Interview with Vijay Lakshmi


Tell us what the main difficulties in straddling two cultures are. Do you find this to be inherently harder for men or for women?

Straddling even a small stool throws you off balance. When one crosses national boundaries, leaps across oceans, and steps over cultural codes, difficulties grow forbidding. The body may master new skills easily enough, whether it is for using a food processor or a scanner. The more difficult is the psychological adjustment, both to the loss of one’s cherished forms and to the adoption of new ones.
Even when one finds oneself at home with American attitudes and manners, one is haunted by a sense of loss or betrayal. To use a phrase from “Journey of the Magi” one is no longer at ease till at least one outgrows thinking of oneself in terms of national or cultural categories.


It is, indeed, harder for women if only because they are supposed to be the keepers of their culture on the one hand, and on the other they must keep in step with the new. It’s the paradoxical nature of adjustments required of them that makes it difficult for women.

Does one eventually shed the “outsider” mentality or merely learn to adjust to it?

I am not sure that one can ever completely shed the outsider’s mentality, because I tend to take the existentialist view. We are all outsiders in some sense no matter who we are and where we are.
However, I like to believe that we do manage to suppress the outsider’s mentality. Sanity demands that we do so.

How is the Indian woman’s perception of herself influenced (or is it?) by how those outside of her society view her?

What is significant is how she sees them viewing her. I have tried to portray that conflict in my story “Mannequins.” When the woman, a mother of two, changes into a western dress for the first time, she feels that all eyes in the store are glued upon her, while the truth is that no one is even aware of her. Similarly at home, no one even bothers to look at her, not even her children.
I find that the younger generation of Indians growing up in the US is not going through the same self-consciousness of being “the other” as the first generation of immigrants did.

Loneliness is highly subjective. Your fiction seems, so far, to focus on the alienation of an individual in Western society, due, in part to the Western sensibility of fierce individualism. What compromises are you willing to let your characters make without surrendering long held beliefs and estrangement from a community mentality?

This is a great question. Western sensibility of fierce individualism does create a sense of alienation for my characters. And yet, I feel that it is because they too possess a fierce sense of individualism. If they didn’t, then adaptation would come very easy to them. Indian individualism is like Gandhi’s passive resistance, subdued but strong.

As for what compromises I am willing to let my characters make, I am afraid, they don’t let me make any decisions for them. Once they take shape, my characters begin to take their life into their hands.

In my earlier pieces I could still tweak them here and there, not so any more. I dare not tamper with their integrity. They hrefuse to be dictated by me. For example, I tried to keep Priya in Pomegranate Dreams from going over the edge, but I couldn’t. Every time I changed her character, she stalled the narrative.

This is the case with all the characters. If they make compromises, they make them in spite of me. After a while, the author begins to be maneuvered by her creations.

What is a typical writing day like?

A typical writing day for me would be the one when I shut the door on the world and retreat to my room, sit at my computer, and write for four to five hours at a stretch.
However, the days such as this are infrequent in a professor’s life. I am devoted to my writing, but I am also committed to my teaching at the Community College of Philadelphia, and, of course, to my family.

Who have been your literary influences?

My mother was very strong with Hindu mythology and devotional songs of Meera, Surdas, Tulsi, and Kabir; my father was passionate about Urdu poetry and English literature.

Unconsciously, I must have imbibed much from both before I started out on my own and gobbled up everything I could lay my hands on, from Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing to Tony Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, from Faulkner and T.S. Eliot to Paule Marshall and V.S. Naipaul, from Sharat Chand and Prem Chand to Patrick White and William Golding.

I think that works you have read and admired always swirl around you like spirits, invisible but there.

Do you ever see yourself veering away from the theme of alienation and loneliness as it applies, particularly to women?

Not altogether, I am afraid. Loneliness or alienation is, after all, a part of the general human condition. It crosses the boundaries of race, time, space, and gender. We can never get away from these feelings unless we give up the world. I am always reminded of a scene in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse when Mrs. Ramsay, surrounded by her family, friends, children, servants and the daily whirl of activities, suddenly stops to ask herself, “But what have I done with my life?”

That to me is the moment of epiphany. Women, I believe, are given more to such moments. So in some form or the other, I think the theme will surface now and then. However, I already find other interests crowding in upon me. I expect to cast my net wider in my next work.

What are you working on currently?

It’s an ambitious project – a novel about a beautiful world divided by hatred and violence.

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