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“I am not trying to give them a voice”

Roshni Rustomji-Kerns talks about the domestic and foreign literary landscapes of the US, Mexico, India, and Pakistan

“I am not trying to give them a voice”

Roshni Rustomji-Kerns earned her PhD in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley in the 1960s and later taught at Sonoma State University and Stanford University. She has edited three highly influential anthologies: Blood into Ink: South Asian and Middle Eastern Women Write War (1994); Living In America: Fiction and Poetry  by South Asian American Writers (1995); and The Geography of Encounters: People of Asian Descent in the Americas (1999).

Her first novel The Braided Tongue (2003) was published by TSAR Publications, Toronto. The Great American Movie Script is her most recent work of fiction.

Her short fiction and essays have been published widely American journals. She currently resides with her husband in Alameda, CA, and spends considerable time in Oaxaca, Mexico, a place the couple considers home. Below are excerpts from an interview:

TNS: Could you please tell our readers a little about your childhood?

Roshni Rustomji-Kerns: I was born on October 25, 1938 in Mumbai, India. My mother was from Mumbai, born in Japan. My father was from Karachi, born in Karachi. They named me Roshni because I was born during Diwali celebrations.

According to one of my uncles when I was a very young child, I would ask for stories from everyone. He said that I refused to greet new people until they told me a story — one I had not heard before. I think that stopped when I learned to read.

My maternal grandmother and my oldest paternal aunt were incredible story crafters. Magical storytellers! Stories about the family but also from all around the world — from the Shah Nameh, Sanskrit literature, Japan, England and so on.

My earliest wonderful memories are of listening to music, birds, sounds of bhajans, aarti bells, singing, piano and violins. Later the sounds of the Azaan. I remember my first piano lesson. I think I was about a year and a half — my grandmother held me and played the notes with my toes.

I loved school. montessori in Karachi, first standard in Mumbai and then Mama Parsi Girls’ Highs School in Karachi. The best adventures were through reading and walking away from home to see what was outside. My mother taught me about justice and the fight for Independence. She was a very quiet woman but very often — when we were alone — she would recite, loudly, selections from speeches by Sarojini Naidu. Independence was unexpected. I am still trying to deal with Partition.

TNS: When did you first develop an interest in writing fiction?

RRK: My dream was to be a dancer or a musician, either a pianist or a singer. But Bharatanatyam dance was first. Fiction, I wanted to read all the time and I remember writing two short stories for my friends in school. One was about a camel who looked through a window (walking around Karachi) and saw a young boy studying very hard while his friends were playing. The boy would grow up to be Jinnah, one of my heroes. The second one was some sort of a ghost story. I was about 11 years old.

I had a short piece in honour of Jamshed Nusserwanji, [the first mayor of Karachi] published in a memorial volume.

Then I got interested in writing plays, some of which I presented to the family and acted by my sister and cousins. I wanted to be a playwright. I really, really got interested in writing when I was studying in Beirut and then Berkeley, 1958 onwards. Mainly about the people/the world and the stories around me.

TNS: Do you see a strong connection between your academic and literary output?

RRK: I do see connections with my academic and literary work. One being an example of the other. They work together.

TNS: Can you tell us a little bit about your novella, The Great American Movie Script, such as how the main idea occurred to you, how it maps your life, political and personal and otherwise, in the US for the last several decades?

I got interested in writing plays, some of which I presented to the family and acted by my sister and cousins. I wanted to be a playwright. I really, really got interested in writing when I was studying in Beirut and then Berkeley, 1958 onwards. Mainly about the people/the world and the stories around me.

RRK: First the mapping: The novel is based on narratives about some of the episodes in my friends’ lives and my own life in the Americas and Asia, and tries to make sense of what it means not only to live in the Americas and/or Asia but also on this planet at this time of history as inheritors of the past and the present. My novella is in some ways an extension of my last book, The Braided Tongue — questions of the different forms of colonialism and identity and belonging.

The idea first occurred as separate stories about these events in our lives, later tied together with the two stories about green jello. The green jello stories came up between Annie (my friend and mentor Prof. Elizabeth Parent) and myself.

And the telling of the stories arose when Annie, one of the main characters of the novella, told me that her brother had been adopted out and said that her brother most probably had been drafted; he was the right age. She wondered if this brother she had never seen but thought of constantly had returned to the US or been killed in Asia.

A few days later, an Indo-US young woman approached me after a reading/discussion and told me that her brother had gone to Vietnam as a US citizen. Many of my first students at Sonoma State University were Vietnam vets who told me some of their stories of their experiences in Asia. They were my teachers about real life dominated by old men using young men for their war games.

Other narratives wove themselves into Annie’s stories and the Vietnam vets’ stories and yes, I was “thrown out” of a commencement faculty procession because I wasn’t wearing WESTERN regalia.

TNS: How long did it take you to finish the novella in its final shape and what were your main challenges?

RRK: The stories which became the novella have taken me at least 10 years. It feels like a lifetime.

Challenge? Maybe to keep my distance from my writing (and to take my writing seriously because I write/tell the stories for the people who have told me their stories, who have lived their stories.)

No, I am not trying to give them a voice; everyone has a voice (silence is also part of speech) — but what I would like to do is make others listen, hear other people’s stories.

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TNS: The fact that your novella spans several countries, encompasses the lives of characters from various ethnic and national backgrounds to end the narrative in India, could one read this as an immigrant writer’s sense of a nervous embrace of her adopted country?

RRK: I don’t know if I’d use the words “a nervous embrace” for myself as an “immigrant writer.” For me in many ways it is specific cities, constructed or restructured communities and specific people rather than traditional countries, inherited motherlands, yes, that makes sense, makes me feel “at home”. The connections between the “occupier” (and that is what we are in the Americas), Rhodabeh and the person who is the indigenous/native through centuries of the land, that is important, and the connections not only between the stories but between the traditions of art, in this case, story telling that is important. At least that is what I feel.

The idea that the body doesn’t need to prove its existence on a piece of land, that is what I may be trying to deal with. After being told constantly “to go home” (never been told that in Oaxaca, Mexico, my other adopted home/country), marginalised. And then to read in that book by Raghu K on WWII that, among other things, Parsis are perpetual guests in India!! Yes, he is the one who talks about us as… (not quite a quote) scalp coloured, mad as coots etc. And that too in his excellent book.

TNS: Do you feel that the South Asian American writer who writes in English has successfully responded to the political landscape of the US, both foreign and domestic?

RRK: I think of English, our own English, as one of the South Asian languages! Think of Nadeem Aslam’s (Wasted Vigil/The Blindman’s Garden) and our Agha Shahid Ali’s English. To answer your specific question, yes and no… different degrees by different authors. I absolutely agree with Eduardo Galeano that all art (including of course literature and music), all science etc. are political, in the sense of being produced among/in/because of living and creating within the larger community of human beings. Polis as a city and beyond.

Specifically about the US, again the response would differ with my reading of different authors/different works. Maybe The Braided Tongue (flawed and in need of “deep” editing) might be a better response to your question, about the domestic and foreign landscapes not only of the US but also of Mexico and of India.

Moazzam Sheikh

Moazzam Sheikh
The writer is a librarian and lecturer in San Francisco. His most recent work is Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He blogs at moazzamsheikh.blogspot.com

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