Sayantani Dasgupta is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between and The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. Sayantani is an award-winning essayist and fiction writer who received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Idaho. To read more about Sayantani, please visit her website. You can purchase Fire Girl here and The House of Nails here. Hear Sayantani read from her debut collection of essays and get your copy signed at 7:30 PM on September 27 at Book People of Moscow.
C: I found myself very drawn to the namesake of the book, the essay called “Fire Girl.” While I share the burden of and am still trying to write about similar violations, I deeply connected with your essay and I’m curious about how Draupadi has sustained you, as a child and now.
S: As a child, Draupadi was easy to like. I didn’t have the word for it back then but I think I found her enigmatic. For me, she was the central character of the Mahabharata, one of India’s oldest epics and my favorite book. She made things happen even when she was not there. As an adult, I still admire Draupadi but now I also have a great deal of empathy for her and for all the ways in which she was misunderstood. That’s the beauty of mythology and all timeless stories, isn’t it? They allow us to see ourselves in them and perhaps recognize our own flaws and human foibles. For me, Draupadi is a feminist icon not just because she is fearless or generous but because she is also unforgiving and never forgets slights. If such unapologetically authentic women could exist two thousand years ago, why can’t we do the same? Why do we have such a need to be liked?
I’m curious about the process of writing this essay (and the entire collection). When did you feel it absolutely must be written?
I entered my MFA program as a fiction writer. In my second semester, however, I took a class on creative nonfiction with Professor Kim Barnes. It blew me away. I had no idea I could write about myself in such an intimate way and that that would be considered important. Literary. Beautiful. I thought nonfiction meant travel writing or food writing or memoirs by retired politicians. The idea that I, at twenty-six, had personal, worthy stories to tell was unbelievable. I couldn’t stop. I switched genres from fiction to nonfiction. My MFA thesis became a collection of essays, which since then has grown to become the two books that came out this July—Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between, and the flash nonfiction chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood.
It’s obvious that you’ve devoured words since you could read and that education, rightly so, is precious to you. One thread throughout the collection is the way that your family fed and encouraged your passions and the tension between that experience vs. women who, like Sona, were never given the opportunity or who don’t value knowledge. Can you speak more to that?
Once I overheard two students at the University of Idaho library talking about how the words “biography” and “bibliography” mean the same thing. I was astonished especially given the fact that they were both half buried into their smartphones, they had in front of them their open laptops, presumably connected to the internet, and they had the might of an entire university’s main library surrounding them, hugging them close. And yet, and yet, it did not occur to either of them to pick up either their phones or key into their laptops search engine the words “biography” and “bibliography” and understand the difference themselves. I tell this often to my students, there is no harm in not knowing something, but there is incredible harm if you are not curious about the world. I have empathy for those without opportunities but in this day and age, with the world on our fingertips thanks to smartphones, it is unforgivable to be ill-informed.
As an instructor, you now bring and share your knowledge with students. Is this something you always desired and imagined doing? What is it about what you do that is most exciting and important to you? Your interactions with your students and with education comprise a bulk of these pieces.
I wanted to be a teacher when I was very young but that changed over the years. After I got my bachelor’s and first master’s degree, I worked for four years in the publishing industry as an editor. When I quit that to become a student again, this time for my master’s degree in creative writing, I began to teach as a way to financially support myself. It was then that I realized I quite liked it. For me, the most perfect moments of teaching have nothing to do with a student getting a perfect grade. Instead, it’s when a student asks a truly riveting question or gushes about something they have read or an author they have discovered thanks to my class. I also love hearing from former students who are now scattered around the globe, pursuing kick-ass careers and dreams of their own. Hearing from them about their achievements is always an incredible honor.
What are some things that you miss most from home?
Family. Mangos. The explosion of languages. The traditional respect for education and toward the well-educated.
Do you have other projects in the works? What is happening?
Yes, I am working on two novels, one of which is YA, and it is about a girl who loses her brother to a violent crime and has to figure out how to keep the family together while everything else around her is falling apart. My third project is a collection of short stories, and each story features a woman behaving very, very badly.
If you had to describe this collection in one word, what would that word be?
Is there anything you’d like to share?
I’m with Her.