In December 2017, I met with Geeta Kothari to discuss her work as a writer and as the nonfiction editor of the Kenyon Review. In February of this year, Geeta’s collection, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, was published; she was also the editor of Did My Mama Like to Dance?: And Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters (1994). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, Fourth Genre, and Best American Essays (2000). Kothari currently directs the Writing Center at the University of Pittsburgh and teaches in its writing program.
Like me, Kothari is a native New Yorker, and I found her easy to talk with. She had just presented a seminar at December’s Antioch University Los Angeles MFA residency called “The Writer in Search of Narrator,” which helped me to understand the process by which nonfiction writers decide how to narrate their stories. At the beginning of the session, Kothari drew a large fish on the board, composed of two intersecting parabolic lines, as a way to look at the structure of a piece. (As she explained to me later, she adapted the method from a workshop with novelist Nancy Zafris.) Although I’ve heard Zafris’s students describe various ways to label each of the lines—plot versus theme, in the case of structuring fiction—in her demonstration, Kothari said the top arc represents the entire span of events in the nonfiction narrative, the “real life” or the “facts” of a piece. She then drew a middle line, which zigzagged between the top and bottom, which signifies the events that the writer chooses to pull into the narrative, to make meaning of them and to create an emotional experience for the reader, by, for example, exploring and repeating certain motifs or physical objects (such as photographs). In this way, and applying Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, Kothari explained that the top line can represent “the situation” and the bottom line becomes “the story.”
During our conversation, Kothari and I discussed the situation of writing stories, writing (and knitting) habits, family, writing characters that are not racial tropes, and representing the immigrant experience in literature. Kothari writes characters with a rich interior world; in her new book, I Brake for Moose, she creates multidimensional characters of various races who exist beyond stereotype. We began talking about how to structure our work, a conversation that I have since found quite useful in my own writing.
Meredith Arena: Speak a little bit more about the narrative model you discussed in the Antioch presentation?
I could write good sentences—and you can get away with a lot if your sentences are pretty or good, but at the end of the day, are you really telling a story?
Geeta Kothari: That model is something that Nancy Zafris taught me. I am one of those writers who takes a lot of classes. I love being a student. I was never a good student when I was actually a student, but I love these short [writing] workshops. When I took the Kenyon Review workshop with Nancy in 2006, I had been someone who, as she says, “Can’t write a bad sentence.” I could write good sentences—and you can get away with a lot if your sentences are pretty or good, but at the end of the day, are you really telling a story? She taught me how to think about story structure in an intuitive and holistic way. Once you have that fish in your brain, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Her whole focus on the objective reality of the story, either in a novel or in a short story, is important because a writer wants to go into the deep thoughts. You just do if you’re a literary writer, and chances are you are already good at the deep thoughts, but getting your reader into those deep thoughts requires a lot of work. If you’re forcing yourself to think about the situation or the context, the broader stuff, it’s going to naturally take you to the story you want to go to. That is what that fish is. It is giving yourself the confidence to stay with that situation or that context, knowing that it is eventually going to get you to the story you want to tell if you keep doing that up and down thing [She moves her hand up and down in a zigzag pattern referring to how we use the details of the plot (or situation) to move us into the story (or the emotional material, the significance) and back again].
MA: So, you are saying that you have internalized this structure, but it leaves room for intuition. I think that is how a lot of people go into writing a creative nonfiction piece, intuitively.
GK: I took [a] class in nonfiction one summer. I lived at home with my parents and I went up to Columbia and took this class with this teacher whom I had studied with in graduate school, who had not been impressed with me. I am not sure that he was impressed with me in this class, either. And I learned the traditional modes—how to write a profile, how to do a story about place. We read the usual people you read and that class was the only class I took and I tried to write within the parameters he’d set up for these things that we had to do, and that is how I got my first drafts. I got my first published piece from that [class]. And that piece was quite different from what I had done in class and part of it came through this questioning process.
I ran into [the poet] Garrett Hongo at a conference, and he said I should send him something. I said, “I can’t. I don’t have anything,” and he said, “Where are you from?” That became the organizing question for that first essay. Those structures can be helpful, but more helpful is the things that morph out of them. They are just a starting point. You have to find a way to get your words on the page and with CNF, with writing about the self, the problem is there are so many options. Do you start with birth? Do you start with fifth grade? Do you start with the guy who tried to beat you up behind the concrete cylinder in the playground? What do you start with? What do you include? Giving yourself boundaries can really force the essays to a place where you can finally work on it.
MA: And then you can go back and change it.
GK: You can go back and change everything. In “Thirst,” the essay I read [at Antioch], I said okay— seven islands—the piece itself gave me the structure. I wasn’t thinking about situation and story, I was just thinking structure. The seven islands of Bombay were joined together, so I am going to have seven sections about my dad, but then it became twelve.
MA: What was the first essay that you published?
I asked the bartender where the bathroom was and the first thing he said was, “Where are you from?” … It was interesting because my husband, whom I was dating at the time, is actually from another country. He’s Canadian, but no one ever asked him where he was from.
GK: It was called, “Where are you from?” It was musings on identity and trying to figure out where I was from. It was something I was getting asked in Pittsburgh, and for my entire life I found it really irritating. [The essay] starts with an incident where I was at a bar. I asked the bartender where the bathroom was and the first thing he said was, “Where are you from?” And I was like, “I just want to use the bathroom.” It was interesting because my husband, whom I was dating at the time, is actually from another country. He’s Canadian, but no one ever asked him where he was from. Ever. It started from that irritation, but the original draft did not start that way. That was about going to Kleinfeld’s. Do you remember Kleinfeld’s in Brooklyn, the wedding store?
GK: I was going with a friend to buy a wedding dress and she was determined to buy it there and it was just not happening. It was not working for her, so I wrote about that, and about buying the dress, and her wedding, which was troubling to me because she was marrying a white man, and I was trying to figure out what that meant for identity. She was half Japanese. She read the essay and hated it and ended our relationship. I was really trying to figure out something. It was that self-investigation. I just had no words for it. I was young and I was trying to figure out what it meant to be married to someone else and what it meant for who you were, especially if you were marrying someone who wasn’t from your culture. I wasn’t thinking of marrying my husband. In fact, I said to him pretty clearly, “I will never marry you,” so obviously, I got that wrong.
So that [question] “Where are you from?” developed into a much longer, more complex essay because Garrett asked me to revise it. I was able to address some of the things my friend had objected to when she first read it and come a little cleaner.
I hadn’t seen myself as a nonfiction writer. I had really been involved in writing fiction. And my mom said, “Why don’t you just learn to write some other things. Try your hand at a different thing. You should be trying everything,” and basically paid for me to take this class at Columbia. So that was where it began.
MA: Do you think she knew that you would be writing a book about her?
GK: She didn’t want me to write a book about her. She very clearly said, “I don’t want you writing about me when I’m dead.”
MA: Were you writing about your parents when they were alive? If so, did they read the work?
GK: I was writing about them. I didn’t realize that I was going to be on such a trajectory of writing about them, but I interviewed them. I did formal interviews with them after I had moved to Pittsburgh. I began to realize that there was a lot about them I didn’t know. So, I did interviews and they had their canned stories that they kept telling. I still have them on tape. They were very private people, but they never told me while they were alive not to write about them. [I just couldn’t write about them] after their deaths. She said, “After I’m dead… I can’t challenge what you say about me.” She had this idea of herself as someone who was going to write back to me. My dad was much more sanguine. But my mother, I remember once she said, “Okay, you can write about anything or anyone, except your father, and you can’t write about your sister,” and I was like, “That doesn’t leave very much to write about.” There are only four of us. And then, “You can’t write about me when I’m dead.” You just have to not listen to some of those voices. It wasn’t as if I set out to write about them. It was just that those were the stories that came to me and they were interesting to me. I once said to my dad, “I find the two of you endlessly fascinating.” And he laughed.
MA: I really relate to that in your work. I find my parents really fascinating as well. They are still alive, but I relate to the longing that is in your essays “Listen” [Superstition Review], “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” [Kenyon Review], and “On Leaving Home” [Virginia Quarterly Review], even though my parents have not died yet.
My mom came here when she was twenty-two years old. What is an Indian woman, a girl, really, doing in New York in 1950? How is she managing? How is she living her life? How does she feel?
GK: I felt that longing before they died. I don’t know what that’s about, but I do think they were very private people and I’m nosy. That’s just all there is to it. I want to understand things about them. I found them interesting. They were so strange.
My mom came here when she was twenty-two years old. What is an Indian woman, a girl, really, doing in New York in 1950? How is she managing? How is she living her life? How does she feel? She can’t talk to her parents on the phone. When I tell people [that] she came in 1950—Indians—they say, “She came with her husband, it wouldn’t have been that bad.” And I’m like, “No, no, no.” She was here alone for ten years before she met my father. And then her decision to marry him had nothing to do with her parents. It was completely independent.
MA: This curiosity seems like why we become writers of creative nonfiction. Going back to the situation and the story, there is the top line, all the events that actually happened. The autobiographical events.
GK: We are interested in the motives. Why?
MA: What were you feeling?
GK: Yeah, what were you feeling?
MA: I ask my mother that a lot and she can’t always answer me. And my parents are not private. It seems like they are telling me everything that happened. But I want to know something else. I want to understand myself better. I’m forty now; I want to know how my mom felt when she was forty.
GK: Right, but they can’t tell you, because there is a level of self-examination that’s unfair to ask ordinary people to get involved in. They don’t want to go there, so that’s our job to do that. My mom didn’t want to talk about how she felt getting on that plane, she would only say, “I wanted someone to ask me to stay.” It’s a cultural thing. I have been brought up to say what I want, [such as], “I don’t wanna go.” But that wasn’t part of the deal then. She left home and she didn’t want to leave. She was never able to talk much about that longing. She couldn’t articulate it fully, partly because it would have been really painful. Most people don’t want to revisit their most painful moments.
MA: Does your book about your mother have a title yet?
GK: It’s a temporary title. It’s called Everywhere and Nowhere: Mapping My Mother’s Search for Home.
MA: It was helpful to hear you talk about your book project about your mother. We often hear writers say, “I struggled with it,” but hearing you say, “I’m struggling with it and here is why” is instructive. Thank you. It seems like the stuff arising in this conversation and the issue of identity and longing around family is also coming up for your fictional characters in I Brake for Moose.
GK: Completely by chance.
MA: Many of the characters are immigrants. I love the way the immigrant experience is all over. You are normalizing the immigrant story within American literature, which is so important.
GK: I am so glad to hear you got that from it.
MA: We (and by “we” I meant white people) tend to use the “other” as a story device, rather than the main story. But when you walk around a city, you aren’t walking around only white people. It is a diverse experience.
GK: There are two ways to look at this. I couldn’t write a whole book of stories about Indian immigrants. That wasn’t the way I was raised. You know New York. You’re raised around all different kinds of people and all those lives are interesting. That was part of it. But part of it was that issue of displacement. Who feels it? People who are immigrants or exiles. But there are also people who aren’t immigrants in this book.
MA: The teenage groupies [in the story “I Brake for Moose”]. What made you decide you want to write about early college-age girls who follow a band around?
GK: I just wanted to write about that particular moment when you are really confused and have no direction. I knew people in bands. I was interested in this idea of being on the road and being very unhappy. Then I thought, how many Indian girls go on the road in 1987 with a band, and how would they do it. My parents would have had a heart attack.
MA: There is an Indian guy in the band, so that is what makes it okay with her parents.
GK: Exactly—and I don’t think my parents would have fallen for that, but I thought, I couldn’t write about her without her parents. It didn’t seem possible to me that she could pick up and go without telling her parents. I thought: I can’t kill her parents. There are so many dead parents in all my stories. It’s just a convenience at this point. I will have to make her deal with it. That story took me forever to write, damn it.
MA: How long?
GK: I remember sitting in my apartment trying to write it. I remember writing it out by hand on a legal pad. I could not find the form. Then I read a story by Joyce Carol Oates and I was like, “Why don’t I try this?” I thought, “If she could do it, why can’t I?” I would say it took me five years. I was writing other things. I work best when I work on multiple things.
MA: You have written about working on multiple projects in “The Other Things We Do: Knitting” [Necessary Fiction].
GK: My sister and I have talked about this. We are process knitters, not product knitters, so we will get really distracted by shiny new yarn, the feel of the yarn in the needles, and if the feeling isn’t right, it is hard to finish something. You lose interest. You learned what you needed to learn from that particular project and it is almost finished or halfway done and now you are ready to move on. I do think finishing is important. I am not saying you should have a lot of unfinished writing around you, that can be very distracting, but I seem to go through phases where I am creating a lot of stuff, starting things, trying them out. Then I will undo them or come back to them and start again. There is just this very messy process for me. I remember a friend of mine who said that when he works on a novel, he works on nothing else. I tried that. For a few years, I wrote a novel; I worked on nothing else and it was really hard.
MA: It sounds isolating.
GK: It was very lonely and isolating. There were all these parts of my life I couldn’t engage in and all these things I couldn’t do. It was not a pleasurable way to work. I finished the novel, but then everything hinged on getting it published and that wasn’t pleasurable for me either. I really had to rethink my relationship to my work, and the knitting is a way to rethink it.
MA: You want it to pleasurable to write.
GK: Yes. You want it to be pleasurable and you don’t want everything to be hinging on that perfect sweater. I make a lot of things that don’t fit me. I give away a lot of my knitting. I really get a lot of pleasure from doing it. That is how I feel about writing. I really enjoy just writing. Once I lifted that ban of not writing everything else, it freed me in many ways. I really need that distance.
MA: In this program, we often discuss how to represent characters who are not who you are.
GK: The “other.”
MA: Yeah, the “other.” You do that a lot. The story, “Crossing Cabot Straight,” features a white woman who is married to an Indian man. You write white characters. In I Brake for Moose, I remember a compelling character [in “Missing Men”] who was an African immigrant. They are different from you. They have different experiences. How do you go about creating those characters?
GK: It’s tricky, right? I am never sure I am doing it right or that someone isn’t going to read it and say, “Whoa, that’s an old trope you are engaging in, and why are you doing that?” But these are stories that attach themselves to these characters, and I couldn’t tell them any other way. That story, “Missing Men,” is an outtake from my novel. There were three characters in that book: a white man—a half-French, half-English Canadian—an Indian-American woman, and this African character, whom I deliberately did not attach to a country. In fiction, what is important to me is to explore these other lives and imagine what it’s like to be these people, and even [to write] from a male point of view. It’s not like you say, “I am going to write this from a male POV.” It is, “This is the story and it needs to be told this way.” I was influenced early on––I didn’t think about this until I was writing this book––by Bharati Mukherjee, The Middle Man and Other Stories, which has its flaws but takes on multiple immigrant perspectives very deliberately. I don’t feel like I did that as deliberately in this book, but [Mukherjee] really wanted to represent that immigrant experience across cultures. There is a Filipino character and there is an Indian character in one of the stories. Whether [my effort] is successful is hard for me to gauge. I am too close to my work. All I know is that these are lives that I find very compelling and interesting.
I am very much influenced by the reading I do. I read a lot of nonfiction. That story about the African character was influenced by two things: a story I heard years ago, from a friend who was Ethiopian, and my reading of The Emperor: [The Downfall of an Aristocrat], by Ryszard Kapuscinski, which was about Ethiopia. For a long time, I was reading about the breakup of Yugoslavia, and this influenced one of my other stories [“Small Bang Only”]. I wanted to write about someone without a country, no way to go home. His passport changed, it’s completely invalid, but I didn’t want to write about the particulars of those places.
MA: Which forces me as a white-American reader, who is not super well informed, to think about the interior world of the character, which creates empathy. At first, I worried that I should know which country he was from and then I realized that no, this was about his interior world. You are great at creating the interior world of characters and portraying their intimate experiences. They are immigrants, they are having experiences that maybe seem like a trope of an immigrant experience––and tropes exist for a reason––but then you delve into their interior space within that experience. Your characters are full of doubt and confused about their lives.
GK: Confusion seems to interest me. It’s not something I set out to do, but in both those stories, I didn’t want the politics to overshadow the individuals. We have these big political stories, but it’s the individuals within those stories that interest me. That is why I tried to go for this kind of mystery about where they are from. It wasn’t to make you feel like you have to Google this stuff, but to make you hone in on the character rather than the situation. Hone in on the story, not the situation.
MA: What other writers do you see doing this type of work with the immigrant experience?
GK: We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. What I loved in that book was the back and forth between the life in Africa that she left behind and this new life here. You know there is normalizing the immigrant experience and exoticizing it—opening this little door into immigrant life just to see what it’s like—and I don’t know where to draw the line between those two things. I like stories where the fact of the person’s immigration status is part of the story, but not the whole story; that there is something else going on. Those are the stories where you empathize with the person beyond their status. Jhumpa Lahiri does a great job in her short stories.
MA: We talk about unreliable narrators a lot in CNF. You want your narrator to have some space from the experience. What does that mean for really young writers in their twenties and thirties writing memoir?
GK: It’s tough because you have to create that distance yourself, and that would mean knowing who you are now and knowing who you were then. It’s very hard. I have a friend who has been working on her memoir. She has been working on it a long time and has an interesting story, but she is about twenty years younger than me. There are all kinds of issues, especially if you are writing about your parents and they are still alive. Finding that distance is really hard, especially when you are living through some of the experiences you are trying to write about. I don’t think it makes you necessarily unreliable, but what the reader gets is a sense that you are withholding.
MA: But it’s stuff you don’t know yet.
Unless you are willing to look at yourself straight-on, memoir is not for you.
GK: It’s stuff you don’t know or stuff you can’t look at because the self-examination is too painful. Unless you are willing to look at yourself straight-on, memoir is not for you. There are times in our lives when we can do that and times in our lives when we can’t. Sometimes, when you are younger, it is just harder. How do you create that distance that says, “This is who I am now, this is who I was then, and who I am now can look back on who I was then and treat her with kindness and empathy and understanding even as she is saying the most horrible racist things on earth”? Or whatever. [This is true] when you write about depression or trauma.
Sue Williams Silverman: her memoir was about being abused by her father and it is painful to read, but it is very artful. She creates these sections. Starting from the time she is four, she recreates these different voices and levels of knowingness, so the reader knows what is happening before the narrator knows. That is a kind of unreliability, but you’re in the hands of a much older writer and you know she is doing this on purpose. There is a real structure to it. It is a deeply painful book to read. I found it hard, but if you can step back from the material and look at the craft, it is revealing. By imagining these voices that are related to the ages she has at different points of the book and recreating herself at those different ages, she sets up these structures for herself to work in and these limitations. I would say that [as a] younger memoirist, [you] should define a structure that you can work within that would give you that distance. I would hate to say, “Oh, you’re too young to write a memoir!” Those are blanket statements that don’t give anyone useful information. Maybe you write the draft of your memoir now and ten years later, you come back and rewrite it and it is a different book, but you have all the stuff you are thinking about now.
MA: In an interview with the online journal Creative Nonfiction, you mention that you wish you had known that you didn’t necessarily need to go to graduate school to become a writer. Your nonfiction piece, “On Leaving Home,” progresses through the various stages of leaving home and the mutual freedom and discomfort that come with it. In it, you describe being unhappy and isolated in graduate school. You describe an experience when the white students were not respectful to you. [They had not read the work and they were snickering in the back of the room.] This is a topic that has been discussed a lot lately. I am thinking about Junot Diaz in his New Yorker article, “MFA vs POC,” and about Claudia Rankine’s keynote at AWP in Los Angeles in 2016. Can you share any more about your graduate school experience?
GK: I felt very unseen, invisible in graduate school. I didn’t attribute it to racism at the time, because I was so lacking in confidence that it seemed to be all about me and not about the other people. I didn’t feel that I was a very good writer compared to everyone else, and that part of me deserved to be ignored. So, it is this internalized view of the self. I would do things like write these stories and I knew the characters were Indian, but I would make up weird names for them and pretend they weren’t. I was too young to be in graduate school. That is the number-one lesson I got from that, I was too young, too sensitive, too unsure of myself.
I had not been an English major as an undergraduate. I had majored in Afro-American studies and government. Majoring in Afro-American studies gave me a false sense of what the world was like. When I went to the English department, I was like, “Where are all the classes on people of color?” This was in the eighties and I don’t think I even used that term [people of color]. I thought, “Aren’t there any classes in Afro-American lit?” I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know why. I just didn’t understand why there weren’t classes in Afro-American lit in the English department. It left me feeling lost, because that was my home in literature. That was what I had spent four years studying and writing about and suddenly none of that mattered. It just didn’t. People were talking about writers that I didn’t feel anything about, which was alienating. But I don’t think I understood it in that way. I just kind of understood myself as a failure.
MA: A lot of people will relate to that experience.
GK: Really? That is so sad. I am sorry about that. That’s why I think a low-residency program would have been better for me. That one-on-one mentoring would have served me better. I felt lost in the crowd. There was no help for it; I was underprepared and it was a bad combination of things. If I had more guts and been a little more brassy, maybe if I had been fifty-four, I would have said, “Hey, this is bullshit!” But at twenty-three, I would just come home and cry all the time and my mom was like, “You’re gonna finish this degree.”
MA: In this program [AULA], we don’t spend that much time around a table critiquing one another’s work. Just one crit per residency. And these crit groups are different every residency, so you don’t have the same group in each critique, which breaks up the ability for these biases to compound on one another. The group dynamic is always changing. In full-time residential programs, I believe it is the same people all the time, so the same dominant voices might take up space.
GK: What you are looking for in graduate school are your readers for this future. This exposure to different people is like you finding your people. The people you will stay in touch with after you graduate, who you will send your first drafts to. And it may only be one or two people.
MA: You are an editor for the Kenyon Review. As students in this MFA program, many of us work as editors for Lunch Ticket. Because it is a student-run journal, we do this for free. How do you get to do this for money?
GK: I wish the money were so good that I could recommend this as a job. It is practically like doing it for free. The way I see the money part of it, is that it pays for me to take classes or do other things. I got the job totally by chance. I was at the right place at the right time. They had published my food essay many years before. When Nancy Zafris stepped down as fiction editor, I had already been at the workshop once as a student and she suggested my name. I moved on to become nonfiction editor. It was not something I set out to do. I see it as a literary citizenship. I enjoy finding new writers. A lot of submissions are very good but are not quite right for us, and I think those pieces are going to find a home. Someone else will take it.
It is important to depersonalize that process. When I first started editing, I was intimidated because so much good work was getting turned away, and [so] I didn’t send out my work for about a year. It took a while to say, “Okay, I can get my work out there again, I don’t have to perfect or [be] the best. You just have to be good enough.”
MA: Do you write notes when you decline a piece? Do you suggest revisions?
GK: I don’t suggest revisions. If we make a suggestion for a revision, it has to be with the agreement of everyone [on staff] and it has to be doable. We have less time for that because the volume is so huge.
MA: So, a rejection doesn’t mean “this piece stinks.”
GK: Right. You just don’t know what is going to hit what reader at what time, so you absolutely can’t take it personally.