On a crisp December morning, writer Anita Felicelli and I meet up at Madras Cafe, where between sips of filter coffee and bites of steaming idlis, we discuss her debut collection of short stories, Love Songs for a Lost Continent (Stillhouse Press, October 2018). Felicelli’s prize-winning stories join a growing number of short story collections by South Asian writers and fill a critical gap in narratives by South Asian women. In Love Songs for a Lost Continent, we find thirteen stories that are a beautiful amalgamation of myth, magical realism, and present-day challenges that go beyond the realm of immigrant life stereotypes. Abuse, infertility, the loss of a child, casteism, gender, and identity politics, are just some of the themes in this riveting short story collection.
Felicelli is a graduate of UC Berkeley and UC Berkeley School of Law. Her short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Normal School, Kweli Journal, Joyland, Juked, and other journals. Her essays and reviews have been published in the New York Times, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as India Currents. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and anthologized. Born in South India, Felicelli grew up in the Bay Area, where she lives with her family.
Shikha Malaviya (SM): This collection literally had me jumping with joy. At last, someone is telling our stories in a unique and interesting way. What was the genesis of this collection? How did some of these stories come about? As a child of immigrants, I assume you’ve been inspired by real life, but you’ve managed to delve deep under the surface. Tell us more, please.
Anita Felicelli (AF): Thank you so much! I wrote the stories in this collection over decades without quite realizing that they would eventually come together as a collection. After I wrote the title story, I realized that I kept writing about reinvention, about people who transgress the stories that society tells them about their identities. I noticed that I had an obsession with the kinds of people who want to tell their own stories, author their own lives, and yet, when they did try to break away from their identity, they often lost something of importance. And memory, too, had a role in these stories, the ways in which memory can hold us back from reinvention, but also how malleable memory is when authoring our lives.
SM: You said, ‘Identity is a story we tell ourselves until it gets disrupted by other stories.’ That is such a powerful statement. Can you elaborate? I love how you illustrate this through the reoccurrence of characters within different stories, which enables the reader to see different perspectives.
AF: In my fiction, I’m interested in how people of different identities and worldviews are forced into a reckoning of who they truly are and how solid their identity really is. The reckoning usually occurs through confrontation with someone of a different identity and worldview. I think many South Asian immigrant narratives are interested in telling stories of a particular community, where those in that community agree about their collective identity. But my interest is in how each of us has certain stories we tell ourselves, some of those stories received from a community and others we’ve invented from life experience, and what happens to our sense of reality when we run up against other people’s desires and stories.
SM: You’ve also mentioned how ‘outsiders don’t have fairytales.’ And, yes, I agree, this is true. So many of your stories are inspired by folktales and fairytales with elements of the fantastical such as “Deception,” about a woman whose marriage is arranged with a tiger, “Once Upon the Great Red Island,” in which man and animal bond, ultimately fusing, and “Rampion,” which is a unique take on Rapunzel. As outsiders, what is the purpose of fairytales? As immigrants, isn’t the idea of a fairytale life what lured us across oceans in the first place?
AF: I like that, and yes, I think there is a fairytale America has exported about itself in the past that has drawn immigrants to it. Fairytales and folktales are stories that reveal what a society believes, or at least what a society thinks is important to express. And by society, I really mean the insiders of a society. For example, the fairytale Rapunzel is told from the perspective of a couple and their child, while my story, Rampion, is told from the perspective of the villain in Rapunzel, someone struggling with infertility and loss. So much storytelling is for the benefit of a society’s insiders, what will resonate with a majority of listeners or readers. With this collection, I wanted to generate the same rough magic for outsiders and told from the margins, rather than to and from insiders.
SM: Your stories are brimming with birds, flowers, and animals like the mysterious indri (Babakoto lemur). One senses this uneasy yet inextricable tangle between man, earth and animal, this primal yearning to find a way to strike a balance, and to also be consumed by what we don’t understand. How conscious were you of this aspect while writing your stories.
AF: I wasn’t conscious of this while I first drafted the stories, but I noticed it during revision, and it was part of what allowed me to select certain stories for the collection and leave out others. While revising the final drafts, I was conscious of wanting to keep a certain fragile mysteriousness and wildness to the stories. I don’t enjoy fiction that is overly manicured or predictable or only about humans in their metal and wood and plastic manmade environments. I wanted to write stories that I would like to read.
SM: The characters in your stories are introspective. As readers, we follow their thought process and experience their emotions and epiphanies. All of these characters live disrupted lives and though they grasp for resolution, it’s hard to come by. Whether it’s Kathy from “Kathy and Hema,” who resents her friend for breaking the norm of a studious, ambitious Asian immigrant and running off with her soccer coach or in “The Art of Losing,” Maisie’s angst for her troubled son, Drew, who has met with a horrific accident or in “Love Songs for a Lost Continent,” the Fulbright scholar searching for mythical Kumari Kundam, who loses someone he loves. Did you mean for this ambiguity? What do you hope the reader will take from it?
AF: Yes, I love ambiguity in stories. I’ve been haunted since childhood by Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 anthologized short story The Lady or the Tiger, in which a king tries to punish his daughter’s lover by offering him a choice between two doors. Behind one is a lady he will have to marry and behind the other is a tiger. It’s not clear at the end which one the king’s daughter has told her lover to choose. Would she choose for herself the emotion of jealousy or grief? I love the space Stockton made for readers by leaving the question for them to answer for themselves. I love reading when it’s a relationship between an author and a reader, a relationship in which the reader is given a little wiggle room for his or her subconscious to provide some answers, rather than a kind of tyranny.
SM: You’ve grown up and lived in the Bay Area for years. Did the familiarity of home compel you to set many of your stories here? Your stories visit other locales also, like Madagascar, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Why did you choose these settings?
AF: Most of what I write is set in the Bay Area, but as an immigrant, I’m also fascinated by ideas of migrating to other faraway places. I often wonder what it would have been like to be my parents, making their choice to immigrate in the ’70s even though we didn’t have any close family here. I’m also fascinated at how often travelogues and fiction from the perspective of white American writers traveling or moving elsewhere are published, while we very rarely are given access to travelogues and literary stories from the perspective of brown or black Americans who move to other places. I’m fascinated by the question of whether my relationship to other countries would be the same as a white American writer’s relationship to those places. One set of grandparents resisted colonialism, and also resisted caste, and I’ve leaned left, actively so, my entire life, but I often imagine what it would be like to tweak aspects of my identity to see whether those tweaks, those changes in the story I tell myself about myself, might cause me to make different choices in the world. Could I be a colonizer? Could I be the Man? Could I be one of the many quietly complicit? Under what circumstances? I’m so intrigued by those questions.
SM: You started off with a career in law but then decided to pursue a career that is considered off the beaten path for South Asian immigrants. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer and how has the response been from your family and the greater community?
AF: I knew I wanted to be a writer from the age of five. It was the only work I’ve ever wanted to do or for which I’ve had a genuine passion. My parents have been mostly supportive of me though perhaps they’ve been made anxious and unnerved by my compulsive interest in writing about matters that South Asians don’t often discuss. But also, as immigrants who are not from wealthy backgrounds, they’ve always made it clear I would need to find a job to support myself financially and that I would need to try to be excellent at anything I did regardless of how I felt about it. Both of them worked extremely hard. I was never allowed to slack on finding jobs that would pay me, nor did they ever suggest it was in the realm of possibility to rely on a spouse. I started babysitting when I was 11 and I’ve worked many other jobs since age 15 (in graphic design and the law), trying to figure out how I might be able to sustain myself while continuing to write literary fiction. Litigation was really a second or third career for me, and from the time I dipped my toes into that world, I knew I’d be able to force myself to swim there no more than a decade.
SM: What are you working on now?
AF: I’m working on a family saga that centers on an engineer who immigrates from Tamil Nadu to Silicon Valley and invents a memory machine.
Shikha Malaviya (www.shikhamalaviya.com) is an Indo-American poet & writer. Her book, Geography of Tongues, was featured in several literary festivals. Shikha is a co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a mentorship model literary press dedicated to new poetic voices from India and the Indian diaspora. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in PLUME, Prairie Schooner, Water~Stone Review & other fine journals. Shikha was a featured TEDx speaker in GolfLinks, Bangalore, where she gave a talk on poetry. She has been a three-time mentor for AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentorship Program and was selected as Poet Laureate of San Ramon, CA, 2016. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.