On March 13, as part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, three 2020 honorees for the National Book Award for Fiction Rumaan Alam (Leave the World Behind, Finalist), Megha Majumdar (A Burning, Longlist), and Deesha Philyaw (The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Finalist) discussed their books and fiction’s place in contemporary American culture, with Randy Winston. Presented in partnership with the National Book Foundation.
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Watch this event (transcript provided below):
Thanks to our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop.
“[I]mpossible to put the book down, to look away… Sometimes it takes a gifted storyteller to make us see what our imaginations cannot grasp. Leave the World Behind tells us, with a heart-stopping insistence, that the time to fix what’s broken is now.”—Los Angeles Times
“In her captivating debut novel A Burning, Megha Majumdar presents a powerful corrective to the political narratives that have dominated in contemporary India.”—Time
“[The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is] a collection of luminous stories populated by deeply moving and multifaceted characters…. Tender, fierce, proudly black and beautiful, these stories will sneak inside you and take root.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Thanks to Charlottesville Pride Community Network and the UVA LGBT Committee for Faculty and Staff for sharing information about this event.
JANE KULOW: Welcome to NBF Presents: The Art of Fiction, a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. If you haven’t read today’s featured books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from a local bookseller visit VaBook.org, or you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festivals ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
We greatly appreciate the support of our partner for this event, the National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Awards. We are proud to mark this our fourth year to present an event in partnership with the Foundation. To tell us more about our speakers, I’m pleased to introduce Natalie Green, Public Programs Manager at the National Book Foundation. Natalie, thanks for joining us.
NATALIE GREEN: Thanks Jane. We’re so excited to join you and the Virginia Festival of the Book to celebrate just a few of our favorite 2020 National Book Award honored fiction writers. Thank you all for tuning in and thanks to Jane, Sarah Lawson, and their entire team for the tireless work that goes into a virtual book festival. Since 1950, the National Book Foundation has presented the National Book Awards to honor the best literature in America. Through public programs and our education and access initiatives, we work year-round to reach readers everywhere. Over the past few years, we visited 40 States, donated nearly 1.5 million bucks to children and families living in public housing authorities and granted over $3.5 million to help fellow literary arts nonprofit organizations and publishers during the COVID-19 pandemic with our friends at the Academy of American Poets and Community of Literary Magazines and Presses.
The arts will continue to need your help this year. If you’re able to, please consider donating to make events and beautiful partnerships like this one possible. And now for our program, Rumaan, Megha and Deesha, will read briefly and chat with Randy on their work, the work of fiction, and maybe even the work of recognition. Linked prominently is a button to buy these authors outstanding books. With gratitude to New Dominion Bookshop, please, please buy these books. As corny as it sounds, all three shifted the way that I look at fiction. And now our guests, Rumaan Alam is the author of three novels, Rich and Pretty, That Kind of Mother and Leave The World Behind, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction. Other writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, New York Magazine, BuzzFeed and The New Republic, where he is a contributing editor. He studied writing at Oberlin College and lives in New York with his husband and two kids.
Megha Majumdar, was born and raised in Calcutta, India. She moved to the U.S. to attend college at Harvard University, followed by graduate school in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins. She works as a senior editor at Catapult and lives in New York City. A Burning, long-listed for the National Book Award, is her first book. Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives Of Church Ladies, was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for fiction, and currently The Story Prize. Deesha is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101, Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her writing on race, parenting, gender and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ebony, and Beach magazines and elsewhere. And our moderator, Randy Winston is the fiction editor at Slice Literary Magazine and creator of Milkshake Scholar, a milkshake interview series on Instagram. He earned his MFA in creative writing from The New School. Winston is represented by Ed Maxwell, Greenberger Associates. And now, enjoy the program.
RANDY WINSTON: Hi everyone. I’m so excited to be in conversation with you all today. Let’s start. Ah, oh my goodness. First, I want to say that I’m honored to be here and to have the opportunity to speak with each of you about your work. Your words impacted me greatly as a reader, but also as a person. And I cannot begin to tell you how much writing is in these margins, in the lines, I was equally a reader, a fan, an editor, I was in there with each story and I was in the group chats with my friends sharing how much this stuff meant to me, what you all were talking about. So, it’s an honor, it’s an honor.
Let’s start with National Book Award recognition, but also recognition from your peers and what that means to you personally, what that means for you as the writer?
RUMAAN ALAM: Randy, are you going to call on us? I feel like it’s your show. So I feel like you’ve got to tell us like you, you, you, unless you want us to just jump in, you tell me.
RANDY WINSTON: I can do that. How about Deesha, do you want to start?
DEESHA PHILYAW: Sure. I’ll start with just recognition and the way that my book was received by readers. My hope was that Black women would feel seen and heard. And so it was just tremendous and really overwhelming, overwhelmingly wonderful for me to hear from Black women that they did feel seen and heard in these stories and through these characters. And I also knew that people who aren’t Black women could connect with these stories and characters, but, I didn’t know if they would, so it’s still always wonderful for me to hear from other folks too, that they found connection points as well, to the book. And then as far as the National Book Award, what a tremendous honor that was, and the way that I think about it, I think about it as having received this recognition as a finalist, as a Black woman writer who is almost 50 years old in an industry that trends White, male, and younger, in terms of who the gatekeepers are and in terms of the money.
So that was significant for me. I hope that it’s a hopeful moment for others and that it’s ushering in some changes in that industry. And also as a writer of short stories, so many of us who write short story collections, we’re always told, “Oh, short story collections are a hard sell.” So I’m hoping that not only with the recognition my collection has received, but others as well, that, that it would be changing in the industry also. And so, I look at this as a privileged position that I now have having been a finalist, and I want to use that privilege to open doors for other people and to make our industry more inclusive and more equitable.
RANDY WINSTON: Megha?
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Yeah. Echoing so much of what Deesha said, I think, it was such a huge surprise to me that this book found readers here. It’s a novel that’s set entirely in India, and I didn’t really expect it to resonate this much, and in the middle of a pandemic. So it was kind of surreal. And I think the thing that I was always thinking is, on the one hand, I am so proud of the book, I worked so hard on it, and I’m so grateful it’s out there. And on the other hand, I’m constantly aware that people have bigger things to think about and worry about than my book, it’s a very minor thing in a really, really tough year. I mean, people have been dealing with illness and lost jobs and all kinds of huge profound problems.
And so just kind of holding those two things in mind, is that I’m proud of this book, but there are also bigger things happening right now, I think that was part of it. And the National Book Award recognition, it was huge, I did not see it coming. And as someone who did not grow up here, I moved here when I was 19 to go to college, having this American recognition felt incredibly, incredibly special. It made me feel my book could be part of current American literature and that was really huge. I’m so curious to hear how Rumaan thinks about recognition though, because you’ve had several books at this point.
RUMAAN ALAM: But, I don’t think it ever stops being a shock, right? I don’t think any of the three of us were waiting by the phone the day that the long list came out, because you’d have to be crazy to. And I think it’s a complicated balance, as Megha said actually, knowing that you can be proud of what you’ve done, but also knowing that in the larger context of things that this is a tiny thing. I think the truth is that we all know that awards are kind of silly. And we understand that the National Book Foundation, we heard Natalie talk about what the Foundation actually does, which is it supports a culture of literacy in this country. The awards are a strategy in raising money and raising the profile of the institution so that they can actually provide books to people who can’t afford to buy them and all these other things that they do as part of that mandate.
And so you have to kind of understand that. And so I do think that it’s obviously thrilling to be nominated or mentioned for an award. But I suspect that for me, and I think probably for you guys too, what’s really thrilling about it is knowing that those individual judges, who are themselves writers who we all adore and respect, looked at the work and said, “This is interesting.” And for me, the thrill was that it made us, the three of us, who don’t really know one another, although I’ve met Megha before at a bookstore, it made us into colleagues. And that’s an extraordinary thing. It’s an extraordinary thing to suddenly be turned into colleagues with people like Lydia Millet and Charlie Yu and it’s just extraordinary. It’s a party that I never thought I would be invited to. And I don’t think any, I think all three of us feel that way, even if I understand as Megha saying like, the party doesn’t really matter, what matters is, there’s so many other things that matter at the moment.
RANDY WINSTON: All right, so I want to start with, have you all read excerpts from your book. And Megha, I’m going to start with you and you have that in front of you, so I’ll let you get started. And what we’ll do is, Deesha you’ll read next, Rumaan you’ll read after, and then I’ll ask you questions that are very specific to those.
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Sounds great. Okay. So I’ll read a little bit from A Burning. I’m reading from page 167, so quite deep in the book.
The second event happened one night when I was woken by my mother shouting. It was dark and I rose in a panic. “Look how they scratched me, those savages,” my mother was saying, holding out a bare forearm. And they had, whoever they were. I climbed off the bed, my breath catching, and held her arm tenderly, as if my touch could soothe. A small circle of potential customers stood around, bereft of breakfast, agitated by the event they had stumbled upon.
At the nighttime market, two or three men had shoved my mother, grabbed her grocery-shopping money from her fist, and shouted at her to “go back to Bangladesh.”
Later, when the audience had dispersed, Ma sat in the house with her head in her hands. When she looked up, after long minutes, she said, “They were touching me here, touching me here, Oh my girl, my gold, don’t make me tell you.”
I saw my mother then as a woman. I felt her humiliation. And where I had always felt shame, I now felt white-hot anger. Anger crept into my jaws and I had to gnash my teeth to be calm.
Why was this our life? What kind of life was it, where my mother was forced to buy cheap vegetables in the middle of the night, and got robbed and attacked for it. What kind of life did we have, where my father’s pain was not taken seriously by a doctor until it was too late.
So I made a decision. Whether it was a good decision or a bad decision, I no longer know.
RANDY WINSTON: Thank you. Deesha?
DEESHA PHILYAW: Megha, thank you. I love not only your words in the book itself, but hearing you read is always a treat, so thank you. I’m going to read from a story in my collection called “Peach Cobbler,” and I’m also reading in the middle.
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Yes.
DEESHA PHILYAW: So I’ll tee it up a little bit. The narrator, her name is Olivia and she is at this point, I think she’s about 14. And the backstory is that her mother is having an affair with their church pastor and comes over every Monday, and she bakes them a peach cobbler. Her mother makes him a peach cobbler. Olivia is not allowed to have any, and then they have sex. And so for years, this has been going on and Olivia is never allowed to have the peach cobbler, but one time she ate it out of the garbage can when she was a young child.
Even though I no longer ate the peach cobbler out of the garbage can at night, my hunger remained. I still watched my mother make them because I didn’t want to forget how she did it. Maybe I could make one for myself. Once I asked if she could buy extra peaches so that I could make a cobbler. “I don’t have money to waste on you messing around in my kitchen,” was her answer. At 14, I got a job at the mall at Thom McAn Shoe Store. I would buy my own damn peaches. I made my cobblers on Friday nights when my mother would hole up in her bedroom with a bottle of Tanqueray and I had the kitchen to myself. I didn’t change a single step or ingredient, so my cobblers tasted as good as my mother’s. Even better eating off a plate instead of my fingers. I ate cobbler with every meal throughout the weekend until it was gone.
I would soak the empty pan in the sink, my hands lingering in the warm dishwater. I had made something wonderful. Only once did my mother acknowledge my cobbler making. She came out of her room one Friday night and stood in the doorway of the kitchen wearing an oversized flannel shirt, gin in hand, watching me. The liquor made her slower and more deliberate, softer, and even more beautiful somehow. Her hair was out of its usual bun and it flowed over her shoulders. She was in her mid-thirties, but looked girlish like a life-sized doll. “You think you know what you doing huh? You think you’re so smart, smarter than everybody.” I turned away and went back to stirring the butter for my crust. My mother walked over to me so close, I could smell the gin on her breath. “There’s book smart and there’s life smart,” she said. “ If you was life smart, you wouldn’t try and be anything like me.”
RANDY WINSTON: Thank you, Deesha. Rumaan?
RUMAAN ALAM: This is a hard act to follow, Megha and Deesha. I’m going to read… One of the joys of doing this event is that Randy assigned our reading to us, which I love. I’m going to read from a part of the book that I’ve never had the chance to read aloud before. You don’t need to know anything, except for that one of the characters is making a grilled cheese sandwich.
Amanda removed a finished sandwich. “My kids rely on their phones to tell them how the weather is. To tell them what time it is, everything about the world around them, they can’t even see the world anymore but through that prism.” But even Amanda did this. She’d mocked the television commercial in which Zooey Deschanel seemed not to know whether it was raining, but she’d done the very same thing. “Without our phones, it turns out we’re basically marooned out here.” That’s what it was. The feeling was withdrawal. On planes, she turned off airplane mode and started trying to check her email once you heard that ding that meant you were fewer than ten thousand feet aloft. The flight attendants were buckled in and couldn’t scold. She’d pull and pull and pull at the screen, waiting for the connection to be established, waiting to see what she had missed.
“You’ll believe it when you can see it on your phone.” Ruth didn’t even blame her for this. All these years debating the objectivity of facts had done something to everyone’s brains.
“We just don’t know anything. I’ll feel better once we do. Do you think it’s taking Clay a long time?”
Ruth put the dirty spoon in the sink. “There’s an old idea, you’re trapped on a desert island. You’re far from society and people and maybe you have to choose the ten books or records you can take with you. Sort of makes the thing seem like paradise instead of a trap.” A desert island sounded nice to her, though the seas were rising; maybe all such islands would vanish.
“But I don’t have ten books. If we had the internet, I could get into my account and download all the books I’ve bought for my Kindle. But we don’t have that.” What she didn’t say: We have the pool, these brie and chocolate sandwiches, and though we’re strangers to one another, sure, we have one another too.
RANDY WINSTON: Thank you, Rumaan.
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Was that a brie chocolate sandwich?
RUMAAN ALAM: Okay, listen, I was a skeptic. I was also a skeptic, my sister-in-law made them for me, and I was like, “This is going to be awful.” Let me tell you, it’s delicious. Very highly recommend. Very highly recommend. I don’t blame you guys for being skeptical, I really don’t, but they’re real, and they’re delicious.
RANDY WINSTON: The one thing we don’t get to talk about because of time, is food in each of these books, because, whooh! Rumaan, I want to start with you, and I want to start with your excerpt. Can you talk to the value that these characters, but people in general, place in materials and in people and how that value changes under dire circumstances?
RUMAAN ALAM: So when I think about what happened about a year ago, from the time we’re having this conversation, which is when New York State announced that it was closing its schools and that we would begin this sort of lockdown, what we’ve called lockdown. I think about what we all did, we all went shopping and obviously we need to eat. There’s an imperative, you have to feed your family, you have to go shopping, you have to buy toilet paper, you have to buy dried beans, whatever it is, whatever the things we bought were. But we also bought dumb bells and yoga mats, we also bought books to read, we also bought the ad free subscription to Hulu. We did all of these things because I think we exist within a system which has taught us over the course of our lifetime that material comfort is a life preserver, that you require it.
There are certain things of course, that we do require and that many of us don’t possess. And that is a whole other set of problems. But I do think that there is a fallacy in thinking the right thing will save you, whether it is a tangible thing, like a luxury car or a second home, or an apartment with a third bedroom, or an intangible thing like a certain kind of education or a certain kind of philosophy or certain kind of politics. We live in a system that reduces all of those things to material goods to purchase. And we turn to that system in times of crisis. After 9/11, George Bush, to restart the economy, sent us money to go shopping, that is the American way. And in this book, there is a lot of preoccupation with material goods, both tiny things like food, delicious comforting food that I love and everybody loves, and bigger more abstract things. But I don’t know personally whether the things we buy, whether it is the right education, the right kind of apartment, the right kind of clothes will fundamentally save us as people.
RANDY WINSTON: Thank you, Rumaan. Megha, in your excerpt, I didn’t realize it at first when I read that, but once the novel concluded, I kept going back to that moment, and I read it over and over and I was so heartbroken. I realized where the feeling had come from, and this was a heartbreak of the totality of this, of the story. But in particular, this recalling that the character is having. And all that happens in her life from that moment on was the outcome of her deciding to make a better life for her mom and her father.
But then I began to realize that it didn’t start there, that there were things that happened even before that, that in return, are a domino effect of where she was when her mom … Because of the situations they’re in, they have to go to this market at night. And I just wanted to know, can you talk about the decisions that the characters in your story are making and how those decisions play out over time affecting those around them? Because I think that was the beauty of how you structured this book was, those decisions, and when we’re watching them play out in real time and the pace is like this.
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Thanks, Randy. I think this book, I was so interested in exploring how people try to make a better life for themselves. and what kinds of moral quandaries that places them in, in a society where none of the systems work for them, none of the institutions serve them. And even in that society, these three characters are trying to move ahead. And so for this character, the section that I read, she is just a young woman who wants to rise to the middle-class and keep her job at the mall and provide a more comfortable life for her mother and father. But she’s caught in this tussle of narratives where the state imposes this narrative on her and her only way to resist that narrative is by reaching for something which is outside of the court system, which is the media.
So part of this is, she’s telling her story to a journalist who visits her in the prison. So for her, it’s very much about realizing that she has no recourse other than the media. And for the other two characters, they’re constantly trying to figure out what kind of moral center can you hold in such a society where you are asked to make choices about whether you rise or somebody else rises? Do you achieve your dream or does somebody else have a just life? And I think those are incredibly difficult questions, and those were the questions that I wanted these characters to grapple with.
RANDY WINSTON: I agree. Those were very difficult and it was also, as I’m reading it, I felt like I was a part of those decisions as well, because you feel completely connected to these characters. Deesha, so I thought a lot about “Peach Cobbler” and not just the title, “Peach Cobbler,” but peach cobbler itself and the story and what peach cobbler represents. It looks good, it tastes good, but it isn’t good for Olivia. Or at least, that’s what I took from that. And she’s being warned by her mother, she doesn’t know exactly what she’s up against, but I also sense that she has an idea of the reality of the situation. Can you talk a bit about the tension between not knowing, but also having evidence of what’s at play, because she sees what’s happening, but she doesn’t know the why.
DEESHA PHILYAW: Right. I was struck by something that Megha read in her book, where her character says, I saw her, I saw my mother as a woman, and that’s such a profound moment that some of us never get to. Or if you’re like me, you might get to it too late, because I don’t think I saw my mother as a woman, as a person until she had died when I was 34. And I remember I was at an event a couple of years ago and Kiese Laymon was speaking, and my question for him was, what do we owe our mothers? Because if you’re familiar with Heavy, his memoir, it chronicles his very difficult relationship with his mother. And he answered without hesitation, and he said, “We owe it to them to see them as more than our mothers.”
And that’s a tall order I think for most of us, and especially as children. So in terms of what you were asking about sort of, what does Olivia know and when does she know it sort of thing versus, what she knows, what she thinks and then versus reality, as a child. I mean, our parents truly are mysteries, we don’t know them as people with childhoods, or with traumas, or quirks, or failings, initially they’re just Godlike. And then as we get older, they can’t do anything, right? And there’s no sort of moderation in how we see our parents. And so Olivia knows what she sees in terms of what her mother is doing. She might even attribute some of it to the gin, you know what I mean? If our parents have substance issues or addictions, but we don’t know the why, because there’s always another level of why.
And if we’re lucky, I think, we get to know our parents as people. We get to know those multiple levels of why they are the way they are, why they did the things they did, why in Olivia’s case and for so many of us why they couldn’t be who we needed them to be as our parents. And so, I’ve had people ask me about the mother character and like, well, why is she like that? I mean, would you ever explore that? Why didn’t you explore more about her? I wanted to see her through Olivia’s eyes. There was so much she just didn’t and couldn’t know, and her mother wasn’t trying to be particularly revelatory either. And I think that’s real. I think that’s how a lot of us experience our parents.
RANDY WINSTON: I agree. That story hit me in the chest. And Deesha if you will, let’s stay with you for a second. Can you talk a bit about the collection as a whole, about the challenges that you might’ve faced while writing a collection that connects themes similar to a religious gaze or society’s expectations of women, especially in the South?
DEESHA PHILYAW: I think the challenge, let’s see, how do I want to frame it? I want to start to talk about how that part was not a challenge. There were challenges, but I think the reason that particular thing wasn’t a challenge is because, I didn’t want this to be a book about the church or a religious gaze. I wanted this book to first and foremost be about Black women. And so starting there helped to avoid all of that kind of arguing with the church. I feel like my book is less in conversation with the church, on the church’s terms than it is … I’ve been saying based on some other talks I’ve given, I want the stories to stir up good trouble in the church. I wanted to spark conversations so that these congregations that are overwhelmingly women with overwhelmingly male leadership can start to reconcile some of this, can start doing some reckoning. I hope that the story sparked that.
I didn’t find it particularly interesting to sort of, enter into these stories through the church. It was more through the women and their need to get free of the ways the church was binding them either directly or indirectly through other people in their lives. So that was, I think, a wise decision, that’s what I was most interested in.
In terms of challenges though, I didn’t want to be ham-fisted. I didn’t want to be finger-wagging, because the women in the church who are struggling, who are hurting. I think if I had been too didactic and moralizing in a different direction, it would have been alienating. And so the process of kind of continuing to redirect myself, and writing from a place of respect. And making sure that I didn’t pity these women, that I didn’t demonize them for their choices, or trying not to judge and we’re just judgmental people anyway, so that’s really hard. But just trying to write from a place of compassion was challenging, especially with characters who, they’re doing things, I wouldn’t do some of them.
RANDY WINSTON: I mean, I felt the compassion myself. There were a lot of stories in there that, though you wrote those for a specific audience, I felt them personally as well. Megha, my apologies, can you talk about the challenges that you face while writing your story, especially? And I think what was most profound is how you’re able to read to weave these three stories together and how the outcome of Jayvon, is that how you pronounce your Jayvon’s name?
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Jayvon.
RANDY WINSTON: Jayvon. How her fate is strongly tied to the decisions that Petysa and Lovely are making?
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Yeah, it was really tricky writing these three characters because I knew that I wanted their moral choices to have some kind of ripple in the other people’s lives, but I didn’t want to force. I didn’t want to manufacture ways in which their life stitched together. So it was kind of like, they have an impact on each other, but they’re often not even in the same places, they’re often not even talking to each other, and that was really hard to do. I made a lot of places where strands stick together and then I realized it’s too much, and then I kind of separated them out. Part of what was difficult was managing time across three characters’ lives, because I wrote them separately.
And then I realized that I had written time differently. So I needed to go back, put it all together and make sure time flows in the same way. And part of it was just realizing that these three characters, they are just three people in a really busy world that’s full of other complex stories. So that was something that I really wanted to gesture toward, is that I picked these three particular characters to follow, but I was always looking for places in which I could punch greater depths into the story. So, how can I make sure no character is just a device?
And that’s kind of how I came to the interludes, which are these tiny sections which are in the book, following minor characters for a page or two. And it was just kind of showing all of these people who are doing particular things for the major characters also have worries and superstitions and ambitions of their own. So they are thinking about other stuff and you can follow them farther down that road if you want to. So making the busy-ness of that world while keeping it a pretty taut book was a challenge, but it was fun.
RANDY WINSTON: And Megha, for me as a reader, what hit me the most in the chest was, when things are happening to these characters, and life around them is continuing to move on and the realism that they’re staring at, that you did that.
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Thank you for reading it so thoughtfully, Randy, it’s really a dream to be read with so much care.
RANDY WINSTON: You’re welcome. I’m just thankful to be here. Rumaan, so talk to me about, and I guess I shouldn’t call it a challenge, but the opportunity where you have Ruth and George, and then you have Amanda and Clay. I feel like I know all these people by heart, I’m not into reading off a script. Talk to me a little bit about the tension, the relationship there, the development of what could be, with those characters as you’re writing this out?
RUMAAN ALAM: I mean, it’s funny, I think that Deesha and Megha said sort of shades of the same thing, which is that the fiction is pretend. It’s an imagined thing you’re building, but you also want to be thinking about what it can do without thinking too hard about forcing it to do something, like Deesha used the word didactic, you’re not trying to be … None of us are giving the sermon, we’re writing a story and there’s a different way that you have to do that. And so I think, I don’t really know how it’s done, you just sort of conjure these people who aren’t entirely real. And sometimes you hear writers talk about setting them loose on the page as though it’s some mystical thing that happens, disconnected from your own volition. But I don’t think that’s true, because if it did happen without you being involved, it would be so much easier to write a book, but you have to be involved.
You have to sit down at the computer. And like I said, you’ve got to have that realization that you’ve done the passage of time incorrectly, and then you have to do it again for the 90th time and your hair is falling out. So it’s this very strange balance that I think other writers of fiction really understand, where you’re extremely involved in making a constructed and a fake thing that in no way really aspires to pretend to be real, because even what we call realism we know is unreal.
If you’re writing a first-person narrative, who is that narrator talking to, it doesn’t make any sense to use an “I” on the page. If you’re writing a short story that takes place over a decade, or five decades as Alice Munro does, that also doesn’t make any sense because that’s not how an individual’s relationship to the passage of time works. So it’s all fake and you’re reaching for varying degrees of true inside of that. I don’t know. It’s such a weird thing to talk. It’s almost impolite to talk about, because it’s like talking about a disorder that you share with a lot of other people, everyone on this call.
RANDY WINSTON: I’m going to do a time check. We have about 15 minutes left. I am very interested in getting your thoughts on this next question. So in our current reality, we have COVID, or there’s COVID that exists. And I got to be clear there, there’s COVID, and we’ve all been impacted by the virus in one way or another. And the fallout from that, how this country is handling it, how it was happening worldwide. How will the time we’re in now form your writing moving forward, and I’ll start with Megha.
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: I think it’s been really interesting to watch the focus on questioning the systems that we have built around ourselves and realizing that they don’t work. So it was really interesting to watch all of these neighborhood mutual aid groups pop up in the early days of the pandemic, neighbors helping neighbors get groceries and medicines. And people had to step in and do that because the state isn’t doing anything and the horror of realizing that we are on our own. And it’s perhaps a chance to rethink all of these systems. I think that is something that I’m very excited about is, how can we rethink how we live? It’s not going to happen soon, and there are going to be many, but just the room to re-imagine, well, maybe government doesn’t need to look like this. Maybe the medical system doesn’t need to look like this. Maybe health insurance doesn’t need to look like this. Asking those questions is really exciting. And I’m really hopeful that a lot of people writing right now will be writing and taking those questions forward.
RANDY WINSTON: Deesha?
DEESHA PHILYAW: I absolutely agree with what Megha said. I mean, we have found out that we are on our own collectively, that these systems in place have failed us. And I think about that in terms of my writing, because in pretty much everything, almost everything I write, there’s a thread of loneliness and longing. And I think one of the things that it does is, it makes for good fiction, because how do people cope with that loneliness and longing? And sometimes the ways we cope aren’t great for us, and it causes more problems. But sometimes I think there’s also something to be said for what a lot of us have had to do in this pandemic, accepting the loneliness and longing as what is, and what’s going to be for the foreseeable future. And I don’t know anybody who has had … Nothing has prepared us for this, for this amount of isolation.
And for those of us who live alone, part-time, depending on where your kids are, in my case, that true isolation, touch deprivation, all of these things that most of us have never experienced that we take certain things for granted, we can’t take those things for granted anymore. So what stories will we tell about those experiences? Or about, now that there’s so much we can’t take for granted anymore, that’s a whole other set of stories that we can tell, what we thought we knew. But going back to the loneliness and the longing, one thing that those stories can do, that I try and do with my stories that have those threads, is that it helps the readers feel less alone, it’s some commiseration. And so, I think I want to see more stories and also more essays coming out, where people are being honest about what this has done to us.
And something that struck me is that there’s a stigma, a shame around saying that you’re lonely. But in this pandemic people are being more forthcoming about that, we’re creating that space. I think that’s also some of the mutual aid too, is emotional space for people to talk about how we’re struggling with our mental health in all of this. And so I think our fiction will be richer for if we keep that level of honesty about who we are.
RANDY WINSTON: Rumaan?
RUMAAN ALAM: No, I mean, I share the, I don’t know if you’d call optimism, but the sense of, if there is a silver lining, it isn’t that the culture’s hand is being forced to acknowledge that the government has left us behind. The fact that the federal government is still debating sending $2,000 to people who haven’t been working tells you absolutely everything you need to know about the cultural moment. I hope that we can actually seize upon that moment and do something. I think it’s too soon to know how it will affect artistic product. But I will say this, I’m sure I’m not alone. I have been reading like crazy, like crazy, because I’ve lost interest in basically everything. I can’t really pay attention to the news, I’ve been trying to sort of force a break from my own sort of addictive relationship to the news.
And there’s no movies, no one’s going to the museum, no one’s going to the Philharmonic, but books, you’ll never run out of the books that you haven’t read. You’ll never run out. And so you can always go into those. And that’s what I’ve been doing. And that is the only thing that generates work. And so I suspect that but if not for me, but for all of our other colleagues, are also holed up and reading when their kids will let them or when they’re not feeling too bummed out, and when they were able to focus. And that something will come of that, something will come of that.
RANDY WINSTON: Thank you. I was in book club a couple of weeks ago, and we had Claudia Rankine on it. And someone asked a very interesting question, which I’ve been to a good number of events with authors, and it’s the first time I heard someone from the audience asked this question. So I’ll ask it to you, and I want to give you context. So, for me personally, when this pandemic first started, there’s this idea that, oh, because you’re a writer, and you’re at home, you have all this time, you’re writing a ton or you’re reading everything, that’s all you do now, is 24/7, and I didn’t want to do anything.
As Deesha put it, all the things I took for granted were hitting me very closely. And so I took up cooking, and I cooked before, but I took it seriously and I bought a Dutch oven, I gave it a name, and I started cooking. And friends would tell me all the time, we’re not living in normal times, so do something nice for yourself. So, someone asked Claudia Rankine, what do you do to relax, and Claudia Rankine go, “Huh.” She had to sit back in the chair, and she goes, “I watch Dave Chappelle.” And so, I’m going to ask you all, when you’re not reading and writing, what are you doing for yourself, what are you doing to relax?
DEESHA PHILYAW: I’ll go. Cooking, that was it for me, too. I got a bigger Instant Pot, I decided my Instant Pot was too big, see you Rumaan, consumption. I got an air fryer, makes the best crispy chicken wings with no starch. I started doing the farm box, so I get fresh produce delivered every two weeks. I was taking the ends of the green onions and putting them in shot glasses with water, I was growing my own green onions. I’d learned how to make fluffy buttermilk biscuits, I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but like you, I took it to that next level. So that’s one way, and I also discovered CBD bath salts, game changer.
RANDY WINSTON: I’m writing that down.
DEESHA PHILYAW: I can recommend, I’ll tell you where I got them.
RANDY WINSTON: Megha?
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: I have also been cooking, like you. And I’ve also been taking long walks. I feel cooking and walks have been my two activities. And because we moved, we’re still in Brooklyn, but we just moved. So I feel like I am now reoriented to the city and I have this new neighborhood to explore and walk around in which I’m really excited about. But even just the ritual of walking down a street that you know very well, where you know all the stores, and you kind of know what looks like what. Even there I think just watching things has been very soothing. The light changes, you notice an interesting door that you never noticed before, a poster for something pops up somewhere. So there’s always just practicing watching, even in a place that I know very well, has been really good.
RANDY WINSTON: The walking.
RUMAAN ALAM: Megha, we have to talk off camera about whether or not we’re neighbors. I have been cooking a ton, too. I have children and my husband doesn’t really do any of the cooking. And so in a way like that, it’s like a chore that becomes a pleasure because it’s sort of a sustained meditative practice, right? It’s not just about treating yourself, well, that’s a part of it. It’s about I’m doing this thing for 90 minutes, and I can’t really do anything else, so no one can bother me.
But I also wanted advocate for not doing anything, because I was going to say before, what I was going to say was that I’ve been working out. I get up every morning and I work out for an hour, and I feel however you’re supposed to feel up to do that, which is good. But I also feel like there’s too much emphasis on productivity in our culture, it’s so ingrained into us, especially Brown people, right? All of our parents taught us the imperative of excelling and producing and focusing and working, and normally, my boys go to bed at 8:00 or 8:30, and I will read or write or work until 11:30 or 12.
And the other night, I sat down at my dining table and I did crossword puzzles on my phone for three hours, which is a really long time, a really long time to do crossword puzzles. And I didn’t produce anything, I didn’t move, I wasn’t listening to a podcast at the same time. I’m always trying to do this extra credit. I have this extra credit impulse in me. I’ve got to listen to the collected stories of Anton Chekhov while I’m making dinner. It’s like no, you don’t actually have to do that. You are allowed to be in touch with pure pleasure, and walk around and look at pretty doors, or spend too much money on an appliance you don’t need because you want to have a delicious chicken wing, you’re allowed to do that. And I think that in this moment where there’s so much, joy can be so hard to access, I think you should seize it wherever you can get up.
RANDY WINSTON: I absolutely agree. And for the sake of time, we are going to stop there. But before we do, I’m going to pretend that we’re in the auditorium. So I’m going to ask everyone watching at home to give Megha, Rumaan, Deesha a round of applause.
RUMAAN ALAM: Thank you.
DEESHA PHILYAW: Thank you.
RANDY WINSTON: Thank you so much for your work. Thank you so much.
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Thank you Randy.
RUMAAN ALAM: Thank you.
RANDY WINSTON: I will be sharing and have been sharing these stories with folks, and listen, my mom’s birthday is in two weeks, she’s getting all three books.
DEESHA PHILYAW: Yes.
RUMAAN ALAM: Honestly being somebody’s gift to their mom is a real … There’s the National Book recognition and then there’s knowing that somebody who cares about books is going to give your books to their mom. They’re like neck and neck there, they’re right there, so thank you.
RANDY WINSTON: I mean, I know for me emotionally vulnerable during these times, but I can tell you that, that’s not the effect that these books are having on me. These, I would feel an emotional connection to these books whether we were in a pandemic or not. So, again, thank you all so much. It’s been an honor to talk to you all.
DEESHA PHILYAW: Thank you.
RUMAAN ALAM: Thank you so much.
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Thank you.
RUMAAN ALAM: It’s really good to see you guys.
DEESHA PHILYAW: You too.
MEGHA MAJUMDAR: Good seeing you.
RUMAAN ALAM: The National Book Foundation owes all of us a drink. So someday, when we emerge from this, we will do that. Really nice to see you guys.
DEESHA PHILYAW: Right? They have a big party. This replaces the year we didn’t, so I’m assuming … Natalie are we invited to future parties, is that how that works? I’m ready, I’m ready.
RANDY WINSTON: Well, it’s time for us to wrap things up. And thank you all for this conversation. And thank you to everyone who is watching, please consider buying these featured books from your local independent bookseller, or using the link provided on VaBook.org. You can also check out other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at vabook.org. Thank you.