Sunday, June 16, 2013

Q&A with writer Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Q: You write in the acknowledgments that And Laughter Fell from the Sky was "inspired by" Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. What connections do you see between your characters and hers, and the settings in which the two stories take place?

A: I wasn't thinking so much about the setting as about the characters. Every time I read The House of Mirth, I really identified with Lily's struggles to marry the "right" person, but I was also frustrated with the fact that she could not break out of her "gilded cage." In many ways Lily is shallow, self-absorbed, and lacking in foresight, yet she is still more principled than the other people she insists on hanging out with, and she can see the value in other ways of living.

Rasika, my main female character, is also shallow and self-absorbed, but like Lily, she can envision another way of living. Abhay, the male main character, is a counterpart to Laurence Selden in Wharton’s novel, but I gave him a much larger role in my novel. He can see that Rasika’s path is false for her, but he cannot see that he isn’t choosing a path at all.

Q: How did you pick the title And Laughter Fell from the Sky?

A: My agent and I struggled over the title for a long time! My original title was “Shukti,” which is Sanskrit for “pearl-oyster.” At that time I was fixated on the idea that neither character could find the pearl within themselves, but were looking for meaning and value outside of themselves. My agent found that title too cryptic. She suggested that I look at poetry for an inspiration. After looking at a bunch of poems, and coming up with lists and lists of titles, I finally came across the Rabindranath Tagore poem (which is printed on page 257 of the book) that gave us the title. We both liked the “feel” of the title.  

Q: In addition to your novel, you have written non-fiction and children's fiction, as well as short stories. Do you have a preference for one type of writing over another, and if so, why?

A: I love to write all sorts of things. I wish I had time to do it all! I also love keeping a journal, and occasionally writing poetry.  I think each kind of writing helps me with the others. For example, I wrote a reference book on utopian communities (Utopias in American History). Because I had that background knowledge, I was able to give Abhay a strong interest in utopian communities.

Q: You also have created websites about gender equality in children's books and literature by the children of immigrants. What are some particular favorite books in those two categories?

A: Some of my favorite books by second-generation authors include The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston (a Chinese-American memoir) and Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska (a Jewish-American novel). One reason I put together that web site is that I wanted easy access to a comprehensive list of second generation novels and memoirs. I’ve just ordered a copy of Nilda by Nicholasa Mohr (a young adult Puerto Rican American novel), and I’m looking forward to reading it.

In terms of children’s books that foster gender equality, I keep coming back to Tatterhood and Other Tales, a collection of folk tales with strong heroines, compiled by Ethel Johnston Phelps. I also love Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, by Tanya Lee Stone. This is a nonfiction book for teens about 13 women who qualified for the astronaut program in the 1960s, but who were denied the opportunity to fly into space.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new novel for adults. I also want to get back to writing short stories this summer.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Last August I started a new job as a middle school English teacher, and I love it! I really enjoyed seeing my students blossom as writers and readers. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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