The Field Is Not Level: A Conversation with Sameer Pandya

September 29, 2020   •   By Ivy Pochoda

I SPENT A GREAT DEAL of my youth as the outlandish and uncomfortable outsider in a country club environment, all too aware of the unspoken but enforced hierarchy of class, gender, religion, and race in manicured, elite clubs on the Eastern Seaboard. In Sameer Pandya’s debut novel, Members Only, we meet anthropologist Raj Bhatt in just one of these spaces where he is about to commit a blunder that will send him into personal, professional, and parental free fall. It’s a perfect launching pad for Pandya’s narrative that questions authenticity, belonging, and heritage. Raj is a professional outsider — a brown man in the white world of Santa Barbara and the even whiter world of his tennis club, a professor at a university that doesn’t offer the sort of pedigree he’d imagined for himself. With biting wit and remarkable humanity, Pandya takes us through a week Raj’s mounting crisis, as his private, social, and academic worlds destabilize at an alarming rate. Members Only is an essential book for our current climate of racial tension and calls for personal accountability, sure, but beyond that it’s a heartfelt and often challenging story of identity and immigration, as well as a modern parable of what happens when these experiences are policed and politicized. I chatted with Pandya over email while waiting for his book to be released (and hoping for the start of the tennis season).


IVY POCHODA: I’m sure I’m not the first person to draw a parallel between Members Only and Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Pushing past the more obvious structural and thematic similarities, in Saturday, McEwan uses the microcosm of a squash match to examine real-world anxieties. In your novel, you use the microcosm of a posh tennis club as a discreet venue to examine and articulate issues of class and race. How did you land on a country club as a jumping-off point?

SAMEER PANDYA: I want to start with your phrase “discreet venue” to think about a country club as a jumping-off point. Discreet in terms of the microcosm of the club, but also discreet in terms of how this particular tennis club in the novel — the TC — sees itself. Its poshness is in its simplicity and its symbolic openness. There is no gate, there is no one checking you in. I haven’t been to either the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club or Augusta National, but here are two types of clubs that fetishize their sense of exclusion. The TC is seemingly a different, far more liberal, distinctly California type of place. As a writer, I found this space particularly fascinating to explore how race and class operate within spaces where people are sensitive about the pernicious nature of how markers of race and class create and fortify lines of exclusion, and yet are discreet in their discussion of it. And so, I’m less interested in country clubs per se, but more in this type of fraught space. I’m also interested in a tennis club in the sense that the court itself is supposed to be this pure space of meritocracy — winning or losing is literally in your own hands. This is in keeping with the story America likes to tell itself about the level playing field of sport. However, the path to the court, to the field is not level at all.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to the framework of sports in fiction is that in sports we are led to believe that things behave according to a prescribed order of lines and rules — that sports are an exception to the random chaos of life. But in truth, sports are also a reflection of this, no? I feel this is in play (ha) in the doubles match we see Raj play near the midpoint of Members Only. That scene, although brief, seems to bear the weight of so much Raj has experienced. Was that your intention?

I often see this idea of sports within the lines, and the limits of it, play out in sports commentary. On one hand, people hold on to this idea that once you step on to the field, you leave the chaos of your life behind. And yet, so much of the explanation for why athletes fail at certain moments relies on this chaos of life argument. To take Tiger Woods as an example, who gets brief mention in the novel, his poor play in the years after his infamous crash was attributed to his marriage falling apart and his carefully constructed public image in ruins. But his return to success has been mostly attributed to his will power and hard work — inside the lines kind of stuff. So yes, chaos is always present on the field. Gloriously so. And that’s what makes sports so interesting to me — how athletes utilize that chaos and are undone by it. And with sports in fiction, one can really dig into the emotional spaces. The scene you mention is one where Raj and his doubles partner lose a match so fast that the tennis balls don’t get a chance to get dirtied. Engulfed by his own chaos, Raj is desperate to win the match because he thinks it will restore some order and calm. And of course, it doesn’t. Every moment Raj steps on the court, he bears the weight of his experiences. I was particularly interested in Raj musing about one of his opponents who has such an ease about him, not only with his actual play but also with his presence on the court. Raj wants to beat him desperately, but he can’t because the other guy is a better player, whose better play is at least partially shaped by the opportunities he has had to become better, right from a young age. Tennis is very much classed in this way. All this is one of the great lessons of John McPhee’s Levels of the Game. And Raj would certainly see himself in Arthur Ashe, even though Raj’s play doesn’t even get close to Ashe’s.

I could really go on and on about the intersection of sports and literature and how sports in literature is one of the best ways to amplify character. Levels of the Game is essential reading. It sits within arm’s reach of my desk. And I think McPhee’s brilliance lies in his ability to have the present moment not exist in a vacuum but as a totality of all the events that led Ashe and [Clark] Graebner to the court that day. Which leads me to my next question. Members Only is a complex mixture of past and present. It’s a book that is very much anchored in the present day, but also relies on the past in great detail. How did you orchestrate this delicate and considered balancing act between Raj’s current situation and the memories it inspires?

First of all, it’s good to hear that you think I did orchestrate the balance. As you well know, figuring out how to bring together past and present, front and back story is a constant struggle. On one hand, I wanted to write a propulsive novel. And yet, a plot-heavy book that doesn’t take the time to deepen a character through his past becomes a pretty thin book, no matter how thick it is. Maybe I can answer your question about the balance by pointing to one particular scene. Raj is swimming in a pool and feels like he is being ostracized by the other families who are there at the pool with him. As he tries to avoid them, he goes underwater and begins to swim. Feeling a certain weightlessness triggers a memory of him snorkeling with his father years before in Hawaii. Here, the present and the past are not directly related, but the image of water, the tactile nature of it serves as the stitching that binds them together. Sometime later in the novel, this particular memory will take on greater meaning in the present of the story. I’m trying to show that the past shapes the present, but equally, that the present has a way of helping us rethink and reassess the past. We move between present and past constantly in our everyday thoughts, and I tried to mirror that in the novel, without having the past overwhelm the present.

Which of course, brings us to Raj’s field of study, anthropology, which is both the way he unpacks his personal circumstances and his undoing. How his students use his lectures against him is a perfect encapsulation of part of our society’s affinity for deep fakes and cancel culture. How did Raj’s profession shape both his character and the story?

Both as an undergrad and then a lot more as a graduate student, I read a lot of anthropology. The classics of the tradition, but then also the critiques of it. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mary Douglas are names and ideas that are moving through Raj’s head constantly. Douglas’s ideas around dirt as social matter of place very much frames the way in which Raj understands ideas of inclusion and exclusion. And the Cliff character is vaguely modeled on an anthropology professor I had in college, but then also the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz. On one level, Raj is writing an ethnography of race and class in liberal spaces as a participant observer. The novel is an ethnography of our current social and cultural moment. At the same time, by using the first-person narrator, Raj is also turning his anthropological acumen on himself. To think about his own past, his blind spots, his strengths and weaknesses, his own racial identity. He is both a keen observer in the anthropological and self-aware sense. I also wanted to use his field of study, and him as a scholar more generally, to think about the time it sometimes takes to figure out writing projects and ideas. He has been long done with his dissertation about Ahmedabad, the Indian city where he was born, which has gone through massive social change. Even after he finished it, he got the sense that he didn’t quite have the argument down. He finally figures out the true layers of the argument some 15 years later, when he is experiencing his own very bad week in the present of the novel. Going back to the past and present part of our conversation, it is certainly at play with his own work. Sometimes with writing, it just takes a while to figure out what you are trying to say.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the pivotal scene with the admissions committee where Raj commits the blunder that sets Members Only in motion. While what he says is shocking and perhaps unforgivable, I completely understand why he reacts the way he does to an accomplished man (regardless of race) downplaying his tennis skills to appease the committee. It’s just infuriating. That said, I realize how many times in my professional squash career I did the exact thing — minimize my talent in front of older male players at a WASPy country club because I’m female and I felt I had to do so to fit in and not anger them. So, while I understand and sympathize with Raj’s reaction, I also totally get where Bill is coming from when he self-effaces. This scene is such a marvelous minefield, so perfectly charged and ready to explode. While Members Only is Raj’s story, I feel you allow us a peek in Bill’s head here? Was that your intention?

My intent was to layer in all the awkwardness and silence and speech that goes into a conversation where race and racial difference are so clearly the text and the subtext, and everyone knows it, and yet no one is talking about it. We see all this play out through Raj’s point of view, as he is watching the others on the committee react to this couple and where he himself is engaged in silent and not-so-silent communication with Bill. As Bill is downplaying his tennis skills, my intention was partly to allow us a peek into Bill’s head, but also to show the ways in which everyone in that room is wanting something from Bill and the ways in which he manages these multiple needs and desires. He is very much aware of his audience, aware that he doesn’t want to be perceived purely through the lens of athleticism that people have perceived him as, aware that he is in this deeply white space, aware that this Indian American guy is trying to connect with him through all this. In some ways, Bill does his own code switching when he uses a WASPy subtlety to say what he is not saying. Raj recognizes the code switching, does his own bit of code switching, which then leads to disaster. Certainly a minefield to start and then the rest of the novel to work through all the emotional and social shrapnel.

This is a unique time to release a novel. But for your novel in particular, there are larger considerations and implications of our current climate of protest, accountability, and elevation of Black voices. Members Only is a racially charged narrative that brings into question not simply Raj’s own experiences as a brown member of a white space (the TC) but also hinges on his extremely careless and casual use of a racial slur when speaking to a Black couple. I’m wondering given what is occurring today, if you think the reaction to Raj’s slip-up would be different? Do you think the reaction to Members Only will be different than if it had been released a few months ago?

Yes, it is certainly an interesting time for this novel to be coming out. We are in the midst of having a vital, necessary national conversation about race and racism, specifically in the ways that it has shaped the lives of African Americans in this country. Race has been such a defining feature of American life because it operates in the way that the protests have being pointing out, but also through our multiple racial histories. One of these histories is one my novel tries to narrate — not just Raj’s brownness in a white space, but also his relationship to blackness that is at the heart of his slip-up. This novel is partly about how we talk about race and the ways in which we don’t. I certainly think that the reaction to the novel will be different now than it would have been a few months ago because we are in the midst of an amplified conversation on race. We are being explicit about it. And this type of explicitness has a way of shining a light on the implicit ways in which race operates to create forms of exclusion and membership. The novel explores this implicit space. Would the reaction to Raj’s slip-up be different if it were happening now? Within the world of the novel, some of the characters would be even more indignant than they already are and then also more unwilling to recognize their own complicity in this particular racial history.

What do you see as the future of elite spaces such as the TC?

There are so many problems with elite spaces, and yet elite spaces are going nowhere. Our sense of being a part of a group requires including some and excluding others. And in our political lives, the idea of elitism has often been weaponized to signal a certain man of the peopleness. Given all this, engaging with elite spaces within a novel was particularly fruitful for me. It allowed me to get to the complexity of these spaces. Raj is certainly tired of feeling excluded from this space and yet he grew up going to a similar elite club in Bombay. He likes the quiet and the beauty and the pristine courts at the TC. He embodies the contradiction and yet he is uncomfortable with it.


Ivy Pochoda is the author of several novels, including Wonder Valley and the forthcoming These Women.