#DesiCraftChat: Vauhini Vara on why she ended her novel with a question about human ambition

Desi Books Ep 79 w/ Vauhini Vara Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 79 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

In today’s #DesiCraftChat, we have Vauhini Vara discussing her debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, how she braided multiple storylines together, why she ended with a question about human ambition, how her MFA helped her bring this first book into the world—and much more.

#DESICRAFTCHAT WITH VAUHINI VARA — INTRODUCTION

Vauhini Vara is a writer and editor. She was born in Canada to Indian immigrants, and grew up there and in Oklahoma and the Seattle suburbs. She began her journalism career as a technology reporter at the Wall Street Journal. She’s also written and edited for a number of other venues like the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Republic, Businessweek, Fortune, Wired, Fuller Project, California Sunday Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s a mentor at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Book Project and the secretary for Periplus, a collective mentoring writers of color. She also sits on the board of the Krishna D. Vara Foundation, which awards an annual scholarship to a graduating high-school student at Mercer Island High School in memory of her sister Krishna, who died of cancer in 2001. Currently, she lives in Colorado with her family.

I recently wrote a micro-review for Vara’s novel at NPR for their mid-year Books We Love series. So I’m just going to share that with you.

The Immortal King Rao was more than a decade in the making. Braiding three connected stories and as many genres into a capacious narrative, journalist Vauhini Vara, gives us a generational saga of a Dalit family in South India, the birth and rise of Silicon Valley, and a speculative dystopia of shareholder governments. Whether exploring the past or near-future, Vara’s keen journalistic skills reveal aspects of post-Independence India, the diasporic immigrant life, tech-driven hierarchies, climate change, and more in ways that prompt questions about our present realities. The most important one, perhaps, is this: “What if I told you your social capital depended almost entirely on the privilege you were born with, not any effort of your own?”

Vauhini Vara discusses her debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, braiding multiple storylines together, pondering human ambition, being pro-MFA, and more. #DesiCraftChat @DesiBooks

On a personal note, let me just say: this is a highly ambitious book. Some reviewers have said how, perhaps, its scope is too large to do sufficient justice to its many themes and characters. And, no question, there’s going to be some of that with any novel of this size. Here’s how I feel about this in general: I’d rather have our desi writers go big or go home. This doesn’t mean throw everything they can find into their book in some random manner (not that Vara has done that.) But show us your range, show us your fearlessness in tackling complex, big topics, show us a new pathway for desi writing. Right? To me, Vara’s book does all of this. Is it perfect? Who wants perfect anyway? Is there even such a thing as a “perfect novel”?

Here’s Vauhini Vara now.

#DESICRAFTCHAT WITH VAUHINI VARA

Excerpt from the interview:

Jenny Bhatt: You’ve ended the book on a question. And the question is: “After all our trouble, is that it then? Did it all mean nothing but itself?” Can you talk a little bit about that?

Vauhini Vara: I mean, on one level, the book is about human ambition, right? It’s about the desire that we all have, whether we’re, you know, CEOs of global world dominating companies or not, to make something of ourselves in the world and do something useful in the world. And it’s something that every significant character in the book is trying to figure out for themselves: how am I going to make my mark on an individual level? And then also in this collective sense too: how am I going to make a mark on this community on this world? Everybody asked that question with really good intentions.

And it seems to me that it’s possible that, while that’s the way the human mind works—and humans have done great things in the world because this is the way the human mind works—there’s a grander, more universal sense in which none of it matters. Right? And I don’t mean to overstate that—that’s what’s so great about fiction. I think it’s too black and white to make a statement like “none of it matters in the end.” And I don’t even really believe that either. You know, I believe in ambition, I think of myself as ambitious. I believe in human creativity and human potential. And yet, at the same time, there’s some tension between that, I think, and the universal scale of things in which one tiny human’s tiny life decisions don’t matter. And so I wanted the book to raise the question. I don’t know that I or anyone has the answer to that question. But it felt like like the right question to leave readers with at the end of the book.

“I believe in ambition . . . in human creativity and human potential . . . [the] tension between that and the universal scale of things in which one tiny human’s tiny life decisions don’t matter.” Vauhini Vara #TheImmortalKingRao #DesiCraftChat @DesiBooks

Jenny Bhatt: Talk a little bit about how the MFA might have helped or hindered this first book and also the journalism career. Which had more of an influence, would you say?

Vauhini Vara: Yeah, I’m glad you asked that question. Because I feel like the meta narrative around a book’s existence can take on a life of its own, you know, and—to the extent that there’s a meta narrative for the existence of this very young, new book—it’s about my having been a tech reporter and having talked to my dad and gotten this idea from my dad, and then this book emerged. And in reality, those are some of the ingredients that led to the creation of this book.

But my MFA, I would say, was far, far, much more influential in giving me the tools I needed to actually write a book. So, in that debate over whether MFAs are useful or not, I’m very pro-MFA. I’m very pro-MFAs that you don’t need to pay for, which are plentiful these days. So, if any listeners don’t realize that, you can totally get an MFA and not have to pay for it. And I would not have known how to begin writing this book—in my particular case—without having just spent two years sharing this work, doing other work, with other really engaged, smart, talented, creative people. Being in a community where everybody was talking about books. For me, that was really, really important. And then also—you don’t need an MFA for any of this, by the way, but for me, it was useful—just to think of myself as a writer and think of this book as potentially being a real book in the world, especially because it took me so long. And seeing friends’ books come out and having people around me who thought of me as a writer because they had been a colleague of mine in graduate school—that really helped me in bringing this book into the world.

“I’m very pro MFAs that you don’t need to pay for . . . just to think of myself as a writer and think of this book as potentially being a real book in the world . . .” Vauhini Vara #TheImmortalKingRao #DesiCraftChat @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 79 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today’s #DesiCraftChat was with Vauhini Vara discussing her debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, how she braided multiple storylines together, why she ended with a question about human ambition, how her MFA helped her bring this first book into the world—and much more.

Episode 80 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Please go to the website if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. That’s desibooks.co. And please share this interview via social media so we can keep raising the tide of desi literature.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

Vauhini Vara discusses her debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, braiding multiple storylines together, pondering human ambition, being pro-MFA, and more. #DesiCraftChat @DesiBooks

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