Feed Drop: Thrity Umrigar

Listen to a conversation with Thrity Umrigar, author of The Secrets Between Us. Nalini Iyer, Professor of English at Seattle University, moderates.

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A transcript of this episode is available at the end of our show notes.

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The Desk Set is brought to you by the King County Library System. The show is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, and produced by Britta Barrett. Our theme song is "I Know What I Want" by Math and Physics ClubOther music provided by Chad Crouch, from the Free Music Archive.

Transcript

Emily Calkins:
You are listening to The Desk Set, a bookish podcast for reading broadly. I'm one of your hosts, Emily Calkins. In this episode, we're sharing a recording of a live event the library system did with Indian-American author Thrity Umrigar. She talked to Seattle University professor Nalini Iyer about her 2018 novel, The Secrets Between Us, her path to becoming a writer, her childhood in India, and more. Enjoy.

Emily Calkins:
Thrity Umrigar is a journalist, a novelist and a critic. She's the author of eight bestselling novels, including her most recent, which is The Secrets Between Us. She's also written a memoir and three picture books. Her books have been translated into several languages and published in 15 countries. She's the winner of the Cleveland Arts prize, a Lambda Literary Award, a Seth Rosenberg prize and a Nieman Fellowship. Before she became a novelist, she was a journalist.

Emily Calkins:
Thrity was born in Bombay, India and came to the United States as a young adult. Her career as a writer began early, her work was published in national newspapers and magazines in India by the time she was 15, which is pretty incredible. She came to the US, she earned a Masters in journalism and worked for several years as an award winning journalist. That's what the Nieman Fellowship is for, it's a mid-career journalism award.

Emily Calkins:
During that time, she also earned a PhD in English literature, and she's now a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. And in conversation with her tonight is Nalini Iyer. She's a professor of English at Seattle University. She teaches post-colonial studies, including South Asian and African writing and courses on post-colonial and transnational feminisms. Her research focuses on the hegemony of Anglophone writing in South Asia, South Asian diaspora studies and partition studies.

Emily Calkins:
She's also the chief editor of the South Asian Review. She's currently working on a book that examines racialization and South Asian literature, and is co-editing a volume on teaching Anglophone South Asian Diasporic Literature. She also frequently reviews South Asian-American writing for the International Examiner. So we're delighted to have both of them with us here tonight. Thank you so much for being here and with that, I will turn it over to you.

Nalini Iyer:
Hi, everybody. Welcome Thrity, it's wonderful to have you with us and thank you, Emily and King County Libraries for facilitating this conversation. Our event today is primarily focused on The Secrets Between Us, your most recent novel, but it's hard to talk about this novel without thinking about the first earlier novel, The Space Between Us, which came out in 2006. I was wondering whether, one, you would give the audience a really quick overview of Secrets Between Us, and then also my question to you is, why the 13 year gap between the first and the second? I know there were other books in between. Did you always know you were going to write a sequel or did that happen later?

Thrity Umrigar:
I'll start by answering your last question, and the simple answer is no. I never, ever intended to write a sequel to The Space Between Us. I used to get a lot of emails and letters, and at book events just spoken requests from people asking for a sequel. It occurred to me very early on, that one of the reasons why people wanted a sequel was they were genuinely concerned about the future and the fate of the two characters.

Thrity Umrigar:
The Space Between Us ends on a fairly inconclusive note. You don't know what the next day is going to bring for either one of the two women who are at the heart of that book. And it got to a point where once in a while, with a straight poker face, I would actually say to the person saying, "Can you please tell me what happens to Bhima next? Can you tell me? Can you reassure me that she's going to be fine?" And I would find myself saying, "Look, you do realize that she's a fictional character, right? I mean, you don't have to worry all that much about her."

Thrity Umrigar:
But when they would request a sequel, I would say to myself, "There's no reason for me to write a sequel." Everything that I wanted to say about this... it's a class system, but in a way it's hardened into a caste system, the way middle class Indians have this very complicated and very nuanced relationship with domestic help, right? We've all heard the phrase 'like family.' And I always think, "Why the like? Why not just family?" But that's a different topic.

Thrity Umrigar:
But I had always felt very strongly about that issue. I felt like I got it out of my system in the first book. There was no reason to write a second book and I certainly didn't want to just tell the story of Bhima and Sera a second time around. And then a few years ago, something really strange happened, which was, over the years, I would occasionally find myself thinking about a character who's a very minor character in the original book, and her name is Parvati, and she is a vegetable seller. She sells six heads of cauliflower every single day at the marketplace where Bhima used to shop.

Thrity Umrigar:
And the two women are not friends, in fact, they have a slightly antagonistic relationship with one another. Just as somebody who grew up there, but grew up middle-class, I would occasionally find myself wondering how on earth does somebody make ends meet selling six cauliflower a day? And why just six? Why could she not increase her inventory to 24? What does it mean for a woman to live that much on the margins of society? And what are the events that have brought her to that point?

Thrity Umrigar:
I never knew the answer to those questions. And then one day, while I was not even thinking about literature at all, Parvati's backstory popped into my head. And the instant that that happened, I found myself really excited. I thought, "Now I know how to write a sequel to that book where it won't be Bhima and Sera so much as Bhima with a new character." And I just had a hunch that both these women - on one hand, they were very different personality-wise.

Thrity Umrigar:
Parvati is very loud and brash in your face and Bhima is nothing of the sort. And yet I felt that beneath that superficial exterior differences, these are both women who have been badly hurt, and they've been badly betrayed by the people in their lives. And I just had a feeling that if I could put them side by side and basically just introduce them to one another and then get the hell out of their way, they would have something interesting to say to one another. And that's what I tried to do with the sequel.

Nalini Iyer:
I had never noticed her the first time around. So it's very interesting that it's after the second novel I picked up on Parvati's presence in the first one. But it strikes me, there's also a distinct difference between the first book and the second in terms of how you approach the question of class. As you pointed out, it's a very nuanced relationship between the employer and employee, they're like family, but the servant doesn't sit on a chair, drinks from a different cup. Because Serabai is Parsi and the caste system supposedly doesn't exist in the Parsi community.

Nalini Iyer:
And yet these Hindu practices of segregation having a separate glass or drinking utensil, or all of these things are very much... I grew up in a Brahmanical family. That was what I grew up with. And so, it's interesting to see that as part of the life of a Parsi family, but also you shift almost entirely into the working class community in The Secrets Between Us. We have food vendors and sex workers and the guy who delivers groceries from the market, and these are the people you pick up on. So was that an intentional shift? How did that occur?

Thrity Umrigar:
It was intentional only to the extent that I was just more interested, I had already told the story of the class difference between a Parsi woman who happens to be affluent, who happens to be educated, who happens to be literate, all the things that Bhima is not. And I had toyed with that and I had explored that issue about... which ultimately proves to be stronger. They say that every novel begins with a question. And the question in The Space Between Us was, when push comes to shove, can the bonds of gender and shared life experience trump the differences of class? And that was the question I set out to explore in that book. And I had answered it to my satisfaction. Maybe not anybody else's satisfactions, but to mine.

Nalini Iyer:
Oh, to mine too. Yeah, it was very well done.

Thrity Umrigar:
So that's two of us, at least. Yeah.

Nalini Iyer:
Yeah.

Thrity Umrigar:
But, I wanted to ask or pose a different set of questions in the second book, which is there is class parity. The two women in the second book share a lot more, they have a lot more in common than Bhima and Sera did. So it was just that the focus was different. And if you recall, even in The Secrets Between Us, Bhima does work for another family, but it is a Hindu family and they're young people. So, one would like to believe that these... what my Indian editor, when she first read the manuscript for The Space Between Us, all those years ago, she wrote to me, she sent me an email with a term that I've never forgotten.

Thrity Umrigar:
And she said, "You have written a novel describing the Indian apartheid," this domestic servant issue. And so I have now adopted that term. That Indian apartheid doesn't exist in quite the same way with a younger generation, which is the two, the lesbian couple in the second book. But you're very right that my preoccupation in that second book is different.

Thrity Umrigar:
And one of the other questions that I wanted to ask is, the story is set loosely around 2006, 2007, when it seemed like India was genuinely building a new middle class that people who once upon a time would have been consigned into staying where they were, the class that they were born in, suddenly had some aspirational goals and there were ways to actually get there. I wanted to explore that new spirit that seemed to be gripping at least a segment of the population. That was the other thing.

Thrity Umrigar:
And I just thought, what better than to take these two falling apart, older women who have always survived on the margins of society and to see if this new India, what did they use to call it? India shining, if it could open up enough space to accommodate people like that also.

Nalini Iyer:
So, that been said, that was going to lead me to the next question because Maya is a very... she's the granddaughter of Bhima. She's a teenager, she's raped by the Parsi employer's son-in-law, she has an abortion and Bhima is destroyed by that experience. And she doesn't want Maya to be a domestic worker. She wants something better for Maya. And so in '06, '07 India has been in a liberalized state for about 15 years. What's your thinking about neo-liberalism? Has it really benefited that working class in bringing them up, giving them social mobility?

Thrity Umrigar:
I'll preface what I'm about to say by saying, I'm just a dumb fiction writer. I mean, I'm not a scholar of India. Any opinion that I have is simply gleaned on my readings. I don't study the issue, I'm not an expert on globalization or the liberalization of the economy, all that. My hunch is that it has put a certain number of people into the middle-class who maybe otherwise would not have gotten there.

Thrity Umrigar:
But for me personally, and my political views, my focus is always on the distribution of wealth, it's never on production of wealth. I mean, yes, now when you go to India, it seems like there's new high rise buildings springing up everywhere, but the poverty is still... I mean, it's so entrenched. And I just don't know that globalization is the path out of that poverty. That is just my personal belief.

Thrity Umrigar:
Now, somebody could come along with a page of statistics that says, "Look, X number of million people were lifted out of poverty." It all feels nebulous and tenuous to me, what I see, and I just don't know that fundamentally the lives of the poor have changed all that much.

Nalini Iyer:
No, I would agree. You're one of the chroniclers of Bombay, I mean, there are other writers, as we know. I won't raise the dreaded Salman Rushdie. I love that essay of yours, I'm not Salman Rushdie. So, Bombay is almost like a character in contemporary Indian writing. I go back to Bombay periodically, I was born there, my in-laws live there. So in the time span that you're talking about, Bombay has changed a lot. And I think you're trying to capture some of that in your novel, more in these novels as well. How did you see Bombay change and how did that shape your city and cityscape in the second novel?

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah, it's a good question. I don't know if I have an easy answer to it. Oh, well, I've described the physical changes that you see. When I was growing up there, we didn't have malls, we didn't have any of those things. So now there're malls every 50 feet. There are people like gatekeepers outside the malls and they won't allow a certain segment of the population, basically poor people, into the malls. So, that's that kind of duality. On one hand you have the superficial progress.

Thrity Umrigar:
The malls to me are such a visual symbols, really, of what we're talking about. So you have something that's very Western that every person that I went to college with, with pride will say, "Yeah, we have better malls than you guys do these days. And so clearly it's made the middle class and the upper middle class, very, very proud and very, very happy to have these trappings of wealth and glitz and glamour. But if it's not a democratic institution, if it's not egalitarian, if there's literally somebody standing there, either asking for money to gain entry or simply turns away people, that's where that whole structure crumbles for me.

Thrity Umrigar:
So in some ways like visually, yes, of course, Bombay has changed. There seems to be new wealth, new modernization, if that's the right word. But for me personally, the Bombay that I'm attracted to is the old Bombay. It's the crowds that come out every evening at every single sea front. Just that massive number of people from all aspects of life. I mean, I've always felt like the sea is the great equalizer, the seaside is the great equalizer. That's the true eternal Bombay, you know, Bombay by evening by the seaside.

Thrity Umrigar:
And I think I could be wrong about this, but I think almost every one of my novels that's set in India, because they are not all set in India, but the ones that are, all of them have at least one scene where the characters are by the seaside, because that feels to me like that's in my blood, that's the Bombay that's in my blood. Even if you say you're a domestic servant. I think for the most part, you may not do it every single time, but once in a while you can treat yourself to the chana and singh, or a puri or something like that. There's something so beautiful about that aspect of Bombay, that it speaks to me much more than the marble of the malls.

Nalini Iyer:
The stark difference between what is beach culture in the U.S and you think Hawaii or Florida, and when you think of seaside and beach culture in India, it is so dramatically different. And I think you capture that beautifully. And there are some really touching moments where Bhima would return to the sea front at very key moments in her life, whether it's just on a fun evening with her husband or when her granddaughter and she are having a crisis, and that final scene with Parvati, it's also a very, very beautiful way you come back to the beach and it's another very palpable character in this novel.

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. I just feel like the Arabian Sea is always a character. And if it's not a character, it's certainly wallpaper in the background. But it's in the room with you at all time.

Nalini Iyer:
Yes.

Thrity Umrigar:
That's the part...because language changes, right? Idioms change, new phrases come into circulation, I mean the language always morphs, and Indian English, of course, is probably the most elastic of languages. So you can see Americanisms creeping into the language, but then there's also something very unique and distinctive about the way that Indians speak English. All that is fluid, but, but those murky, gray-brown, waters of the Arabian Sea feel eternal.

Nalini Iyer:
I'm really struck in The Secrets Between Us, about the new employers, Chitra and Sunitha that Bhima works for. They're a lesbian couple, and this novel comes out in 2018, which is when all the debates around the Indian penal code, section 377 was happening. And for our audience that may not be familiar with it, this was a leftover from the British era and it criminalized homosexuality, long legal battles, and in 2018, the Supreme Court finally struck down that clause.

Nalini Iyer:
What's interesting is that your novel doesn't refer to any of that political backdrop, but we do see that change where a couple, a lesbian couple can live openly in Bombay in a multi-story building. And Bhima is our barometer, we are very invested in Bhima, be sympathetic with her, we want to see her good things happen to her, and we cheer her on. And yet when she meets these two women, we find that she doesn't have the vocabulary to talk about same-sex relationships. She channels a lot of the stereotypes. And the heartening part is where we see her shift and empathize. She may not be into big structural changes, but these two young women become her family. How did the story arc evolve for you?

Thrity Umrigar:
I mean, one of the things I hate about bad writing is the meek shall inherit the earth. The poor are always pure of heart and that's not true. And I don't want it to be true because I want people to have the full range of humanity. And there is nothing in this world, sadly, that says that just because a human being as part of a group that has been oppressed in one form of the other, that they in turn will not turn around and oppress somebody else. I mean, we would be a different planet if we could learn from our own oppression and not do that to someone else. But the history of the world tells us that, in fact, it's very likely that somebody who has been the recipient of some abuse will sometimes turn around and do that to someone else.

Thrity Umrigar:
I wanted to challenge Bhima to come face to face with her own prejudices and her own bigotries. She's been victimized by other people's impressions of her. I wanted to set up that hurdle for her and then to watch and see if she is capable of overcoming it. And she does. And I think in part she does because of Maya. And that was the other piece that was interesting to me. You see if there is a true generational shift between young Indians and older Indians, and clearly Maya is the hope. I mean, she is the potential, she is what the future could look like. I mean, Bhima has been present in Maya's life almost throughout her life and is the guiding light.

Thrity Umrigar:
But now the rules are beginning to shift a little bit. And because of her education, Maya now can take Bhima by the hand and take her down a different path. I mean, Chitra, especially does have agency in the book. Chitra's own good character ends up impressing Bhima. If you remember, there's a scene where a neighbor is very, very nasty to Chitra. And when Bhima witnesses that, every maternal protective instinct in her body comes to that fight, and I think that is the turning point also. She doesn't have the language for it, but she realizes the commonality of experience between what has happened to her and what a seemingly... a woman, Chitra, as somebody who has it all, has wealth, has education, has a nice apartment, has everything that Bhima doesn't, and yet, because of this one thing she too is victimized.

Nalini Iyer:
So we talked briefly in the beginning about power of the who is, that foil to Bhima. They have a lot in common, but they're also starkly different. And it's amazing how Bhima's always perpetually surprised, "Wait, you can read and write?" She says to Parvati. It is only much later when Parvati is almost dying, that she tells Bhima her life story. And we learned that she was sold off into sex work and still managed to educate herself, gets married to a police officer and has a horrendously difficult life.

Nalini Iyer:
And what's interesting to me, is that the way you portray Parvati could have easily gone into, "Oh, the poor victim," or "Let's feel really sorry," or "Let's just romanticize this." There's that romanticizing the sex worker in a Bollywood trope that exists. I'm very interested in your take on sex work in India and how Parvati emerges from that milieu and how you shaped her story.

Thrity Umrigar:
I wanted her to be a sympathetic character because she is. A lot has happened in her life that she has absolutely no control over and that deserves our sympathy. But I don't want the reader to pity her because of the simple reason that Parvati would bristle, if she thought somebody was pitying her. She's too strong, she's come too long a way and walked a really hard road to earn somebody's pity. Solidarity, yes, sympathy, perhaps, but not pity.

Nalini Iyer:
What were you trying to convey about the life of sex workers? It seems as if that you do not want the whole, "It's a social evil," stance, because people can be critical, nor do you want the romanticized, "Oh, poor thing," object of pity, striking a very interesting balance. I was curious about that.

Thrity Umrigar:
I do feel like most of them, perhaps all of them are victims. They are victims of poverty and not just their own, but perhaps as in Parvati's case, their parents poverty, they are victims of a patriarchal culture, they are victims of a system that doesn't educate women in the numbers that it should. I can use the word victim without them becoming objects of pity.

Thrity Umrigar:
I started by saying that in a flash, I knew Parvati's backstory and then I thought I can do the sequel. The line that popped in my head, "She is the daughter of a man who sold her for the price of a cow." And I thought to myself, "What is this? Who is this man? What cow? What is all this about?" And then I thought famine and no rains for months and months and the cow being the only thing that's keeping the family alive.

Thrity Umrigar:
I feel less sorry for Parvati's father and the rest of her family as I do for her. I mean, I think that man really, really loved his daughter. And when you find out later in the novel, I'm not going to give that away. What actually happens to that family, you are left to wonder, was this an act of love and sacrifice to send her away, to give her one chance of finally escaping or was it just real desperation and maybe the money? I think this is unfortunately a very common... I mean, may not be this extreme in some situations, but it's choicelessness.

Nalini Iyer:
Speaking of choicelessness and patriarchy in the world of these two novels, a lot of the men are violent, predatory. Thinking of Viraf, I'm thinking of Serabai's husband, even Gopal, who is this wonderful lover person who courts Bhima and they have a happy marriage and then life circumstances and he abandons her. He gets angry, abandons her... very few positive male figures in these novels. We may sympathize with some of them, we may pity a few of them, but are no positive male figures. And in some ways, if you look at Serabai trapped in a violent marriage, and you look at someone like Bhima, it seems that the working class, Bhima, Parvati, they have actually greater agency than a middle-class woman. Do you want to talk about the violent men and agency and all of that?

Thrity Umrigar:
I Actually... I love Gopal. Gopal's whole life starts derailing after the industrial accident. Not just the accident, which he probably could've bounced back from, but how the bosses exploit that accident and really derail him. I see what Gopal does as almost inevitable. After Bhima insults him in public, I almost feel like she has backed him into such a tight corner that his response feels inevitable to me.

Thrity Umrigar:
I mean, I'm not saying that another man in that situation might not have made another choice, but Gopal does what he does in response to what she has done. She instigates that. Again, not assigning blame, just two unhappy people and two fearful people. I mean, they are basically without income now. So I'll set Gopal aside, but clearly the two men are in Sera's life, we don't get their backstory, so we don't know.

Thrity Umrigar:
But even the incident that happens with Viraf... I guess this is going to be a giant spoiler for whoever is interested in reading the first book, it was very important to me, that pivotal moment, when we realized who Viraf is, when he's done what he's doing, I didn't want it to be a violent rape. I wanted it to be a seduction. The abuse comes because of the difference in their ages, the difference in power, between the two of them and the way he flips on her.

Thrity Umrigar:
For whatever reason I wanted to soften that scene. I'm interested in exploring power relationships, whether they are class differences or gender differences. I'm describing a society where regardless of income, regardless of class background, men generally have more power. And what do human beings do when they have power? Many of them abuse it. And that's the reality I'm trying to get at.

Nalini Iyer:
So one of the things that I'm really interested as an academic is how much in your novels, there is a writing of the other. Whether it's growing up middle class, writing about working class Bombay or in some of your novels like The Story Hour, you have a black psychotherapist, and you have an essay even, it's called, I'm Indian, Can I Write About Black Characters? So, the question here is, how do you write cross-culturally or about an other with whom we don't share life experiences in some way, without cultural appropriation, because you do this really well. And importantly, how do you teach that skill to emerging writers?

Thrity Umrigar:
So, I mean, one of the things I say to my students is, every beginner writer gets this advice about, "Write what you know." It's just the common, standard advice. And I say, "Write what you don't know. But by the time you sit down to write what you don't know, you damn well better know it." So it's a paradox. I think it's totally fine to write about things that when we start out, we're strangers to, or at least we're not familiar with all that much.

Thrity Umrigar:
But it's like anything else, you have to do the work, you have to put in the work, you have to do whatever form of research that takes. Whether it's interviewing people or talking to them, or if it's book, library research. Whatever you need to do, you have to do. And I don't know if I'm right about this or not, but I happen to believe that intent matters. If I'm creating the character of Maggie, the Black, African-American therapist in The Story Hour, I'm not doing it just because one day I woke up and I suddenly want to write about a Black character. I'm coming to that with humility, with respect, with wanting to understand another culture.

Thrity Umrigar:
So I think those are the two things I would say to my students, because if I ask my 19 year old students to write what they know, I'll be getting 20 short stories, all about bars and vampires in bars. So it serves my interests to encourage them, to get out of their narrow little worlds and look into other things. But of course, and also reading, just reading about other cultures is a good way to gain some initial familiarity with other cultures.

Nalini Iyer:
And I see questions. So I'm going to switch us over to the audience. How did you come up with the name Bhima?

Thrity Umrigar:
Well, I'll be honest with you. I had a Bhima in my own life as a child, and even as a teenager. We had a domestic servant who used to work in my home, and her name was Bhima. All the events in the book are completely made up. As far as I know, my Bhima did not even have a daughter, much less a granddaughter, so of all of that is fiction. What is true is the physical description of the fictional Bhima and just the personality. I just borrowed, or stole even, from the real Bhima.

Thrity Umrigar:
I was very close to her as a child, and also as a teenager. I really loved her, but even more than love, I really respected her. I felt like I knew what character this woman had. I mean, she carried herself with a stoic dignity that would have been the envy of kings and queens. So when I wrote this book, in part, it was like a tribute to her and to other people like her, and I saw no point in changing the name.

Nalini Iyer:
Why didn't Gopal, or his son, seek out Bhima?

Thrity Umrigar:
Why did they not seek out Bhima? I'm not sure. I think maybe just pride. Pride and perhaps even a conviction that she was better off without them. I mean, Gopal is disabled and presumably an alcoholic when he leaves and we don't know how many years it has taken him to right that ship. And then what happens show fear... I mean, all that complex mess of human emotions probably kept him away. I think we learn by the end of the second book that he has never forgotten her, he's never stopped thinking about her or loving her. But he doesn't make that first move.

Nalini Iyer:
What inspired you to become a writer?

Thrity Umrigar:
I don't think it was a matter of inspiration. My earliest forms of writing were poems to my parents. Anytime I was refused a piece of chocolate or made to do homework or something, I mean, I'm talking about when I was five and six years old. I used to... I had this little study, which was right off their bedroom. And I used to go in there and scribble this horrible rhyming poetry. And then I would wait for when they were not in their rooms. And I would just like dart in and leave anonymous poems on their bed for them to read later. And of course they always guessed who the author...

Thrity Umrigar:
I remember still trying to make my handwriting so that they wouldn't recognize the identity, because at age five, I thought I was writing in such a grownup script, but they always did. But so I have always used writing as a way of dealing with emotions, and in some strange way, also weighing in on whatever issues of injustice that I saw in the world around me when you're five and six years old, that's sphere is very small, it only revolves around you. As you get older, hopefully it extends to other people. So it's not so much a matter of inspiration, it's just a matter of necessity. I breathe and I write.

Nalini Iyer:
So this next question is, how do you write your stories? Are they planned out or do you just let it flow through you as it comes?

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. I probably should start planning, but I don't. What I usually do is I'll go for long walks. And when I'm writing a book, I'll be honest with you, I take very long showers and I do all my writing either while I'm walking or in the shower. I never ever just turn on the computer to a blank screen and sit there. I mean, just the thought of it, even talking about it, petrifies me. So it's easier for me to just compose in my head. And most of the time before I decide on starting on a novel, because it takes a good six months to a year to get a good clean first draft, I like to have some idea as to what the arc, what that narrative arc of the novel is.

Thrity Umrigar:
There are times when I know the last line. When I wrote The Space Between Us, I knew the first line of the novel and I knew the last line of the novel, and then it was easy. Then I just have to figure out a way to bring those two lines and connect them like a piece of string. But sometimes you don't know, or sometimes you think you know how a book is going to end, and then towards the end, when you're in the last third, you just think, "Why am I doing this? I could be doing this and it would be so much better." And then you switch gears, but I don't outline on paper, usually.

Nalini Iyer:
And do you then, when you're walking or while doing stuff around the house, do you record your thoughts, audio record your thoughts or anything like that?

Thrity Umrigar:
No. I just-

Nalini Iyer:
So it's all in your head?

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. I just-

Nalini Iyer:
And then you type it out?

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah.

Nalini Iyer:
That's impressive.

Thrity Umrigar:
I always say to myself, and it's not like I remember every single thought that I have, I just played this game with myself where I say, if it's meant to be... or not even, that sounds too spiritual. If it's worth getting down on paper, I'll remember it. And if I don't, it doesn't belong in the book. And that's how I do it.

Nalini Iyer:
Very interesting. All right. So the next question, what's your favorite book and author?

Thrity Umrigar:
My two favorite authors, the ones I keep going back to are Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf. Stylistically, they are about as different as you can imagine, but they both know something about the human heart. They both have this deep understanding of human psychology, like what makes people tick and their character development. And then of course, just the majesty of their writing, the lyricism, it really just draws me in.

Thrity Umrigar:
So of course I love Beloved, I love The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I haven't read that in several years, but it's a brilliant book. I just remember the first time I tried reading it, I was a teenager and this is the only book that this has ever happened to me with. I read three or four pages and I was just so overwhelmed with the feeling of the book, just the language that I put it aside. It was like, I couldn't do it. And I tried three or four times as I grew older until I finally read it in my late 20s. But that's the power of writing, when you're so touched and so overwhelmed that it's almost too much.

Nalini Iyer:
We have another question. What made you want to write children's books?

Thrity Umrigar:
Children, I just love kids and I've always wanted to write children's books. I feel like in some ways I understand children and kittens and puppies better than I do my peers. And the first one I wrote, it's called When I Carried You In My Belly, it's a mom saying, "When I carried you in my belly, we used to do this and this. And as a result of that, you are now the sweetest girl or the most generous girl." So it's a very affirming book.

Thrity Umrigar:
And I wanted to write something, especially for little girls that was cause and effect, that all the attention and all the [inaudible 00:42:33] and all the love and all the respect that you give a young child, you're shaping their bones by doing that. And that book came to me, I was on a 45 minute plane flight and it was one of those very bumpy flights. And just to distract myself from what was happening all around me I took one of those United napkins and wrote the whole book out on that napkin. So by the time the plane landed, I had a book. That was my first children's book and I've only written two others since then.

Nalini Iyer:
I'm really glad you are, because I have two daughters who are 21 and 25. And I wish when they were off the picture book age, there had been books like this one. I did gift the book about When You Were In My Belly to a friend's child, because I think it's wonderful for South Asian children in particular to have South Asian writers doing picture books and telling stories. And I'm grateful that that number is starting to increase, but can't happen soon enough.

Thrity Umrigar:
No, it's true. And the two books, the two others that came out this past fall, one is a Diwali book, it's show and tell for this little Indian American kid when she tells the story of Diwali, and the other is called Sugar And Milk and that's-

Nalini Iyer:
It's like a Parsi origin story.

Thrity Umrigar:
Parsi origin story, and I just modernize it and make it apply to our situation today. And I wrote that book because of what was happening in this country with the demonization of immigrants, and I just felt like there had to be a new model, that there is a different path that a host country can take just as India did 1000 years ago, taking a chance on Persian refugees. And I would claim that it's paid off. It's paid off for both sides, both have sweetened each other's lives.

Thrity Umrigar:
And that was a story that I grew up, as a young Parsi child, I grew up hearing that story, and I have to say that when I came to this country at 21, I would think about that story. It acted as a blueprint for my life here, as an immigrant here. And I used to tell that story to adult audiences on book tour, and no matter which part of the country I was in, people would respond to that story in the same way, with great enthusiasm. And then one day I woke up and I thought, "What am I doing wasting this beautiful legend on adults?" The real audience, the people who need to learn lessons of kindness and generosity and hospitality are kids. So that's why I wrote that book.

Nalini Iyer:
What's your next book? What are you working on?

Thrity Umrigar:
Two things, I have a novel that's coming out in January of next year.

Nalini Iyer:
Oh, wonderful.

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. It's called Honor. It's again, the story of two women. One was this Indian American journalist who is forced to go to India. All we know is she leaves with her family when she's, I think, 14 years old, hasn't been back in 20 years and we don't know the reason why she's been fearful of going back. And the story that she's there to cover, is the story of this woman who lives in a village in India.

Thrity Umrigar:
The story is that the woman is suing her Hindu brothers for the death of her Muslim husband, and when the novel opens they're just waiting for the verdict and Smita flies in to cover that story. And basically what happens between the two of them and just their parallel stories. We learn about each of their backgrounds. So.

Nalini Iyer:
Wonderful.

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah.

Nalini Iyer:
And anything else in progress?

Thrity Umrigar:
Yeah. I'm working on another book too right now, and that-

Nalini Iyer:
Probably too early to talk about or?

Thrity Umrigar:
I think so. Yeah. It's more of an immigration story, but yeah.

Nalini Iyer:
So, thank you. This has been a wonderful conversation and I really enjoyed getting to know you and your work. So thank you very much for sharing your evening with us.

Thrity Umrigar:
Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to do this, and also thank you for your own work.

Nalini Iyer:
Oh, thank you.

Thrity Umrigar:
It's just invaluable. So thanks so much, I really appreciate it. And thanks Emily for having me.

Emily Calkins:
Well, my pleasure. Thank you, both of you, for being with us tonight. Our next event is on May 20th. We're hosting Mateo Askaripour who wrote Black Buck, which came out earlier this year and was on the bestseller list. And just thanks again, everyone. This is a really wonderful conversation. Have a great night.