantly, I am not representing my country,  because it's only one writer's perspective. When I go to Nepal, I have a Nepali audience who project all of their aspirations onto my work, and that's an impossible goal to fulfill. There’s a well-known Indian writer, Shashi Tharoor, who's also a [Cabinet] minister now, and someone asked him, "Who do you write for?" He said, "Well, I write for someone who wants to read my work." When I think of my readership, it's as international as you can get so that takes away from the pressure of negotiating the two identities. My material has been Nepal and the emotional landscape of my work is Nepal, but I'm very much a product of the creative writing schools here. It is a fragmented perspective, but it's a very useful perspective, that fragmentation [gives] access to a lot of truth, and possibly even beauty. NEA: How do you define failure and success in your art practice? UPADHYAY: Because each book comes with its own challenge, there's potential for failure at every step, and I'm constantly aware of that when I'm writing. If I'm writing a short story, and somehow I'm not satisfied with the short story, then I think of it as failure. Sometimes there is even a tendency to think, "Oh, I'm a failure because this one short story didn't work," even though I know that that's not accurate given my whole body of work. But that's how I think we writers are. I think even though that [view] leads to a lot of insecurity, it also makes you a better writer because you're not satisfied with what you've written. I've also realized that you have to write what you write. The publishing world is unpredictable, and even though I said that the NEA award is a great affirmation, it's not something that I counted on. It’s [a question of] how satisfied you are with your own work, and I think if there's satisfaction, then you're a success. That's how I look at it. I've been very fortunate that I've been able to publish and receive some recognition for my work over the years. And most importantly, I'm actually very fortunate that my material is still coming to me. I'm still writing and I still feel like I have a few more books in me, and there's so much still to explore. I see that as success. NEA: To follow up on that, how do you know when a work is finished? UPADHYAY: Well, sometimes when I just get very tired of it. <laughter> There’s a feeling of completion that you have, and it's hard to describe. Sometimes, especially with smaller work, I know that it's done [when] there's a kind of togetherness to it. I've said what I wanted to say. I think with the novels, you're not looking for the same kind of tightness. Novels are allowed to have some loose ends, some tangents and stuff like that. But still the the character and the plot and the setting all have to fit together. No major questions can remain unanswered. My wife is my first reader and I wait for her feedback to tell me whether it's done or not, and sometimes the editors will have a say. I think a lot of it is intuition; I've given it all I can at this moment is the thought. NEA: Finish the sentence: The arts matter because… UPADHYAY: The arts matter because they take us into worlds that we cannot otherwise experience with the limited sensory apparatus that we come with into this world. We are limited creatures who can only exist in one state in time. Works of art can allow us to transcend that. They can take us to different places, different times. They can allow us to transcend gender, transcend race. We get so preoccupied with the material world where we have to worry about money, and we have to worry about shelter, and all of that. I think art allows us, at least temporarily, to go beyond that.