Rhiti: When you began writing Thwarted Escape, did you even think you’d come this far? Did you comprehend from before this memoir that you were pouring your soul into would turn into a book?
Lopa: As I have written in the preface of the book, the seed of THWARTED ESCAPE has been sown within the bolted doors of a solemn writing lab of the University of Nebraska, Omaha, where I has started working on various creative writing assignments in Nonfiction writing, in which I was pursuing my Masters’ degree. I started out when I was in the third trimester of my first pregnancy, as it was then that the idea of carving a memoir in a letter form addressed to my unborn daughter struck me. After my two daughters were born, and I went back and forth between traveling to India and the US, the idea of writing a diaspora and migration story reared its head stronger every day, and I trusted my instincts and plunged into it head-on. One story coalesced and converged with the other, strung with each other as marionettes, and thus, the book evolved from the seed of a personal essay to a collection of personal stories told through the lens of a wistful immigrant woman in the US. It was undoubtedly an exhilarating experience to grow and evolve as a mother, writer and a woman along with the book, since I had poured my heart and soul into writing it since day one. But it was only after some of the individual chapters of the book got published in journals and anthologies as stand-alone stories that I realized it has a shelf-life and a destiny of its own, outside the limited peripheries of my creative writing classrooms. After both my parents’ demise, when I was in India this year, I got in touch with Authorspress, my publisher, and the publication happened as a tribute to my departed parents.
Rhiti: How difficult was it emotionally to pen down all the life experiences you have had?
Lopa: I told you, from the very start, I had laid bare my heart and soul and chiseled myself as a narrator depicting some of the most excruciating, exhaustive and even some life-changing moments and epiphanies in the book. To be able to do that, the honest ingenuity was the prerequisite. Many readers have messaged me to tell me that the raw, honest portrayal of the various curves that lead from my girlhood and puberty to my womanhood and motherhood has particularly struck them. But I personally feel that more than the honesty of being able to narrate it all, it is the basic craft of placing myself (or my alter-ego) as a protagonist and looking at the concept of ‘Home’, the family, and the various particulars of my emotional landscape which was the most challenging part of it. Be it in the first few chapters where I dissect my childhood memories, my pent-up story of child molestation, my awkward years of groping with the nuances of puberty, or be it in the later chapters where I depict my journey as a full-grown woman and a Bengali immigrant in the US. There were phases while drafting, when it took a toll on my emotional world. However, the boon of it all has been that these various montages and memorabilia enabled me to give the narrative a perspective that perhaps would not have been possible if I had written an entirely fictional narrative.
Rhiti: Tell us about some literary techniques that you have employed while writing this memoir.
Lopa: Well, to speak the truth, the journey of THWARTED ESCAPE started with reading and internalizing some very experimental narrative/literary techniques employed by renowned nonfiction writers, starting from James Baldwin to Maya Angelou to Natalie Sarraute to Alice Walker, even before starting to write it. Sarraute’s haunting autobiographical narrative ‘Childhood’ gave me the impetus to try penning a story in double narrative, where my censuring adult self converses with my naïve childhood self and scrutinizes it. Then Joan Didion’s literary journalism techniques egged me on to incorporate a particularly haunting and uncomfortable childhood event in a multilayered narrative where the brutal truth of a woman/girl as a sexual object comes to the fore. The incredible hybrid form of the lyric essay which combines the best narrative aspects of prose and poetry had inspired me to write chapters like ‘Caged, ‘Nectar’, where the body of a woman becomes a text through which greater truths/epiphanies about the essence of womanhood is portrayed in the book. Also, I tried to incorporate the aspects which define an Indian diaspora novel, where life in both my worlds, in India and America is viewed from the vantage point of death and the constant flux of the human mind, so the act of situating myself at the core of the narrative layers was essential. I use a lot of interior monologues too, being a hardcore fan of Virginia Woolf since I discovered her many, many years back.
Rhiti: Tell us about the award that was given to the manuscript, even before it was published.
Lopa : It was at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Seattle in February 2014, quite a turning point in my writing life that I had a chance encounter with Kiffer Brown, founder of Chanticleer Reviews and Media LLC and found out they were taking manuscript entries for the Journey Awards 2014 (Narrative Nonfiction). Though my manuscript was in its second or third draft at that point, out of gut feeling, I entered it for the contest, and towards the beginning of 2015, I stumbled upon their website and found out that it was a finalist and also a First Place Category winner for the Journey Awards. It was a heady feeling when the award package reached my US home address, including the Blue Ribbon and the ‘CBR Best Author’ badge. But the real excitement came when ‘THWARTED ESCAPE’ got a 5-star review from an award-winning journalist, J O’Reiley, who is a part of the CBR review team. The review can be accessed in the Amazon and Goodreads page of the book and also in their website.
Kolkata Launch of Thwarted Escape: An Immigrants Wayward Journey
Rhiti: What advice would you give to aspiring memoir/auto-biography writers?
Lopa: To speak the truth, there is no such thing as a memoir/autobiography writer, as such categorization and compartmentalization limits the horizons that a true writer can explore. Fiction writers can explore the world of nonfiction, and the vice versa is true as well. As for THWARTED ESCAPE, in it I have tried to combine the elements of a memoir and a novel, with real-life characters, dialogues, settings and the sensitivity that this passionate, volatile journey demanded, the sensitivity any work of fiction has. I can only say that it is important that a writer recognizes his/her inner voice, and strives to chisel it with honest, impactful storytelling.
Rhiti: Tell us about some of your favorite memoir writers and what do you love about their work.
Lopa: Annie Dillards, for the lyrical, poetic intensity of her essays in which she analyzes beautifully intriguing aspects of the cosmos, the passionate fervor and infectious simplicity of E.B. White’s nature narratives which defines his meditative prose, on the other hand, the fierce, feisty feminist narratives by Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker and also the precise, yet richly layered narratives of Joan Didion, and Margaret Atwood, each of them being fiction writers too. Indian Diaspora writers like Bharati Mukherjee, Pico Iyer, Bhanu Kapil Ryder have given me the conviction that nonfiction narratives of Indian origin authors have a particular fluidity to them, in the ways their stories become a cultural study in assimilation, both physical and ethnic.
Rhiti: Memoirs are very popular in the US, however the Indian readers are slowly opening up to it… what do you think writers and publishers could do to expand the market for publishing more memoirs.
Lopa: First and foremost, writers and publishers everywhere need to realize that the rigid categorization of a literary work, especially in prose, takes away the flexibility and power of storytelling from a beautiful literary work, carrying specificity and detail in its core. A memoir can very much be read as a 1st person narrative fiction, and a novel exploring the metaphorical truth of a character/characters can have autobiographical elements in it. What is important is that the journey that transpires in its pages should represent a lasting emotional truth, which is why readers read it in the first place, and more so, remember it.
But saying that, I feel there is a lot of vacuum in the genre of non-fiction writing. Many readers of mainstream fiction are still under the impression that autobiographical writing is only restricted to celebrities/stars/national leaders or famous individuals. So the fact that nonfiction narratives with strong themes, powerful messages can be superior works of literary merit is not enough emphasized.
Rhiti: On a lighter note, tell us some wonderful experiences you have had associated with the journey of this book.
Lopa: Well, THWARTED ESCAPE will always be special as I already said that I grew/evolved as a woman, a mother, a daughter along with the book. I started out with writing a chapter of the book with my firstborn, Srobona, tucked in my womb, and later, when I delivered her sister Sharanya, I instinctively added on another chapter on the experience of birthing her, thinking that the chapters would complement each other. But later, my yearly visits to Kolkata from the US and getting back there as a daughter, a daughter-in-law, mostly importantly, an immigrant implored me to look at the narrative of the book from other dimensions. The quirky humor of my neighbors and relatives back at home and the sights, smells and sounds of the streets of my hometown spurred me on with a queer sense of nostalgia. However, initially, there was no book, but only a number of disjointed essays where my pent up, calcified memories wrecked havoc in my mind. The book took shape when I realized that all of them could come together and take a novel-like curve. When I dug deep into myself, the juxtaposition of the stray cats and dogs nibbling over leftover food in my old home in Barrackpore and the snow-smeared Midwestern American landscape, the manicured, lush by-lanes which I call my adopted home made the book a binary reality for me, a reality that I have cherished even as me and my family changed our moorings to Dallas, Texas at the end of the book. In the end, though I do ruminate about the stabbing reality of death, trauma and degeneration in my family that I experience, it is the overwhelming sanctity of life and hope and acceptance that takes precedence in the closing chapter of the book.
Rhiti: Thank you Lopa, it was absolutely wonderful knowing about the journey of this magnificent memoir. Hope this reaches out to all the readers you have intended it for and attains the literary success that it deserves.
Lopamudra Banerjee is a writer, poet, translator and editor, currently based in Dallas, USA. Hailing originally from Barrackpore, a suburb in the outskirts of Kolkata, India, her orthodox Bengali upbringing, from which she had wanted to break free once, implored her to push her boundaries as she explored the gems of literature, art and self-expression. She believes in the power of the written word, the artistry, the rhythm and cadence in the formation of human art that sometimes takes the shape of stories, poems, essays, paintings, sculpture, music and dance.
She says: “Within me, there is this child-woman playing with her pen and paper, birthing, changing, destroying, and crackling with the urgency to translate my experiences into stories, poems and musings, as I go about with my everyday business in the world around. I am a mother of two daughters and want to leave behind a legacy of my humble writing for them to keep it for posterity.” One of her favorite quotes on the act of writing is that of Mary Rose O’Reiley, who has famously said: “Writing would be merely an act of crazy hubris, were it not a means of discovery, cunning and patient.” It is this sense of discovery, of self-analysis and revelation that made her sit with her raw pleasures and wounds and form a world of words out of them.
Lopa has a Master’s degree in English with a thesis in Creative Non-fiction from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She also did her M.A. in English from Calcutta University, followed by a P.G. Diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication from Bhavan’s College of Communication and Management, Kolkata. She has delved into diverse areas of communication and writing, including working as a communications trainee in a non-profit, online content writing, feature writing, working as a University Writing Consultant et al. But it is when she pens her own emotional journey in poetry and prose that she finds herself at the most enriching, tranquil state of her being.
Her debut memoir Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey, recently published by Authorspress, and launched in Delhi and Kolkata, India, amid considerable critical acclaim, has been First Place Category Winner at the Journey Awards 2014, hosted by Chanticleer Reviews. She is a resident editor with Readomania, and a creative editor with Incredible Women of India. Defiant Dreams: Tales of Everyday Divas, a collection of women-oriented stories co-edited by her with Rhiti Bose, in collaboration with Readomania and Incredible Women of India went on to become an Amazon bestseller in 2016 and also has been selected as a book worth reading by the Oprah Winfrey Book Club 2.0. in the category of South-Asian literature.
Her poetry, stories and essays have appeared in many print and online literary journals and anthologies both in India and the US. Her poetry has appeared online in Camel Saloon, Café Dissensus, Spark Magazine, Different Truths and in print in The Significant Anthology, Umbilical Chords: An Anthology on Parents Remembered and Kaafiyana, published by Readomania. Her English translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s novella The Broken Home, serially published at Café Dissensus and later published on Amazon Kindle, fetched her the International Reuel Prize for Translation in 2016. She has received the Critics’ Award at Destiny Poets International Community of Poets, UK and also a Certificate of Merit as part of the Reuel International Prize 2015 for Writing and Literature.
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