Jessie Burton’s “The Miniaturist”

March 11th, 2016

Jessie Burton’s novel, The Miniaturist, is a world within a world. She’s the real miniaturist, bringing 17th-century Amsterdam, a time of intense global trade across Europe, Asia and Africa, alive – not with excessive detail but with a masterful eye for the perfect detail. A young woman, Nella, marries successful merchant Johannes Brandt, twenty years her senior, receiving a miniature of their home as a wedding gift. The miniaturist in the story possesses an unnatural power: she can see into people’s souls, thus she can see into the soul of a house and its inhabitant’s, knowing secrets that are hidden, knowing too the forces that loom unseen, ready to uplift or destroy. Nella must find her place in a home long occupied by her husband Johannes, his matriarchal sister Marin, the irreverent servant Cornelia, and the quietly intelligent Otto, an African rescued from a Portuguese slave ship. The miniature house, as entrancing is it is, holds more promise than it delivers, for Nella remains powerless in the face of it all; nothing she does within the little house impacts her larger life, and that’s a shame. But the merciless rigidity of society, its coldness and false piety, its desire for hatred and vengeance, set against the slow, sweet melting of love amongst the members of Nella’s family is a beautiful contrast. In the end, her family finds their strength in truth. Truth doesn’t save lives, but it saves the soul. Perhaps that’s what the miniaturist wanted for them all along.

My Auntie’s Lemon Pickle And Writing

March 4th, 2016

Today I received a jar of galgal pickle, lovingly made and sent to me by my mom’s sister, Geeta masi, all the way from Amritsar in North India. The galgal is a large, thick-skinned, cold-hardy lemon that grows only in the winter. It’s neither pretty nor pert, but bake it in the sun a while – and wow.  Writing books is a lot like making lemon pickle. You start with a raw, inedible idea and you do the long, hard work of preparing it. In the case of galgal, you have to wash, cut, and dry the lemons, ginger, and chilies, and then stuff them into a big jar with salt and spices. Lidding the jar at this point will cause the pickle to rot. Instead, you cover it with a cheese cloth and bake it in the sun. This is the critical step, for the sun wicks away the moisture, breaking down those raw lemons into soft, pliable pieces which can then steep in and soak up all the flavors.

Likewise, you have to let your manuscript sit for a while. This is where patience comes in. And trust. You’ve done your part, now you have to trust in a force beyond you, like the sun, to do its part. It’s easy to think, my book is done, time to sell! But it’s too early to lid it and send it on its way. Beware of rot! When my books haven’t had time to pickle, the characters are too raw, connections aren’t made where they could have been, and there’s too much extra moisture in the pages weighing them down. I’m grateful for the time my stories have had to marinate and rest, and for the passing of days that have compelled them grow more potent. I’m grateful for the ways in which this painstaking process has allowed layers to be revealed, for the needless to be wicked away, and for inspiration to seep in. In the end, the hope is that reading my finished book will be a captivating experience, powerful enough to make your nose run and eyes tear up. Just like my auntie’s lemon pickle.


Casper The Friendly Indian Ghost

February 29th, 2016

I never set out to write a ghost story, not in the traditional sense at least. For me, the story of an infant mysteriously drowning in the home of a wealthy Bombay family, and the repression of that tragedy spoke to me more of the nuances of memory and how truth can never be fully buried. It finds it way out, somehow, someday, speaking in the intangible languages of the body, heart, and soul. Sickness, for example, can be a truth wanting to be released – and once it is, the body can finally heal. As I began to write Haunting Bombay, the little ghost of the infant who died began to gather itself from the vapors, coalescing into form, in order to tell her truth. Pipes began to rattle, water dripped, faucets gushed, but the ghost remained fundamentally contained, like an Indian version of Casper, friendly and inert. I knew she couldn’t stay like that, but where and how was she to get where she needed to go? I needed to hear her voice. I needed her to tell me. I wrote in the night with a candle flickering beside me, the ghost urging me to dive into dark places, into my own past and consciousness. It’s not easy, this journey into murky waters, but when I came up for air, the ghost had grown into a wondrous character, mighty and powerful, able to harness the monsoons to wreak havoc upon the family who had locked her away. She wasn’t boxed in, she was in and out and everywhere, flooding the past and present, her fluid presence indisputable, compelling grief, pain, and forgotten memories to finally rise up and break open. The horrific truth of her death, for it was no accident, washed over that family like a blessing. Friendliness only gets you so far, Casper, the real riches lie below the surface.

The African Elephant Healer

February 23rd, 2016

In 2009, the year my first book came out, I developed serious migraines. Most people would pick up the phone and call their doctor. Well, I ended up enlisting the help of an African elephant healer. From what I could glean, she healed elephants that suffered from de-tusking. I thought her life mission both fascinating and noble, and wanted to learn more, but she charged by the hour, and my head needed some good juju. She walked into my house and looked right past me as if there were someone standing right behind me. “Oh,” she said, “there are a group of men who want to stop you from writing.” I looked around me, up, down, side to side. There was my piano, my couch, my amaryllis flower in a pot, but no strange men. Also, she didn’t know I was a writer. Then she began to make wide slicing motions near my skull. “They’re connected into your head via an energetic tube, and they’re threatened by what you write.” I imagined a group of crotchety old men floating about in the ether, enraged that I was writing about how badly they and their kind behaved while they were alive, oppressing women and the powerless and all that. Really, I thought, they’re dead and gone, and still? Anyway, I wasn’t sure how much to believe. In the end, she severed the energetic tube and sent those spirits on their way (at least that’s what she told me while I wrote out her check). I felt better, but I called my doctor just in case.

My Encounter With A Medium

February 22nd, 2016

When I was on book tour in 2009, Ryan Ray invited me to be a guest on his TV show Wake Up!, about people who have awakened to embrace their best life. I, however, seem to be in a constant flux of waking up one day, and falling asleep the next. Halfway through the episode, we were joined by a medium. I was casually picking up my coffee mug and waxing eloquently about how the coconut in Indian culture is symbolic of the human ego and thus why we break it open at the altar of the gods, and next thing I know Ryan was asking me if I had any questions to ask this psychic. Is she the real deal? I sat there aware of the camera, internally debating this question, wishing I could break open my own coconutty ego. Meanwhile, the medium, perhaps sensing my discomfort, went on to regale me with flashes from my future. “Your book will be a movie.” Well, that sounded great. Big smile. “You’re writing a trilogy.” I continued to smile but inside I thought, no way. Years later, however, I decided I was perhaps writing a metaphoric trilogy. My first book, Haunting Bombay, was my water book: an infant who drowns while being bathed, a cursed fisher girl who’s cast out of her community at the onset of her menstruation, a ghost that haunts a bathroom and wreaks havoc when the monsoons break over the city… My second book became my fire book, all heat and passion, but then somewhere along the way, I realized I was indeed carrying a trilogy in my head. My first book isn’t part of it; it’s something entirely new. So there you have it. Now all I have to do is wait for that movie deal.

Padma Viswanathan’s “The Ever After of Ashwin Rao”

February 18th, 2016

Reading colleague Padma Viswanathan’s Ever After at first reminded me of Sonali Deraniyagala’s heart wrenching book Wave, about the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami and the way unexpected tragedy impacts a family. But sudden loss is not the same. A wave begins somewhere, deep in the ocean, gaining momentum until it becomes a monstrous, destructive force, but then it recedes, and the survivors are left to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. The 1985 act of terror that blew up Air India Flight 182, too began somewhere, gaining momentum, resulting in the death of 329 people, but it only grows bigger from there, bigger and bigger, seemingly without end. An act of God is different than an act of terror. Viswanathan take us to the point of origin, she asks the question, “How does terror begin?” There is pain, stripped of any mercy, but there are moments of grace too. Neither hatred nor justice can bring back loved ones, Viswanathan shows us, but her novel is a complex psychological read of how those who are left behind survive.


My Teacher: Egyptian Writer Nawal El Saadawi

October 28th, 2015

I had the great honor to be taught by Egyptian writer, doctor, and unwavering activist for the rights of women, Nawal El Saadawi, my senior year at Duke. She inspired me to be the writer I am today. Check out her brief interview this week with the BBC:

Haunting Bombay Recommended Alongside Kingsolver and Marquez

August 4th, 2015 features my book, Haunting Bombay, in hallowed company amongst twelve books recommended by internationally-bestselling author Diana Gabaldon. Other authors include Barbara Kingsolver (Poisonwood Bible – a favorite), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, John Irving, Mikhail Sholokhov, Jeanette Winterson, and others. 12 Books Recommended by ‘Outlander’ Author Diana Gabaldon

Groundbreaking Film “Margarita, With A Straw”

May 1st, 2015

It was so amazing to see so many friends last night at the closing night of the Asian Pacific Film Festival in mass support of Shonali Bose and her incredible film “Margarita, With A Straw,” exploring the taboo subject of sexuality of a disabled person. Knowing Shonali’s five year journey of struggle and pain that led to the making of this film made it all the more astounding. For me, hearing Shonali talk about the film afterwards was so moving. She had so much poise and clarity in her vision, and she spoke about scenes that broke her open, and what it meant to be a female director to openly weep on the set in front of her entire cast and crew. Did this mean that she would lose respect as a filmmaker? No, because she took that pain, the loss of her eldest son, and that intense suffering, and brought it bear upon those scenes with a razor-sharp focus and tenderness. Gorgeous, gorgeous filmmaking. Shonali, thank you.

Amy Brill’s “The Movement of the Stars”

January 31st, 2015

Amy Brill’s The Movement of the Stars is the type of book I just love, love, love. 1845 Nantucket, a young Quaker woman hopes to discover a comet in the night sky. When she dares to want more from life and to challenge the prejudices of a society that considers itself reasonable and just, she faces opposition, public humiliation, and difficult choices. She’s smart and tough, but it’s her inner softening that speaks to me most, the letting go of self-imposed limitations and the slow leaning into her heart, allowing it to open and guide her onto a path as wide and bright as the heavens.