V.V. (Sugi) Ganeshananthan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her debut novel, Love Marriage (Random House, 2008), was long-listed for the Orange Prize and named one of Washington Post Book World’s Best of 2008. Her work has appeared in Granta, The Atlantic Monthly, the Columbia Journalism Review, and The Washington Post, among others. She is the Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, and a proud alum of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, where she studied creative writing and journalism with Dr. Jan Bowman (Go, Vikings!).
Jan: Thank you for taking time for this interview, Sugi. I have long admired your work. Your first novel, Love Marriage, was named by the Washington Post Book World as one of the Best Books of 2008. It’s a powerful novel that explores the interaction of a family and culture, shaped by love, and the war in Sri Lanka between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. Can you talk a bit about your own family and experiences that led you to explore this topic?
Sugi: I’ve long admired your work—I was lucky to have such great teachers in MCPS and elsewhere. Thanks for the kind words! My parents were born in Sri Lanka, so I had always been interested in the conflict, and in complicating my own understanding of it. The war, strictly speaking, was between the Tamil Tigers and Sinhalese-dominated government forces—but there were other actors and others affected, too, of course. Western coverage of it has been pretty reductive, and it’s an unusually complex history. There’s longstanding debate in Sri Lanka about how minority communities are treated. Of course, minorities face a hard time around the world, even in democracies—even under the best circumstances. I’m very interested in that, and I’m interested in exploring the effect of politics on everyday lives. I tend to write about blurry morality. Sri Lanka obviously provides a wealth of material in that regard. And because of my family and also my various alma maters, I’ve had excellent access to research what I don’t know, and to check what I do.
Jan: The structure of this novel is unusual in that you written it in fragmented vignettes. You have said “the currency of family stories is the anecdote…” Could you say more about how this choice came to you as an effective structural device for this novel?
Sugi: Oh, I wish I understood that! But I think it was mostly subconscious. Jamaica Kincaid, who supervised me in an early draft of the novel, strongly encouraged it, too. (Actually, she may have even suggested it. It was over a decade ago, and I don’t remember!) And then once I’d started doing it, it just seemed natural and the right way to tell the story.
Jan: I understand that you travelled to Canada and Sri Lanka to research your book. Can you tell us about the insights you gained from doing this?
Sugi: I was fairly relaxed in doing this; for example, I didn’t know my Canadian research was research when I was doing it. I went to Toronto with my family nearly every year as a kid, so I had a sense of what it was like to be an insider/outsider there, and to be stunned, as the protagonist Yalini is, at being in a place where there are so many people like you. The insiderdom you have dreamed of your whole life! So many Sri Lankans in Toronto! And yet they’re outsiders of a sort still: minorities, despite the numbers. And you—me?— as an American, are an outsider even among them. That remains a powerful experience for me, every time I go to Toronto, because I didn’t grow up with that sizable community around me, and never lived there, but inevitably feel a sense of crazy strength and closeness and love and debate there, and then there I am, just beyond its borders. Wishing I could have it, and also quite glad to be myself, to have been born in America. And so Yalini having been born in America really shapes her different sense of what it means to be a Sri Lankan Tamil hyphen-something. She travels to Toronto; she is in Toronto, but she is not of Toronto.
Jan: And could you say a bit more about the power of place in fiction, based upon your own writing and travel experiences?
Sugi: I’ve been lucky to meet Sri Lankan emigrants and their children in so many different countries. It’s not lost on me that this is the result of what were often very sad political and historical circumstances. So this is not only a different kind of traveling, but also a way of always and never being home. I find hotels really strange, and this is because so many friends and relatives have been generous about my staying with them. They’ve helped me to figure out how to belong to many different places, but we also frequently find ourselves discussing a place we are not in.
Perhaps for this reason—and I’m speculating—place is actually somewhat diffuse in Love Marriage. Yalini has a terrible sense of direction; she is guided by other people.
Jan: What do you love about being a professor and what are some of the downsides to it?
Sugi: The students are fantastic, as are my colleagues on the MFA faculty. I could go on about them forever. It was challenging at first to balance teaching and writing, but I’m getting better at it as time goes on—and it’s hard to balance teaching and life, and writing and health insurance, so this is a very good life and way to do things. I feel lucky to be here. I really like teaching, and the structure it provides. Best of all, I’m guaranteed to have tons of thought-provoking and useful conversation about writing every week. That goes back to my desk, too, of course; it’s a rich exchange. I also appreciate the subtle sense of support and pressure you get from being part of a writing community. Everyone else is writing—they understand if you are, too, and in fact, expect you to do so.
Jan: So – what are you working on now? What is the focus and status of your current writing projects?
Sugi: I’m working on a second novel, a portion of which appeared in Granta a couple of years ago. I’m working on essays and short stories on the side.
Jan: What writer – living or dead – would you like to meet and what question(s) would you want to ask?
Sugi: I’d like to ask Junot Diaz how he’d write about Trujillo, if Trujillo were alive and in power. I bet he has an awesome answer. Señor, if you see this…
Jan: What’s the best movie made from a book that you’ve seen lately?
Sugi: I’m going to invent my own version of this question so I can talk about Cloud Atlas, which I haven’t seen, but which is coming out any second now and looks terrific. Ditto Life of Pi. I haven’t read that book yet, but the trailer is lovely.
Jan: Do you have any favorite online blogs on writing that you regularly read?
Sugi: My friend Danielle Evans has a really good one! I also like my pal Alex Chee’s, and the one run by my former teacher, James Hynes. Former classmates of mine run The Millions and also Barrelhouse; and of course, who doesn’t love Paris Review Conversations?
Jan: What book “stopped time” for you, which is to say you couldn’t put it down?
Sugi: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao!
Jan: What are you reading now?
Sugi: This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz; Breaking and Entering, by my colleague Eileen Pollack; The Green Shore, by my friend Natalie Bakopolous; and an enormous amount of nonfiction.
Jan: What writing advice do you most often give to MFA students in your program?
Sugi: Writing is not a democracy. It is a benevolent dictatorship. It’s probably the only scenario in which I would endorse dictatorship of any kind!
Jan: What is the most useful writing advice you remember having received and what advice have you wisely chosen to ignore.
Sugi: You introduced me to the work of Elizabeth McCracken when I was a high school student, and she was later my teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The most useful writing advice I remember having received is… everything she said. For example, she used to say that each book taught you how to read it. I just love that and find it so useful.
And what have I ignored? Funny story: a pal of mine from journalism read a draft of Love Marriage and advocated ending it with an act of sexual violence. For a brief period of time, he proselytized for this quite seriously. And (spoiler alert!): I didn’t do that.
Jan: Has gender discrimination been a part of your own experience in education and has that adversely affected your career opportunities? And if so how?
Sugi: It’s not just gender; it’s also race. It’s my particular Venn Diagram of those two. I know my queer and disabled friends face obstacles too, so I appreciate having solidarity with them, and with others who have some sort of difference. Certainly, there are huge issues associated with being a writer who is also a woman of color; for example, people are much less inclined to read your work on its own terms, and much more inclined to expect it to be neatly representative, as though artists are the average of the groups from which they come! I find this frustrating. But hopefully people are becoming better readers and more progressive consumers of art. But until everyone is, it’s going to be a little… special. I’m not heavily into complaining, but I’m also not heavily into lying, so there you are. For some horrifying statistics and intelligent discussion about this, you can take a look at the work done by the fine people at VIDA, a women’s literary organization, or the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop (disclosure: I’m a former board member of the latter).
Jan: I appreciate your taking time from your busy schedule to do this interview and I hope you’ll send me an email when your next book is published.
Photo Credits: Preston Merchant
V.V. Ganeshananthan is a Sri Lankan American fiction writer, essayist, and journalist. Ganeshananthan is the author of Love Marriage, a novel set in Sri Lanka and North America, which was published by Random House in April 2008. Wikipedia
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2011 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: