Interview in NRI Pulse: A Window to the Community
Not Native: Short Stories of Immigrant Life in an In-Between World Wising Up Press Order at https://www.muralikamma.com/buy
BY VEENA RAO
Murali Kamma is the Managing Editor of Khabar magazine during the day, and a fiction writer in his spare time. In ‘Not Native’, his newly released anthology of twenty well-crafted short stories, Kamma keenly examines the immigrant lives of Indians in America, or characters reconnecting with their Indian roots. The stories are nuanced and insightful, even when they portray ordinary moments in the everyday lives of everyday people. That may well be because the seemingly ordinary characters are real, sensitive, and relatable enough that they make you invest in their journeys.
“I enjoy stories that seem to flow naturally,” Kamma says in this interview. Readers will no doubt find his realistic style of writing deeply engaging.
Are some of the themes of Not Native a reflection of your own experiences as an immigrant from India? Broadly, sometimes. The themes I explore are a preoccupation, both as a writer and an immigrant, more than a reflection of my experiences. As a fellow writer, I’m sure you’ll agree that multiple factors come into play when we write fiction: observation, experience, imagination. The people we meet make an impression, and sometimes it could be something we read or heard. How these strands come together is a mystery, but I think that’s how it should be to work well.
Not Native isn’t only an exploration of immigrant life and its challenges, it is also about Indian-Americans reconnecting with their roots, or with childhood memories. What sparked this interest? Last year, in a talk at Emory, the author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni said, “Immigration made me a writer.” I can relate to it. That journey is also internal, and I think it prompts us to look back on our former lives and seek connections. Maybe we want to hold on to certain things. I’ve been reading immigrant writers for years, and I’ve mulled over the issues they talk about and what we experience in our bicultural lives. Writing fiction is one way to understand myself better.
Many of the stories are gentle observations of the conflicts and dilemmas the characters face, and end without a firm resolution. Was this a conscious style of storytelling? Anton Chekhov, whom I greatly admire, once said this about conventional endings: “Either the hero gets married or shoots himself.” I like the open endings he was known for, because they make the stories more realistic and show us that life goes on. Sometimes, of course, we may want to know more. That’s where the reader comes in to fill the gap. I’m not opposed to firm resolutions, but they shouldn’t feel contrived. I enjoy stories that seem to flow naturally.
The general image of the Indian-American community is that of an intelligent, highly successful, prosperous, family-oriented group. Yet, the protagonists of Not Native are often broken, conflicted, alone, live in apartments. Why?
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy famously wrote. Reading about people who have everything, and who seem to be leading wonderful, enviable lives, is not only boring but also unrealistic. It’s like a family’s carefully curated social media activity. Their lives appear perfect, but is that true? Our job as fiction writers is to go beyond that façade, and I’ve found that having characters who are not stereotypically successful can be useful in exploring certain immigrant themes. Conflict is needed to make a story engaging—and a divorced man, I think, will be more interesting than a happily married one. Having said that, you’ll find different kinds of people in my fiction, including successful and happily married ones. Variety is key.
The protagonist in one of the stories feels like a “Nowhere Man.” Is there a “Nowhere Man” hidden inside you? I borrowed it from Kamala Markandaya; it’s the title of one of her novels. Yes, to a certain extent, I’m drawn to that label. But it doesn’t have to be negative. For a writer, especially, it’s good to have that detachment and outsider perspective. We are observers rather than participants.
“Fragments of Glass” is my favorite story. I loved the way issues like caste and class divide, social injustice and marginalization have been woven into a story of redemption. Do you have a story that is closest to your heart? Or a character that you can relate to the most? Thank you. It got an Honorable Mention in the Katha contest India Currents used to sponsor. It’s hard for me to pick favorites. My readers do a better job, and based on the feedback I’ve received, it’s gratifying that not everybody picks the same stories. I think what we like tends to depend on who we are as readers. One story I can mention is “River of Silence,” which I wrote from a young woman’s point of view. That was unusual for me, though I enjoyed the experience. The ability to transcend barriers, both as writers and readers, is one of the joys of fiction.
What do you hope for readers to gain after reading Not Native? My expectations are relatively modest. I hope readers will get some pleasure and satisfaction out of the book, and perhaps even gain a few insights.
Do you think immigrant voices like yours and mine are underrepresented in American publishing? Yes, I do. But I’ve also seen progress in recent years. So that’s good news, and we immigrants should do our part by spreading the word. We should buy, promote and—most important—read books written by immigrants and other underrepresented authors.
Is it a fiction writer’s responsibility to write to bring about social or political change? Not directly. Fiction that comes across as a lecture would be tedious to read. Our goal is to tell a good story that engages the reader. But certainly, if we care about these issues, we should address them in a subtle and seamless manner, which will be more effective. This also addresses your earlier question about why I gravitate towards certain themes and types of characters.
How has your work as managing editor of Khabar magazine influenced your fiction writing? My work as an editor of nonfiction complements my fiction writing. If Khabar is a passport to the Indian-American community, as we say, I see my book as a window to the community.
Do you plan to write a full-length novel? That’s my goal. I’m a fan of short stories, but the long form has some advantages if we are seeking a wider readership. Fiction is strongest, at least for me, when I write about things I know. But how do we take something that’s interesting to us and make it interesting—and meaningful—to other people? That’s the challenge of writing fiction, as I see it. One possibility I’m considering for a novel is a set of long stories that are interlinked.