Q&A with author Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Photo credit: Mark LaMoreaux

Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s debut novel “And Laughter Fell From The Sky” is an insightful look at Indian-American culture. It follows protagonists Rasika and Abhay two first generation Indian-Americans who manage to fall in love despite of their differences. We got to speak with Jyotsna and she explains the inspiration for the novel and how important it is that the voices of immigrants be heard.

Sinister Girlz: It’s hard to believe that “And Laughter Fell From The Sky” is your debut novel. It’s so well-written, captivating and moving. Where did the inspiration for this book come from?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan: Thank you! The inspiration for this novel came partly from The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, a classic novel first published in 1905. The main character in The House of Mirth is desperately trying to get married to a man in the right social class. This reminded me of the pressure Indian-Americans often feel to marry a person of the right ethnicity, religion, and economic and social standing, so I wanted to write a novel about an Indian-American woman who faces some of the same dilemmas that Lily Bart faced in The House of Mirth. Obviously, since my book is set in modern times, the characters and situations are sometimes quite different than in Wharton’s novel. I wanted my book to stand on its own, so readers don’t need to feel that they must be familiar with the classic novel in order to read mine.

Sinister Girlz: Now that the book has been well received are you feeling the pressure to deliver an equally successful follow-up?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan: Well, my agent is encouraging me to write something different, which is good, because the novel I’m working on now is quite different. Right now I’m not feeling a lot of pressure. I’m just trying to stay true to the story I’m telling.

Sinister Girlz: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Was that a career choice your family approved of and supported?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan: I’ve loved stories since I was a pre-schooler, and I’ve loved to write since I was seven, but I didn’t really know writing was a possible career until I was in high school. My parents were really worried about this career path. I was supposed to be a doctor, like all good Indian-Americans! They were afraid I’d never find a job with an English degree. I’ve spent many years working as a writer and editor for nonprofits and a university, and now I’m starting a new career as a middle school English teacher. My parents have been very supportive once they realized that I could manage to find work.

Sinister Girlz: There’s a scene in which Kanchan Uncle propositions Rasika and threatens to expose her to her parents if she doesn’t agree to sleep with him. “Rasika felt sick thinking about her father’s distress and her mother’s disappointment” (p. 103).Rasika is very rebellious yet she’s terrified about what her parents would think of her should they find out she’s promiscuous. When you were writing the book did you ever worry that there’d be any backlash because some may perceive Rasika as representing all modern day Indian-American women, since Indian-Americans aren’t often written about or depicted in mainstream media?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan: I worried about how my parents would react to the story and the characters. I finally had them read it once most of the final editing had been done. They were very excited about publication, and fortunately, they loved the story, although they didn’t approve of Rasika’s promiscuity! I hope readers will realize that I’m writing about these very specific characters, and I’m not trying to say that all Indian-American women are like Rasika. However, since as you point out Indian-Americans are mostly absent in mainstream media, some readers may assume that my characters are representative of all Indian-Americans. I tried to include a variety of Indian characters in the novel, so I hope this will help.

Sinister Girlz: What do you hope readers take away from reading this book?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan: I’ve actually been very interested to read reviews on blogs to see what readers are taking away from the novel! Many readers find it very entertaining, which was of course one of my main goals. It seems like a lot of readers find the novel to be educational and eye-opening in terms of Indian and Indian-American culture. The characters in this book are multi-dimensional, and not everything they do is admirable. Some readers identify with Rasika, and other readers identify with Abhay (the other main character). I’m hoping readers will find the characters and situations thought-provoking. I hope people will have good discussions after reading the novel.

Sinister Girlz: Since you’ve written books for children I was curious to know if when writing for adults your writing approach changes in any way or if your approach remains the same?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan: When I write fiction, in general the approach is the same whether I’m writing for children or for adults, and whether I’m writing a short story or a novel. I get a germ of an idea about a plot or character, and I start exploring this by jumping in and starting to write. Invariably, many revisions follow, and often the end product is much different than the first draft. With novels, I tend to do a lot more background research, which may not be necessary for a short story. For this novel, I traveled to Portland and to India, and I researched and spent time in Auroville, in order to create believable settings and situations.

Sinister Girlz: If you weren’t a writer what career do you think you would have?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan: I am a writer, and no matter what else I do, I’ll always be a writer. I also love teaching and research. I love work that keeps my mind engaged, and I also love work that involves at least some people contact.

Sinister Girlz: You have a website (Second Generation Stories: Literature by Children of Immigrants) which lists and reviews books by people born in the U.S. to immigrant parents and by people who have immigrated to the U.S. as children. How important is it to you that the voices of immigrants be heard and represented in literature?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan: Since this country has been built by immigrants (including slaves, who were involuntary immigrants), I think it’s extremely important to have the voices of immigrants heard. Almost all of us, except Native Americans, are descendants of immigrants. Also, another reason I started my web site is that I realized I love to read books about second generation immigrants. The second generation experience – the feeling of being caught between two cultures – is often very similar, no matter what country your parents came from.

Sinister Girlz: Are you currently working on anything else?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan: I’m working on another novel right now. I hope to have more time in the future to work on short stories as well.

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