Long-time Boston resident Anjali Mitter Duva’s debut novel takes us to sixteenth-century Rajasthan to recount the birth and coming-of-age of Adhira, a girl born into a family of temple dancers. Duva has woven together strands of her father’s upbringing in India, along with a personal interest in kathak dance, to produce what Bret Anthony Johnston has called “a gorgeous book, a story that is at once spare and lush, wrenching and restoring.” Anjali took out time from her launch to speak with Dead Darlings about her novel, and the unique collaboration with She Writes Press that brought it to market.
What brought you as a writer to sixteenth-century Rajasthan, and what impact did that choice of time and place have on your characters?
Three things came together all at once to bring me to sixteenth century Rajasthan. The first was childhood memories of travel there. Growing up, I visited my father’s family in India frequently. Our trips were usually limited to Calcutta, where our relatives were, but when I was twelve we spent a full year in India, based in Bombay (now Mumbai), and during school vacations we traveled to other regions. One trip was to Rajasthan, and included a stop in Jaisalmer, a fortress city far out in the desert. It is a magical place of sand dunes, with golden temples and forts rising out of them. The sky is devastatingly blue. The textiles are jewel-toned. We rode out on camels into the desert, and it was one of my most memorable childhood experiences. Many years later, Jaisalmer was one of the first places I took my husband on his first trip to India. It was just as magical. We sat on the rooftop of one of the fort’s outer towers, watching the sun rise, and I realized that, with the exception of the power lines criss-crossing the alleyways, the inner part of the citadel looked much as it must have looked centuries ago.
Around the same time of this later visit to Jaisalmer, I started studying kathak dance in the Boston area. I was looking for a physical activity that, like the martial art I used to practice, was deeply rooted in history and tradition. As soon as I stepped into the studio, I was smitten. The percussive footwork, the complex patterns, the way in which the dancer becomes a musician, reciting compositions, singing and creating sound through hundreds of ankle bells, it all made for such an immersive and beautiful experience. I started reading about the history of the dance, and learned that one school, or lineage, traces its origins back to Rajasthan. Kathak began as a storytelling art, practiced by wandering minstrels who went from village to village bringing the stories of the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, to the people. Eventually it made its way into temples, and became a devotional Hindu dance. It continued in this way, among dancing “servants of god” or devadasis, until the advent of the Mughal Empire, when it was brought into Muslim courts as a courtesan art.
With these two experiences strong in my mind and body—the very sensory experience in Jaisalmer and the study of kathak dance—I went back to look at one of the Rajasthan guidebooks I’d purchased before our trip, and I came across a striking anecdote: in some parts of Rajasthan, it’s possible for a child to reach the age of five without ever having seen rain. In the royal palaces, the walls and ceilings of the children’s rooms were sometimes painted with blue and black cloud designs so that when it finally did rain, the children would not be afraid. I found this image beautiful and haunting, and I wrote it down. And next thing I knew, I was starting to imagine characters. A child who had not seen rain. A girl born into a family of temple dancers. A family fearing for its tradition as the threat of invasion grew stronger. And that’s how the book began, before I even realized I was writing one!
At the beginning of your novel, an unexpected rain coincides with the birth of Adhira into a family of temple dancers. Can you describe the significance of Adhira’s arrival?
Adhira’s arrival is what throws the entire family dynamic into disarray, and sets off a chain of decisions that propel various members in painfully different directions. Her birth takes place just as a Muslim emperor takes the throne in Delhi, which casts a shadow of fear on the region as Rajasthan, located on the spice route, is a territory that the emperor covets. Adhira represents the continuation of a tradition to which her father has devoted his life, and to which none of his other children have adhered. So for him, Adhira is the last hope, and he sees in this first rain in five years proof that she is special. Adhira’s mother, however, is determined to save her daughter from what she sees as a doomed fate. And Adhira’s older brother, fed up with dance and tradition in general, sets out to save his entire family in the only way that makes sense to him: through battle. It is the decisions that everyone makes, independently yet all motivated by love for Adhira and fear of change, that carry the story forward.
The main action of your novel takes place over fifteen years, but seems to span a much longer time frame given frequent shifts in setting. Can you talk about your choice of structure, and how it evolved during the course of revision?
I knew from the start that Adhira would make a journey—emotional, spiritual and physical—in the story, and I knew where she would end up. From the beginning the story, in my mind, was set between two fixed end pieces that were anchored in time, hence the fifteen years. Within those years, certain events were going to take place, and I wanted to relate each one through the character who had the most at stake (aside from Adhira), or who would lend a particular perspective that would be different from that of any other character. That structure never really changed, even though I cut characters and material over the course of many revisions. But I was also conscious of not wanting to lose the reader, not letting too much time elapse between moments. The fifteen years are covered in seventeen chapters. Coincidentally, the Indian classical music cycle to which kathak is often danced is tintal, or a 16 beat cycle, but everything is always brought back, in the end, to the first beat of the next cycle, i.e. the seventeenth beat. Seventeen beats, seventeen chapters. Thus the end of one cycle is the beginning of another, as it is with many things in life.
Adhira’s point of view persists throughout the novel, even when she is too young to have witnessed events herself, or when she is not is not “in the room.” Can you talk about this choice, and how it affected your telling of the story?
As I mentioned earlier, the story started out in close third person, each chapter focusing on a specific character’s experience. When I showed the manuscript to a number of early readers, including my writing group, several of them picked up on Adhira’s mystical, almost magical, characteristics. In fact, these seemed much more obvious to them than they had to me. She embodies the dance form, relates to “the divine” in a way that makes her truly special. When I decided to change the point of view to hers, it made sense to me that she would still be able to relate some of the thoughts and feelings of those close to her.
Can you talk about unexpected pleasures and challenges in writing a historical novel?
I think the term “historical fiction” tends, at least in the US, to conjure up images of very specific periods in history: The Tudors, the Victorian era, World Wars I and II, the settling of the American West. All of these are moments in Western history. What has struck me the most is the challenge of writing an historical novel set in a non-Western country for a mostly (at least at the moment) Western audience. I do hope to see my book for sale in South Asia, but for the moment, it has been released just in the US. So there is the challenge of writing the doubly foreign: a story set at a foreign time, in a foreign place. What are reader expectations, and should I keep those in mind as I write? How do I portray artistic and cultural traditions without getting bogged down in explanation? At the same time, since I do want this book to resonate with South Asians, I need to balance this aim with the knowledge that some of my readers will already be familiar with the more modern representation of these elements. It’s easy to start flailing about and to lose the focus on the actual story and characters.
Building on the previous question, Western readers have become familiar with narratives written by Indian expatriates – Rushdie, Lahiri, Naipaul, to name a few – who filter life on the Subcontinent through an outsider’s perspective. Can you describe the opportunities and challenges in rendering a cast of Indian characters living and thinking in India?
Well, there’s a large collection of novels set in the Subcontinent whose entire cast of characters is South Asian, and which have been quite successful here: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things comes to mind, as well as the first two volumes of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, and others. I reminded myself of this when I received a few comments on early drafts from people suggesting it might be hard to sell a book here without having a Western character to provide a bridge from the reader into the story. There were no Westerners in Jaisalmer in the 1500s! At least very, very few, and none who would have fit into my story in any sensible way. I stuck to my belief that certain themes are universal, and would be accessible to any reader: intergenerational conflict, fear of change, the clash between tradition and modernity, devotion to art. If one remains true to the story and the characters, it no longer matters where the characters are, whether there is an outsider’s perspective. In fact, I think it can be rather freeing, to remove that extra layer of interpretation.
Given these choices, can you talk about the process of bringing your novel to market in general, and working with She Writes Press in particular?
My agent, April Eberhardt, calls herself a “literary change agent.” She is very open to non-traditional publishing options, and to finding the best path to publication for each of her authors—one that matches their goals and personality, that is fair, and that brings their work to the market. Although she did shop the manuscript around to traditional publishers of various sizes, she made it clear to me from the start that we did not have to limit ourselves to that approach. Meanwhile, I heard a lot of disheartening stories from friends getting their first books out with traditional publishers, stories of disappointing publicity, of frustrating contract negotiations, of tiny advances, of pressure to produce the next book within a year. Of course, I heard some positive stories, too, but the former were enough to give me pause. So when it became clear from editor responses to my manuscript that the story and writing were compelling to them but they just couldn’t justify the risk on a new author of “literary” fiction, I was receptive to my agent’s suggestion that we try another tack.
That’s when April pointed me to She Writes Press. I followed their progress for a full year before really engaging with them in discussion. I paid close attention to the types of books they were putting out, the contract they offered their authors (my husband is an intellectual property attorney, so I had very professional eyes to rely on), the way they conducted business. I was impressed. SWP has seized on a wonderful opportunity by creating a model that combines some of the best of the “traditional” publishing model—vetting of manuscripts, professional editing and design, distribution to the trade through Ingram Publishing Services—with some of the best of the more indie approach: more collaboration with the author, more even distribution of risk and rewards and, therefore, significantly better royalty rates for authors. There’s definitely been a substantial amount of work for me, and no advance, but I am increasingly convinced, based on the stories I hear from my contemporaries who are with traditional publishers, that this might have been the case for me under that model, too.
And I have more freedoms: I chose my cover designer and worked closely with her, I retained the rights that I wanted to retain, I don’t feel under pressure for the book to perform wildly in its first few weeks. Of course, I hope it does, but I see this as the beginning of something that will gather momentum, especially as I have three other books planned. I’m part of a team that works with integrity and is very supportive of authors, I feel I have some control, I feel the arrangement is fair, and all these things fit very well with my personality. And that’s important, it’s a message I try to emphasize in any talk or panel discussion on publishing: take the time to figure out what matches your personality, your career goals, your idea of success. Because putting a book out there in this day and age is exhausting, but it can be exhausting-fun instead of exhausting-draining.
Given the balance of control and collaboration you’ve located with She Writes Press, how are you thinking about audience-building for this project?
There are three facets to my approach to audience-building, and they are all connected. The first is to start local, and gradually expand outward. I have lived in the Boston area for almost 20 years now, and I have a fairly extensive network of friends and acquaintances who are being wonderful about helping spread the word, co-hosting events, putting me in touch with festival organizers and the like. As a result, I have a full calendar of events lined up for the Fall. Beginning in the Spring, I intend to branch out and do a few trips to other metropolitan areas where indie bookstores are valued, where I have friends or relatives who can help bring an audience, and where there is a considerable South Asian population.
This leads me to the second facet of audience-building: targeting populations who may have a specific interest in my book. In addition to South Asians, I’m thinking of the dance/music/theater community; as well as people and organizations concerned about the rights of girls and women; fans of history and historical fiction; and readers of literary fiction in general.
Finally, I am viewing this process as the beginning of something bigger, the foundation for audience-building for my future books, too. So I’m trying to gain more visibility, to place written pieces online, to attend literary events, to interact with people, in person and through social media, on topics that are close to my heart but not necessarily directly related to the themes in this current book: diversity in children’s literature and in the publishing industry, the challenges and rewards of writing fiction set in “foreign” lands, the question of “authenticity,” new directions in publishing, and more.
Which authors do you look to, year in and year out, for inspiration and instruction?
For inspiration and a taste of inimitable writing, I turn to Margaret Atwood, to Toni Morrison, to John Irving. For a reminder that it is possible to be a successful writer of several genres, I turn to Barbara Kingsolver. Among South Asian writers, I reread Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, or Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, or anything by Rohinton Mistry. And from my teenage years growing up in France, I turn back to the works of Emile Zola and Honoré de Balzac. For specific instruction, I turn to John Gardner, and to Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway.
You mentioned that you have three other books planned after Faint Promise of Rain. Can you give us a sense of which topics and themes you’ll pursue next?
Faint Promise of Rain is the first of a set of four books, each set at a time of socio-political upheaval in India which is mirrored in the world of kathak dance, not only in the dance form itself, but in who dances, for whom, in what context, and to what end. This first book takes place at the start of the Mughal era on the subcontinent, when kathak went from being a Hindu devotional temple dance to a Muslim courtesan art. Three hundred years later, in the mid 1800s, the British ended Mughal rule in India and established their own, and kathak was banned for being supposedly “immoral.” So my next book is set at this time, in the city of Lucknow, which back then, before a terribly violent rebellion destroyed much of it, was a glittering seat of arts, architecture and literature. Of particular interest to me during that time are the people who fell through the cracks, the people who did not belong to any of the very clearly delineated categories that the British established in order to govern. The main characters are a Muslim courtesan and her half French son.
After this second book, there will be two more, eventually bringing us up to present times. I already have a sense of some of the characters and the story lines, but I’ll leave those a mystery for now. Suffice it to say that they will involve some of my own background in Calcutta, where my father is from, and in Paris, France, where I grew up.