Five Questions with Piyali Bhattacharya
Kirby Johnson: Your story, Visit, is featured in the latest issue of NANO Fiction (issue 8.2). What struck me most about this piece is the simplicity of how love is shared through food (a common element among many families) and how you used the main character cooking on his/her own to illustrate a transition to adulthood. The use of food, to me, felt like a very subtle, beautiful way to not only represent the family but the transition of the main character as well. Can you talk a little bit about your choice of using food in this way? And if food plays a similar role in your own family?
Piyali Bhattacharya: Thanks for saying that, and for noticing the motif of food in the story. I think that in most families, food plays an important role in bonding and nurturing. This becomes, I find, doubly important in immigrant families. When a family is transplanted to a new place (and in my parents’ case, to a place that’s across the planet from their home country), one of the only ways of accessing the homeland on a daily basis is through meals. I remember my mother, who is an excellent cook but never much cared for cooking, making a point of practicing recipes that her mother would send her from India, written out on wispy, thin sheets of airmail paper in the 1980s and 90s. It was crucial to my mother that her children in America learned how to eat the food of their ancestors as if it were daily sustenance, and not to think of her fish curry and dal as “Indian food” or as food eaten when visiting India. So she insisted that my brother and I eat her home cooked meals every day when we were growing up in New York, even though I’m sure it would have been infinitely easier for her to have served us sandwiches. At almost every meal she would explain to us what the various vegetables we were eating were, where they originally grew, and she’d tell us stories from her childhood about which recipe was used at which time of year and in relation to which ritual. Malpua is the traditional dessert in our family of the autumn festival called Durga Puja, laal shaag with kashundi is what satisfies the Bengali appetite in the height of the Calcutta summer. Through food, she was able to create for us a connection to our family and to our roots that we may not otherwise have had.
Interestingly, it was my father who took this idea to the next level. He’s an Obstetrician and Gynecologist, but he’s had a passion for food for as long as I can remember. I think it was my mother’s attitude to daily, home cooked meals and the family bonding and story telling that revolved around them that inspired him to start an Indian restaurant in Westchester County a few years ago. He trained all the chefs for the restaurant himself, he constantly monitors what is going out of his kitchen (in the moments when he’s not in the office or at the hospital!), and these days, he even writes a food blog for the restaurant’s website. I’m incredibly proud of him, but the trouble is that I, at twenty-nine, still have not developed any interest in cooking. Maybe this is because I’ve been spoiled in a family full of foodies–I’ve never really had to learn for myself. But when my parents recently visited me, it started occurring to me what a tremendous amount of information, skill and family lore I’d be losing if I didn’t start taking an interest in what they had to teach me. But it’s going to take me a long time to get the hang of it, and as they get older, I’m terrified that one day it will be too late. That’s a bit of what I’m trying to get at in this story.
KJ: While we are on the subject, and because I find writers love to hear what others eat, what is your perfect meal, and do you have one thing you tend to eat during a full day of writing?
PB: My perfect meal and what I eat during a full day of writing are, sadly, not at all linked. A perfect meal would be my mother’s saffron pulao rice with the Bengali preparation of goat curry (called kawsha mangsho), accompanied by her pistachio-sprinkled sweet lassi and finished off with the dessert her mother’s mother was famous for, an almost rice pudding-like recipe called phirni.
What I eat during a day of writing, however, is usually a bowl of cereal in the morning, a sandwich for lunch, and some kind of soup or salad for dinner. Some people use cooking as a way of stepping away from their writing and gaining some perspective, but I find that when I’m really inside a story, it takes so much of my physical and emotional energy that all other forms of self-sustenance take a backseat.
KJ: What, for you, makes for a successful flash piece?
PB: Flash fiction to me is something that has the ability to leave us feeling gutted in an immediate way, the same way that a photograph might. There’s the punch it delivers on the first read, leaving us breathless and wanting more, so we often go back for a second read. That’s when the layers of a flash story start to reveal themselves – that’s when we know that the punch has left a bruise.
KJ: Who are the writers (flash fiction or otherwise) that you most admire, and what qualities drew you to their work?
PB: Lately, I find myself repeatedly going back to “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz and “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy. I think what draws me to these works is the sense of urgency in the voices of the characters. It’s as if, if they don’t tell us their stories, something of stupendous importance will be lost in the world. Incidentally, I think this sense of urgency is also what draws me to flash fiction. Another author I deeply love is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her novels are addictive but of all her works, my favorite is her TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” which thinks through the vital importance of accessing a diversity of stories from every place and every kind of person.
KJ: What are you working on now?
PB: I’m currently enrolled in the MFA program for fiction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I’m working on my first novel. I’ve also collected and edited a volume of essays called Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion. Written by and for South Asian American women, the book is forthcoming in the Spring of 2016. And I write a monthly style column called Khadi Couture for The Wall Street Journal – India, which is based off of my blog called The Sari-torialist. I’m online at www.piyalibhattacharya.com.