Interview with Neela Vaswani, co-author, Same Sun Here
Neela Vaswani is author of the short story collection Where the Long Grass Bends, and a memoir, You Have Given Me a Country. She is the recipient of the American Book Award, an O. Henry Prize, the ForeWord Book of the Year gold medal, the Nautilus Book Award gold medal, and many other honors. She is also co-author of the Middle Grade novel-in-letters, Same Sun Here. Her fiction and nonfiction have been widely anthologized and published in journals such as Epoch, Shenandoah, and Prairie Schooner. She has been a Visiting-Writer-in-Residence at more than 100 institutions, among them: Knox College, 92nd Street Y (Tribeca), the Jimenez-Porter House at the University of Maryland, Kentucky Women Writers Conference, the Whitney Museum in New York City, and IIIT Hyderabad, India. She has a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies, lives in New York City, and teaches at Manhattanville College’s MFA in Writing Program and Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing Program. An education activist in India and the United States, Vaswani is founder of the Storylines Project with the New York Public Library.
Her father is Sindhi-Indian and her mother is Irish-Catholic. By the time Vaswani was eighteen, her family had lived in thirteen homes and traveled to twenty-five countries on doctor swaps and teaching tours. Vaswani has held a number of waitressing jobs, from chicken shacks to comedy clubs, and she paid off her school loans by cocktail waitressing at a fondue bar in NYC. Her first job was at a one-hour photo booth on Long Island. She has also dressed Armani models, delivered telephone books, worked cattle round-ups and barbed wire fencing, ripped tickets at a movie theatre, been a maid, a stage manager, a secretary, a prop girl for two independent movies, and driven an ice cream truck. She is left-handed although she plays the fiddle and knits right-handed. She loves paleontology, the Indian railway system, female detectives on television, goats, bats, bad-tempered camels, her husband, and online Boggle.
Gigi Amateau: What I love most about Same Sun Here is the depth with which the spiritual, political, and creative lives of Meena and River are portrayed. And, that through letters they find a way to share their true selves with another kindred spirit. What was your interior life like in childhood?
Neela Vaswani: Thanks for your words! I think most kids have a pretty vivid interior life and I guess I was no exception. On the outside, especially with people I didn’t know, I was shy and quiet. Inside, I remember feeling like I was bursting with emotions and ideas. I felt connected to books and what I read in them. I was curious and optimistic. I also had a strong sense that my family was different from most families (especially in the 70s and 80s)–my father is Indian, Hindu, immigrant, and my mother is first-generation Irish-Catholic. So because of my parents (as well as what I learned from my mother’s gay friends and cousins about being “out and proud”), I had an awareness of personal politics–that who you are and where you come from shapes you, and, sometimes, how the world views you. That awareness really influenced my interior life and made me think about things like social justice and how people treat each other.
GA:Did you have a friend like River or Meena who allowed you to be your true self?
NV: I did. My friend Allyson. We were very different. I was more of a “tomboy” and she was more “girly;” I was always reading and she didn’t care for books; she was Jewish and I was Hindu, etc, etc. But we understood each other and gave each other space to be ourselves. We also learned a lot from our differences. I always felt safe and comfortable with Ally. I felt like together we could take on and face anything.
GA: How did writing this book influence the friendship between you and your co-author, Silas House?
NV: It kept and keeps us connected. I don’t like to speak for Silas but I believe we are both happy to have created something concrete together–a conscientious, good-hearted book that speaks to a wide array of people and (hopefully) brings folks closer together.
GA:Meena and River are especially connected to their grandmothers. Those connections – Meena to Dadi and River to Meemaw – are potent and powerful. What is the secret to writing such resonant intergenerational relationships?
NV: When I was a kid, my paternal grandmother came from India to live with us for a while; my maternal grandfather lived with us from when I was born till he died when I was eighteen. I never thought of my grandparents as “old” or “out of touch.” To me, they were people I could count on and learn from and have fun with. I valued their stories and knowledge. In terms of Same Sun Here, I let that perspective and my real life experiences in an intergenerational household seep into my writing about Meena and Dadi and Meena and Mrs. Lau.
GA:Both Meena and River draw strength from the natural world, too. When things get tough, each of them physically aches for the landscape they’ve come to love. In speaking with young readers, do you find that they are passionate about the earth like Meena and River are?
NV: Yes. It’s been inspiring. I’ve mostly talked with kids in NYC, DC, Baltimore, Boston–east coast, big city kids. They’re deeply connected to their patch of pavement and bit of earth, to the gardens and parks and trees and rivers of their cities (as well as the buildings and streets and subways). They’re concerned about resources and energy conservation, about land, water, and air and how best to live with gentleness and respect towards all living things.
GA:Please complete this sentence: Strong girls_____
NV: are the engine of the world and are everywhere–including inside you!