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Episode · 2 weeks ago

WB S2E1: Honor, with Thrity Umrigar

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

WRITERS' BLOCK: Ron Block talks with Best-Selling author Thrity Umrigar about her powerful new novel, HONOR and about the importance of reading outside our own experience.

Yeah yeah. Writers are perhaps theoriginal gatherers. You know I have sometimes compared writers to birds.You know you get a twig of information here and a branch of backstory fromthere and you keep collecting it somewhere deep within you. And then oneday you have enough to build a nest out of all those raw ingredients. Mm hmm. Welcome to the Friends and fictionWriter's Block podcast. four New York Times, bestselling authors, onerockstar librarian and endless stories joined mary Kay andrews, Kristin,Harmel, Kristy, Woodson, Harvey and Patti Callahan Henry Along with RonBlock as novelists. We are four long time friends with 70 books between usand I am Ron block. Please join us for fascinating author, interviews andinsider. Talk about publishing and writing. If you love books and arecurious about the writing world you are in the right place. Welcome to thefirst episode of the Friends and fiction Writer's Block podcast for 2022.Wow we made it I couldn't think of a better way to ring in the new year andthe beginning of our second season of the podcast than with my guest today.three D. Um regard let me tell you a little about her. Three D. Is thebestselling author of the novels Bombay time. The space Between Us If today besweet The weight of Heaven, the world we found the story our everybody's sonand the Secrets Between us. Her new novel honor was published earlier thisweek to huge acclaim. She is the author...

...of the memoir first Darling of theMorning And of three children's books. They've all been translated intoseveral languages and published in over 15 countries. She is a distinguisheduniversity professor of English at case Western Reserve University here inCleveland. It is my extreme pleasure to welcome a writer I admire greatly and avoice in literature that I am continuously blown away by. Pleaseplease please say hello 2 30 am regard welcome three T Hi Ron, thank you forhaving me. I am so excited that we're getting to do this. I have had thepleasure of reading the book and I can't wait for everybody to get theirhands on this one. But let's first tell everybody, I want to I want to give ashare a sample of some of the glowing praise that you've gotten Rebecca McKay,he was who was a Pulitzer prize finalist for the great believers andwrite another writer that just we all greatly admire said Honor is a novel ofprofound depths, cultural, personal, romantic, spiritual. It's also a storyof tremendous grace both in the understanding, it shows its charactersand in the ways they navigate a brutal but stunning life. That's that's notbad. That's not bad at all. Let's start out by having you give us an overviewof the book. Sure, so first of all I'm a great believer in Rebecca McKay, soI'm glad you chose that. That quote from her means a lot to me. So Honorbasically tells the story of two women, both of indian origin, but as differentfrom one another as one can possibly imagine. Mina is is a woman um you know,she's the daughter and sister of farmers in rural India, functionallyilliterate, very, very poor, oppressed. And Mina is young and she does oneradical act in her life, which is that she falls in love and she falls in lovewith a muslim guy, she is hindu and she...

...follows her heart and marries him. Andfor that one transgression, if you will, in a very puritanical society, she paysan extremely high price. The other woman, major character in the novel isSpinetta, who is an indian american journalist who finds herself in India aplace she has resolved A country where she left with her family when she was14 under mysterious circumstances and has vowed never to return to, butprofessional duty calls. And she finds herself back in India covering Minhasstory, basically, the novel from that point on becomes, you know, strangelyenough, given the seriousness of the subject matter, we hear two parallellove stories alike in some ways and very different in others. And thedifferences of course, are as always mitigated by class differences. Youknow, educational level differences, opportunity differences, basically,privileged in a nutshell. Right, right. And it's a world that you write aboutso eloquently and so vividly. Um what where did the idea for this particularstory come from? You know, I would say, two different sources. The moreimmediate source was a series of articles that I came across severalyears ago, written by the great journalist new york times writer EllenBerry, who was covering South Asia at that time. And she did some reallyfantastic journalism On rural India. And a few stories were specificallyabout the conditions of women in rural India. And I have to confess, I mean,even though I grew up there, you know, lived there for the 1st 21 years of mylife, I was a city kid, you know, and and a person of some degree ofprivilege and The world that Barry...

...described, you know, in the 21stcentury was was shocking. So that was the immediate inspiration, especiallyfor Minhas character. Smetana's character came from a point where, youknow, just as somebody who has an interest in India and indian, you know,current indian history, I'm just growingly dismayed by the treatment ofminorities in India today, specifically of Muslims. There seems to be a realsort of hindu fundamentalist rise in popular politics, populist politics,much as we see, you know, the rise of fundamentalist Christianity in thiscountry. And there are strangely enough, there are strong parallels between thetwo worlds largest democracies and where they're headed. And Smitty'scharacters somehow came from just my awareness of this issue. So it's notquite as direct a connection as Minhas character was. But Smita was born, Iguess, from this model of thoughts and feelings that I have about this one isone of the things I love about your writing and especially this book is theway that you develop your characters, the characters, it's very characterdriven in their in their habits and their backgrounds and their backstories,they all merge. How do you approach creating these characters and justbringing them to life so fully? I'm not sure that there is an easy answer tothese questions about the writing process and that so much of writing isthe subconscious at play, you know, and and the best I can say is that thatwriters are perhaps the original gatherers. I've sometimes said I'vesometimes compared writers to birds. You know, you you get a twig ofinformation here and a branch of...

...backstory from there and you keepcollecting it somewhere deep within you and then one day you have enough tobuild a nest out of all those raw ingredients. And um I think there'ssomething to that, I think that's the process at work, but one of the thingsI most certainly do is I do not embark on a writing project until I feel likeI really, really have a sense of who my characters are, not just in currentnarrative time, although that's very important, but I need to know theirstories, I need to know their histories because it's only by understandingtheir past that I feel like I can clearly right about that present andperhaps even about what one can imagine their actions will be in the future. Wow. Um that's such a, such a greatanalogy about the nest. I love that. I've never heard that before. So whenyou mix this with your journalism background, one of the wonderful ideasthat Smita conveys during their is that the reporter needs to remove emotionfrom the situation when they're writing about things or when they'reapproaching things. How does that quote in that idea affect you when you'rewriting about such horrible and horrific things? Is that something thatyou also have to bring from your journalism background? Actually,thankfully not. I mean, one of the reasons I made the transition fromjournalism to novel writing is that fiction is a much freer and frankly,it's a liberating medium compared to journalism. I mean, journalism you'rereally governed and bound by the facts themselves. You know, not the truth,because I think literature in some ways does a better job at getting to theheart of things, which is the truth. But certainly you're bound by whatother people tell you. You know, there are just some limitations to journalism,that one doesn't really have in in...

...novel writing in a novel, you can youcan go deeper into the reality, the lived reality of your creations. Um,and that's that's one of the reasons I made that journey from journalism to tonovel writing in terms of the kind of objective ITty, if you will thatgoverns journalism? One doesn't need to conform to that. You tell a kind ofsubjective truth in literature, which in some ways is not just more powerful,but it might actually be more illuminating for the reader. Um, so Idon't try and protect myself from going deep into the emotional lives of mycharacters, or even going deep into my own, you know, the emotions that whatI'm writing about elicit in me, that that kind of critical distance that onehas to keep as a journalist falls by the wayside. Sometimes when you'rewriting fiction. And I think that's a good thing. I think that's a greatthing. And it's one of the things I really wanted to kind of delve into alittle bit more. So, one of the greatest lessons for me, at least theselast few years is that the elevated importance of all of us to read outsideof our own experience, outside of our culture, outside of our gender, outsideof our life situation. Um, there's so many new voices that are coming outthat we've never heard before. And it's so important that we pay attention tothem. And I have to now that I get a chance here publicly to credit you fordoing that, because some of your earlier works have really opened myeyes to that. And and the the very beauty of allowing that into our world.And you talked about that just a little bit now. But why do you think it's soimportant for us to read outside of those things in our culture? I don'tknow in some ways it's such an obvious question to ask that that other thansort of talking in cliches, I don't...

...quite know how to answer it. I, I feellike that's the only way we grow as human beings, right is to be exposed tothings that we have not otherwise encountered in our lives. I mean I canonly say for myself, I mean as an immigrant who came to to a new countryat age 21 how, how mind blowing and how mind expanding that experience has beenand, and I just am a great, I mean I'm an internationalist, I think to my core,I'm a great believer in largeness, you know, expansiveness. I want the humanheart to sort of be blown apart by diverse experiences and encounters andcultural exchanges and and all those things to me. Those things are oxygen.I mean they're just a vital, happy way to live. I mean who given a choicewants to live a small narrow life, right correct. And for those of us withprivileged enough to be able to have those experiences, whether it's throughthe pages of a book or travel or however whatever form it may take, youknow, talking, going into an ethnic store in the town where you live andnot just shopping, but but actually having a conversation with the peoplewho wait on you. I think these are all ways of expanding our minds and ourhearts and our lives. Yes, that's so true. So true. And so well said, okay,so let's translate over to Children's books a little bit. Um, it must be hardto go from adults in such harrowing and deep topics to really important topics,but from a child's point of view to expand their horizons. Can you tell usabout the difference between writing the two? Yeah. You know, it was harderin some ways to write picture books...

...because the discipline and the rigor ofpicture books. The only thing is harder in some ways, you know, a novel, youcan ramble a little bit, you can make a detour or two and then come back toyour central themes. Um, there's just more wiggle room in some ways, you're anovelist Close to 400 pages. Um you have you have that room for movement,but a picture book is just a short, finite number of pages. And it's moreakin to writing poetry, I think in terms of the economy of language, interms of the discipline of making every word on the page count. It's it's amore muscular structure in some ways, I think because you can't really affordthe slightest bit of flap and and there's a rhythm to it. And there's apoetry to it, which is very, very appealing. But it's also sometimes alittle hard to do. So it's it's a joy. It's a joyful transition, but notalways an easy one. Right? That that makes perfect sense to I think that'swhy many people don't veer from there. There there chosen genre of book. Yeah.Except I think you scratch the surface of a writer and somewhere within themas a desire to write a great Children's book. Good, Good. Well, I hope we canlook forward to more of those from you because they're just so wonderful andthey tell such great stories that I think kids haven't necessarily beenexposed to before, but they're just magical. And I know that that my owngrandchildren have just loved them. So that's lovely too. So talk to us aboutwriting and publishing during the pandemic. How has it been for you? Youknow, to be perfectly honest, from not all that different than usual. I mean,writers live in a kind of, you know, isolation and and quarantine whenyou're working on a book. Anyway, it's just that it's you know, real inregular times. It's more driven from...

...within this time. Of course it was likethe world pushed us in that direction. But but honestly, I mean, in that sense,my routine did not change all that much. And in fact there were since there wereless distractions, like, you know, going out with friends and just all thestuff one normally does in some ways it was a very productive time for me interms of the writing and and there was also at least at the beginning beforewe all just got totally beaten down and exhausted by the pandemic. There wasthis real sense of community, you know, there was this real sense of my God, wehave to take care of each other and we have to boost one another spirits. Imean I remember starting, I started just made a resolution to call certainfriends who I knew were alone much, much, much more frequently sometimeseven daily just to check in and make sure everybody was doing just fine justto keep people's spirits afloat you know and and that was a new andwonderful tradition to have started and to some extent it still continues youknow, so it's like any other moment of national and international crisis,there is grief, there is hardship but for those of us who have more or lessso far survived it, there is also opportunity for connection. That is so true there and um I thinkfor you, social media was was a help, I think at least for me it was to beconnected to you and see the way that you observe the world around you duringall of us and kept reminding me and others that there's beauty everywhereand even with the hardships and making connections to people are so fun, didyou intentionally do that or were you just No, I don't think I intentionallydid it and you know, just to go back to what you said a second ago. But there'sbeauty everywhere. We all say that but we all act as if you know the beauty isa mountain that simply exists out there.

But the fact is most of us are engagedin the act of creating that beauty all the time. You know, beauty out theredoesn't just exist on its own. It's the byproduct of other people's labor andwork. And I do think that there was a serious recognition of how much of ourlives, you know, are eased by the hard labor of other people. And for thefirst time that I can remember um there was at least for a brief moment of time,there was a kind of national recognition of that that essentialworkers truly are essential. And you know, I just wish I wish there wereparts of what we went through last year that could have lasted and endured likelessons learned forever. You know, there was something beautiful aboutreading about places in the world where the pollution lifted and people couldsee stars for the first time in decades and the canals and all of that all ofthat, right? And and I just kept even while we were living through it, I keptthinking This is all going to go away and we're gonna go back with avengeance. You know, because that's what human beings do. But it would beso nice if even 20% of the population could make real changes in their livesas a result of it. Right? I think we have a lot of this is my hope. I don'tknow if the reality is but through art, through through writing and throughpainting and things that some of that's going to be preserved and elevatedfuture generations, that this is what we lived through and this is what weappreciated about it. Right? There's going to be a whole sub genre ofpandemic fiction. For sure. They're already coming out into the world.Absolutely, yeah. I might add that it's going to be harder for people like me,writers like me because, you know, I...

...write so much about people going acrossnations and things like that. And uh I think my books are going to be frozenin 2018 and 2019 foreseeable future because if I start a book in India inyou know, October of 2020 and if it's not a book about the pandemic, I don'tknow how I'm going to navigate that, you know, slap a mask on everycharacter space. I mean, I you know, it's it's really I mean I've alreadybegun to encounter it in in some projects that I'm thinking about. It'slike how do you account for these lost years as as a fiction writer who writesabout you know, characters moving in and out of different countries. That'sright because it seems impossible that you would just be able to, you know,wash it away. Like it never happened because it happened and people willremember and they'll be like, I can't read that. That's just talk about thetruth. Yes. So I've never asked you this. But what are who are some of thewriters and some of the books that you have treasured forever. Like the thingsthat you look at now and and you have a long history with different books fordifferent reasons. A friend of mine put a copy of Salman Rushdie's Midnight'sChildren in my hand two weeks before I left India in the early eighties and Ialmost didn't leave after I read that book because it just brought the cityof Bombay the city I grew up in to such glorious life and you know, I was allof 21 always was raised and part of the city as this polluted, dirty, crowded,wretched place, you know, with no sense of its history or its magic. AndRushdie's book forever changed how I look at that city. So that was a hugeinfluence. I remember trying repeatedly when I was a teenager to read Virginiawoolf's the waves And never being able...

...to get past the 1st 30 pages becausethe language was so beautiful that it completely overwhelmed me. I mean tothe point where I just couldn't do it. I just, it was like a chemical reactionin my body just hearing those words. And so that book was really, reallyimportant in terms of just realizing what language can do the kind of power.I mean, I think I was finally in grad school when I just said this isridiculous and I'm just going to power through this book and read it. And thenof course it was, it was possible and easy to do. Um I remember finishing John Steinbeck'seast of Eden when I was 15 years old. Um and you know, it's a it's a longbook, it's not necessarily a complicated book, but it's a long book,but I was young enough that I was still sort of tiptoeing my way into readingreal fiction. I mean just a few years prior to that, I was still readingcomics and Mad magazine. So it was a fairly rapid change. And I remember,you know, I got done with that book in like two days, just read straightthrough, I was on vacation and just read straight through and when I gotdone with that there was this sense of, oh my God, um I'm I'm a reader, I mean,I I am part of this world, I'm part of this community of readers and and to behonest with you on, you know, I grew up in a family of business people, youknow, I didn't have that many models of my own in terms of sort of literarycommunities or artistic communities or theater communities like whatevercommunity I needed, I had to invent it whether it was in college or at someother place in my life. That's the only way I found those communities, you know,and so that that book, I mean, I'm just...

...telling you about sentimental favorites.I'm not I'm not telling you about, you know, great literary merit or anythinglike that or like the personal connection that I that I loveconnection, right? And you know, so many more. And of course, once Idiscovered Toni Morrison and here's a funny, you know, my first job in thiscountry was in Lorain Ohio, which of course is her birthplace. And that'swhere I read the bluest eye, you know, probably and an apartment two miles orless from where she had said the novel, you know, that was my first job as ajournalist. Was that the what used to be the Lorraine Journal. And um therewas something about reading Toni Morrison in Toni Morrison's hometownthat that made a huge impression on me. And of course by the time I got to songof Solomon and you know, then beloved, I was hoped. Of course. So yeah, sothat's just a sampler, I guess that's great now and I and I totally relate tobecause I come from a family of rural farmers and the same. I had noconnection but we'll and and again, I think Steinbeck was my, my drug ofentry if you will and and and really for the same age too and so that I hadto find my own community after that like you did, that's great, I totallyrelate to that. So how are you going to be able to promote your book honor? Iknow you have some virtual events but are you doing any in person? I thinkthe jury is out yet. I think I'm mostly going to be relying on the kindness ofstrangers to to read the book and if they like it spread word, I mean it'sgoing to be tough. Right? I mean, I do have a bunch of events which any anyday now I hope to be able to update my website and post them all on there.It'll be done by the time this airs in january, I hope, but it's going to bean uphill battle for me and for other...

...writers who have books coming out. Imean none of us thought that we would be more or less in the same place. I dohave for now one local live event which is the Chiyoda County Library event butwe are going to have to wait and see if that will also have to be changed tovirtual enough, we don't write, write it may have to be from what I'm hearing.So I think writers that I've talked to before, they always have just before abook comes out. They always have things that they hope the readers are going toget out of the book so that they'll be able to understand it or know oncethey've read the book, do you have some of those for honor? I think the mostimportant thing here's the pitfall of writing a difficult book like honor.It's very easy for somebody, a western reader of some privilege, an americanreader to read about the treatment of women in a place like India and justsort of look down their nose or kind of cross themselves and say, oh my God,we're so lucky in this country, thank God we are not living in that kind ofyou know, barbaric environment. Right? I mean I've actually had at bookreadings not often, not often, but on occasion I have had people in theaudience sort of asked me questions along those lines, you know, why isIndia such an awful place? Why do people, why are they so mean to oneanother? And and it always, I never know how to respond to that becausethat is so not the takeaway that I want, you know, and I can control that Ofcourse, I mean people are free to read books and get out of them what theywish, but you know, as a writer, as somebody who believes in communicationwho wants to act as a kind of ambassador, if you will bridging, youknow, helping people understand different cultures. My hope is exactlythe opposite. My hope is What I did...

...when I read Steinbeck or Hemingway orfaulkner when I was 13, 14, 15, 16 years old in India, was to drawparallels and draw connections from those books to help understand Indiansociety better. And and that is the ultimate I mean, that's the ultimatehope that I would have is that somebody can read about the treatment of womenin India and say, hey, wait a minute, this sounds familiar. What are theblind spots? What are the sort of bigotries and prejudices that we harbor?You know, you can change people's races, you can change people's religions, butwhat are the fundamental issues that we have in common, right? And then yes, ifyou really want to get carried away, you know, then as responsible citizens,what role do we play in basically doing less harm to the most vulnerable inevery society that's so perfectly said. And it was I had underlined one of thelines in the book that says, we all have our cultural blind spots and Ithink you just you just described that perfectly, but I just like you, Ialways think we have to lift it up to look at it from a more globalperspective because these issues aren't inherent in one place or another, Theyreally are universal. I mean, the treatment of women, the treatment ofminorities immigrants. It's it's just all it's very global and this story canhelp elevate us to kind of examine our honest, so important and that's theimportance of these kind of amazing books. Thank you so much for joining metoday 30. It's been such a wonderful conversation. I know the book is goingto really reach people's hearts and it's going to help them look at theworld a little bit differently and hopefully examine themselves some too.It's really a brilliant work. So congratulations on the publication ofit and I know that we have more to come...

...from you. Thank you so very much, myfriend. I'm so grateful for this opportunity and it's as always it'sbeen too long and it's lovely to see you again. Same here. Same here andthank you all for joining us today. wasn't that just the best? We are soglad to join us each Friday for every new episode. We have quite a lineupheaded your way in 2022, so stay tuned. If you're enjoying listening to these,please rate review and share and most importantly, please tell a friendremember you can always find all the books by every friends and fictionwriter's block podcast. Guest past and present in the Friends and fictionbookshop dot org. Shop all sales placed there helped to fund friends andfiction and a portion of each and every sale goes straight into the pockets ofindie booksellers nationwide. Since its inception, bookshop dot org has raisedmore than 16 million for indie bookstores shops, small shop local fromthe convenience of your screen with bookshop dot org and tell them friendsand fiction sent you. Thank you for tuning in to the Friends and fictionWriter's Block podcast. Please be sure to subscribe, rate and review on yourfavorite podcast platform, tune in every friday for another episode, and you can also join us every week onfacebook or Youtube, where our live Friends and fiction show airs At sevenp.m. eastern standard time. We are so glad you're here.

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