Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Neeru Nagarajan’s fiction piece, Exit a Goddess
Sommer: At the end of the story, when the narrator has forgotten her grandmother, I feel a mixture of sadness and happiness, relief and regret. Yet, the narrator continues the tradition of setting up the Golu. We see that even though she has forgotten her grandmother (actually, she remembers enough to know she’s “forgotten” her, so I suspect she has simply forgotten the weighty influence her grandmother used to have over her), she has not forgotten her culture. What are your thoughts on finding that balance between continuing cultural traditions and saying “goodbye” to those aspects of culture that hold us back or hurt us?
Neeru: I feel like this is a problem for many people, especially as they become older. Even if we aren’t straddling two different cultures, we’re forced to reckon that some customs and beliefs don’t age well with time and are nothing but burdensome. Cultural and non-cultural traditions should always be questioned (see the negative connotation that “status quo” tends to have) due to the simple fact that these things have often held humanity back. It is hard not to be tricked by the feeling that we’re traitors when we open our minds to new ideas after years of being told what is right and what is wrong. There’s no real “balance” if humanity is to keep progressing.
The ambiguity you create at the end is so well done. There is a tinge of sadness regarding the loss of the grandmother (even a sadness to forgetting the word for grief), but also an enlightening. Hope. To me it feels that the narrator has chosen to move on with her own authentic life. She has retrieved from her grandmother the power her grandmother had over her. As a being moves up the steps of the Golu, towards perfection, do they forget who or what they were before? In order to move forward, do we need to engage in a certain amount of active forgetfulness?
No, in fact, it would be a huge mistake to forget the steps we have all taken to get where we are today. Growth is not achieved from forgetting our past mistakes; it only occurs when the mistakes can be accepted and remembered. But the key part here is the acceptance—it is important for us to forgive ourselves too as we move on.
In this story, I see a parallel between the steps of the Golu and the generational “steps” between the narrator and her grandmother. This story inspires me to think that each generation learns from the biases, meannesses, and mistakes of the previous ones, and ventures forward in a better way. Will humanity ever reach Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Durga?
From my limited knowledge of mythology, even the gods are not perfect and they sometimes learn their lessons from mere mortals. I would dread the day we reach ultimate godliness, because where would we go from there? When we live our authentic lives, like you mentioned, we will just make our own new mistakes to learn from, and this I find extremely promising.
The magic realism in this story is wonderful. How did you go about weaving in and crafting this aspect into your story? Do you write other stories with this element?
This story started as a realistic story about dolls. It slowly became about a grandmother who is obsessed with her dolls. Eventually, her obsession and my obsession became one, and I had to make the grandmother go on a journey. It was almost inevitable—there was no way for me to tell this story without the magical realism element. That’s important for me, the magical realism aspect being inevitable. Most of the fiction I write is realistic, or at least I start with that intention. But as I explore my obsession with an idea, a story emerges from the haze that I can only tell when I work with rules that are different from our world’s.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
Sometimes it’s so hard to believe we possess even an ounce of talent when the rejections pour in. But we must continue to believe that we have some talent and our stories have merit. We must remember that if we’re not getting rejected, we’re not putting ourselves out there. It takes a lot of courage to become—and remain—a writer. The difference between us and that stranger who shakes your hand when you introduce yourself as a writer and says, “If only I had the time, I’d write a novel,” is that we keep writing, even in the face of rejection. And almost no rejection is ever personal. Editors want our exciting stories; they want to read our writing.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Thank you for your kind words and the thought-provoking questions, Sommer!