Interview: Manini Nayar

An interview with Manini Nayar, author of the story Almost Theides (BLR, Issue 35), which appears in her new collection Being Here.

BLR: Congratulations on the publication of your collection Being Here and your review in the New York Times! Would you share with us how this collection came about and the experience of being notified by the NYT that Being Here had been selected for the Shortlist Story Collection review?

Manini Nayar: Thank you so much, Lauralee and Danielle! I first wrote these stories as stand-alone pieces that grew out of random moments of awareness. Unexpected things spark sensations — shifts of light, a child splashing in a plastic pool, a candy wrapper. I think of a line to describe this moment, and the words carry that feeling into paragraphs, into events and characters. I rarely know how a story ends until I get there. A story has its own life, and I am immersed in it and on the margins at the same time, both participant and recorder.

 After I had written three or four stories, a coherent design began to surface, each story merging into a broader collective. Characters and events intersected through images and memories, and these correlations suggested a narrative continuity. And Nina’s life provided a fulcrum and a reference point, drawing in the other characters while they created their own fictional spaces. 

The NY Times review was an unexpected gift for which I am ever grateful. I was never directly in touch with anyone there. My publishers knew the book was being considered for the Book Review, but beyond that I had no further information. Coming across Samantha Hunt’s generous review on the Times website was amongst the most joyful moments of my writing life. And reading the review in print on Sunday morning made my cup of coffee magic!

BLR: Alice Munro has said “A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.” As I read through your collection, Manini, Munro’s description of being in a story felt particularly apt.  Would you comment and along with that tell us how the order of the stories in Being Here was arrived at? 

Manini Nayar: What a lovely quote from Alice Munro, a writer who goes so effortlessly into the heart of things. She reminds us that the writing of fiction is an unhurried reflective process, a writer’s intuitive means of reconsideration and renewal. I’m honored that you think of her words as a way of viewing the collection. Yes, writing this book did feel like a quiet exploration of a familiar space, and exploring the familiar with attention became a means of discovery.

At first I mulled over the possibility of a more conventional chronological format. But a linear line of narrative wasn’t quite right for these stories, which develop obliquely through indirection. Lisa Williams, the editor of The New Poetry and Prose Series, recommended I keep the structure spatial to reinforce the collection’s crisscrossed references, implications, and evocations — their subterranean network of meanings that Samantha Hunt describes as the book’s “secret tunnels.” I love that metaphor, which segues so well into Alice Munro’s description of stories.

I patterned the stories to loop around in an emotional arc. The two opening selections, “Home Fires” and “The Secret Women of Vietnam,” explore the dislocations of migration with its guarded secrets and private absurdities. Sharma in “Home Fires” yearns to be American in the most banal and literal of ways. In “The Secret Women of Vietnam” Nina looks inward to find a stable home in this new world. The tension between external striving and inner peace repeats in varied degrees of counterpoint through the eleven stories, and so I thought it fitting to begin the collection by establishing this overarching trope.

The next seven stories, separate but linked, follow the lives of individual characters before the penultimate story, “Tintinnabulations.” In this story, the collection’s multiple narratives play off one another, each one discrete and complementary like the ringing of bells. “Tintinnabulations” is something of a structural experiment; rather than develop a storyline, I gathered a together a medley of voices from the collection as a way of taking stock before the reckoning to come in the final story, “Simulacra.”

And “Simulacra” closes the collection by returning the arc to its beginnings. This final story questions the nature of striving and peace not only for new immigrants but for all of us, for any of us. The story ends in a moment of stasis in which the future, though undisclosed, is immanent.

BLR: BLR published your story “Almost Theides” in Issue 35: Displacement. You and I worked together on the story, with key suggestions from our editor-in-chief Danielle Ofri. Would you share with us how this editing collaboration with the BLR team worked for you? 

Manini Nayar: I thoroughly enjoyed working with you, Lauralee and Danielle. You pointed out areas in the story that needed fuller development and caught inconsistencies I would otherwise have overlooked. We worked on honing specific paragraphs as well, I remember, to sharpen the story’s trajectory. Together we constructed a more unified draft of “Almost Theides.”

You’ve noticed, of course, that the stand-alone story for BLR is a slightly different version from the one included in the collection. My shift in focus in the story for BLR explores a question implicit but not central to the version in the collection: How might a random and senseless act be logically consistent within an illogical frame of reasoning? I wondered also how literal interpretations of scripture affected such framing. We discussed the foreshadowing relevance of the Biblical quote in the story and decided to keep it in the text. Both you and Danielle were so gracious in allowing me the leeway to let readers decide how to unpack the closing paragraphs.

BLR: What’s on the horizon for you, Manini? Are you observing influences of this achievement in your experience as a writer and as a teacher?

Manini Nayar: On the immediate horizon, I see final papers to grade before the end of the semester! Once that’s done, I’ll give myself some quiet time to sort through these past invigorating weeks covering the book’s publication. I’m not entirely sure how to answer your question, Lauralee. But I’m mindful of the fact there are so many talented writers across the world, some with the opportunity to publish, others working within their own private spaces simply for the love of writing and literature. To all of us who form communities of readers and writers, including my colleagues and my students past and present, I’m grateful for your belief in the transformational power of the written word.  As Alice Munro tells us, the view outside the window is altered as we read and write, the world is always made new.