Sheltering: Sopan Deb on the Privilege of Desire
The Author of Missed Translations Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Maris Kreizman speaks with Sopan Deb about his new memoir, Missed Translations. The book is centered around his estrangement with his parents, their reconnection, and learning his parents’ stories in a way Deb had never truly known. Deb talks about what it was like not knowing anything about his parents even while he grew up with them, how thankful he is for his wife’s support, doing virtual comedy, and the privileges he was allotted even when he couldn’t see them. One of Deb’s favorite bookstores is the Book Club Bar; please purchase Missed Translations from their online store, or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I am very happy to have Sopan Deb here. I’m a little sad that I’m not in the podcast recording studio with him, as we were meant to be. But welcome!
Sopan Deb: Thank you so much for having me. It’s exciting to finally get to do this.
Maris: I know. How are you doing?
Sopan: You know, my fiancée, Wesley, and I, we are in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, which is right next to Charleston, and the weather is really nice. We’re very fortunate. We both still have our day jobs. We are healthy. Even though it’s pretty bleak right now in the world, we’re really fortunate, so I just keep telling myself that in the morning when I wake up. We’re very lucky, and knock on wood, we remain that way.
Maris: So, you wrote this beautiful memoir, Missed Translations. I feel like the entire meaning of it has changed in the pandemic. So much of what you write about—your estrangement from your family, and then the importance of just checking in every once a while—I guess my question is how are they doing?
Sopan: They’re doing okay. It’s interesting, my dad is in total lockdown in India because that’s been the nationwide impetus from the government. But he’s fine. One thing I learned about my parents in the course of writing this book was that they’re used to being alone. They’ve spent a lot of time in their life surviving on their own, from even the most difficult circumstances. And so, for my dad, who can’t leave his apartment in Calcutta, and for my mom, who has an apartment in New Jersey, to them, this is not too much different from what they normally would do. I think the hard part is—you and I, we kill time swiping on apps, Facebook or Instagram or whatever, or read the news. Neither of my parents are that good with the internet. They don’t have smartphones. I don’t know how they’re killing time exactly. They read books. My dad says he’s doing a lot of yoga at home. He’s a musician, so he plays the piano and stuff. And also, with my dad it’s kind of funny. After reading the manuscript of Missed Translations, he said, “I’m very proud of you, you wrote a book! I’m going to write my own book now!”
Maris: Oh, that’s amazing.
Sopan: So, he’s spent the last year penning his own autobiography called The Untold Story of My Life. He says to me, “Your English is very good! I shall take your help! I’m going to send you my notes, and you shall write this!” He wants me to ghostwrite his autobiography. I think that’s how he’s spending his time—like many of us, writing while we’re locked away. I think they’re holding up okay, all things considered. Again, they don’t have coronavirus, they’re healthy. I think they’re doing okay for now.
Maris: Okay, good. Well tell me a little bit more about the memoir, and how you decided to make it into a book, and what it’s been like for you.
Sopan: The book tracks a year of my life as I try to reconnect with my estranged parents. At the time of writing this book, I had not seen my dad in eleven years and my mom in about four or five years. I did not know where they were living. I didn’t know where they were, I didn’t know what they were really up to. My parents were arranged to get married in the sixties and seventies, and they had a horrible, toxic arranged marriage. But they didn’t divorce because divorce is stigmatized in the South Asian society. So, for thirty years they stayed married, and my brother, who’s ten years older than me, we grew up with them. And we didn’t talk. We didn’t have dinners. We rarely ate dinner together. We barely knew anything about each other. It’s like that college roommate that you barely speak to—it was like that. We occupied the same space, but we didn’t occupy the same space.
And so, throughout my twenties, I lost touch with them. My dad, when I was eighteen, left for India and didn’t tell anybody. And right around when I turned thirty, I said to myself, okay, your parents aren’t going to be around for that much longer. Do you really want them to die knowing very little about them? Because I didn’t know their age, I didn’t know their birthdays, how much extended family they had, how they met, how they came to the US, I didn’t know any of that stuff. So, I was like, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life regretting never asking them those questions. And I also had questions like, how the heck did we get like this?
So, the book tracks over that year. I reached out to both my parents. I had to find the phone number for my mom, I had to ask my dad, okay, we’re going to come to India and see you, where are we flying to in India exactly? It was mentally draining, but ultimately it was interesting. And it’s not over; this is still part of the process. It’s not like at the movies where at the end we all wrap this up in a tidy bow. But I’m glad we tried. If you don’t make the effort—I would’ve carried that with me for the rest of my life, I think.
Maris: You are so good in the memoir at expressing how we as American children expect everything to come from our parents, all of the unconditional love and empathy and understanding and knowledge and caring.
Sopan: As we should.
Maris: As we should! Of course. But without the realization that parents have their own feelings, have their own shit. Especially as I get older, I think about that more and more.
Sopan: Yeah. I would say the big difference in the way my parents came up and how I came up is I came up in a middle-class New Jersey suburb. My parents grew up in India, and they immigrated here. Like a lot of people of that generation, for them, survival was not a given. They were just trying to get to the end of the day. They were trying to put food on the table and survive till the next day. Whereas I grew up and I thought to myself, okay, I would like to be a standup comedian, so I’m going to pursue standup comedy! And I have a crush at school, so I’m going to fixate on my crush at school. I’m sad today; am I depressed? I’m going to talk to a therapist about it.
It really was a privilege. That’s a level of privilege. And we’re seeing that right now with coronavirus, right? Right now, I can focus on things like this book launch or whatever. But there are a lot of people in the country right now that literally don’t know whether they can pay rent this month. It’s a level of privilege that I really never realized I have. But specifically with my parents, they could not understand where I was coming from because they grew up not having the freedom, not having the space to be able to think about desires. For them, they aspired to survive. I aspired to do more and to live. That’s something that’s a distinction that a lot of kids our age or even below us don’t really realize.
Maris: Your father’s career was dictated to him in the same way as an arranged marriage almost.
Sopan: Yes! And that’s not abnormal for a lot of South Asian people of my dad’s generation. My grandfather on my dad’s side was like, okay, you’re going to engineering school and you’re going to become an engineer, and that’s what you’re going to do. What I found out later in the course of this book is that my dad came to this country and he did it against his family’s wishes. I don’t know about you, but if I wanted to move to London or something, I w would just do it. A lot of my friends would be like, oh yeah, I’m going to go backpacking in Europe for six months. My dad didn’t really have that kind of freedom. He went against his family’s wishes and just left, and he alienated his family as a result. But you and I wouldn’t even think that’s a thing that would happen. It’s a strange thing. What do you mean your parents tried to keep you from moving to America? Why? It doesn’t make sense. But that’s just the way things were done back then.
Maris: Yeah. Something that my husband and I have both talked about very much, and I want to acknowledge now, is that your fiancée is a saint.
Sopan: I kid you not, she has become—and I’m so glad she’s getting a lot of recognition for this this week—if you read the book, she is the star. She’s the moral center of the book. Because she’s my moral center. Her name’s Wesley, if you read the book, you’re going to fall in love with her. She comes from a family where her parents had been previously divorced, then they met, they got married, then they also got divorced. So, she’s kind of from a Brady Bunch situation here. But she’s close with a bunch of her family as opposed to me, so she was able to provide me a nudge to be like, you can do this, you can maintain these relationships. But even beyond that, she was totally onboard to go to India to see my dad. Some people aren’t willing to make that their thing. “Hey, this is your thing. You have to do that by yourself.” She also, in the course of writing the book, she copyedited, she helped come up with the book proposal. She was involved in every single decision, and there were some times that I just didn’t want to do it. I’d be like, you know, Wesley, this book’s not going to work, let’s not do this. She’d be like, no. she wouldn’t let me fail. She’s a fierce advocate for me. I’m very grateful to have her. And I hope at some point she doesn’t realize how much better she can do.
Maris: And so how are you two hanging in right now?
Sopan: Fine. We’re down in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, at her dad’s house. It’s lovely down here. Because New York City was a little bleak. We came down here a month ago maybe and quarantined ourselves for fourteen days and then moved in with her parents. We’re fortunate, and we’re doing well. Most of our energy this week has been pushing the book, and that’s not easy in a pandemic, I will tell you, as I’m sure you’re realizing. For various reasons. First of all, you don’t get to have the traditional press launch that you might otherwise have. I had a bunch of interviews get cancelled because they’re like, we’ve got to cover corona today.
Maris: Yeah, of course.
Sopan: Understandably so. You can’t really say anything when that happens, right? You’re like no, that makes sense.
Maris: And you’re a journalist, you understand.
Sopan: Totally, and I’ve done that. I totally understand it. And then also, you don’t get the experience of going to a bookstore and seeing your book on a shelf, and I was really looking forward to that because that’s really cool. I’m sure this has happened for you, but going to a bookstore, you look around and think, how cool would it be to have something of yours up here? I hope to have that at some point. But you know, we’re proud of the experience. We’re very fortunate to have been able to do this. We’re really thankful that a publisher took a chance on us on this.
Maris: Tell me how comedy is going. I mean, everything’s on pause.
Sopan: Yeah, everything’s on pause. I did my first standup livestream show on Sunday, a show called The Big Brown Show, which is a show that’s actually in the book. I’d taken a step back from standup while I was writing the book because I didn’t take any book leave or anything. I was doing my job and I was also writing the book, and as you know, that’s pretty all-encompassing, as I’m sure you saw with Josh’s process recently. And then, after the book, I started on a sketch writing team at the Magnet Theater at 29
Can I ask, what is like having Josh at home in the evenings now?
Maris: I hear him do comedy through the wall, which is funny. And you know, I can’t hear the response of the crowd at all.
Sopan: It’s the weirdest thing. You could be having the best set of your life or the worst set of your life. You really have no idea.
Maris: It’s so funny. That I’ve heard a bunch, and I’ve heard a lot of his work, his meetings.
Sopan: Sure, yeah.
Maris: And that feels weirdly intimate, right? I assume Wesley’s still working.
Sopan: Yeah, she’s a corporate lawyer. She’s busy as ever. We’re used to working from home a lot. My day job is, I write about basketball for the New York Times. Before I was doing culture. A lot of those jobs you’re working from home a lot because there’s no reason for you to be in the office a lot of the time. When I was writing about culture, a lot of theater shows, for example, are at night. A lot of comedy shows—if you’re writing about comedy, they’re at night. We’re used to being around each other. I don’t know if there’s a cap on how much time Wesley will be able to spend with me, and if I’m using it all right now, if I should save some for the future. But I hope not. We’ll find out very shortly. Quarantining is interesting. You learn these things about each other while you’re at home. But so far, we are very tolerant of each other. I don’t know how long that will last. Maybe by the time this posts, we might have to do a follow-up.
Maris: Do you have a local bookstore? Not there—in New York City?
Sopan: Yeah, we were actually supposed to do a launch event tonight at a place called the Book Club Bar, which recently opened on the Lower East Side. I think it’s a bookstore slash bar. I’m doing an Instagram takeover today to make up for the fact that we didn’t do a launch event there. I love that. Of course, Shakespeare and Company, and some of the other–there’s one a couple blocks away from our apartment in town. There’s a bunch. We love indie bookstores. I hope all of them come back better than ever. I know it will take a while. I know some places are really suffering right now. I can’t wait to go to these stores and see the book there, provided they want to put the book up.
Maris: I’m sure they will. This has been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Sopan: Thank you for having me! I’m so glad we finally got to meet in person. Well, hopefully we actually get to meet in person sometime soon.
Maris: Me too.