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10 Questions for Geetha Iyer

Meena bazaar looked like someone had swept up all the portside towns that ran from the Persian Gulf through the Hormuz past Karachi, Gujarat, and Bombay down to the Malabar Coast, scrunched all these crusty places into a fist and daubed the re­mains onto the mouth of the Dubai Creek, installed thousands of AC boxes in every window and then waited for the pigeons to find their way home. It smelled of pav bhaji and shawarma, of frying oil and chai, of the humid press of bodies at work from dawn past the fall of night. It smelled, at noon, when the shops were shuttered against the heat and every man of sense and means took siesta, like an absence of rain, like brickwork disintegrating. —from “Sandhya’s Station,” Volume 60, Issue 1 (Spring 2019)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first real story I wrote was as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. I’d procrastinated and was pulling an all-nighter to finish it. I knew nothing about plotting, character development, mood-building, symbolism. The story was semi-autobiographical, about my grandmother’s slow deterioration. I had three narrators, a child, mother, and grandmother. I was stuck, and so frustrated that around two or three a.m. I just wrote the child narrator into a dream-space, because I knew the conflicts in the waking story were never going to be resolved in the time I had left to turn in the assignment. I then woke the child up from the dream, sent her into her grandmother’s room to hover over the bed, waiting for a sign of breath. I still remember how I punched in the last sentence, with as much fury as relief: “And now we just wait for the train to come back.”

That last line came echoing out of the child’s dreamscape, surreal and unplanned. At the time, it was like I was letting go of the problem central to the story—how does one deal with fear of death—by putting it on my future self to find the answer in second-draft edits. It was only later that I realized it was a good ending. It worked symbolically, and it left the weight of the resolution on the reader’s interpretation. I’d hit upon something fundamental to storytelling—that instead of controlling everything, I needed to let go, to end on potentiality, so the audience comes to the conclusion and has to consider what might follow. I discovered this by accident, which is my only endorsement for procrastination, because it fuels a sort of feverish creativity and troubleshooting mindset you could never access if you plan everything out beforehand.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Here are some poets whose books I keep close to my writing desk at present: Solmaz Sharif, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Tracy K. Smith, Pattiann Rogers. The way they weave the political, the domestic, and the natural world into something as crystalline as a poem, it’s incredible. It’s what I want to do on a sentence-by-sentence level in fiction.

But the novel-in-stories I’m currently editing—of which “Sandhya’s Station” is a chapter—owes its structure to Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid (published as Who Do You Think You Are? in Canada). I don’t actually know how to sustain a narrative beyond twenty-odd pages. Novels are beasts. Reading The Beggar Maid gave me a model for character growth within the chapter-by-chapter framework of short stories. Before I started the first draft of my novel, Resident Aliens, I wrote down the first and last sentences of every story in The Beggar Maid as a way to summarize how far you could move the “plot” of a character’s internal growth. Each family member in “Sandhya’s Station” is the protagonist of a different chapter in Resident Aliens. Does the novel have a plot? I don’t know yet, because I haven’t stepped far enough away from the work as a whole. But I intended for each chapter to have its own sustained arc and, for now, the process is working.

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve worked in environmental education, doing curriculum development through my first master’s degree at the University of Florida. I’ve done science communication, interpreting research at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. I’ve taught English composition. And although this has almost always been as a volunteer, the most professionally satisfying work I’ve done has been community-based—facilitating writing, art, and theater workshops, and outdoor education about natural resource management.

What did you want to be when you were young?
Chronologically from age five to twenty—a doctor, a veterinarian, a geneticist, a conservation biologist.

What inspired you to write this piece?
I grew up in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Because it’s such an international place, it’s been foundational for learning how women from various conservative and patriarchal cultures find agency and self-worth in what they do. My mother worked in commercial arts before she was married at twenty and had to become a homemaker—this year, two years shy of her sixtieth birth, she became a yoga instructor. When I was a child, she would always point out women we knew in Dubai whose work ethic she admired—self-made professionals like our hairdresser and my ballet teacher. She told me how strong they were for putting so much into their careers while raising their children, often without any other help. I was thinking about these women, and my own mother, as I wrote Sandhya’s story.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Dubai, from 1986 to 2003, shaped my childhood, my value for cultural diversity, my understanding of economic injustice through labor commodification, and my longing for the natural in the most urban of landscapes.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I cannot have music while I write, especially if it’s beautiful or includes lyrics. But I sometimes play chill-hop with the volume dialed down, or white noise—like eight-hour YouTube videos of rainfall or waves breaking. I read out loud when I edit, which requires silence, and nobody else in earshot. 

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
So, I wrote the first draft of this story—actually the whole first draft of the novel—at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in Oregon, in 2016. They’d provided me with a beautiful studio home and a writing office and the first thing I did was move the coffee pot from the house to the office. Next, I got into a weird habit of waking up at eleven a.m. and going to bed at three a.m.—I do my best writing at night, I think. And then I gathered a few books that I thought would be guiding lights through the writing process and placed them prominently on my desk so I could pick a page at random when I felt stuck with my own work—The Beggar Maid and Solmaz Sharif’s Look were among the assortment at that time. I haven’t kept those crazy sleep hours, but coffee and emblematic books—different ones for different writing projects—are important to me still..

What are you working on currently?
I’m continuing the grueling process of editing Resident Aliens, chapter by chapter—the family you meet in “Sandhya’s Station” have some sixty years to traverse over the course of the novel. But I’m also assembling a short story collection about artists and mad scientists and archivists. I think I might finish that before the novel. I’m also putting together a book-length collection of poetry, Mapping the Tongue. It’s useful to jump between these projects, whenever any one of them gets me down.

What are you reading right now?
Carlos Fuentes’ Aura, very slowly, with a dictionary and pencil to underline all the words I don’t know in Spanish. The most recent books I finished are Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, and Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen (translated by Megan Backus).

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