Earlier this year, writer and UNCW professor Sayantani Dasgupta began the Twelve Authors Interview Project: an initiative that uplifts South Asian writers and cultures. For her commitment to interview South Asian authors and review their works, from essays to graphic novels, Dasgupta has met an outpouring of support from students and colleagues as well as internationally on social media. Dasgupta’s first interview of twelve, a conversation with Rajat Ubhaykar, the author of Truck De India, is available to read at Scroll.in.
An alumna of St Stephen’s College and JNU, Sayantani Dasgupta earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Idaho. She is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between, a Finalist for the Foreword Indies Awards for Creative Nonfiction, and the chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Hindu, The Rumpus, Scroll, Economic & Political Weekly, IIC Quarterly, Chicago Quarterly Review, and others. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and has also taught in India, Italy, and Mexico.
MFA candidate in fiction Katherine O’Hara spoke with Sayantani about the project.
Katherine O'Hara: The outpouring of support on Twitter towards your project was beautiful to see. What inspired this project?
Sayantani Dasgupta: I joke with my students that most days I exist in a state of anger and disbelief. Because both the US and India are home, I pay close attention to news from both these countries. Of course, when one sleeps, the other is awake. Meaning, when the actions of the powerful in one country are endangering the planet, undermining civil liberties, or threatening history and heritage, the powerful in the other country are asleep and gathering the energy to do the same.
That particular Friday when I announced on Twitter that I will help spread the word about South Asian authors with new (and or recently released) books, it too came from a place of frustration, but this time I thought let me not sit and stew about all that I cannot do to fix the world. Let me instead focus on the tiny things I can do to spread more art and literature.
That I should do something with books, authors, and South Asia was the next logical step. I am extraordinarily proud of where I am from, and in my thirteen years in the US, I have found there to be a great deal of unawareness about South Asia in general, its countries, and its diversity in terms of food, languages, and cultures. A few famous names such as Salman Rushdie and Anita Desai are not enough to tell the stories of everyone from there. If I can do something concrete to draw attention to that part of the world, even if it’s only a baby step, yes, sign me up.
The response on Twitter was overwhelming. I am so thrilled with the books that have now landed on my radar and calendar.
KOH: How would you describe your process? Do you review, interview, a combination of the two?
SD: Initially, I was going to review. But then I switched to interviews because it makes space for an actual conversation between the author and me. And really, for a professor of creative writing, can there be anything better than talking to a writer about craft, content, and all those other things that make books magical?
KOH: What books have you read? Who are you interviewing next?
SD: I am reading essays, short stories, novels, memoirs, travelogues, and graphic novels. From Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s novel that’s deeply rooted in history, and Sumana Roy’s essays that blend memoir and nature studies, the diversity of subjects has been great for me as a reader. I am inspired by the fearlessness of the authors and their subjects.
My next interview is with Taran Khan, the author of Shadow City, a memoir set in Kabul. It’s a beautiful and haunting portrait of a much maligned and misunderstood city. In mesmerizing prose, Khan shares with her readers Kabul’s 3,000-year-old history, and stories of, among other things, its literature, cinema, architecture, and wedding halls.
KOH: Throughout this process, what has surprised you?
SD: I have been blown away by the number of folks who have reached out and recommended books that they haven’t written but they think should be on my radar. Or all those who have connected me with journals and editors committed to the same ideal of pushing more diverse content into the world. Or the editors who have reached out to me directly. The whole process has been energizing.
KOH: How has interviewing influenced your teaching? How has it impacted your writing/writing life?
SD: Reading a book for pleasure alone is of course very different from reading it closely in order to interview its author. I won’t lie; this has meant a lot of time commitment and work. Although I have conducted interviews in the past, because this year’s project is so specific, I am taking copious notes, I am constantly in conversation with authors and editors, I am reading a ton of excellent interviews published in the last ten to twenty years to improve my own skills, and I am trying to stick close to the book’s publication date so as to able to draw maximum attention to it.
All this has definitely made me realize that a successful interview is its own beast. So much so that I am considering adding an interview assignment in my courses. Whether I will require my students to interview authors or other artists or professionals is still to be worked out. But as a teaching and learning tool, it is quite exceptional because the reading and writing muscles you engage are different from the ones you exercise when you are reading only for yourself or for a class or when you are writing with your chosen audience in mind. With an interview, you don’t necessarily know your reader. She could be someone who has read the book intently and will read your interview with the same attention. Or she could be someone who doesn’t ever intend to read the book, but she will click on the interview because the interviewee is a long-lost classmate from school.
I will definitely be teaching some of these books in the future both in my grad as well as undergrad classes. Some of the courses I am planning to build are “writing about global cities,” “literary translation,” “historical narratives,” and one of my all-time favorites, “travel writing.”
KOH: You recently interviewed Rajat Ubhaykar, the author of Truck De India, and described Ubhaykar as one who is a “keen observer of life and people,” one who illustrates interconnected diversity. Observation and interconnection, I think, are what makes us powerful as writers and necessary in our global landscape. What do you hope readers will take from the writers you’re reviewing?
SD: Curiosity, empathy, open-mindedness, and an appreciation for history.
KOH: When I think of interviewing, I think of the opportunity to uplift another voice, to share that I care about this writer and their work. The interview, in a way, is a method of getting more people engaged with the conversation in question, bearing in mind that we have a responsibility in how we use our platform. How would you define your role as an interviewer?
SD: Given the number of creative and logistical things I am learning through this Twelve Authors’ Interviews Project, I think I want to do some version of this every year. My role is to highlight the amount of work that goes into any book and the number of years authors dedicate to honing their craft. It is also to encourage my students to take on projects of literary citizenship. They do not have to be experts at the outset nor do the projects have to be weighty and enormous. Once they evince an interest, they can learn on the job, as I am, and doubtless, mentors and resources will show up to guide them in the right direction. Only good things happen when good books are involved.
Follow the Twelve Authors Interview Project on Twitter, here.
For her commitment to interview South Asian authors and review their works, from essays to graphic novels, Dasgupta has met an outpouring of support from students and colleagues as well as internationally on social media. Dasgupta’s first interview of twelve, a conversation with Rajat Ubhaykar, the author of Truck De India, is available to read at Scroll.in.