Friday, January 10, 2014

Where Should I Come From? A Heroine’s Quandary


LUCY BURDETTE: If you haven't read anything by Sujata Massey, I'm very excited to introduce you to her. I have loved her series mysteries featuring Japanese/American Rei Shimura. And now she's published a historical novel set in India, which is a wonderful read. So I asked her to talk about the transition... Welcome Sujata!SUJATA MASSEY: New Year’s is often the time for grand resolutions. Two decades ago, early January was when I decided to start my first novel. But first, I had to wrestle with something pretty difficult. It was a writing-school convention I’d heard more than a few times. Write what you know. Specifically: write in the voice of a protagonist with whom you have a lot in common, because that’s easier to do naturally.

For me, this presented a conundrum. I was born in the 1960s in England to parents from India and Germany, but immigrated with my family to the US in early childhood. I have a straightforward American accent based on a lifelong education here. Still, when I shared with writing friends that I wanted to write fiction, I got a standard response. People suggested that write about India, or perhaps Indian-Americans. Mind you—not Germans or Brits or Americans—Indian-Americans! This could only be fueled by my name: Sujata Banerjee Massey.


I nodded, considering these two ideas; but inside, I argued against all of it. What if Melville hadn’t dared to write in the voice of a whale, or if Arthur Golden thought he couldn’t assume the literary identity of young Japanese geisha? I wondered if Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote a fantastically detailed novel from the viewpoint of an English butler, was ever told to roost in the same kind of pigeonhole. It irritated me that nobody suggested that I write about the US or Germany or England. Of course, I could just barrel ahead and consider these settings—but unfortunately, none of the patches in the quilt that made up my past seemed inspiring. 


Then I had an unexpected chance to leave the Baltimore newspaper where I worked and move to Japan with my husband. Living in a small seaside town called Hayama, I felt enthralled by my environment and realized that an expat’s inside-outside relationship was not only interesting to me, but might make a good set-up for a sleuth. Many people reading the first Rei Shimura novel, The Salaryman’s Wife, didn’t pay attention to my unknown author name on the book jacket and assumed I was partly Japanese. But what would the Japanese think of a foreigner writing about their country? From reviews and conversation with Japanese readers, it turned out that I would always be regarded as a foreign writer--but one who had observed small things that were meaningful about the culture. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and wrote nine more mysteries about Rei, using her adventures to talk about the juxtaposition of contemporary Japanese life and its wonderful cultural history. 


I kept writing about the Tokyo area, even after I’d moved back to the U.S., but again something unexpected happened. I was growing interested in India as a book setting. Over a three-year period, I traveled twice to India to adopt my children, visit relatives, and live in homes in Kerala and Bengal. I sent my young daughter to Indian dance class and got my son involved in tabla drumming. All of three of us studied Hindi, some more enthusiastically than others. I even became a social studies teacher, folk dancer and board member with the School of Indian Languages and Culture. As the years went by, and I began researching my books setting, I sent holiday cards and Facebook-friended Indian relatives. I was becoming more Indian--but as with my Japanese experience, it was driven by my interest in traveling, history, artistic traditions and politics. 

And thus was born a historical novel set in 1930s Bengal that took me more than four years to write! I felt I couldn’t write about modern Indian life without taking up residency there. But I’d been to Calcutta often enough since the 1970s to know what the city felt like. I had a strange, almost protective love for the old Indian and British colonial buildings that were slowly fading from its streets. I wondered about the rich Europeans who had once lived inside the stucco beaux-arts mansions of the so-called White Town, and the Bengalis who lived in Black Town’s narrow streets filled with all sorts of fascinating shops and homes. Once I learned that Sleeping Dictionary was a nickname for the young Indian women who once taught European company officers the local languages and manners, I knew I had a great book title, but more importantly, a clever, brave heroine with a foot in each of the towns—and a secret interest in Indian independence.

And you know what? While I figured out that I could actually pull off writing about India and enjoy it—I learned something deeper. It was the understanding that if I put the research and heart into it, I could enjoy writing books set in Britain and Germany or the U.S. without feeling stereotyped. Not because I was born with some kind of genetic link, but because I’ve really explored a place and talked to people. 


This is very simple writing tenet that all writers should know—but that took me about twenty years to learn.


Did you ever feel pressured by family or friends to follow a certain path? How did you come to terms with it?

Sujata is offering two free copies of THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY to two lucky commenters!

Over the course of eleven books, Sujata Massey won the Agatha and Macavity mystery awards and was nominated for the Edgar, Anthony and Mary Higgins Clark prizes. She currently lives with her husband and two children in Baltimore, Maryland. To learn more about The Sleeping Dictionary and The Ayah’s Tale, and to get a copy of a free short story sent to your inbox, sign up here






34 comments:

Shel said...

This sounds like a wonderful book, and one I'm anxious to read. I've discovered a deep appreciation for historical fiction over the past year.

Edith Maxwell said...

Sujata, thanks for sharing this journey with us. I lived in Japan for two years in the late seventies (teaching English to businessmen) and while I've used that setting in a short story and as back story for one of my protagonists, I haven't gotten around to setting a whole book there. Your historical sounds fascinating, too! I just signed up for your newsletter.

Edith Maxwell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sujata massey said...

Hi Shel and Edith--it took me a while to get to writing historical fiction, though that was my favorite type of book when I was a little girl. Favorite all-time book was A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which is referenced here.

Interestingly, Japan played a big role in India's efforts toward freedom. Mentioned in The Sleeping Dictionary. Good luck with your writing and reading!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Thanks for visiting us Sujata, as you know I loved this book:). any plans to return to Rei Shimura?

Anonymous said...

Any reason to write such intriguing books is fine with me. I look forward to reading more of this author.

Kristopher said...

I have had the pleasure of meeting Sujata at some local book events here in Maryland and have long been a fan of the Rei Shimura series.

While I have a signed copy of The Sleeping Dictionary, my blog work has kept me from having time to devote to it. I must rectify that soon.

Thanks for the reminder of this book that is on my To-Be-Read pile. ;)

Ratna Chaudhary said...

Keeping my fingers crossed,hope I get to read the personally signed copy soon.Going to read it otherwise too.thanks.All the best.
Ratna.

Kalyani Deshpande said...

I've enjoyed all the Rei Shimura books - I envy those of you who are getting started with this series!

As a writer myself, I feel I have to conform to what I "should" write but in the last year or so, I'm writing what truly calls to me. In the end, I think if you truly feel connected to what you write, it shows in the writing. Best wishes on your new novel, Sujata!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, what a gorgeous cover! Fabulous, Sujata!

And you know, "connected" is such an interesting concept--it can happen over years, or in an instant. I think that's the magic.

And just as Kalyani says, it shows in the writing.

Libby Dodd said...

When I started painting a few years ago, my first paintings were photo-realism style. After a while, I decided that I wanted/needed to try other styles. The art teacher I had was confused. He had decided I was a "photo-realist" painter. Period. I had to find my own "voice" and try other things, regardless of what he thought. It's been great fun. www.libbydoddart.com

Hallie Ephron said...

So wise, Sujata -- Your new book sounds absolutely wonderful. And courageous to take off in a new direction. I'm looking forward to reading the new book.

adibud34 said...

Hmm…this is the third time I've tried posting a comment today- somehow, it didn't get through when I tried on my phone! :)

So, this is a very insightful blog post, Sujata! I quite agree with you that as long as the voice of the protagonist/character sounds authentic, it doesn't matter whether or not the author and the character share any sort of demographic similarity. It just needs to be authentic!

Aditya

Anonymous said...

I have loved the Rei Shimura books and look forward to reading the new book and many more of Sujata Massey's in the future!

Ellen K said...

Interesting. A close friend (and former major publishing house editor as well as an agent) keeps telling me to set novels in my home town in order to sell them. I have resisted for two reasons, one of which is that I live here and I'm too close to the place, and the other is that OTHER cities are more interesting to me.

I applaud Sujata's strength in fighting this "sales strategy" in order to write the story that she wants to tell.

Kim said...
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Kim said...

Dear Sujata,
What a thought-provoking essay. I'm an American of Scandinavian descent from the Pacific Northwest who has always had a fascination with Asia. For many years I wrote about the world I grew up in, but there was never any spark. Then I started writing about Asia (I also lived and traveled extensively there). The result was my debut novel and the development of my belief that writing what you know is good and fine, but writing about what you are passionate about is the real path to follow --- or as Kalyani says here, write about what you feel truly connected to. And as adibud34 noted, the voice must be authentic. I'm very eager to read your new novel as well as delve into your mystery series!

Deb said...

Hi Sujata!!!! So great to see you on Jungle Red. And I'm so excited about the new book--just going to order it, and I think this one I must have in hardcover, as it's so beautiful.

We published our first novels about the same time, didn't we? And I struggled with the same thing for years--being told that I had to write what I knew, i.e. I lived in Texas, grew up in Texas, and should write about Texas--but that setting just didn't speak to me at all. So I finally took the plunge--to much derision, I might add--and wrote what I really wanted to write, a book set in England with English characters. And half the fun of it has been learning things I didn't know!

Huge congrats on the new book--I can't wait to read it!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Hi Sujata, thank you for being on Jungle Reds. Your journey is fascinating — and A LITTLE PRINCESS is one of my all-time favorite books, too! I look forward to reading _your_ book now.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Wow, just went to your web site and read all about THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY. It looks so fabulous. I can't wait to get it and dive in.... Always been fascinated with the 1930s, Bengali culture, and Calcutta in particular.

Sharon said...

I'm so happy to hear that you've a new book!

My husband and I both read and enjoyed the Rei Shimura books, so we'll be on the lookout for the new one. The title is certainly one that draws attention even without knowledge of the meaning.

Sharon

Leslie Budewitz said...

What a beautiful cover! Thanks, Sujata and Reds, for sharing this book with us. So pleased, impressed, inspired by writers who push a little, then a little more, and even more against those walls, visible and invisible, that our society creates to give us stories, paintings, and songs that transport us!

Kate L said...

What a wonderful, evocative title! I look forward to reading The Sleeping Dictionary - both the setting and the time period are foreign for me, and I always enjoyed the cultural details when reading Rei Shimura's adventures (add me to the list of those wondering how she's doing, and if she'll put in any future appearances ...).

Carole said...

A fascinating post, and now I can't wait to start the Rei Shimura books. Deb, I am a big, big fan, and feel very connected to your books - and I am a Brit living in the USA.

I'm sure Sujata is right that the outsider's eye is a help. If novels are populated with characters the writer has observed, why not settings? Plus the research angle you guys discussed in a previous blog.

Kathy Reel said...

What an interesting writing journey, Sujata! Thank you for sharing with us your author evolution. Rei Shimura sounds like a fascinating character, and, once again, I must expand my to-be-read list. I have no connections with India, but I've always been fascinated with the country and people, and I've enjoyed novels with that setting. I just know that The Sleeping Dictionary is going to be a book I read and recommend to my friends. I love historical fiction, especially when, as you have done, the author explores an area of history that is not so well known. And, as Hank mentioned, the cover for The Sleeping Dictionary is gorgeous. A signed copy would be a treasure indeed.

Sujata, your article has me thinking about my own roots. My great-great-great-great uncle is Daniel Boone, directly descended from his brother Edward, who was killed when mistaken for Daniel. I have long wanted to, and plan to, visit the ancestral home in Stoke Canon, England. Then, in an interesting twist, I go from having Edward killed by American Indians to my father's grandmother secretly having an affair with an Algonquin Indian and bearing a child, my father's mother, my grandmother. My father never would talk about it, which has always made me want to explore it more. I'm a great fan of breaking taboos and examining them. Everyone keeps telling me to write a book. Maybe I'm working my way toward a subject. Thanks for starting my wheels to turn.

Deb Romano said...

I'm a big fan of Rei, and I miss her!

It's interesting to read about how you decided to write the books about Rei and what led you to your new protagonist. I enjoy reading about other cultures, and have read very few books about India or Indian culture. I look forward to reading your new book.

sujatamassey said...

Susan Elia McNeal--When I read Mr CHurchill's Secretary, I though it really seemed like a companion book to mine. We both have heroines involved in world war ii espionage stories, just one happens to be in London and the other in Calcutta. Nice to hear from you.
Sujata

sujata massey said...

Lucy and Hank and Hallie and Deb--fantastic red ladies-- thanks for the invitation. Checking in on this conversation has been a nice break in a slushy day here.

And to answer the Rei Shimura question, yes, I'm working on another Rei book as well as the India fiction, but I don't have quite enough hours in the day to finish either. This could be a problem!

Julia said...

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." - L.P. Hartley

I am a great believer in the idea that a place should sing to the writer in order to come alive. I also suspect that an outsider/insider perspective is very useful for the novelist, whether it's writing about where you came from while living in a different place (as Rhys and I do) or exploring the place in which you are an alien, like Deb and Sujata. Of course, we're all outsiders looking in when we write history.

Sujata, this may age both of us, but when I was teaching myself to write mysteries prior to beginning IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER, THE SALARYMAN'S WIFE was one of the books that influenced my approach to location. I still cite it when teaching! How's that for coming full circle?

TFJ said...

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Rei over the years and have purchased The Sleeping Dictionary; it's next up on my TBR mountain range.

It's the writing and character development that captures me, not the genre; it doesn't hurt, Sujata, that you so both so well that I eagerly followed your progress on The Sleeping Dictionary via your blog. Congratulations on this new front.

But, I also would love to see more of Rei!

Denise Ann said...

I love this attitude. I am a 67 year old white woman who is trying to write a story set in Black DC. I am even using a first person narrator who is a young Black social worker.
I am more determined than ever, having read this post, to go with my intuition and my passion. Thank you!

sujata massey said...

Julia, I'm thrilled and humbled you would use my book in teaching!

TFJ, so glad you are reading the blog and are along for this ride to India, as well as the ones to Japan.

Japan is NOT over! I just have a problem getting multiple books written at the same time.

Pat D said...

Your book sounds wonderful, Sujata! Imagine if everyone followed the advice of write what you know. I don't think we'd have much in the way of historical fiction to read.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Sharon and Kathy Reel had their names drawn to receive copies of THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY. Please send an email to Sujata with your mailing addresses.

sujatamassey at mac dot com