What was the inspiration for your book?
At a difficult time in her life, a close Indian-American friend of mine wrestled with the fear of a family curse. She’s a doctor who relies on both an analyst and a family astrologer, and to me, that was a very interesting position from which to explore the concept of coming from—and believing in—two very different cultures, an ostensibly scientific Western culture, and a more faith-based Eastern tradition. Make that doctor a psychiatric analyst-in-training—someone who spends all her time considering what role our own actions and beliefs play in determining our destinies—and you’ve got another layer added to the conflict. I wanted to explore what it would feel like to be such a person, to be Maya Das.
How did writing this book differ from writing North of Ithaka?
In my first two books I switch genres but explore the same theme, which is one of the central conflicts in my own life, as well as my characters’: the tension of being bicultural, of loving two countries and two sets of people, and developing two, often competing, aspects of yourself at one time. Having lived in both Greece and the US, wherever I am, I’m longing for a place that I love, much like Maya. Still, Other Waters is fiction, whereas North of Ithaka is nonfiction, and I found fiction much more time-consuming to write. With my travel memoir, I took extensive notes on the world around me, and found it relatively easy to see which elements among those notes were relevant to the story I wanted to tell. With fiction, first you have to make everything up and then get rid of all the irrelevant stuff.
Do you feel inauthentic writing about a culture that’s not your own?
I didn’t feel like a poseur writing Other Waters, and I hope you’re too wrapped up in Maya’s experience to feel like a voyeur while reading it. The beauty of fiction—both writing and reading it—is that it allows you to inhabit a world, a culture, and a life that differ from your own. That’s the point, to explore universal truths while looking at specific circumstances and characters. The magic of fiction—and of empathy—is why Arthur Golden can write Memoirs of a Geisha, or a teenage girl like S.E. Hinton can write about a gang of restless boys in The Outsiders. It’s why Flaubert identified so much with his main character, a yearning housewife, that he said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” I wish I could say that in Hindi.
How did you prepare for writing this novel?
While pursuing my MFA, I took a class in Hinduism at Barnard and went on three trips to India. I also ran each version of the manuscript by an Indian friend and a psychoanalyst to make sure that it rang true to their experiences. Since I love learning and traveling, doing the research was the fun part. It also led to me ending up as an extra in a Tamil language movie filming on the banks of the Ganges on New Year’s Day 2007. But that’s another story.
What’s coming up next?
Right now I’m focused on bringing Other Waters into the world (coincidentally, just a few months after giving birth to my first child). But I do have very early, embryonic plans for another novel. There’s no escape from my obsessions; a saga spanning three generations, this novel will also address cross-cultural themes and the supportive, suffocating bonds of family. But it takes place, in part, in a new setting. Having written about Europe and Southeast Asia, I’m thinking it’s next stop, Central America.