Samrat Upadhyay: capturing momentum

Novelist and short story writer Samrat Upadhyay toggles between two genres.
By Robert Hirschfield | Published: June 24, 2014


Samrat author image Deborah KimSamrat Upadhyay is a writer who lives in one world and writes about another. He teaches creative writing at the University of Indiana in Bloomington and writes novels and short stories about teachers, tutors, mid-level bureaucrats, adulterers and survivors of the Maoist-Royalist civil war in Nepal. The New York Times recently placed him in the same firmament of South Asian writers as Mohsin Hamid, Kiran Desai, Monica Ali, Arundhati Roy and Siddhartha Mukherjee.

The son of an administrative officer at the Agricultural Development Bank in Kathmandu, Upadhyay, 50, learned the English he writes in at American mission schools. His literary affinities growing up were with the works of Robert Ludlum, Mario Puzo, Nepali detective writers and, interestingly, Charles Dickens. His 2011 novel, Buddha’s Orphans featured an abandoned baby and benefactors, both Dickens staples. At 14, Upadhyay ran off to India by himself so he could watch all the Bollywood movies he wanted in peace. His mother collected him in Delhi when he ran out of money.

Seven years later, a scholarship from Coe College took him to a far more improbable destination: Cedar Rapids, Ohio. “It took some time to get used to the isolation of small-town America after the bustle of Kathmandu.” But it was a book, not a journey, that got him writing seriously. In 1988, he read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. “I realized I could write in English about my part of the world and still reach a global audience.” He took a writing class at the University of Ohio with Eve Shelnutt, who told him he was “a natural fiction writer.” The first story he wrote for her, “The Man with Long Hair,” appeared in his first short story collection, Arresting God in Kathmandu, published in 2001.

The book’s entry into the world is sure to make the writer of any book envious. Reviewing the collection for The San Francisco Chronicle, Tamara Straus called Upadhyay “a Buddhist Chekov.” It won the Whiting Writers Award and was tapped as a New York Times Notable Book of 2001. The Times heaped the same honor on his first novel, The Guru of Love, in 2003. In 2006, The Royal Ghosts, his second short story collection, won the Asian American Literary Award. His books have been translated into French, Greek, German, Czech, Thai and Indonesian. We spoke about his work and the duality of genre.

I read recently in an old issue of The Nepali Times that at the 2005 Book Fair in Kathmandu, you sold 200 copies in two hours of your first two books of fiction? Can that be true?

Yes. My books sell really well in Nepal. Especially my first three books. In 2005, my bookseller said he wanted to honor me, and I suggested, “Why don’t we do a book reading?” Nepali writers never used to interact with their audience. So, we had a reading and a signing at the Educational Book House, and TV covered it. As far as I know, it was the first book signing ever in Nepal.

After living in the U.S. for the past 30 years, why are you still writing only about Nepal?

I get asked that question a lot by immigrants. They always say, “Why don’t you write about us?” For me, distance creates a sense of displacement that allows new perspectives to emerge. I wrote a little bit about America in Buddha’s Orphans when Ranjana (the protagonists’ daughter) goes to the U.S. to study. Maybe when I go back to Nepal on my sabbatical, I will write more. But I feel I still have a lot of Nepali stories to tell.

When I spoke to you three years ago, you said you considered yourself mainly a short story writer. At the time, you had published two novels and two short story collections. Now, with this year’s publication of your third novel, The City Son, would you still call yourself mainly a short story writer?

I have become more interested in the novel and its possibilities in the last few years. Buddha’s Orphans was often torturous to write, as I was trying to merge multiple threads, and it was so long. After I finished that, I began The City Son, a short novel about a boy’s relationship with his stepmom. My goal was to write a compact, concise, lyrical novel. It turned out to be the most enjoyable novel I had ever written. But at the same time, I was also working on another collection of short stories.

Were there ever instances in which intended short stories grew into novels, or intended novels wound up as short stories?

My first novel, The Guru of Love, came out of a short story. It was when I was teaching at Baldwin Wallace College in Cleveland. The story wasn’t coming together, and I decided I would workshop it with the students in my writing workshop to show them I was a writer who also at times struggled with my material. The students made some really good suggestions, and I went back and revised the story, focusing more on Ramchandra (the tutor who has a love affair with his student) than the plot. The story kept getting longer. It just sort of grew organically. It was a little scary, actually.

From a craft standpoint, what are the major differences between the two forms?

In the short story, there is a singular aspect to the form. There is one emotion and one momentum to it that needs to be captured. Of course, that doesn’t mean it is simple and one-dimensional. We all know that a short story can be multi-dimensional, but there needs to be a single thrust that goes through it, a singularity that needs to be present. The novel, on the other hand, is more malleable. It can branch off in a number of different directions, and you can bring it back again, whereas in the short story that’s really hard to do. The most obvious difference is that with the novel, you can bring in the social and political dimensions a lot more easily than you can in the short story.

Although in a short story collection you can do that. For instance, in The Royal Ghosts, the first story, “A Refugee,” is about a woman whose husband is killed by the Maoist guerrillas. The collection ends with the Royal massacre (the event in June of 2001 that saw Prince Dipendra gun down nine members of the Nepalese royal family before shooting himself.) Then, there is also another story about a woman’s son going mad and thinking he wants to join the Maoists. So, even though I was writing short stories, I was able to give readers a sense of Nepal’s social dimensions and insurgency.

Does each form require its own approach to character development?

In a novel, there are more opportunities for a character to be defined by other characters simply because the novel is usually populated by many more people. In a short story, there is not as much room for a protagonist to be defined as much by others. Given the longer time frame of the novel, the character is more easily able to change, develop, even act “out of character.”

In a short story, the change often happens toward the end, and often in a Joycean epiphanic moment. In a novel, the socio-political background and historic setting can inform the pace of character development, sometimes delaying it, making it more leisurely. In a short story, the background and setting need to be quickly woven into the character, with the character thrown into sharp relief early on.

Is there a creative tension involved that wouldn’t be there if you were focused on either the short story or the novel, not both?

As a form, the short story is much more of an intense form, yet in my approach to it, I am more relaxed because it’s not long usually before the end is in sight. The novel, even as it’s much more flexible and adaptable and malleable, makes me more anxious because there is so much invested in it, and you don’t know until the end whether it will actually come together. For the novel I am doing right now, I have done the third or fourth revision, and it seems like it’s coming together, but I am still not sure, and I have already spent two years on it.

What was A.S. Byatt’s humorous remark about the novel that you mentioned when we last spoke?

She said that with a novel, you can allow a reader to drift away. The reader’s attention can be diverted for a while.

What advice would you have for young writers drawn to both the short story and the novel?

It’s helpful for young writers to focus on the short story first. The writing of the short story teaches you important skills that you need for novel writing. First, you learn a lot about character development. It also teaches you about the management of the fictional world you have created, making sure that everything you write is there for a reason. Then, you can move on to a larger project. It’s important that writers begin by sending out their stories to journals.

There are a lot of marvelous literary journals in the U.S. to send your stories to. I got my first break with a short story that was published in Manoa. The story was “The Good Shopkeeper” [the first story in Arresting God In Kathmandu], which was later anthologized in The Best American Short Stories in 1999.

What are the pitfalls involved in going from one form to the other?

One of the things I had to learn, and I am still not very good at it, is keeping track of time within the novel. Writing Buddha’s Orphans, I actually had to create a time chart because it covers many decades. But I find that even when I am covering three years of fictional time, I need to make sure I am doing it right. I am not very numbers-oriented.

And going from the novel to the short story?

My students who are more novelistically inclined, I find, sometimes lack the dramatic tension needed in the short story. In a short story, the conflict needs to be in the forefront; it needs to manifest itself by page two or page three. You don’t have the leisure you might have in the novel, although I think even the novel pretty much needs to start with a bang. Novelists may not know how to create and complicate conflict quickly enough, and that’s something they really have to watch out for.

I have been rereading your early short stories lately. It’s striking how well you use brevity to hold life’s mystery. In “The Good Shopkeeper,” for instance, the sacked mid-level clerk with the unhappy wife, comes upon a poor peanut seller, who invites him to her room, and they become lovers. A magical, dreamlike, transformative encounter related in simple, straightforward prose. Do you miss the loss of that timeless, hyper-mysterious quality when you leave the short story for novel writing?

Yes, I think so. There is definitely a mysterious, dreamlike element to the short story that I miss. But I think the novel, as a form, is meant to do other things. Nadine Gordimer said that the short story operates like “the flash of a firefly.” There is something magical in the short story, in the singularity I talked about earlier, but I have become more interested in the novel because I find the novel can sort of expand across the universe. I hope to continue writing both.

Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer and poet. He reviews books of poetry for The Jerusalem Report & Sojourners.

Excerpt from The City Son

by Samrat Upadhyay

CitySon_jacketA stranger comes to the village and delivers the news. Didi hears a woman’s voice in her yard. She’s upstairs, going through the boys’ old clothes, deciding which ones she wants to keep and which ones to pass down to a neighbor’s children. Her first thought when she hears the woman’s voice is that something has happened to her husband in the city. Then she knows it’s something else. She stands still, holding in her hands a pair of dark blue shorts, too tight for her older son, Amit. “Is anybody home?” the woman cries out again. Didi goes to the window. “Are you the woman named Sulochana?”

Didi nods.

“I have to talk about an important matter.” The woman identifies herself as belonging to the next village, then she makes some connections—throws out some names—that form a vague picture in Didi’s mind about who she is. A sickly feeling has started in Didi’s stomach. She doesn’t want to hear this woman. I should shut this window, she thinks, and I can go back to sorting my boys’ clothes. But there is no going back. “Sometimes I feel like my heart is going to break,” the Masterji wrote in a letter not too long ago, “at the thought of not being able to come home again this year. My heart is going to shatter into pieces—that’s what I feel. But this separation is not for long, Sulochana. Next year I am sure to visit.” Didi had squinted at the words, mumbling them to herself for coherence; she had studied only up to seventh grade. At home he never called her by her name, but in all his letters he addressed her as “Sulochana.” In the evening when the boys had come home, she’d told them, “Next year. He can’t come this year—too many students. That’s what you get for having a brilliant father.” She’d formed her own picture of the name her husband had amassed in the city: people greeted him when he strolled the streets. Each dawn when the air was fresh and vibrant, he made rounds of the temples. His forehead smeared with tika, he returned to his neighborhood, drank tea in his favorite shop before going to the school where he taught in the morning session. He returned home around noon and soon thereafter received his first students, to whom he gave his private tutoring. Sons and daughters of high-ranking officials lined up at his door to seek his assistance.

“The other day, the prime minister’s wife came to see if I could tutor her nephew,” he’d written. “I told her that she ought to have sent someone to fetch me, but she said that she didn’t want to disturb me when I was hammering away and chiseling the shape of young minds. Hadn’t the king himself often said that the youth of today are the nation builders of tomorrow? She observed the four students I was tutoring at the moment, all of whom were staring at her slack jawed, and said that four nation builders were already in the making. Sulochana! The prime minister’s wife! What did I do to deserve this luck? Sometimes I feel that I don’t even deserve you and the boys. How patient you have been with me in this absence, this peeda of our long separation.” Peeda : she loved the word he used for his torture. Peeda was what she felt, too, except she never expressed it.

Excerpt from The City Son reprinted with permission from Samrat Updahyay. Copyright 2014. Published by Soho Press.