Neela Vaswani

in New York, NY

recorded in Washington, D.C.

 

Neela Vaswani

I’m Neela Vaswani, I live in New York City, and I’m not really sure where I’m from. I think home is where I pay rent and where I lay my head. I moved around a lot my whole life and by the time I was 18, we’d lived in 23 or 24 different apartments and houses in the United States and in India and also in Turkey and China and all over the place. So, I have a flexible sense of home and I guess it’s pretty much just who I am and my personal history, to me. But I was born on Port Jefferson, Long Island, which is in the state of New York.


The Knox Writers’ House

Do you think for yourself personally, and as a writer, it’s important that you surround yourself with artists?


Vaswani

I think so, and not even necessarily artists, but people who pay attention to the world and who have a strong sense of themselves in it, and a sort of a sense of duty to be a good human being and to try their best. So I do have a lot of friends who are artists of different kinds and I always get inspiration from them and I hope I can offer them some inspiration too. But I also have a ton of friends who are teachers in the New York public system or in private schools. And I have a lot of friends who are social workers, too, so I guess just people who are socially conscious, whether they’re creating art or just living and helping kids.


KWH

With all the moving that you’ve done, do you think that your writing has changed depending on where you were paying rent at the time?


Vaswani

Yeah, that’s a good question. Yeah, I do. One thing is that my publisher for my first two books is in Kentucky, in Louisville, Kentucky and that’s also where I teach at Spalding University—it’s a brief residency, an MFA in writing program, so we only have to be there for two weeks every six months, so it’s also perfect for me because I get to float in between residencies. So when I went to Kentucky, I had a lot of preconceived notions about the South. When I was a kid, my parents and I had gone there and this guy pulled a shotgun on us in a store and he looked at my mother and he said, “Are you a Christian, lady?” and she said, “Yeah.” and he pointed the gun at me and said, “That’s disgusting.” I was standing in between my mother and father, and my father has dark skin, he’s Indian, and my mother is very, very pale. So he just didn’t like that we were mixed race. This was in the 80s. So, partially because of that and partially because of just buying into, without questioning, stereotypes about the south, I was really nervous the first time I went to teach in Louisville. But I think that was unfair of me. Sure, you get affected by traumas, but you have to still be able to see clearly and move past them as best you can. So, I learned a lot teaching in Kentucky, and making so many friends like family while I was there, and seeing that it’s just another region and there are good people and bad people everywhere. So from being in Kentucky and making friends and having this eye-opening experience where I thought, “My assumptions are wrong.” I was so used to standing comfortably in a position and saying, “This person makes me uncomfortable because of racism,” or something, but that was stupid. You still have to look at each person as an individual. I was doing jus the same thing that I was complaining about, I realized. So, anyway, I started to try and educate myself and I read a lot of Southern literature. And Southern literature is known for it’s really strong sense of place, just like Western literature. And I realized, from reading Southern Literature, that the way I did sense of place was kind of a wandering, itinerate, “homeless” way. I was very spare; I’d just have one sentence here or there. And I still do that, because it’s more natural to me, but reading sense of place in Southern literature, where a description of a mountain or the sky would go on for pages and pages and the place is so much a part of the characters’ inner lives and reflected even in the shape of the prose and in the structure, I just thought, “This is beautiful and interesting. And even though I’m in these places sporadically and briefly, I still can take them into me, I still have taken them into me all my life.”

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