We read Rahul Mehta's short story collection Quarantine a little while ago, and were blown away by its coolly insightful take on navigating a world in which you never quite belong. Rahul's narrators--gay Indian-American men--deal with race, class, family, and identity in complicated (and sometimes very funny) ways that always feel true. Quarantine is a lovely, lovely book, and we cannot wait to see more of Rahul's work. He was nice enough to answer a few questions.
Author photo: Kate Hawes
I kept thinking of O. Henry while I was reading these stories--your characters seem to have a real knack for getting themselves into untenable (and frequently ironic) situations by withholding important information or by making the worst possible decision at the worst possible time. Was that a conscious choice on your part? Do you think there are more successful (if less fictionally interesting) ways to navigate the tensions of intersecting identities?
I know, don’t you just want to reach into “The Better Person” and slap Deepu? He makes terrible decisions. But that seems very human to me. We are all so deeply flawed, and in our quest to love and be loved we often create and endure tremendous pain. In terms of your question about how to better navigate this in real life, I wish I knew. I’ve made so many mistakes in my own life. I guess all I can say is I try to be honest about those mistakes and to love and forgive those around me, including, importantly, my own fucked-up self.
In "What We Mean" the narrator says, "We were tired of the starving part of being starving artists [in Brooklyn]. So we move, not realizing that upstate we will continue to starve, just in different ways"; and in "Yours" the narrator describes his trips to New York from upstate as acorn collecting expeditions, where each cultural excursion is an acorn, and if he collects enough he "just might make it through the long winter." So: country life, worth it? Which do you think is an easier starvation to bear?
I lived in New York for six years when I was in my twenties, and for most of that time I had that love-hate relationship with the city which seems very common among New Yorkers. When my partner and I left to go to grad school, in the fall of 2000, we both assumed that we’d be returning; however, each year after finishing our degrees we delayed our return, mostly for practical reasons (i.e. someone had a job, or someone wanted to get more teaching experience, or we just couldn’t afford to move back just yet). Now it’s been eleven years and, in all honesty, you couldn’t pay me to return to New York. Which isn’t to say that I don’t still love it: I do. Simply put, it’s not the right place for me now.
For the past five years, my partner and I have been living in the tiny, rural town of Alfred in western New York State. It was difficult at first, but now I love it. Most of all, I feel so much more connected to the natural world than when I lived in the city. In fact, I don’t think I fully realized how much I missed nature until I left NYC. I crave the stars in the clear night sky, the sound of migrating geese this time of year, summer swims in the mountain lake up the road. At this juncture in my life, these are the things that make my heart sing. But that wasn’t always the case, and I’m sure it won’t always be the case in the future. (Which isn’t to say there aren’t drawbacks to living here. The restaurants are terrible, there are few cultural opportunities, there is nowhere to even see a movie. And don’t even get me started on the lack of ethnic and racial diversity.)
This is the thing: Any place you choose to live will involve tradeoffs. So you have to be honest with yourself in asking, At this point in my life, do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? It’s a constantly shifting scale. What’s right for you at one point in your life may not be right at another point. Deborah Tall, in her essay “Here” from the excellent book From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place, writes about her own search for home: “If we find it, do we know to stay? Is it right for a lifetime?... Maybe we need different places for different phases of our lives.” I’ve come to really believe that.
Your stories are often very sad, but they nearly always offer a moment of hope. What kinds of things give you hope personally?
Thank you for saying that you see hope at the end of my stories; that’s very important to me. With my characters, I strive for that hope to be a hard-won hope, a true and honest hope that comes from travelling through darkness. There’s a poem I love, and sometimes teach in my classes: “October” by Louise Gluck. The poem is, in part, a response to the September 11th terrorist attacks; it’s about what the world felt like in the immediate aftermath. In the poem--at least the way I read it--hope and beauty ultimately come from truth. In other words, seeing the world clearly for what it is--seeing it truthfully--is beautiful. So the hope we find in the aftermath of our world being shaken isn’t an easy hope. It doesn’t come from closing our eyes and wishing for it. Instead, it comes from opening our eyes and seeing the world clearly and then speaking that truth. Likewise, in my stories, I think the hope that emerges isn’t the easy (and ultimately false) hope of rainbows and butterflies and puppies bounding through fields of wildflowers. It is a hope that is much darker, and, I hope, much more honest.
Do you think Sanj and Sylvie will turn out okay?
I don’t know. I worry about them. Actually, I’ve been wanting to write a sequel to that story so I myself can find out what happens: Sylvie and Sanj 15 years later. But I’m working on a novel right now, so that story will have to wait.
You wrote--quite beautifully--about coming out to your parents for the Random House website last year. Has the rest of your family seen your book now? How did it go?
Right, so that essay was written before I’d come out to my extended family in India. I was incredibly nervous about that. I had no idea how they’d react. When I wrote that essay, I was just getting ready to travel to India to promote my book. So here’s the postscript to the essay.
Most of my relatives live in Mumbai, and I invited them all to a reading I was doing at an enormous Barnes & Noble-style bookstore in a swank shopping mall. Mumbai was a last-minute addition to the book tour, and I had only called my relatives the night before. I wasn’t sure any of them would be able to make it. But sure enough, the next day they were all there: my great aunts and uncles, who are of my grandparents’ generation; their children; their children’s children. I still hadn’t explicitly come out to any of them, but I knew by the time they left the event they would know. I didn’t get a chance to speak to many of my relatives immediately following the reading--I had some other professional obligations--but the next day my partner and I made the rounds, visiting each one. They were, without exception, wonderful and warm and open toward us. One great aunt said, “I don’t know what you were so worried about. You Indians in America are the ones who are all conservative. We Indians in India have no issues.” (I don’t actually agree with my great aunt’s characterization, but that is the subject for another conversation.)
Some books that you've read lately and loved?
I recently re-read Grief, by Andrew Holleran. It’s an amazing, beautiful, heart-wrenching and ultimately life-affirming novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s one I know I will keep coming back to. I also recently read Bobbie Ann Mason’s 1989 short story collection Love Life. Wow. I was totally drawn into the lives of the Kentucky folk she writes about (they reminded me a little of people I’d known growing up in West Virginia). I also admire the way her stories end: unresolved and with rising action. And yet I always feel satisfied. It’s a tough trick to pull off. Other books I’ve read recently that I’ve loved: Robin Black’s short story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (almost every story developed in a way that surprised me); Just Kids, by Patti Smith (everyone loves that book, right?); The Color of Night, by Madison Smartt Bell; Jill McCorkle’s short story collection Going Away Shoes; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s collection The Thing Around Your Neck; I could go on and on.