Tishani Doshi on Writing as an Act of Great Optimism
The Author of Small Days and Nights
on the Reading Women Podcast
In this episode of Reading Women, Kendra talks to Tishani Doshi about her latest novel, Small Days and Nights, out now from W.W. Norton.
From the episode:
Kendra: So last year, Sumaiyya sent me a message after she read this book and said, “Kendra, you need to go read this book immediately.” So like the good bookish friend that I am, I went to try to find it and buy it. But I couldn’t. I didn’t realize it wasn’t out in the United States yet. So I am so thrilled that it is now available in the United States. And then everyone can now go out, buy it, and read this brilliant story. I have been so impressed with the quiet strength of this book and how it is so intricate and so delicately crafted that the more you look at it, the more skill you see that went into this novel. So I was so honored and overjoyed to be able to talk to Tishani Doshi about her novel. Tishani has published six books of poetry and fiction. Her debut novel, The Pleasure Seekers, was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize and longlisted for the Orange Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Small Days and Nights is her second novel and has been shortlisted for the TATA Best Fiction Award of 2019. So without further ado, here is my conversation with Tishani Doshi.
So congrats on the US release of Small Days and Nights. I heard Salman Rushdie had great things to say at your launch party.
Tishani: Yes, it was very nice. He said it’s a big book that’s disguised as a small book.
Kendra: I think that is a beautiful description of your book because it definitely has this quiet strength to it, which we’ll talk about here in a second. But since this is the US release—the book has been out in other countries already—what has been the reception like between, you know, different places that the book has been released?
Tishani: It’s really interesting to have this long timeline of the book, you know, coming out in India and then in the UK and now, many months later, in the US. And the sense of the smallness of the story when you’re writing something like that, I suppose you never really imagine how the story will travel. And I’m glad that it has had the potential to travel because part of the reason, or part of the motivation, of the story itself is to insist in some way that those stories about the small place can have larger representations and impacts, and they can speak for more than just what they initially start out as feeling like. Like, a story about one woman and her life . . . Can that be a national story? Can that be something that says anything about a country? And so I’m excited about how readers in different parts of the world can connect to that. You know?
Kendra: Yeah, there are a lot of universals in the story that I found that were just incredibly thought provoking and very moving. And like you said, it’s a novel about this one woman’s life, the small moments, but they have huge ramifications. And like we mentioned, this is about a woman, Grace. Who is Grace? And where do we meet her in the beginning of the book?
Tishani: Grace is a woman who’s sort of grown up in India. She’s half-Indian and half-Italian. So she’s a hybrid of sorts, somebody who very much feels like an outsider wherever she goes. She’s sort of been in a marriage in America that’s sort of falling apart because her husband wants to have children. She doesn’t. Then her mother dies. She returns to India, and she finds out—she’s in her mid-thirties—and she finds out that she has inherited this house by the sea in a coastal village in Tamil Nadu. And she also finds out that she has a sister that she never knew about who has been institutionalized at birth.
And this is a point at which she decides to change her life and to kind of return to India and to become a caregiver of sorts for the sister, to inhabit this house that her mother has left her. And that’s really the place where the story is, even though it moves to Venice and Charlotte, North Carolina, and a few other places. The real heart of the story is in the small village by the sea in Tamil Nadu and the days and the nights that that Grace and her sister, Lucia, have together.
Kendra: So when you sat down to write Grace’s story, what did you know about her from the beginning? And how did that process start for you when you started writing this book?
Tishani: I wanted to write about a lot of things. I mean, I wanted to write about families and sisters, secrets. I wanted to write also something I wanted to capture about the contemporary experience of moving around or navigating space in India today, as I understand it, which is—on one level—a tremendous emancipation for a certain class and privilege of woman, but also the sense of danger that one might feel because it has been voted the most dangerous place for a woman to live. So how does fear act on the sense of solitude, the excessive, you know, solitude? How does that affect you as a person? And so Grace really came to me as a character who is going to be struggling morally to try and do the right thing, sometimes failing, and just trying to find her balance between inside and outside, between doing the right thing and failing. And really also I think part of what I was trying to do is . . . how does one create a system of supportive family structure when your family lets you down in the way that Grace feels her family has let her down? And so how do you find your alternative support system? All of those things were part of, I suppose, what triggered her character and the story.
Kendra: And I find that really interesting, what you mentioned about trying to find family and what you do when your family has let you down. So her sister Lucy has Down Syndrome. And so she takes her out of the institution, and they live together. And that’s the first part of the book is her talking about them living together. And she also experiences what it’s like to have a family. And she finds a home in a lot of ways with Lucy. But of course, there are always complications when your sibling has a disability. What kind of research did you do for this type of disability and what the realities of that might look like in this part of India?
Tishani: Well, I mean, I didn’t have that much research to do because my brother has Down Syndrome and is autistic. And so very much my experience of growing up with a sibling in India who is differently abled and who I’ve sort of seen go through life in a way and experienced—in a very different way, of course, because my brother lives at home, and he’s always a big part of the family; so it’s not in the sense the secret that’s been buried—but it was really a way of trying to understand how does a country or civilization treat the people who are, you know, weak or poor or not able to look after themselves. And I guess I think about India as a place which has these incredible juxtapositions. And on one hand, there is terrific amount of humanity on every level. And then on another hand, there’s a lot of cruelty and a lot of things that concern you, you know. And so I think I wanted to write about also the difficulty of caregiving and how I didn’t want to sentimentalize the experience of it because I’ve lived it, and I know it.
But I also wanted to write about how important it is to have systems of support, to nurture because ultimately these experiences and relationships enlarge our idea of love and the world, and they don’t narrow it. And so I feel like, you know, that’s part of what I wanted the story to lead in that direction because I also think about how people are always, you know, the whole idea of the designer baby and the whole idea of the, you know, babies being made in the petri dish. . . . This idea of human perfection, which I think is hubristic because I think as humans we fall short, and that is part of what it means to be human is to understand how do we reconcile the fact that we are a violent species, but we also have capacity for great beauty. And that’s really one of the underlying themes of the book, I think.
Kendra: You definitely see that nuanced portrayal of what it’s like to be a caregiver. As someone with a disability, I have disabling chronic illness, and I’ve always had a caregiver. And so I was able to see some of Grace’s frustrations were part of, you know, my mom’s life, of my spouse’s life. And I felt that was so nuanced in a time when people often romanticize caregiving or people with disabilities, and they don’t understand how difficult it can be. So I really appreciate that kind of representation.
Tishani: Oh, thank you. Thank you. It meant a lot to kind of get that sense of the day-to-day living, which I think people feel that regardless of their abilities, that sense of the daily breakfast. The eating. The washing. And all of the sense of going through life. You know? When you have to be the caregiver for someone to help them through those actions, their daily actions, how those can weigh down on you at a certain point and start to impinge on your sense of freedom. So the book is also about the sense of freedom and duty and a sense of how does one find a balance and how do you find the windows of your own escape within that while caring, you know? So yeah, I was really a delicate rope to walk, I guess.
Kendra: But there are these concrete moments, like you said, of everyday living. Like, she gets sick once, and she’s caring for her sister. And her sister comes in for breakfast, but she can’t get out of bed. And if she didn’t have someone there to come help her, she would be up a creek without a paddle. She wouldn’t have a way to care for her sister or herself. I think those moments, those moments of the small things that become a crisis that other people may not even think about how difficult that might be. And you could see her trying to find that balance of finding space for herself and a place to breathe, but also caring for her sibling, which she’s never had to really do before. So that was really interesting to see that dynamic as well.
Tishani: Yeah. And the fact that, you know, she doesn’t want to have children precisely because the sense of responsibility terrified her, that she would have to do these things. But then she inherits this sister, as it were, and she decides to go into it anyway. And yeah, understanding this whole balance of nurture for oneself, for other people. . . . Of course, in the story, there are also the dogs that she starts to . . . that sort of adopt her and that she starts to care for, these these beach dogs. And then the garden. And really how nurturing, in a way, can heal us in some senses, but how it also is this task. That’s very much the case. But also in India, family is considered such an important part of the fabric of society. And the family can also be oppressive. The family can let you down. And what happens when you don’t have that and you’re alone? And that’s the thing. She thinks, “Well, I’m in bed, and I’m sick. And who is going to look after her if something happens to me?” And the enormity, really, of that aloneness, in a way, is something I wanted to write about.
You know, for women in India, it’s really an interesting moment. And I think all over the world that there is this sense of so much possibility and, compared to sort of an earlier generation, a great sense of freedom. And also women are living alone. And really this understanding of your space and your place in the world and how actually it is incredibly empowering on one level, but in Grace’s sense—because she also lives in this isolated village, and there’s nobody around—how that aloneness can become almost too huge, you know. And yet she’s sort of very determined to stride out, to do this by herself. And really, I guess, me questioning the fact that we do need to find support systems wherever we live, whether the family is going to come up or the state or society. And how are those things going to help us to live our lives and to create these relationships of love and caring.
Kendra: And throughout the book, she’s looking for that place. But also happiness. And it’s interesting because people in her life who aren’t her family keep telling her what she should or shouldn’t do to be happy. But she definitely is striving to make her own place in the world. I feel like we’ve had a lot of writers write about this . . . kind of . . . women finding their place in the world. But I really thought you brought a fresh perspective to it. What did you want to bring to that conversation about women and happiness in addition to the idea of her finding a place, being a nurturer, and with her family?
Tishani: So there’s so many things, you know, Kendra. I mean, I felt like (1.) the sense of not being an entirely likable character. I felt like I was very intent on making her a complicated character because women are also always being told, yes, this will make your life better or not. You know, we’ve all had those conversations. And that sense of being nice to people, wanting to be liked. And I really wanted to have a character who makes decisions that are maybe not always the best. But, you know, I could recognize, in a sense, stories of people I know and my own story . . . that actually we have to find our own way, and that it can be hard, and actually that there are very strong dangers. You know, I mean, one of the things is this question of violence. And I would say that from the Indian perspective, at least, you know, women are constantly being told, “Don’t live alone. You know, bad things can happen to you.” And bad things do happen. Women are murdered in their houses or flats. It’s always like . . . if you’re with the family or if you’re with the husband or if you’re within the accepted social structure, then you will be safe. And that is, of course, a fallacy because horrible things happen regardless.
And so I think part of the thing that I wanted to sort of explore was the sense of really despite the dangers, despite all of the difficulties, what are the ways in which we can make our way in the world? And what does that process actually look like? And of course, Grace is a woman of privilege. I also have other characters in the book who don’t have the privilege, the money, the education that she has. And I try to also, you know, give them agency and ask questions about how they can create space in their lives. So it’s very complicated. And I think it’s a very important question, you know, and I hope the book has a kind of nuanced view about those things.
Kendra: I feel like you had so many things in this book, which like we talked about a little bit in the beginning of our conversation, it’s a very quiet book in a sense. And then as you keep reading, you realize that there’s more and more depth to it as you’re moving along. How did you manage all of those threads together as you were working throughout the novel? Was it something that you found after you’d written it? Or was it something that you were intentionally weaving together as you were working on the book?
Tishani: I think I . . . you know, it’s hard to say because I am not one of those writers who has a sense of ending or a sense of direction. When I write, I have a strong sense of character, voice, mood. You know, it was very important for me to create that sense of mood, which was quiet, but also sometimes feeling claustrophobic, sometimes this little sense of danger, sometimes this great expanse of beauty. And so those are things that I’m clear about in terms of I understand what I’m trying to do.
But I also feel, you know, when I was writing this book, I hadn’t realized that there were so many things I was quietly raging and fuming about. So some things are quite clear, which is about, you know, gender violence. And I’ve written about that in poetry as well, but also about the environment and the relationship to the environment and our damage to the environment. And that’s something that Grace thinks about as well. And, you know, this sense of how the place that she lived in is very beautiful. It’s the sea and all of this stuff. But there’s also threats of violence there. There’s like, you know, the loads and loads of plastic. And then there’s these, you know, a coal plant that might come up. And land brokers who are there, constantly trying to grab land from people. And those are very real threats, which you also have to negotiate aside from the other ones, you know? And so I felt like, in the book, I wanted to start with this very quiet story about a family and sisters. But then I wanted it to open up into larger, universal questions. And that’s something that I think happened unconsciously, in a way, as I wrote.
Kendra: In a lot of ways, it reminded me of a book we read last year, which was The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay. And Shalini in that book is also . . . it’s a very quiet book . . . but she’s also searching in that way. And it starts out very like, “My mom had a secret” kind of story, and then it expands to a much larger conversation about the country. And that’s such a great skill that you both have.
Tishani: Yeah, and the sense of also, you know . . . I was quite aware of the fact that I was writing within the domain of small fiction that is women’s fiction, that is the area of the domestic. You know, we’re always being relegated and told that that is, “Oh, you’re just writing about your life or this small day-to-day thing.” And really to rebel against it and to say that actually, no, this is life. All these small lives make up the larger fabric of what we think of as country and nation. And in fact, these are the lives that we should be examining because they make up the larger, larger story. So it’s not always that it has to be a story set against a war or a great political backdrop. Because in fact, I believe that it’s as important and as valid a story to be reading about, you know. And so that’s why, in a sense, the title Small Days and Nights is really about insisting somehow that small is actually representing the large.
Kendra: There are a lot of moments where I was holding my breath, especially with the dogs. I have a Corgi, so I’m very much a dog lover. There are a lot of difficult things that happen with the dogs, which I won’t spoil. But I was sitting on the edge of my seat, trying to find out what is going to happen to all of their animals, whom they do love. And especially Lucy has her favorites. And you become very attached very quickly.
Tishani: The dogs are such an important part of the book. And they also represent, you know, that whole sense of being on the periphery. You know, they’re not dogs as we know them as pet dogs. They’re sort of wild. In India, we call them “Pye-dogs.” It’s short for “pariah.” And they’re dogs that you see them everywhere on the street. And they’re tremendously resistant, intelligent street dogs.
And, you know, so what happens in the book is that one dog arrives and then another. And then before you know it, there’s this whole kingdom of dogs. And because they’re out in the boonies, there’s no way to find a vet. So she finds herself overwhelmed by the caring of these dogs. But it’s also that because the conversations that she has with Lucy are limited because of her verbal skills and with the housekeeper, Monica, are limited because she doesn’t speak Tamil. In that isolation, the language and the relationship with these animals is crucial because they provide a narrative to her place in that environment. And they are sort of occupying that territory with her of being outsiders. You know, wherever she goes, she feels she doesn’t fit in. And these dogs are somewhere between the domestic and the wild. So they’re both the same in that sense. And so the dogs are really, really important part of the story. And for me, it was . . . I had to write about it because I’m a huge dog lover as well. And I have lots of dogs. So there was this sense of, “I can’t ignore them. They have to be part of the story.”
Kendra: And they definitely make themselves part of the story, whether Grace wants them to be or not.
Tishani: Yeah. And that, you know, the relationship, the way that dogs have of being a bit . . . The way that their success as dogs, the way they’ve aligned themselves with human beings for protection and for companionship, that story is very interesting in and of itself. But how also, even if you don’t particularly think much about it, and you know the way that they weedle into your heart and home, it’s very interesting. Even people who are resistant to dogs, and suddenly they have an interaction, and then, Oops! You’re a crazy dog lady.
Kendra: One of the parts of the book that I really loved was the ending. And obviously we can’t talk about that because of spoilers. But a quote I really loved at the end of the book—and I’m not going to give context for this so that I don’t spoil it for anyone—she says, “It’s not about living away from the world, but living in it.” And she’s writing to someone, and she says that, that she has discovered this idea that it’s not about living away from the world, but living in it. And I feel like our conversation has been much around Grace trying to find her place in in the world and how that’s going to work. And I felt that this was such a big moment for her and was incredibly hopeful. For much of the book, I wondered what would happen to her. Would it be helpful? And I found that it very much was. For you, what role does hope play in Grace’s story? And is that something that you always knew was going to happen? This hopefulness at the end. Or is it something that just came about as you were writing it?
Tishani: I think it came about as I was writing it, but I generally have a sense of moving towards that direction. You know, I mean, I’m a poet and a novelist, and I write a lot about the things that troubled me, the things that I’m bombarded with. And I find a way in poetry and fiction to sort of try to grapple with all of these things. And for me . . . I don’t think of it as a cathartic exercise, but I just feel like this is what is available to us. We have our literature, music. . . . And there’s a role of transformation that happens where we take all those things of violence or cruelty, and we are able to transform it into something else. So for me, the act of writing is itself a great act of optimism because you’re transforming, and you’re making a beautiful thing in and of itself, even if it is difficult and there are moments of despair.
And I feel that, you know, as a person who lives in the world and who’s writing about the world, it’s very important to acknowledge beauty. And I tie that to the idea of hope because I think as human beings, this is what is available to us. This is what saves us. And so, yes, for me and all of my work, I want to retain that sense of . . . that sense of beauty. I can never give in completely to the notion of despair because then you’ve lost, you know. And so I feel like when you emerge from that beautiful skin of living in a novel for those days or hours, however long you take to read it, you have to emerge from it with a sense of hope, you know. And that’s very important for me. So I’m glad that you did feel that.
Kendra: It was an incredibly beautiful ending. And Sumaiyya, who covers books published in India for us, let me know that the book was coming out in the US. And so I texted her immediately when I was done. And I was like, this book is incredibly devastating and beautiful in all of things all at once. And I’m so grateful that she recommended it. So many thanks to Sumaiyya.
Tishani: Oh, yeah. Thanks, Sumaiyya.
Kendra: She knows how to pick them. So I’m very grateful for that. I always like to ask authors we have on the podcast to recommend some women writers that they’ve been reading. So who are some Indian women writers that you really love and would recommend to our listeners?
Tishani: So there’s a writer I absolutely adore and her name is Anuradha Roy. I don’t know if you . . . if her work is widely available in the States. She’s written four novels, and she’s just a beautiful writer. She also writes on the edges of India. You know, a lot of the books are set in small towns. And I am very partial to that because, again, I feel that sense of a different story, a different idea of India because we are always, you know, we’re always getting the big Bombay novel, the great Delhi novel and all of that. And I think while those are valid stories, I’m also interested in what’s happening on the edges. Anuradha Roy’s somebody whom I really adore her writing. She’s a beautiful writer. She’s written . . . the most recent one is All the Lives We Never Lived. And oh, my gosh. Sleeping on Jupiter, yeah, that was the book before that.
And of course, there’s Meena Kandasamy, whose new book I’m waiting to read. It’s called Exquisite Cadavers. But Meena’s also, you know, a poet, a novelist. Her last book was called When I Hit You. She’s an incredible lyrical, fierce, political voice, a wonderful writer.
Kendra: I’ve heard about When I Hit You when it was shortlisted or longlisted for the Women’s Prize when it came out in the UK.
Tishani: Yes, it was shortlisted. Yeah. And I think that her new book has just been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas or longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. I think she’s a great talent and has such a strident, fearless, lyrical voice.
Kendra: So you were doing some events here in the US for a while. And after that, what do you have planned next?
Tishani: So yeah, I had a lovely event with Mona Eltahawy, talking about fiery feminist writers, which was wonderful. That was a couple of days ago. Next up for me is I’m going to a festival in Bergen in Norway. I’ll be talking about Small Days and Nights and Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods. So I’m excited about that. I’m doing the Hay Festival in Abu Dhabi. And the book will be published in Italian by Fortunelli in summer. So I feel like I’m going to be talking about this book for a while, which is fine. I’m happy to do so. And yeah, I think, for me again, this question of the book landing anywhere seems to be such a joy and a miracle. I feel so happy, you know, that that has been possible.
Kendra: Well, I am very excited for you and very excited that I read this book. Obviously a huge fan. So thank you so much for writing it and sharing it with the world.
Tishani: Thank you so much. Thank you. And thank you for your lovely questions. Really, it’s been such a joy to speak with you about it.