The Long Road to Publication: An Interview with Anjali Enjeti
Devi Laskar in Conversation with the Author of The Parted Earth
I had the great privilege of speaking with Anjali Enjeti, an award-winning essayist who writes about books, politics and social justice. Her work has appeared in such venues as The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Al Jazeera and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She teaches creative writing at Reinhardt University’s MFA program and lives in the greater Atlanta area.
Devi S. Laskar: I read with interest and recognition many of the circumstances and situations you find yourself in, in Southbound. I’m in awe of you, for writing such a brave book. I hope everyone reads these essays. I also read your page-turning novel, The Parted Earth. You have written such a beautiful and poignant novel about love and loss, in the face of religious extremism and violence surrounding India’s independence, and with the succeeding generations.
I want to focus on craft and technique and the strategies you employed for these difficult essays, and for this sweeping novel, The Parted Earth.
But first I want to learn about your mindset as you approached two vastly different books, one a novel of and stemming from Partition/religious-based extremism and the other a collection of essays on a myriad of difficult subjects including racism, white supremacy, misogyny, being other.
You have written a stunning book on social change and racism, the power of activism, the shifting identities we as women go through from daughter to wife to mother, politics, history. What are your favorite parts of Southbound and The Parted Earth? What were the toughest to write?
Anjali Enjeti: Many of the essays in Southbound were difficult for me to write. Reckoning with my complicity in white supremacy, which I do primarily in the essays “Southbound” and “Fraught Feminism” was tough. “In Memory of Vincent Chin” has to be one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written. I wanted to make sure I honored Vincent and told his story with the respect he and his family deserved. “On the Unbearable Whiteness of Southern Literature,” was the last essay I wrote for Southbound and it just poured out of me. I must have written it in an hour. I realized that it was an essay I must have been writing in my head for decades.I must have written that essay in an hour. I realized that I must have been writing in my head for decades.
There’s some violence in The Parted Earth, and relationships that end abruptly, so these parts were difficult to write. But there’s also a big payoff at the end. And writing that end was truly a joyous experience.
DSL: I noticed that there were moments of silence in your books, when your narrator or characters didn’t speak up for themselves or their loved ones. What roles did silence play in each of your books?
AE: Silence is powerful and it’s definitely not neutral. It’s almost always going to cause great harm. It’s easy to lay blame at the feet of people who are openly oppressive or antagonistic or hostile. But those of us who mean well but are silent are engaging in destructive behavior with long-term consequences. In both books, I wanted to explore how our silence changes the course of the lives of those around us.
DSL: You are a well-educated, working mother, person of color in deep south, lawyer, activist, writer (we share a lot of the same circles in the Venn diagram. Discuss your writing techniques and your writing strategies—what are the wells you draw from? Were they vastly different wells for the two different books? (thank you by the way for writing about me in your essay, I’m deeply honored.)
AE: When I’m doing the first draft of a book-length work, I try to write two pages a day, every single day until that first draft is done, no matter how terrible those pages are. I rarely use any of those pages later, but it feels good to fill up a blank page. And it gets me into the habit of thinking about the story every day, and figuring out who my characters are, and what they’re meant to do.
The essay form was the very first form I began writing in, so generally speaking, it feels more natural to me. But Southbound is a book that blends the personal essay with criticism, so I looked to the work of some of my favorite critics to draw inspiration and explore the form—Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Zora Neal Hurston, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, and Roxane Gay.
Many years before I began writing seriously, I was reading about Partition. Each one of the books I read, whether fiction or nonfiction, played some kind of hand in the The Parted Earth. I was deeply affected by this literature, and had an insatiable appetite to learn anything and everything I could about Partition. At the time (this was in the 1990s) very few people had begun collecting the firsthand stories of survivors. So aside from old newspaper articles, these books were the best way to understand what happened. When I finally began writing the book, I had access to all that the Internet had to offer, and archival organizations, such as the 1947 Partition Archive, were publishing excerpts of survivors’ stories online.
DSL: The road to publication is long and twisted—tell me about some of your hairpin turns and about your waiting game. Clearly something converged since you have two books coming out at once!
AE: I submitted multiple books for eleven years, and during that time I had two different agents, neither of whom sold my books. (One tried very hard and we parted on good terms. Another ghosted me a few months after I signed with him.) I have submitted to quite a few small presses over the years, too. I just couldn’t get anything to work out, and about ten years in, I decided to quit spending so much time submitting. So I cut down substantially. Then the following year, the book proposal I submitted earlier to UGA Press yielded a contract for Southbound. Once I had that in hand, I decided to enter the open submission period for Hub City Press with The Parted Earth. The fact that they’re coming out at the same time is merely coincidental. I sold Southbound on proposal so it took me some time to write the book. And it ended up coinciding with the release of The Parted Earth.
DSL: As an older debut author you must have developed communities who have supported you and lifted you up until this moment ? Or have you been a loner, trying to break into the literary scene? What has been the reaction in the Indian community (i.e. are the aunties aware and proud?) I read that your books have already received several mentions in “must read lists”—what does that feel like?I don’t really write essays, articles, or novels for any other reason than to connect with others.
AE: I am very lucky in this regard. When I began taking writing seriously, especially after I moved to the Atlanta area, I was welcomed into a large, warm community of writers. (Shout out to the Atlanta Writers Club!) I could not have survived as a loner in the literary world. Pre-COVID, I was always attending readings or craft talks or book launches or just meeting other writers for meals. Writing communities have fueled me. I would have never lasted this long in the business without them. A subset of this writing community has been the South Asian writing community, and while there are fewer of us here in Atlanta, the greater South Asian writing community, whether in California or New York or Texas or India, has been crucial to my health and development as a writer.
DSL: What is the first piece of writing you ever saw with your byline on it, and what did it inspire you to do next?
AE: I started writing parenting articles for regional parenting magazines and for newspapers twenty years ago. My first publications came out in print, and had no online publication equivalent. It was quite a rush, and of course the irony is that very few pieces I write today ever come out in print. After a few years of publishing parenting articles, though, I got tired of it. I decided to start writing about something that had sustained me my whole life—books. I did this first on my blog, and next for a wonderful local online publication called ArtsATL. I still write reviews for various publications. They are among my favorite things to write about.
DSL: What is the one thing you hope readers take away from each of your books?
AE: I hope, with both books, they feel less alone and more connected with the world. I don’t really write essays, articles, or novels for any other reason than to connect with others. If readers feel more connected and more supported in their lives after reading what I’ve written, I will feel as if my books did their job.
DSL: Like me, you dedicated one book to your daughters. What do you hope they take away from your publications? All of the cumulative effort?
AE: I hope my books’ publications at my age (I’m 47) will remind my daughters that they have time to realize their dreams. If what they want to do in life doesn’t work out for them in their twenties and thirties, that’s okay. All that matters is that they find a way to do what they love, even if it takes a very long time for them to achieve their goals.
DSL: The titles of your books are so special, I’m guessing The Parted Earth is referring to partition and I’m guessing that Southbound is referring to not just I-75 but being a person of color migrating to and then living in the deep south. Discuss.
AE: Yes, “parted” in The Parted Earth refers to Partition. And “earth” represents how Partition, its survivors, their stories, and their descendants, has crossed borders to other continents. It is a chapter in history that has shaped people who live all over the world.Writing may be life giving, but publishing is soul crushing.
The title of the essay collection Southbound (which is also the title of the first long essay in the book) derives from all of my southern identities. I live in the Deep South, I’m South Asian, and my family is originally from southern Indian. I’m bound to various “south”s.
DSL: Were you an avid reader as a kid? If not, what did you do to cope/escape from the constant scrutiny?
AE: Yes I was an avid reader, and reading, as well as journaling, helped me deal with a lot of my feelings. I read every Judy Blume book until the pages fell out of the bindings. The same is true for Harriet the Spy and Little Women. The characters in these books were like friends! In my imagination, I’d pretend I was living in the stories with them.
DSL: What is the strangest job you ever held?
AE: When I was a teenager, I was a perfume model for a department store. It’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds and I’m allergic to most scents so it was terrible for my sinuses!
DSL: What is your playlist? What do you listen to, when you’re writing?
AE: (laugh) I don’t listen to music. I have Real Housewives on or Shahs of Sunset, real trash, just so I can block it out as I write.
DSL: Talk about one thing that makes you happy right now—it can be about Ossoff and Warnock, that’s okay !!
AE: The vaccine. Holy moly I’m so excited that we have it, and that in the next few months, all adults would have received theirs. I can’t wait for the raucous reunions many of us will be having with loved ones later this year!
DSL: What does literary success look like to you?
AE: What constitutes literary success has evolved for me significantly over the years. For most of my life, it meant publishing a book. But when I couldn’t get a book deal, I knew I needed to reassess what success in this business looked like. And it became writing essays or articles that demand a more humane world. I’ve covered politics, voting, and elections for the past few years, and aside from enjoying this kind of writing, it holds value. I also teach in an MFA program. It’s some of the most rewarding work I do. My students inspire me to push my boundaries as a writer and I’m blown away by their talent.
DSL: Share something about you that most people don’t know?
AE: I’ve had chronic pain for most of the past 25 years. I have a condition called Coccydynia, which basically means I have pain in my tailbone. Sitting and lying down (just about every position of rest) is very painful for me. I don’t sleep well and despite trying every kind of therapy imaginable, I haven’t had a pain free day in almost 10 years. Writing, teaching, organizing or taking care of my kids has to be done in ways that accommodate my pain. It’s tough, and I’ve kept my pain largely to myself over the years, but chronic pain is so isolating and mentally exhausting, I’ve recently decided to be more open about it.
DSL: What is your advice for aspiring writers? Especially those writers of color and women who will hold up your books as goalposts?
AE: I would tell them not to lose themselves in this process. Writing may be life giving, but publishing is soul crushing. Preserve your joy, your time, and safe-keep it from the publishing world. It’s also important to invest in what you can control in this business—building a warm and loving writing community. Find other writers you trust who value and understand your work and keep them in your inner circle. When you are feeling down about your writing or your latest rejection, they’ll lift you right back up.
DSL: What’s the next big thing for you, after your pandemic book tours? What’s the next thing you’re writing?
AE: I’m working on a novel that centers on an Indian mother and her adult daughter who live in the North Georgia Mountains in the 1990s. It’s a very southern book, but it will also take place in Hyderabad, India, in the 1970s, and East Germany in the early 1980s.