The 2018 Blue Light Books Prize for an outstanding story collection is open until February 9. In this interview, final prize judge Samrat Upadhyay discusses writing politics, madness, and what he expects from a powerful short story collection.
Samrat Upadhyay is the author of the short story collections Arresting God in Kathmandu (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), The Royal Ghosts (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), and Mad Country (Soho Press), and the novels The Guru of Love (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), Buddha’s Orphans (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010), and The City Son (Soho Press 2014). Upadhyay has also co-edited the anthology Secret Places: New Writing from Nepal (University of Hawai’i Press). His honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, an Asian American Literary Award, and the Society of Midland Authors Book Award. He teaches in the MFA program at Indiana University – Bloomington.
1)What are your writerly obsessions? What subject matter do you find yourself returning to again and again?
I find myself obsessing over the temporary nature of our life experiences. Nothing is stable, nothing guaranteed, nothing tangible that we can point to and say: Yes, that truly exists in the here and now as I’m experiencing it. This sense of the transitory nature of our experience permeates all the themes that I play with in my fiction: family, spiritual quest, politics, cross-cultural tensions, and the interplay between tradition and modernity, especially in Nepal.
2) Writing about politics is notoriously difficult. What advice can you offer for creative writers who want to address pressing political topics, but find that their writing comes across as too moralizing or pedantic?
There is no such thing as politics that’s not individual, and I think when we try to write about larger issues without anchoring them in our characters is when writing threatens to becoming preachy and shrill. Even more important is that once you begin pontificating you might be writing something else, not literature. Even when a writer wants to write what she’s passionate about, she has to consider that human beings are complex creatures: a character can be simultaneously a tyrant and a victim, a rebel and a coward, a progressive in his broad political outlook yet privately conservative. So a writer needs to move across the political landscape of her fiction with care and subtlety and nuance, paying attention to the needs of the moment rather than an ideal in her head.
3) Could you attempt to answer the questions posed in the Mad Country book description: “Is it the past that’s mad, or the present? Or are we the mad ones, for believing in any particular system—that it will endure, that our positions in it will be safe?”
I might go mad in trying to answer them, but I’ll try. The “madness” of our lives—our thought processes, our memories, the way we cling to our political views—has been quite obvious to me for a while now, even as I lead a fairly sedate life of a college professor (in other words, a college professor’s sedate life is fake news). The most recent political changes in this country have shown us that madness can erupt to the surface of our consciousness—of our individual and private and our collective and public consciousness—at a moment’s notice. And of course the past is mad. Look at the violence and dehumanization on which this country’s prosperity was founded, the prosperity that we now so easily consume and enjoy. We’re crazy to think that we’re safe from it all.
4) What are your current writing projects?
I am at work on a dystopian novel set in Nepal. Let me just leave it at that.
5) What draws you into a short story collection? What might you be looking for when reading for the 2018 Blue Light Books Prize?
My expectations for a short story collection aren’t that different from what I’d expect from a novel: I want to be drawn into a story, a story with an engaging protagonist and a clearly articulated sense of urgency—a story that’s dying to be told, and told now. In a collection, each story has to accomplish this, but each story need not be brilliant (some are!). Some stories can let other stories do the “talking” while they quietly work hard in the background, giving the book that extra flavor, that added meaning, that angle the reader might not have considered before. By the time I finish reading the collection, I should have a sense of a larger story that has emerged—difficult, intangible, mysterious—a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. And I want to read good writing, sentence by sentence.
The deadline for the 2018 Blue Light Books Prize is February 9, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. Click here to submit your short story manuscript.