For someone so gifted in and limber at the art of writing -- she's been a journalist and a playwright, has published works of fiction and nonfiction and has several literary translation projects on the way -- Padma Viswanathan realized her gift relatively late in life, well after she had been out of school for some time. Perhaps part of the reason why was because, as an adolescent in Edmonton, Canada, Viswanathan felt as though she had to hide her considerable intelligence under a bushel basket or risk being branded an "outsider."
"I was bullied quite badly when I was younger," says the award-winning author and University of Arkansas associate professor of creative writing. "I was one of very few kids of color, and I was much younger -- I finished high school when I was 16. I entered junior high when I was 10; I was just a little girl. And I was just such an anomaly. I got picked on pretty badly for a couple of years, and so finished school with the aim of being as mediocre as anybody else and fit in and wear Jordache jeans like anybody else."
Through Others’ Eyes
“I was (and still am) inspired by Padma’s creativity, her passion for writing, her devotion to her family, and her remarkable ability to balance all of these elements in a healthy and fulfilling way. She is also great fun to be with. She is witty, able to laugh at herself, engaged with those causes (political and otherwise) about which she cares, and so sincere.” — Kirstin Erickson
“I don’t really know how Padma always manages to be so serious and so fun at the same time. She’s curious, empathetic, and whip-smart. She’s always dreaming up something fantastic, whether it’s a new forum for intellectual exchange, a volunteer project, or a multifamily dance party. What’s really amazing is that she’s not only the person to dream the thing up, she’s also the person to plan and implement it, and then have a blast participating once it exists out there in the world.” — Lisa Margulis
“When she’s working on a book, she becomes immersed, mentally and emotionally. She works mainly in the mornings, often getting up as early as 5 and writing through lunch. She’s an extremely disciplined writer, and I admire that about her enormously, but she’s equally disciplined about setting aside time for other things, such as fun projects with our kids (learning Latin with our son, dissecting critters with our daughter). — Husband Geoffrey Brock
Still, when she carefully lays out the journey she traveled on her way to realizing her passion for writing, you can see the clues mounting, like bread crumbs in a forest.
Just 16 years old when she went to the local university, Viswanathan started off on a pre-med track.
"I realized at the end of my first year that I wasn't really cut out for the sciences so much, so I went into psychology," she says. "And that was the year I really caught fire, academically, and really started to push myself. My third year I switched from psychology, the science track, to psychology, the arts track. My third year -- when I was 18 and desperate to get away and see the world -- my mother told me that, if I went to the university library, I would find catalogs from universities all over the continent, and I should go and see if there was somewhere else I wanted to go.
"And she was right -- so I applied to do the equivalent of a visiting junior year, except it was actually my fourth year."
She applied to several American schools and ended up at Harvard for an academic year. That one year opened up the world to her, she says.
"In our class, there were kids from Boston College, from Barnard, from Georgetown, and I made friends with all of those people and would spend weekends at their home institutions. I spent time in Rhode Island with my mother's best friend from college. I would go to the art museum, just to do my homework. Widener Library -- I can still remember the smell of all of these places. That's how influential the experience was for me. I still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, I just had the first sense of how I wanted to live my life."
Viswanathan was inspired by the activism and activity she saw all around her at Harvard and managed to cram a lot of experiences into just one academic year. She went from flying beneath the radar to generating her own limelight.
"I met so many kids my own age who were so inspiring, so committed," she says. "That was when students were working to get their colleges to divest from South Africa, and I became friends with someone who was very active in that. I helped to start a film society at my dorm. It was also the first year of the debates on the Free Trade Agreement, which was huge in Canada, and people in the states weren't talking about it. So I joined a committee at the JFK School of Government and pushed to have a panel on the Free Trade Agreement there."
She returned to Canada to graduate and continued working in social policy research for the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, where she had started as a research assistant while still a student.
"I did that for a couple of summers, and then they hired me the year after I graduated," she says. "I had a project that I helped shape -- ultimately, it was a life histories project, to get this narrative analysis and quantitative analysis of narrative histories of female addicts. And this, I sort of see, as the beginning of my subconscious shift toward an interest in stories."
Policy to plays
But, still, there was a bit work to be done before she realized her passion for writing -- the path meandered a mile or two. The year at Harvard had opened her eyes to activism, and her work in the social policy arena solidified that focus.
"Sociology came out of a political orientation," she says. "I really felt like many ills attributed to individuals are as much or more attributable to social causes. And I was becoming, increasingly, an activist who was heavily involved in Amnesty International and various causes."
The arts had long been a part of her life -- she had been a dancer since adolescence -- and when she decided to take an evening community theater course, she realized she could meld her activism with theater, leading eventually to a position with Edmonton's Catalyst Theatre, a company formed in the 1970s as a "social action theater."
"It was under the direction of Ruth Smillie, who was very encouraging toward me. and let me do a little bit of everything. I did a little bit of writing, a little bit of directing, community outreach. ....I was technically their community outreach coordinator."
She got involved with the theater's playwright circle for novices.
"I was just dabbling," she says. "Then I wrote the first scene of what would become my first play. And that was it. Everything else just fell away. Absolutely fell away. I remember the exact moment that I wrote it: I had helped coordinate a tour for this show, had gone out to spend the first night on the road with the actors and was in this hotel in a corner room facing the prairie. And I wrote this scene and, really, it was this otherworldly experience. I realized there was nothing else I wanted to do. I wanted to write."
That scene would become a play called House of Sacred Cows. Viswanathan would receive almost immediate confirmation of her considerable talents in writing when she was invited to become a playwright-in-residence at Catalyst. With no prior experience, she suddenly found her first play developed and produced at a professional theater -- something many playwrights strive for years to achieve. The experience, she says, was exhilarating.
"I remember being very conscious of the delight of losing control over your text when an actor takes over," she says. "He or she would find things in the lines that I had never heard or never intended, and that was really a huge part of the fun for me. I suspect it prepared me in some ways for the ways that different people react to any of your written work -- the fact that you have no control over it after it leaves your desk. You're also just aware that whatever you've done lives and breathes through other people -- their histories and their experiences -- and I thought that was super fun and delightful."
She had submitted a flurry of college applications at this point, all centered around theater-related degrees, and was considering her options when she found out that her grandmother was leaving for India for the summer.
"I felt guilty, somehow, that I hadn't connected with her -- I'm very close to her," she says. "And I had the idea to ask her when she got back to talk to me about our family history. I did a long series of interviews with her. My mother helped with that -- my grandmother speaks English but not very fluently, and my Tamil was much worse than her English. So my mother sat with us sometimes and helped."
These lengthy interviews would form the basis of A Toss of a Lemon, a 600-page novel published in 2008 and based loosely on her grandmother's life. Publishers Weekly called it an "absorbing first novel"; Booklist said that Viswanathan "breathes life into the social changes that swept through early-to-mid-twentieth-century Tamil Nadu, India" and The New York Times Book Review noted that "Padma Viswanathan has real talent."
The interview process, in-depth research and the actual writing of the novel would, ultimately, take Viswanathan over 10 years to complete. Luckily, she had applied for and received a grant to help fund the research, which helped her return to India on two separate occasions for fact-finding.
"There was a whole geopolitical context to the story that I didn't know previously, so I went and spent about six or eight months in India, trying to understand all of that and doing a lot of reading and traveling and getting just a general, basic acquaintance with the history," she says. "Not just of India, pre-and post-partition, but very specifically of Tamil Nadu, this particular area of South India, and its sort of counter history in contrast to the rest of what was going on in India at that time." This trip was followed up about five years later by a second one. "I had much of the novel drafted by then, but, by then, I knew what some of my very specific questions were. This is pretty much pre-Internet -- I mean we had e-mail by that point, but we couldn't really do research on the Internet in the way that we can now."
She moved to Montreal while she was working on the novel, where she supported herself by teaching English as a Second Language and by adding another writing skill to her resume: journalism. She freelanced for the National Post, which was in its infancy at this stage.
"It was funded with a great deal of money and staffed by Brits who didn't know anything about what was going on in Canada," she says. "They had a series called 'Fanatic' -- you wrote about people who were crazy about something. That's exactly my kind of person. So I wrote little cultural features for them. I reviewed books for the Montreal Gazette, and I wrote some travel pieces for magazines. It was fun, very distracting, and hard to write a novel when you're on this freelance cycle of pitching and then writing and then seeing it appear and then getting paid and pitching and writing ... it was just all of these little highs. To do that and try to maintain the long tedious haul of getting a novel done, it was very difficult."
Viswanathan was nearing the finish line when she attended the MacDowell Colony, an artists' colony established in 1907 in New Hampshire. The stay would change her life in significant ways: Established Sri Lankan Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai would hear a reading of her book and offer to connect her with an agent. She also met poet Geoff Brock, who would suggest she come to the United States to receive her graduate degree.
He would also become her husband.
"So within a week at that colony, I got my agent and my husband," Viswanathan says with a laugh.
"It's an otherworldly place that offers solitude and an escape from mundane distractions," says Brock, a UA poetry professor. "Each resident gets their own cabin in the woods, no cabin is within sight of any other, a nice lunch silently appears on your doorstep every day around noon, and so on. But the solitude is bracketed by company: Breakfasts and dinners are communal, and there are pool and ping pong tables that are well used in the evenings.
"In 2001, I went there for a two-month stay. Padma arrived a week before I left, and there was something about her demeanor that immediately charmed me, even before I'd spoken to her. And after I'd heard her give a reading -- she read the opening of what was to become The Toss of a Lemon -- I was captivated by her intelligence and intensity and wit. At the time, she was living in Montreal, a city she loves, but somehow I managed to lure her to the States."
Viswanathan completed a one-year Master of Arts program at Johns Hopkins University and then headed to the University of Arizona, where she finished her book and received her MFA. The agent Selvadurai set her up with successfully sold her book, and Brock and Viswanathan got married and had a child. Brock was then offered a faculty position at the University of Arkansas, necessitating a move. And all the while, Viswanathan moved on to her next writing project, and the next, and the next.
"I had already started the next by the time the book was published," she says, speaking of The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, historical fiction about the bombing of Air India Flight 182. Her second book would be as warmly received as her first, with Kirkus calling it "an accomplished novel" and World Literature Review writing that "there is no doubt that Viswanathan can write, and write well."
"I have way more ideas than I have time to work," she adds. She is currently working on short stories, as well as a nonfiction book about a "dear friend whose stepmother was a bank robber in British Columbia in the 1950s, and a self-proclaimed communist, as well." Several of her literary translations are also scheduled to be published in the upcoming years.
And, now that she is on the faculty of the University of Arkansas, she says she has found great satisfaction in the art of teaching.
"The approach here is very compatible with my approach," she says. "It's a long program, four years, and there are a lot of literature courses. I'm still not convinced by the workshop model, as my students very well know. And so I play around a lot with that. I feel like I'm able, here, very much to express that old idea that I had, that you learn to be a writer by reading and by writing and not necessarily by taking advice from lots of people. You read, and you write, and you have a couple of people who will give you advice that are trusted people. You guard your work closely until you find an editor, and then you really open up to that editor."
Viswanathan is constantly in search of curriculum that will engage her students and make them better writers. She used a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to develop a course called "Can Books Make Us Better People?"
"That was really inspired by the undergraduates here," she says. "They want to talk about morality and literature and the ways that often, as writers, we're not trying to give a message, we're not trying to guide people to live a certain way. And yet morality is undeniably a part of stories -- often, it's a moral question at the heart of what we're exploring."
"Padma's students are very fortunate to have her as an instructor," says Kirstin Erickson, director of Honors Studies in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and a good friend of Viswanathan. "She and I have talked a lot about teaching over the years. Her courses are organized with great thought and care, and she provides considered, provocative feedback on students' papers and projects."
Viswanathan feels like she has found a real community in Fayetteville, something she searched for in Arizona but came up empty handed.
"There's a very high density of interesting people here, and people immediately drew us into their circle," she says. "Sometimes it was random -- I met Lisa Margulis at a park while we were watching our kids, and we ended up talking about Proust. In Tucson, I could not make a friend outside of the program."
"It's pretty typical of Padma to effortlessly interweave earnest literary conversation with toddler tag," say Margulis. "Padma is that friend who will bring tea and homemade muffins and tell you the thing you needed to hear that no one else was willing to say. Her honesty and generosity are so natural and unwavering that she can make people feel great just by being in the room. She's really good at finding joy and purpose and tends to bring out those qualities in the people around her."
Viswanathan was awarded the Porter Prize in 2017 -- an award given to outstanding Arkansas writers. She was nominated by Bob Ford, artistic director of TheatreSquared. Receiving the honor made her contemplative of the idea of "belonging."
"I was just telling you earlier in our conversation about being bullied and being a sort of an exile in my own place when I was young," she says. "And I think a lot of writers are. It's a terrible thing at the time. But it's not a terrible thing for a writer to go through, to be on the outside of things looking in. I think it creates in you a hunger to try to understand how things work. To try to understand people and their contradictions and cruelties. And so when one receives this prize, for an Arkansas writer, in recognition of some accomplishment -- it is a jolt to see, sometimes, that I'm now included, as a member of this community.
"It's a very interesting time to belong to the South. And to belong to not just Arkansas but the region. As an immigrant, you know, as a person of color. It's a complex relationship -- not to the Prize, I'm extremely proud and flattered, really, to have been rewarded it -- but to the question of inclusion. There are so many people in Arkansas working so hard to create the Arkansas that they see and believe in. And so I feel like I'm part of that mosaic in some way."
NAN Profiles on 01/28/2018
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