“Histories of Dislocation”: A Conversation with Namrata Poddar
By Torsa GhosalApril 25, 2022
Namrata was raised in Mumbai, India, has lived in France and Mauritius, and is currently based in the Greater Los Angeles area. Her debut novel, Border Less, tackles two contradictory but irrepressible human urges: to settle and to move. The novel was a finalist for The Feminist Press’s Louise Meriwether First Book Prize and is now out from 7.13 Books.
Border Less follows the journey of Dia Mittal, an agent at an airline call center, from Mumbai to the United States. Through Dia’s search for a better life, the novel delves into the American Dream, explores the fluidity of cultural and national identities, and examines class conflicts. The book’s structure is fragmentary, with chapters told from the points of view of various characters — a few recurring perspectives compete with some minor ones. Even as the novel celebrates a profusion of experiences, what stood out for me were Namrata’s references to Marwari art and culture, not only as details that enrich the narrative’s texture but also as a way of life, a philosophy of wandering.
In an email exchange, Namrata talked with me about her art, which straddles multiple artistic and cultural boundaries.
Author photo by Elena Bessi.
TORSA GHOSAL: Do you remember when and how you started writing the book? What was the driving force?
NAMRATA PODDAR: I started writing Border Less in 2004 in a notebook in my Mumbai home, when I was on sabbatical from my PhD program, although I didn’t know I was starting the journey with a novel then. I yearned to write for a nonacademic audience, and I yearned to write about everyday things in a language that would reflect my community, its history and ideology. I wrote simply to express myself in that notebook — I didn’t know what to do next with my fiction, where and how to receive feedback on it. Where I came from, the concept of writing workshops did not exist. Even today, I see the institutionalization of creative writing as a middle- to upper-class American phenomenon, one that is being exported across the world.
I returned to the US to finish my graduate studies, then moved to Los Angeles for a postdoctoral position since these helped me pay my bills. As I continued to scribble in my notebook over the weekends, I discovered a world of writing workshops through UCLA Extension, one of the country’s largest writing programs. Soon thereafter, I joined a low-residency MFA program in order to learn about the basics of craft. My MFA thesis involved layers and layers of revision to the writing that began in my notebook in 2004, and eventually became Border Less.
At different points of the novel’s journey, the impetus toward writing changed; although, looking back, it feels like an organic progression of “plot”: from playful exploration with fiction to a scholarly training in reading critically to learning the craft of fiction writing to unlearning aspects of craft that didn’t serve my path, knowing how much of what we understand as art or craft in the West is steeped in a white, cis-male, upper-class, Judeo-Christian tradition.
The epigraph to your book quotes Édouard Glissant (translated by Betsy Wing): “Everywhere that the obligation to get around the rule of silence existed a literature was created that has no ‘natural’ continuity, if one may put it that way, but, rather, bursts forth in snatches and fragments.” This prepared me for the discontinuous storytelling. I did wonder, though, about your decision to call the collection of “snatches and fragments” a “novel.” What kinds of freedoms and constraints did the “novel” form bring to your writing?
The novel is a highly malleable form, and for this reason, writing one felt freeing when it comes to certain questions of structure. But even if we were to consider strict boundaries separating longer fiction narratives from shorter ones, the decision to call my book a novel didn’t bother me after the initial self-doubts I had because of internalized colonialism and the voices in my head mediated by the American literary establishment and market forces. For these voices, the “novel” stayed as close as possible to the Western realist novel — an imperial form, as Edward Said has called it — and its focus on character and conflict, or a psychological drama experienced by one or few protagonists, shown often through visual details and narrative fillers that won’t interrupt an implied bourgeois reader’s experience of a “vivid and continuous dream” (in the words of John Gardner). I see this form of storytelling as dominant for much of the critically acclaimed or award-winning American literary fiction today, although it has been critiqued by several writers and intellectuals of color for a while now, including Said, Glissant, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, and Gish Jen.
Even within contemporary American literature, there is a rich tradition of BIPOC storytelling that doesn’t care to uphold an aesthetic of 19th-century novels or realism in the West. Here, I’m thinking of novels that foreground community, nonlinearity, fragmentation, and orality over the idea of a heroic protagonist, linearity, continuity, and writing in scenes. These include Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (1984), Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker (2004), Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005), Justin Torres’s We the Animals (2011), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans (2014), and many other novels by writers of color that resist neat borders between long and short fiction.
Bottom line, then: The moment I moved away from the white gaze defining the novel in my head and stayed with a BIPOC lineage of storytelling, I could unapologetically call my book a novel, one that may not reflect my colonizer’s history but definitely honors my communal and individual history as a brown woman who grew up in a postcolonial India, within a “fragmented” archipelago-city of Mumbai, and who has desert roots in a migrant Marwari community, and who migrated further to one of the largest imperial powers in the world.
The book does not read as strictly linear. What were some considerations for you as you arranged the chapters in a particular order?
Dia’s story reads fairly chronological to me, but you’re right, it is repeatedly disrupted by other stories from her community that don’t collectively offer a linear progression of plot in conventional ways.
The book first started as a collection of stories where Dia and the different situations she found herself in recurred, along with stories of other characters from her community. For instance, a chapter in the novel centers Noor, Dia’s Indo-African bestie who is hanging out with her Indian American family as they’re considering a visit to the motherland for their common friend’s wedding. Around that time, I’d also written a story from a Nepali domestic worker’s perspective as she watches her employers in Mumbai host their NRI family, showing how blind upper-class Indians are to their privileges of class and passports. Similarly, the dance of Shiva and Shakti returned organically as a detail within the book, and without any intention on my part, Shakti’s voice in my head insisted on ending the book with her cosmic dance.
In terms of sequencing, the chapters often came together fairly organically. It’s likely this happened because Border Less was written over 17 years, and this time span allowed me to be in a place of deep listening and letting the book guide me to completion. When I did arrange the stories more intentionally, it was to put them in place-based sections, Mumbai and Greater Los Angeles, two dominant spaces in the book that were then subtitled “Roots” and “Routes,” even if other places do take up space within the novel.
In “Roots,” there is a memorable description of Dia and her cousin daydreaming and dancing at Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach. The two college students from middle-class families with great expectations about the future are “manipulating their skirt and make-believing, both oblivious to the power of their imagination.” I was struck by how aptly the moment and your language there encapsulate the spirit of Border Less. Ordinary people’s imagination carries transformative power in the world of your novel. Was it something about your experiences that made you treat imagination as intention?
Imagination has always driven creatives across the world, and it is inherent in human nature if you observe little children at play. I’ve always been a dreamer too: raised by a single mother in a middle-class India, I felt a constant need to protect my imagination from patriarchal and communal voices around me that wanted to steer my life toward a path I didn’t care for. Besides, as a yoga lover, I’m aware of most spiritual traditions in the world, and especially a yogic one where thought creates reality and vice versa.
In the book, when Dia and Rani dance and speak aloud their dreams, they may not be their yogic selves consciously directing thought toward reality, but they are in play and flirting with imagination that’s unsullied by other voices in their heads. As I understand it, this kind of play is a potent matrix of creation. Within a world of fiction, or beyond, those dreams spoken aloud couldn’t not manifest as reality.
Your incorporation of Marwari culture into the story signals a unique approach to migration and movement. Conversations about cross-border movement, especially in America, default to a vocabulary that is bureaucratic and intended to police the mobility of racialized bodies. You offer an alternative language and way of thinking — how did you arrive at these?
Conversations about migration in the US, whether in fiction or in mass media, happen often through a racialized lens focused on border crossings from a Global South into a Global North. We surely need as many conversations around this as possible, especially as the “land of the free” gets increasingly infamous for caging brown children at its borders. That said, migration today is a global phenomenon, if it hasn’t always been one. And we need to make space not only in American letters but also within South Asian–American writing to talk of it in ways that reflect the diversity of migrant histories.
Among the different immigrant characters who inhabit the world of Border Less, we have stories of a Nepali maid in India and an Afro-Asian refugee on an Indian Ocean island that center South to South migration, or Noor’s story as a fourth-generation Indo-African in America, or Dia’s story as a first-generation Indian American with roots in a migrant desert community. These stories highlight different routes of border crossing than those we usually encounter in multiethnic American fiction (including South Asian–American fiction). Broadening the lens toward migration in my novel wasn’t much of a conscious effort because it comes directly from my lived experience in Indian and American cities, in Mauritius and France, and from my ancestral history from the Thar Desert — all spaces rich with histories of dislocation.
You grew up in India, speaking Hindi, English, Marathi, and, later on, French. You speak a basic Gujarati and Marwari too, and you earned a PhD in French literature studying migration in the Indian Ocean area. I could see how the range of languages and cultures you are acquainted with contributes to the rich and buzzing world of Border Less. I am curious to know how the literary traditions of these many cultures have influenced you. To which literary traditions would you want your book to belong?
I’m most influenced by writing that tries to imagine what it means to tell one’s story from outside a colonial imagination. Given how Europe literally colonized about 90 percent of the planet by the early 20th century, this means literature produced by the global majority, although I’m most drawn to contemporary Anglophone writing from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, and stories by Black, Indigenous, and other writers of color in North America. Also, given my personal and communal history, Border Less draws inspiration from Sanskrit literature, especially mythological stories from the Puranas, oral storytelling of Asia via The Thousand and One Nights, The Panchatantra, and The Jataka Tales, and much from the performative, architectural, and visual storytelling traditions of Rajasthan, including dance, miniature paintings, and Marwari havelis of the Thar Desert. Lastly, parts of my novel are equally influenced by cinematic storytelling that’s omnipresent in both my homes, Mumbai and Greater Los Angeles — the homes to Bollywood and Hollywood. In varying degrees, I see Border Less as belonging to all of the above storytelling traditions.
I cannot help but mention the uncanny experience that I, as an economic migrant, had reading your book about mobility and migration during a pandemic that has made movement, both cross-border and otherwise, especially difficult. Did the fact that you put final touches on the book during the pandemic influence its contents in any way? How are you coping with the stress of a pandemic book release?
When COVID-19 took over the planet, my manuscript, frankly, was done as far as much of its content was concerned. The changes to my manuscript thereafter involved the final stages of editing with a deeper intimacy with English language and confirming my stance toward it.
As for a pandemic book release, it meant accepting the fact that this will not look like the pre-pandemic vision I had for it, one with a more immediate contact with my audience. Although there is now a precedent for this with pandemic books that came before mine. The book industry has adapted to a COVID world; libraries, cultural institutions, and classrooms have moved to virtual formats too. So, I’m taking heart in knowing that I’m not alone; there are many who have done this before me. Also, becoming a mother during a pandemic has been a solid practice, whether I like it or not, in surrendering control and living life one day at a time.
Torsa Ghosal is the author of a book of literary criticism, Out of Mind (Ohio State University Press, 2021), and an experimental novella, Open Couplets (Yoda Press, India, 2017). She is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Sacramento.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Rachel Jackson reviews Amanda Jayatissa’s new novel, “My Sweet Girl.”
Madhushree Ghosh interviews Anjali Enjeti about her new book of essays, “Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change.”
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!