Interview with Ranbir Singh Sidhu

In April, I reviewed Good Indian Girls by Ranbir Singh Sidhu, and mentioned specifically his exacting use of detail, purposeful use of violence, and sharp examination of the ways cultures intersect. Good Indian Girls garnered critical praise from Kirkus, Barnes & Noble, and a host of literary icons. Sidhu has won a Pushcart Prize and a New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship.

I was so intrigued and awed by these stories that I wanted to learn more about Sidhu’s process and approach to his stories. He was kind enough to answer my questions.

 

Q: Most of your characters feel some kind of displacement. Can you talk about what “home” means to you?

A: That’s a funny question, because right now I feel utterly homeless. I’m technically based in New York. I pay my taxes there and most of my belongings are there, but I’m living in Crete for the summer and maybe the fall. I’m not sure yet when, or even if, I’m going back, or where I’ll be going from here.

For me as a person, the idea of home is one I feel increasingly distant from. I’ve never felt “at home” anywhere—it’s a stance that’s been useful to me as a writer, for it’s allowed me to remain to some degree an outsider.

It’s also a deeply uncomfortable feeling, and one I don’­­­t particularly enjoy, and yet I have no experience of the opposite—what it would feel like to be at home somewhere, or to have a sense that you come from somewhere, that you have a hometown, that you have a place to go where you feel accepted and yourself. All of these experiences are completely alien to me.

 

Q: How does that translate into the collection?

A: For me, ideas of exile, of orphanhood, and of homelessness seem central to the age we live in. Of course, this is also personal, in that my own experience, at least emotionally, is very much this. But in writing fiction today, I find that the stories that most attract me are those that rise out of a state of untetheredness—characters free-falling through their lives or floating freely, though not necessarily out of wanting to, through the world.

This sense that in this modern age we’ve lost our handholds, and so much that in the past might have grounded us, is a vision of the world that I use my characters to partly explore. And when so many people talk about ideas of identity today, I think they often make a mistake—what they’re really talking about, this experience of loss of self or the search for an idea of self, is a much deeper idea of homelessness that is central to the world we live in.

Just to give one example—I doubt anyone who is over thirty and grew in anything like a decent-sized city or town, really recognizes that city or town anymore. Even if they’ve lived there their whole lives. That past is quite literally gone, and around them a new city has been built. It’s almost perverse to keep calling it the same name.

New York City is not the city it was thirty years ago—or perhaps even ten years ago. The same is true for so much else in our lives. This is deeply destabilizing. And I suppose, to get back to the stories, using the prism of Indian immigrants, which is my experience, to look at questions of wider emotional and physical dislocation in our lives, is part of what I do in this book.

 

Q: Can you talk a little about your typical creative process and practice?

A: It’s generally undisciplined and unstructured. I write when I can, for as long as I can. When I’m exhausted, I stop or take a walk. The same goes for my process, in the sense that it’s undisciplined. It’s also something I’m not that interested in investigating deeply. I think what’s important in finding a creative process is figuring out a way to give real breathing room to your largest possible self—especially to that deeply empathetic being inside all of us who is able to reach out with his or her mind and inhabit another person in all their strangeness and complexity and human richness.

 

Q: You write amazing sentences. Each one is lush and vivid with action or fresh descriptions. How do you do it?

A: Thank you—I’m glad you noticed the attention at the sentence level. At university, I studied with the avant-garde French novelist Monique Wittig, who placed enormous significance on working at the sentence level. She taught me a great deal, though usually very quietly. She would look at a whole page, then very softly bring the point of her finger down on a single word, and say, that in her opinion, this one word needed to be “suppressed.” She would, invariably, pick the one word that would have ramifications throughout the text, and it would be a lesson I could apply to the rest of my work. Those tiny “suppressions” of hers were incredibly important for me—they were like small bombs that went off in my mind, which sent shudders throughout all my work—and they helped teach me how to write powerful and taut sentences.

 

Q: You’ve held quite a few jobs. Which one has been most helpful to you as a writer? Why?

A: All of them have been helpful, even the ones I hated, but I’ll focus on one. For several years after college, I worked as an archaeologist. There’s something about the hard physical labor, where you’re literally digging in the dirt, the intensive lab work and the often multidisplinary research required to write up the reports, that resonated for me as a writer.

It was a job that required using all of me—and I think the craft of writing requires the same. It’s not just about the imagination, but it equally involves the body, and being embodied with your characters, feeling them battling inside you. And of course, research in widely disparate fields, and figuring out ways to bring that all together. The more of yourself that you can pour into your writing, the stronger the writing will become.

 

Q: Finally, what would you like your readers to take away from Good Indian Girls?

These stories are all personal for me, and in many ways, every character here is drawn from a deep part of my own self and my own conflicts. But it’s also an attempt to widen how we imagine the immigrant experience today. Our vision of that has become increasingly narrow, as far as I can see, with much of it being based on exoticzied or eroticized visions of different food cultures, on clothing, on the minutiae of behavior and cultural difference.

What’s lost here is that behind the clothes, behind the food, behind the language tics, are some very complex individuals whose lives don’t revolve around their own sense of identity—they have that, they know that—but whose lives are much richer and more fractured, and through whose eyes we can see to look at larger questions, questions which are more interesting to me.

I would also add that it’s an attempt at writing experience from the inside out—I’m not looking to explain or to offer lessons in an anthropology of otherness, but to place on paper the lived inner experience of my characters.

Buy Good Indian Girls at Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or your local indie bookstore.

What do you think?