‘Being an outsider in America has its own privilege’

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Rajesh Parameswaran
Rajesh Parameswaran, 41, Author

Edited Excerpts from an interview

When did you decide to become a writer?
I studied English in college and fell in love with reading. But I never knew I would be a writer. I had the tendency to observe, and always kept a journal, but for the longest time I thought you had to be specially marked in order to be a writer. So I never pursued it. I worked in a lot of other fields, in the film business, in the New York City’s parks department. I eventually decided to go to law school when I felt my brain was becoming soggy. There, I discovered I had a lot of time on my hands, and thought, why not give writing a shot?

Did you draw inspiration from the American literary tradition?
I loved American literature, particularly the 19th and 20th century novels. Herman Melville is probably my favourite writer; I loved Edgar Allan Poe’s dark comedy and moral earnestness. The Great Gatsby was one of my favourite novels, and I admired Vladimir Nabokov for his intensity. I felt the American literary themes resonated with me a lot.

Could you elaborate on these themes?
Themes of identity, of otherness. What makes a community out of a diverse group of people, which is the American story. The Great Gatsby, at first, reads like a story about the decadence of a bunch of whites. But actually, it’s an immigrant story. It’s about a man who is an outsider and wants to reinvent himself, and seeks acceptance among his peers. Part of the reason I loved American literature was that the authors were polyglots. There was the African-American tradition, the slave narratives, their immigration stories. Not just about becoming accepted but moving from captivity to freedom. As a writer, you are largely an outsider, looking in. And as an immigrant, you are automatically an outsider. When you step outside your house to go to school, you are an outsider because you don’t look like everyone else. When you come back home, you feel like you are an outsider there, because your parents don’t know what you went through in school. So being an immigrant is a useful background to be a writer. Being an outsider has its own richness and privilege.

In your short stories, you have addressed some of these themes in an allegorical form, especially on freedom and captivity.
In some of the stories, yes. But that’s just one way to read them. When I’m reading a story about a tiger, it could be an allegory, but it could also be a funny-yet-sad story about a tiger. I had a lot of fun experimenting with the idea of how a tiger held in captivity would think. It’s an exploration of the limits that life imposes on you. Those limits can be comforting as well. In the story, the tiger ends up roaming free. It’s exciting but also frightening. He doesn’t know how to negotiate with his newfound sense of self.

What do you make of the very hectic engagements authors have to make with their readers these days, the attempt to try and keep them hooked?
Ideally, I wouldn’t have to talk about myself. Part of the reason I chose this path was because I enjoyed sitting long hours in front of the computer, alone. And I’m comfortable with that. But doing interviews and stuff is fun, and it’s nice getting out of the house, even if it’s not my natural proclivity. Yes, fiction is definitely something that I would keep using to communicate with people, but at times you have to let loose and venture into the real world.

Do cities intrigue you as a writer?
I’m interested in how a city gives identity, where all sorts of people come and mingle. I’m interested in the idea of garbage generated by cities. Garbage as a metaphor, about what gets left out and what gets included in a culture.

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