An Interview With Tanuja Desai Hidier -The Toast

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tanu mar15 13 red copy 2Tanuja Desai Hidier is the author of Born Confused— the first-ever South Asian American coming-of-age novel. Born Confused’s sequel, Bombay Blues, is out now. So is the accompaniment/‘booktrack.’  We got a chance to talk to her about life, writing and more.

Does Bombay Blues pick up where Born Confused left off?

Bombay Blues takes place about two and a half years after Born Confused’s summer when Dimple turns seventeen. However, in my own life a decade went by between the moment I began outlining ideas for Born Confused and when I began to do the same for Bombay Blues, and this has certainly informed the narrative and Dimple’s perspective in the sequel. Bombay Blues opens at NYU, where Dimple is now a photography student, on the eve of her departure for Bombay, where she is hoping to rekindle a spark — forge a new connection with her camera via a return to the source: her motherland.

Born Confused is considered a cult classic. Nearly every YA lover and brown girl I know has read the book. Did you think it would be such a critical and commercial success? Do you think Bombay Blues have the same appeal?

That’s so lovely to hear; I have been humbled and exhilarated during the years to find Dimple’s story seems to be one readers have been able to connect to. To be honest, I never thought about what the reaction — neither critical nor commercial — would be during the writing process…and just a few months after I completed the book, it was already out, so there was no nail-devouring wait in the interim. It was a relatively quick (though candle-burning-at-both-ends intense) process: four months to write the first draft, five months to revise it. I was thoroughly immersed in the writing, to the point where there was no world-of-book/world-outside-of-book distinction.

This was even more the case with Bombay Blues, as it was a much longer process: three years spent researching it and writing it (and simultaneously writing my accompanying album, “Bombay Spleen”) — four years, in fact, from when I wrote the proposal to the release date. In a way, Bombay Blues required a different type of delving, as I was writing about a city I barely knew — was in fact seeking my story — unlike the process with Born Confused, where I was writing a city I’d lived, owning an experienced history. Born Confused was a resurgence and reclamation. Bombay Blues was something else altogether: Diving so fully into the unknown it became a part of me. Each of my three visits to Bombay for the book radically changed my story; each moment spent, person met, experience, conversation, silence, even. And then came the magical turning point when the world of my book gained enough momentum that it seemed to be shaping the very city itself: art imitating life imitating art to the point of no imitation, just realization.

With Born Confused I explored a kind of ‘answer’ I’d arrived at about cross-cultural identity. With Bombay Blues, I lived — am still in a state of arriving at — a question.

You took a long hiatus between the release of Born Confused and the release of “Bombay Spleen.” Why?

It wasn’t intentional in the sense that I didn’t know my next book would be the sequel, nor did I plan for this time to go by between projects. But nor was it a hiatus; I see it more as a gestation period (though unbeknownst to me then) — an even more apt phrase as during this time I became a mother of two, which created a wonderful and overwhelming back-to-zeroing shift in my life, and sense of self.

After Born Confused came out, I spent a couple of years solid doing readings and events in support of it, and in 2004 completed When We Were Twins, my booktrack album of songs based on the novel. I was pregnant with my first daughter by the end of that year (and had a pretty show-stopping belly during the third-trimester gig we did at Joe’s Pub in NYC just before she made her own debut!). Ten days after she was born, I began work on adapting Born Confused into a script. During the years that followed — between changing nappies, and first toddling steps, and both the inimitable elation and resonating loneliness that comes sometimes with new motherhood — I explored a few other book ideas. But in the end, I suppose I missed Dimple too much; I was wondering how where she was, what she was up to — and knew the only answer to that question would be to write it.

And Bombay, it became compellingly clear, was where I could find her. Becoming a parent myself certainly crystallized my desire to learn this part of my own parents’ history better: the city of their courtship, of my mother and brother’s birth…yet a place American-born me barely knew. I longed to write my way towards this metropolis of myth and memory — and, hopefully, into it.

And, in the divine — the greater ‘intentioning’, sankalping, plan — perhaps the very Bombay I would write about in Bombay Blues needed to gestate, to be birthed as well: The Sea Link Bridge, which connects the suburbs and South Bombay, was a muse during my writing process — the perfect metaphor for the idea of bridging the old city and the new, globalized one, and for the connections between people (or not). This bridge had just begun to be built when I commenced work on Born Confused. By the time I traveled to Bombay for Bombay Blues, it reached further across towards the other side…which perhaps in part enabled me to write about the Other Side. The Other. And the links between us and them. That there is no us and them.

In my own life, the bridge I was sweat-blood-tear-ing (with many laughs along the way as well) to discover and inhabit was not so much one to reconcile any physical spaces or cultural places: I was trying to bring together motherhood with writerhood; freedom with (often necessary) constraints. And, turns out — with a frock of a lot of work, faith, commitment, and ideally, crucially, an extra set of helping hands (and very, very, very little sleep) — they can be part and parcel of the same space.

Drop the map and you’ll find it.

Is Bombay Blues a departure from the ABCD aspect of Born Confused? Is Dimple Lala less confused about her cultural identity now?

Certainly Bombay Blues is a departure (quite literally: from NYC to Bombay) — and also an arrival: a deepening of another layer in terms of identity.

With Born Confused, I was interested in exploring in part the idea of what happens when a subculture gains critical mass and momentum to become culture. And I wanted to pay homage to the thrilling then burgeoning bhangra/South Asian club scene in NYC, one inextricably linked to the amazing cultural moment in music out of the UK in ‘97—Anokha, State of Bengal, Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation. In NYC it was DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra party –still going strong after seventeen years — and Mutiny at the Cooler that in many ways sparked the desire to tell the story of this cultural moment. It was an eye- and ear-opening experiencing living it. Through Dimple, I wanted to turn the ‘C’ for Confused into one for Creative in the moniker American-Born Confused Desi — as this felt to me to more accurately reflect the desis that peopled the world I’d known in NYC. To turn that neither-here-nor-there space into a You Are Here — as Dimple herself learns that a hyphenated identity is still a whole.

With Bombay Blues, it was a completely different story. I’d only lived in Bombay for about a year shortly after birth; I’d visited a few times in my childhood, mostly staying with my grandparents. The city was a mystery — but still felt like a mystery in my blood, quite literally, as it’s the city of my family history. I was driven by a desire and a duty, in a sense — to better know the city of my parents, and create my own connection to it. Find an ‘in’.

Though of course I wanted to explore culture — the idea of being brown among the brown — as well as place, and the cultural shifts happening within a globalized Bombay (as well as its many coexisting ancient aspects)…even more that that, with Bombay Blues, I wanted to move beyond questions of culture, or at least that kind of framework. To step out of frame: enter a more ambiguous space, in part through Dimple’s trajectory as an artist — and that of her heart.

Dimple travels to Bombay to shoot the browns — or so I thought. As I spent more time there, though, to my surprise and delight, blue began to overwhelm — initially in terms of actual sightings of that hue in Bombay. And that hue became the clue, led me to the idea of exploring the ‘bigger’ blue: music, mood. The wild blue yonder. It was a liberating and dizzying approach — exploring this city with a theoretical map that simply had a splash of color on it. It required a kind of act of faith.

So, like Dimple with her photography, my modus operandi — my unmapping map, if you will — while writing this book became this: To follow a color. All the way through. In loosening the coordinates in this way, I also fell upon what became one of the main themes of the book: the idea that there is no place like home…because home is not a place. It’s a sense of sanctuary — you may find it in a person, a place, a moment, a memory. We, as humans, are swimming cities; home is a direction.

What was your inspiration for naming your booktrack “Bombay Spleen”?

“Bombay Spleen” was initially my idea for the title of Bombay Blues; it’s a kind of reference to “Paris Spleen,” Baudelaire’s prose-poem to Paris (which Dimple is reading during the first part of the novel, specifically, “Loss of a Halo”). To have the spleen in French means to have the blues; I also liked the idea of the spleen as in guts — the way all of Bombay seems to be laid out in front of you at all times, the inner and outer workings sharing space…but also guts as in courage. The guts to explore the blues. To lose your way. To unmap your identity, grow your heart to make room for the unanticipated, the unexplored. To begin again. And again.

I remember listening to and enjoying “When We Were Twins.” How will “Bombay Spleen” differ?

When I made “When We Were Twins,” I was actively performing/part of the band San Transisto in the UK and in the early stages of the band T&A in the USA (with whom I’m still working). About half the album was written/recorded with San Transisto in London, the other half with T&A in NYC (and one track — “Born Two,” the Born Confused theme song — entirely by email with a third project, Unsuitable Girl). The bands met, in fact, at the album launch at Joe’s Pub in NYC — the soundcheck for which was the first time we were all in the same room together. Thus, to some extent, the album has the sound of two bands/production teams — which I suppose fits the theme of ‘twinning.’

“Bombay Spleen,” my album based on Bombay Blues, differs in a few ways. One is that it isn’t a band — or bands —project. The main player/collaborator lineup is very condensed relative to “When We Were Twins”: I wrote about half the songs with Atom Fellows, my bandmate from T&A in NYC, about half with Marie Tueje in London, my bandmate from Angels With Whips (and formerly from San Transisto). Brooklyn’s Dave Sharma — whom I met when he joined T&A on tablas for some gigs and a recording project years back — produced the album, and we cowrote two songs on it as well. That’s the core Team Spleen. And we’ve got some wonderful guest musicians on the record, too —  including world-renowned trumpet player Jon Faddis (taught by Dizzy himself!) and Gaurav Vaz from The Raghu Dixit Project.

The idea evolved when I was well into the prose-writing process, and we made and released the album two years after the book came out. With “Bombay Spleen” (which has the same release date as Bombay Blues) it was a much more intertwined process —one that, in some ways, began with the music: In early 2011, upon returning from my initial research trip to Bombay for the book, I worked on a few songs, melodies and lyrics connected to themes I wanted to explore in my prose — before writing much of the prose itself. One exception is the Chor Bazaar scene in the novel; this was one of the first scenes I wrote (though it appears towards the end of the novel, and, of course, changed along the way). Once I had a draft of this scene, I pulled lines from the chapter into lyrics for the song “Chor Bazaar:” as the song developed, I then ended up working bits of the lyrics back into the prose as well…and revised prose back into the lyrics. As well, there are fictitious bands in Bombay Blues singing lyrics from the album; in the novel Dimple is seeking a song much-loved by another, now deceased character, “Light Years” — this track is on Bombay Spleen.

This interweaving/embedding continued throughout the process of working on both the book and album…right until the very last minute of finalizing both (which ended up being, basically, the same moment: end of April). Both the songs and prose developed in tandem, each helping me to dive deeper into the other — both lighting paths to arrive at story.

Do you have more fiction projects in the works?

I have a few different ideas as far as fiction projects. I’d love to catch up with Dimple again — once we’ve had a little time to catch our breath! For a long time I’ve felt that, having experienced NYC and Bombay, a natural next step would be for Dimple to explore London. I’ve lived here many years now, so it’s become another one of my ‘homes’, my swimming cities. But I’ve so far not lived in the cities I’ve written about at the time of the writing. So we’ll have to see how this book destiny plays out — perhaps I’ll need to leave London in order to write about it?

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

My advice is the same for any aspiring writer — regardless of age, gender, skin color: Never underestimate the power of your own story, if you want to write from this vantage point. The things that may seem the most mundane to you may be your hook, as these are the most organic to your experience, your particular perspective on the world. But — and this is very important — nor should you feel obliged to write from these specific vantage points: Part of what a writer does is get under the skin of different characters, different worlds, to the place where our hearts beat in time. Dive in deep and bring us your pearl — it’s often the one we’ve been seeking, keeping, as well.

Safy-Hallan is a freelance writer who has written for Rolling Stone, Gawker, xoJane and Vice, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter.

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