Interviewed by Sangamithra Iyer
Minal Hajratwala is a writer, performer, poet and queer activist. Her first book Leaving India: My family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents has received a Pen USA Award, an Asian American Writers Workshop Award, a Lambda Literary Award, a California Book Award (Silver, Nonfiction), and was shortlisted for the Saroyan International Writing Prize. The book took seven years to write, and during that time, Minal traveled the world to interview over seventy-five members of her extended family, while sifting through photographs, old passports and archival documents. Leaving India blends history, memoir and reportage and examines the migrations of the Indian diaspora and how political forces intersected personal choices. Minal is currently seeking a publisher for her poetry collection, The Unicorn at the Racetrack, and will be editing an anthology of contemporary LGBT stories from India. (For inquiries and submissions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org) While in India on a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship, Minal took some time from working on a new novel to answer a few questions for Tottenville Review.
I understand that Leaving India took you seven years to write. Can you talk about the beginning of this process? What was your earliest vision of the project and how did it change over time?
A book begins with a writer’s questions. I was curious about why so many migrations had happened in my family. But in our families, migration stories are often told in very personal terms: “Your great-grandfather wanted to go to Fiji, so he went.” “Your father decided to come here to study.” Of course there must be huge social and economic and political factors at work, to make people suddenly uproot themselves and migrate. There are reasons that certain borders were open or closed to Indians at different periods in history. So I set out to understand how these larger forces of history intersected with individual lives.
I wanted to understand not only why my family was in the United States, but also: Why do I have thirty-six first cousins who live all over the world? Why did my grandparents and great-grandparents leave India? How did our diaspora grow, from fewer than 400,000 people living outside India a century ago, to an estimated 30 million today?
Each of those questions led to more questions, and as I interviewed people and looked at archival material and started writing, the questions became more intimate. I became interested in the impacts of migration on the psyche, on emotions, on relationships. Who do we become when we leave home? What gaps are created? What enters those gaps?
What I was particularly impressed with was how you blended the personal and the historical, the poet and the journalist. Was it a struggle to find that balance?
It was! I’d been a journalist for years and I had also been writing poems for years—I still do—but whenever I tried to write about my family or the diaspora in those forms, I wasn’t satisfied. It turned out that neither was quite big enough to hold my family stories; I needed a narrative, almost epic form. I was interested in the challenge of combining reportage with a more emotional voice, but I didn’t realize how much of a challenge it would be. The process of finding (and losing, and finding again) the voice of the book, pulling a few strong threads from hundreds of disconnected anecdotes, and overcoming my terror of making the wrong narrative choices was quite time-consuming. Amazing, too, I learned so much about myself, my fears, and my own creative needs.
In the chapter on your relatives in South Africa you tell the story of migration, race and politics around bunny chow (curry in a bread bowl). In researching this chapter and the others, was there a particular piece of historical information that you found particularly compelling?
In South Africa, I went into a local history museum and saw my great-great-uncle’s picture on the wall. That was compelling—that’s when I discovered he was the inventor of a local delicacy, the “beans bunny.” It’s a fava bean curry stuffed into a bread loaf, and it came about because black Africans were suddenly prohibited from sitting down in restaurants and eating. So my great-great-uncle and the other Indian eatery owners had to come up with a way to sell “take-aways.” This was before the era of Styrofoam and plastic containers, so they invented the curry-in-a-bread-loaf idea, which came to be known as the “bunny chow.” It’s now considered a South African national dish! My great-great-uncle was a strict vegetarian, so he created the vegetarian version, the “beans bunny.”
His story was a window for me to explore creativity, oppression, and the racial politics of South Africa. Apartheid is shocking not for its exceptionalism, but for its familiarity. The truth is, that kind of thinking persists in so many places and over so many periods of history, and I hear echoes in today’s rightwing rhetoric of many of the moments I researched while writing about South Africa.
The book describes the many migrations of your family members over the past one hundred plus years. When we arrive at the chapter about you, you describe coming out as another type of migration. Can you expand on that?
Queerness for me was a kind of migration, away from the world of my family and toward a new, unknown, more cosmopolitan and complex world. Writing the book changed my sense of myself as separate from the rest of my family. I came to see that so much of who I am is based on the fact that the people before me made the decisions that they made, and that I’ve just taken one more step on a journey of constant change. The fact that I can live in San Francisco, be a writer, be an out lesbian, choose to wear blue jeans or saris, cook either my mother’s daal or tofu chipotle burritos—all of those options are possible because people before me made huge, dramatic changes in their lives. They moved. And each motion has ripple effects, intended and unintended, for generations upon generations. I’m a migrant in so many ways—just like almost everyone else I know.
I also want to be clear that here migration is a metaphor, not literal. I do not see coming out as a process of leaving India or Indianness behind, since we know that same-gender love and diverse gender identities and sexual orientations have always existed within India. It’s a migration not in a national or ethnic identity sense, but in the sense of a sea-change, a deep shift, and perhaps ultimately a migration toward one’s own self.
Can you tell us about queer activism in India today?
I’m still learning, of course, but I’m very inspired by the activists and organizers I’m meeting here. It’s a wonderful movement that despite many challenges is making huge strides, winning successes, and enacting real change at legal, social, and cultural levels. Mumbai is having its Queer Azaadi (independence/pride) celebration, and I’ve been asked to host an open mic featuring local writers and singers. I am also going to be editing an anthology for Queer Ink of contemporary LGBT stories from India, which is really exciting. It’ll build on the work of other historical anthologies and focus on queer fiction and nonfiction now, in the era after the overturning of Section 377 of the Indian Penal code.
Can I ask a nerdy logistical question? For Leaving India, there was a tremendous amount of traveling, interviewing, and historical record digging. How did you manage and organize your notes? Did you also have a giant map or timeline to help you visualize the story that was about to emerge?
OK, warning, this is super-detailed just for writing nerds like us. Everyone else should skip to the next question! I used a free-text database called AskSam to organize my notes, research documents, and chapter drafts. They don’t make that program anymore, so today I’m using Scrivener for my current projects. The main thing is to have a way to search across different kinds of notes and drafts and interviews and saved websites, and keep everything in one place on the computer. I’m religious about backing up my files. You should be, too! Have two different backup systems and do it often.
Research materials: I kept paper files of photocopied articles and documents. That ended up being about four file drawers worth of material, which I filed first by country, since I had nine countries, and then by topic, time period, etc. I had a stack of books about four feet high. There’s never been a historical census of the diaspora, so I had to compile various statistics into spreadsheets, some of which I’ve posted online for other researchers to use (www.minalhajratwala.com/diaspora/stastics).
I recorded interviews and took notes as well. I don’t trust technology, plus taking notes saves the work of transcribing the entire interview; I had between 75 and 100 interviews, so I only transcribed the parts I needed based on my notes.
Drafting: I keep a handwritten journal and also write regularly on my laptop. When I reach the end of a handwritten journal, I go back through it. I skip the parts that are just me going blah-blah about my day. I type in the parts that are actual writing, drafts, free writes, etc. to work on — all this goes into my main file. This is just to organize it. I don’t do too much revision at this point; that comes later. This is a system I developed years ago and I still do it; I like writing longhand and I like having everything, to-do lists and poems and freewrites and rants, all in one notebook.
For Leaving India, for each chapter when I had drafted enough material, I would print out everything and then start rearranging sections & paragraphs physically, sometimes by taping them to a wall (use the special painter’s tape that won’t damage the walls!) and moving them around like puzzle pieces. I would say each chapter went through about 20 drafts.
Timelines: I kept a spreadsheet that had three columns: A) date, B) events in the world that affected India/diaspora, C) events in my character’s lives. I also had a chart on the wall with movable notes to help me envision and play with the flow of the whole book. Actually I had to re-create various versions of this chart over time, as my sense of the book became more complex. Timelines are very important!
Maps: I had a globe with post-it tabs all over it, and a map of Gujarat on the wall, and a file of other maps. At one point I had a small hand-sketched map of the world, onto which I hand-stitched threads representing the characters in my book and their migrations from one continent to another, just to visualize the patterns. Everyone got a different colored thread.
I wanted to congratulate you on your Fulbright in India. What is your current project about?
Thank you. I’m researching a novel set in two time periods. The historical part is loosely based on the life of Mirabai, a North Indian devotional poet from the 1500s who was a kind of gender rebel for her time. Right now as I talk to you I’m in Rajasthan, visiting the fortress where she lived for a significant part of her life. The futuristic part is a queer punk love story with a dystopic setting. The novel will explore the themes of yearning, devotion, surrender, ecstasy, the sacred and the sexual, and how these basic human tendencies find expression in radically different cultural moments.