For the characters in Anita Felicelli‘s upcoming book “Love Songs For a Lost Continent,” finding one’s place in the world is often a years-long struggle. The new short story collection — which will be released on October 1 — introduces readers to several Indian-Americans from various walks of life who have several things in common: they are all unconventional and frequently chafe at the restrictions placed on them by the community around them.
We spoke with Felicelli about her new book, taboo topics, and why she is drawn to stories about identity.
The Teal Mango: Most of the characters we meet in “Love Songs For a Lost Continent” are either first or second generation immigrants and struggling with issues of identity. What drew you to this theme?
Anita Felicelli: When my daughter was born six years ago, I had my first identity crisis related to being a Tamil immigrant. Because I’d taken my spouse’s last name and dropped my original last name “Mohan,” a patronymic, nobody online recognized me as Indian anymore. At first, I thought this was hilarious, but after awhile it made me feel insecure. I had spent my whole life taking my Tamil identity for granted. I reacted by writing tons of essays about my Indianness, as if to prove myself. The understanding that I’d never seen anything directly relevant to my own identity in a book seeped into the short stories I was also writing.
I’d already written a number of stories by the time I realized they fit together not so much because they were about first or generation Tamil immigrant characters, but because they were grappling with a more abstract theme—individuals who deviate from the story society tells them to live by. I’ve always been interested in this challenge: How can you cram together people with extremely different identities and interests and desires and power and beliefs in their own agency in one society and make the whole thing even remotely functional? It’s a far, far more challenging conundrum than people who are not working on these issues realize.
India tries to solve this problem differently than America does, and so immigrants have the benefit of at least two frames of reference for how individual agency works within society. Years ago, my academic focus was constitutional law and human rights law, and when I graduated from law school I worked on criminal defense appellate matters that required me to meet with prisoners and clergy abuse cases on behalf of rural white plaintiffs. Working so closely with these populations and others allowed me to detach and view my Tamil identity differently, too. “Love Songs” is the book I wish I’d had when I was younger.
TTM: You’ve written in different mediums throughout your career. What do you like about writing short stories in particular?
Felicelli: I love the intensity and compression of short stories. You can be both poetic and unsettling and truthful in a short story in a way that is very difficult to sustain over a novel or a children’s book. A short story writer I love, Joy Williams, described eight attributes of short stories in Vice magazine and one was “There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below” and another was “A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.” I love these observations. You can be cold and meticulous and brutal in short stories.
TTM: This book is being published by Stillhouse Press because you won their Mary Roberts Rinehart Fiction Contest in 2016. What was that process like and do you have any advice for fiction writers that are starting out today?
Felicelli: I submitted the book to just three contests while I was pregnant. Several months after submitting, I got an agent based on the short story collection after querying agents sporadically with various books since 2001, but the plan was that she would take the manuscript out to big publishers secondary to the novel I was working on. Just two months after signing with her, however, I won the Stillhouse contest. I was over the moon. All the identity-related material in the book fit with our current moment (maybe because I’d been fearing our current moment for years before the 2016 election) and I wanted to work with Stillhouse — they have a lovely artistic vision. As for advice to fiction writers starting out, all I can say is that I’ve kept myself going through massive amounts of rejection for twenty-five years, decades before the recent push for diversity in publishing and literary magazines, by developing a near-delusional masochistic persistence and reminding myself that it’s the writing that is paramount, not publishing or awards.
TTM: Some aspects of these stories are autobiographical and you’ve also written many personal essays (including one for the New York Times’ famed Modern Love column.) How do you strike the right balance regarding how much of yourself you want to share with your readers?
Felicelli: I’m an over-sharer. I try to rein in this personality trait to try to avoid embarrassing my more refined family and friends. But my artistic impulse is to tap into whatever is most humiliating and shameful, whatever just has that horrible truthful buzz that certain real things have, whatever generates urgency. But I should also clarify that none of the characters in the collection share my exact identity or autobiography. I describe my background as inter-caste to save time and avoid confusion, but I think my background is more accurately described as multi-caste and multi-faith. My birth depended on two generations of rebels, not one. But in a short story the amount of exposition necessary to explain my reality shorts the electricity that moves a short story forward. I prefer writing fiction to personal essays because fiction allows you to imagine yourself into someone else’s skin, and I take full advantage of that.
TTM: I also really appreciated that your stories address issues like casteism within the Indian-American community, because those are issues we often pretend don’t exist. The main character in the collection’s title story, for example, is pretty insistent that he doesn’t think about caste but then finds himself unable to escape it when he goes to India on a Fulbright. What was writing that story like and what kinds of conversations have you had with readers about it?
Felicelli: I loved writing the title story, which is basically the only story in the collection that came out fully formed with few substantive revisions. The autobiographical seed of that story is my paternal uncles’ passion for Tamil. I’m fascinated by the culture wars in Tamil Nadu between Tamil and Sanskrit, lower-caste people and Brahmins. Something that interested me while writing this story is how power operates similarly even in very different cultures. The most powerful maintain their sense that they are “nice” and “educated” and “innocent” while subtly controlling the less powerful by telling a story that they are deeply, essentially inferior.
And, of course, in response, the less powerful need to develop stories of resilience in order to survive the identity that’s been foisted on them. Myths and folklore, are so alluring and yet, over time, if they gain the psychological currency of fact, they can be so destructive to both the powerful and the powerless. I’m terribly fascinated by the feelings that move people who feel powerless, whether that’s grounded in facts or just a story they’ve told themselves, to some form of chauvinism or nationalism.
I should say that the protagonist’s experience of Palo Alto is hugely different than mine, and it’s our differences that made it fun to write him. He has a Brahmin father and with Tamil culture being so patriarchal even as it also includes some of the most progressive standards in India, this affects how little he feels caste. Like my sibling, he was born in the States so he never went through the stress that comes with the actual act of immigrating. My protagonist just feels mildly off-kilter in Palo Alto. In contrast, growing up in Palo Alto a generation earlier than him with a different caste background and a lower socioeconomic status, I felt wildly fish-out-of-water. Throughout childhood my clothes were from Kmart and Ross, while everyone else wore Guess jeans and shopped at The Gap or Banana Republic. I faced frequent, stressful racism: in the ‘80s white boys in cars driving alongside me shouting “Go home Gandhi;” the first white boy who I confessed my crush to telling me he could never like me because I had shit-colored skin; another white crush rallying a group in science class to mock me for being from a culture that believes in reincarnation. But I was also treated abusively by my Bharatanatyam teacher and others based on caste —my dad growing up Catholic and me alternating Bharatanatyam and Balavihar classes with Unitarian Universalist church service were tells that I wasn’t Brahmin. My sibling who now identifies as genderqueer was beaten up so badly in Palo Alto about a decade ago his eye socket was dislocated, based at least partially on race and gender presentation. I could go on, but I exploited some of this autobiographical stuff in my first novel, I can’t tell you how many white readers and agents from 1999-2010 rejected my real life experience as dystopia, not realism. For this book, I wanted to write something that was more aesthetically interesting to me as a reader than trauma is.
TTM: You say on your book’s website that these stories “dramatize aspects of outsider/in-betweenness.” What do you hope readers — especially readers who might also be second or third generation South Asian-Americans — take away from this book?
Felicelli: I write fiction to imagine what it would be like to be a character in a particular kind of trouble, and often I discover something difficult through fiction that I can’t discover another way. The questions that haunted my writing of the book are: What do the stories society tells us about who we are do to our agency? How could society expand to better include individuals who seek freedom from the collective’s myths? How do you get the power to reinvent yourself? I have no interest in dictating or prescribing anything, but after researching my various identities in order to be able to better craft some of the stories in this book, I guess I do hope the collection has the capacity to start a conversation that would allow second and third generation South Asian-Americans, like my children, to understand the pitfalls of the past. Maybe one day, they’ll be able to tell new, more inclusive and flexible stories.