Leah Franqui spoke with Simona Zaretsky about her new novel, Mother Land—the inspiration behind the premise, the Jewish community in Mumbai, and the difficulty of searching for purpose in an unfamiliar place.
Simona Zaretsky: What did the writing process look like for this novel and what kind of research did you do? You paint Mumbai in great detail and carefully note Rachel’s walking routes as well as her trips on autos and the metro — do you see the city as another character in the novel?
Leah Franqui: When I moved to Mumbai five years ago, the idea for this novel was sort of bouncing around in my brain but I didn’t start working on it until I had been living in India for two years. My life in India has been my primary research, because so much of the elements of the story that are about an expat transplanting themselves and being interested in and overwhelmed by Mumbai and India come directly from my life experience. When I first moved to the city I was really eager to explore it, and I worked some very flexible jobs, on top of writing, that gave me a lot of time to wander around. Mumbai is seen as one of the safest cities in India for women, so I was confident that I would be comfortable striking out on my own — and I did, from the very first week I was there. I remember telling my mother-in-law that I had taken the local train to go to this huge Victorian market in South Bombay and a nearby fabric market, and she was like — I have never done that. Of course, she lives in Kolkata, but she’s been to Mumbai dozens of times!
I gave Rachel and Dhruv an apartment in the neighborhood just south of my own, and had her do and explore a lot of the things that I’ve done in Mumbai. I very much see the city as another character in the novel. It’s such an overwhelming and fascinating place, and my editor really encouraged me to focus on Mumbai, which has only given me new appreciation for the Maximum City, as it is called.
SZ: There seem to be some parallels between your own life and Rachel’s — could you tell me a bit about how your own story informed the novel? Why choose fiction over nonfiction to tell this story?
LF: I’m very much a fiction writer because fiction allows me to explore the many what-ifs that my imagination — and my anxiety — inspire. I think a lot about worst case scenarios, and when small things happen in my life I imagine them as bigger and bigger and wonder what would come of that. I think part of that is my training as a dramatic writer, having pursued a dramatic writing program for my masters degree, I really internalized the idea that story is conflict, and that you want to create as big and as problematic challenges for your characters as possible. My real life in India has absolutely inspired this story, from moving and dealing with the loneliness and isolation of being a transplant; to my ever shifting idea of what I’m willing to adapt to and assimilate to, and what I won’t; to joining an Indian family and adjusting to the constant culture clash; to the strain that this move put on my relationship with my husband. All of that is real. But in real life it’s also positive, maturely handled, and would, I think, be a bit boring to read about. As one of my professors in graduate school, Sabrina Dhawan, so wisely told us, no one wants to watch stories about happy people.
I think a lot about worst case scenarios, and when small things happen in my life I imagine them as bigger and bigger and wonder what would come of that.
In real life, my mother-in-law lives in Kolkata and I live in Mumbai with my husband who is wonderful. But the move, the culture clash, the women I’ve met in my time in India — all of that is the real inspiration for this story. And I also have dubbed a lot of soap operas — that’s very real, too.
SZ: What was your spark of inspiration, or what drew you to tell this story?
LF: My husband and I moved in together really shortly before we got married in 2014, and my mother-in-law came to stay with us for a month. This is, I would learn, really typical and normal for many cultures — to have family members come stay for long extended periods of time — but for me it was completely outside of my life experience. It was a new experience for me, and nice to get to know her, however, three weeks in I was ready to start life with my new husband and our cat, and no one else, when one night my mother-in-law was fighting with my father-in-law over the phone, frustrated at how he struggled to do basic things in their apartment back in Kolkata without her present. Venting her frustration to my husband, he told her, in Hindi, that she should pay his father back by staying in Brooklyn with us another month, that would teach him. She thought that was a great idea, and my husband of three weeks turned to me and told me she would be extending her stay, the first thing I understood in a long exchange of Hindi. I was so overwhelmed and freaked out that I had to leave the apartment and take a walk. My husband assured me that my mother-in-law was bluffing, she wouldn’t stay longer with us, it was a joke on my father in law, but I didn’t know her well, I couldn’t trust that, and I couldn’t believe he would make that offer without talking to me, warning me that her extending her stay was a possibility. I would never not have my mother in law stay with us, that would be rude and inhospitable and wrong, but the circumstances of the offer, the way she had easily accepted it, the fact that it was a give-in so casual that they didn’t need to conduct the exchange in a language I could understand, totally shocked me. What if she just stays with us forever, I thought, panicking, what if this is my life now?
She didn’t stay forever. She didn’t even extend her stay. But the idea of this stuck in my mind, and the implications of the whole incident, how different my husband and I are culturally, how many things we would — and have — unpacked over the years in our efforts to understand each other, communicate well, identify cultural expectations versus personal preferences and the intersection of the two, have stayed with me. And these only magnified in our move to Mumbai, where those cultural differences suddenly became the setting of my world.
That was the spark of this story, the seed that sort of bounced around in my head for a few years. And over time, I got to know my mother-in-law a lot better, and many Indian women of her generation and background, and I was struck by how much the world has changed for women in India within a few generations, how big the gap feels between the lives of women in their sixties and the lives of women in their twenties right now in India. I wanted to explore that — and having an American protagonist only heightened that gap. I knew that relationship, a healthy and positive version of it, and I figured I could write a less positive one in transition, which I feel is really the heart of this novel.
SZ: How do you see Rachel’s Jewish identity playing into the story? There is a passivity to it that makes Rachel feel very believably set in contemporary times, and while it is clearly an important part of how she thinks of herself, it doesn’t seem to play an active role in her day-to-day life.
LF: In previous versions of this novel Rachel’s religious and cultural background were more prominent but as I drafted, I stripped some of that away because it was hard to keep it without diving deeper into it. I think maybe Rachel’s Jewishness doesn’t play as big a role as it could in the novel because Jewish life in India is practically non-existent, although there are historic Jewish communities, but the numbers are tiny. I’ve met a handful of Jews in the five years I’ve been in India, and it’s been challenging for me to be in a place where it’s so hard to find a Jewish community. I tend to celebrate holidays at home, inviting friends over and explaining the holidays to them, but aside from that, my Jewishness lives mostly in my own head, because I’ve never found others to engage with in my time in Mumbai. So I imagine that’s why Rachel’s experience is that way, because it directly reflects my own.
SZ: Rachel learns that people in her own family had criticized her grandmother for being “Not American Jewish enough”; throughout the book, both Rachel and Swati struggle with notions of what their respective societies see as the proper way to exist. For Rachel, a quick marriage and Dhruv’s control are appealing to her but loudly criticized by her family and friends. For Swati, departure from a forty-year marriage and a quest for personal freedom and happiness cause friendships to end and her son to disparage her. Despite coming from different backgrounds, the two face a similar predicament. How did you weave these threads together, and what prompted you to look at these particular situations?
LF: When I first married my husband I was really taken aback by how much of his life, or rather his family’s life, he described as sort of bound by how things look and what people would say. I was really judgmental, coming from the US, about the idea of these social boundaries and familial expectations being so dictatorial; I saw people who bent to them as weak, because personal happiness and fulfillment are the heart of my, and Western, values. We are humanists, that’s been the whole slant of the last seven-hundred years of Western civilization, privileging the individual and their rights and experiences. But as I lived in India, I started understanding how what people say about you and your family can really, literally, affect your life and your livelihood, and I saw the other side, the idea that communal good can supersede individual need. I’m still pro personal happiness, but living inside of it, I got it in a way I couldn’t have from the outside. And I started drawing parallels between this idea and all of the things I have done for approval and the ways we judge each other in my life, or my cultural background.
What is social media if not putting yourself out there for approval and scorn in equal measure? I have friends who have left Instagram because they can’t stand how much they envy other people’s lives even though we know it is often a lot of performance. Historically, we all had these ideas about reputation and how you comport yourself in public, especially for women. A lot of cultures and religions have whole structures around women and their visibility and how this compromises or protects female virtue. The same for men, too, all these ways of showing maleness and honor. We think that we’ve eliminated these things in modern society, but what else is our relationship to social media if not a way to represent ourselves to the world, to signal values and statuses? I don’t think you can eliminate that element from human nature, it just takes different forms in different cultures and times. The British aristocracy used to do carriage rides in Hyde Park where everyone showed their status to each other. We put our engagement ring photos on Instagram.
A lot of cultures and religions have whole structures around women and their visibility and how this compromises or protects female virtue.
My husband can hear someone’s last name, see their face, ask a few questions, and, if they are Indian, from that alone assume a lot of information about them, which is usually pretty accurate. That’s the way he’s been conditioned — that is the way everyone I know in India has been conditioned — it’s almost unconscious. I found this strange and judgmental, but then, I realized I do the same thing, just in other ways, and the social consequences are different, perhaps less severe, but there nonetheless. I saw a parallel there, and I wanted both of these characters to see it too.
SZ: Language plays such an integral role in revealing communities and cultural references; mispronunciations and mistranslations are humorous to Rachel and Dhruv in the beginning of the relationship, but throughout the novel Rachel seems to think back to these moments with a sense of discouragement and uncertainty. Could you speak to the role of language in the story?
LF: Well, as a writer, I think I’m pretty obsessed with language, and I think having a background in drama helps with this too because so much of drama is dialogue and communication. Growing up, three of my four grandparents were non-native English speakers and language always seemed like something that was fluid, like all conversation was an act of translation. I think that’s true of culture, that even when you speak the same language, technically, you are still translating yourself to someone else, and language therefore is never absolute, because meaning is so infinite and ever shifting.
In my relationship with my husband and with my in-laws — and in my life in India — I’m very attune to language. As a post-colonial society, India is deeply infused with English in addition to all its native languages, but of course Indian English is its own creature. So there have been a lot of funny, interesting, and tense language related incidents in my life, which only reinforced the power of language to me. Being with someone from another country and language background is a great way to make yourself a better communicator, because you simply have to up your game to understand each other. There was a time when I thought it was sort of sad and funny that my husband and I would always be a little off in the way we pronounced each other’s names, but now I realize that it sort of makes it something special between us. But if our relationship was negative, the way Rachel and Dhruv’s is, I think it would actually slide more towards the tragic. So I wanted to place some of that sentiment in this story, because it’s something that feels true to my life and my experience.
SZ: Throughout the novel, Rachel struggles to define cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation. When she meets Richard, a Jewish expat who has seemingly immersed himself in Indian culture, her first thought is: “There was a certain type of person, a non-Indian person, she had met when she moved to India, who was deeply in love with the country in a way that felt like a fetish to her. Cultural cannibals, she liked to call them.” Could you speak a bit more about this concept?
LF: Well, this is my term for this idea, although I’m sure someone else actually originated it and I just stole it and told myself I had created it enough that I started believing it, as one does. But I think about this as people who get really interested in a culture that they don’t have genetic or background ties to, but are sort of desperate to join. So they just immerse themselves in it as deeply as they can — they would eat it for breakfast if they could. Cannibalism is eating your own kind, so they want to eat the culture and have it become a part of them. At least, that’s my take on this. I’ve always found it interesting when I meet people like this, because I wonder what it is about this other thing that is outside of themselves, and why they haven’t developed the same kind of interest in the cultures they come from. I don’t mean this judgmentally, I’m just curious. I love history and cultural study, but I’ve never encountered a country or culture that I wanted to worship above all others, or want to dive deeper into than my own cultural background. I’ve met a lot of people like this in my life, someone who has “gotten really obsessed with Mexico”, and in my time in India, I’ve met a lot of people who have sort of made Indian culture their highest point of anything. People develop obsessions which become a facet of their identity. I get it, even if I don’t do it, and that’s what I was trying to talk about in the character of Richard, and in the other expat characters as well, the many ways people adapt to a new country in these modern times.
SZ: Could you discuss Rachel’s experience of being an outsider, and trying to be comfortable with her deep sense of not understanding the world around her? It seems that perhaps her reaction to India is in part a reflection of her not fully understanding her own ambitions or identity.
LF: Certainly one of the things that makes Rachel’s experience so alienating is her lack of sense of purpose. She’s dislocated herself from all of the markers of her identity because she’s bought into the certainty and direction that Dhruv wants to move in, and she’s hoping that will give her a new — better — identity and life. But of course it doesn’t, that’s not how being a person works. Rachel has ideas about what her life in India will be, but they are all informed by her relationship with Dhruv, and she sort of understands, but doesn’t want to admit, that that’s not going to work for her, that she’s not going to find some magical sense of purpose because she changed locations. I think people often believe the move is going to change their lives, and of course it does, but you are still you wherever you go, you carry all your stuff with you, so changing the scenery doesn’t always solve your problems or make your life all that better. That’s something that people who travel or move to new places a lot often learn and express, and I wanted Rachel to have that realization as well. I don’t think it would be a breeze for Rachel to navigate India if she had more of a sense of herself, but she would have done better than she did. I think that’s why she gravitates towards Swati the way she does, because even though it’s initially antagonistic, it gives her life some purpose, some focus.
People often believe the move is going to change their lives, and of course it does, but you are still you wherever you go, you carry all your stuff with you, so changing the scenery doesn’t always solve your problems or make your life all that better.
SZ: Did you find one perspective more challenging or interesting to write? Each one provides such a rich layer of context as to why the women behave the way they do, particularly toward each other.
LF: I think for me, both of my primary characters represented challenges, and therefore were interesting to write, in different ways. For Rachel, because I’m more like her in life and circumstance, writing her was challenging because I had to create distance between myself and the character or I would just be writing a close version of myself, and I wanted a fully formed fictional character. For Swati, because her life experience is so far from mine, I had to get closer to her so I could be truthful and authentic in her worldview and perspective. So one was about getting closer and one was about getting further away, and both of those were interesting processes that challenged me and ones that I enjoyed.
SZ: Assumptions play a huge role in the book — every character seems to know the best way to live. Swati is shocked by her friend Akanksha’s reaction in a discussion of nontraditional family living arrangements. Can you talk about how all these assumptions operate? Do you see them as being disrupted throughout the novel?
LF: My experience living in India has been one of ever radiating culture shocks, and so I wanted some of that to be reflected in this story. I think that in every place in the world we have ideas of how to live and how not to live. In India, I’ve found people are very open about these ideas and very definitive and explicit in their criticism of people who don’t follow these structures, particularly within a specific cultural community, of which India has so many. There is a lot of very vocal ingrouping and outgrouping and that’s interesting to me because it is so blatant so it makes it easy to comment on and identify. Swati is really the voice of that in this novel, although many characters in her life also uphold the shoulds and shouldn’ts, like Bunny and even Dhruv. And on the other hand, Rachel has her own set of assumptions, or at least desires, about how life should work and be lived. But I do think that this novel is about the disruption of those assumptions, and that’s what Rachel and Swati are able to do for each other — to disrupt each other’s assumptions in a mutual way. Rachel isn’t “right” and neither is Swati, they have to learn to see another way of living and understand its logic and each of them, I hope, realizes that they make their lives the way they want and need to — rather than be dictated by what they should or shouldn’t be doing
In every place in the world we have ideas of how to live and how not to live.
SZ: Can you discuss Rachel’s increasing tendency to self-sabotage? She begins to smoke more and more cigarettes as the story progresses, and to drink more as well. Again, we see Rachel struggling to communicate externally, and turning to alternate methods to feel a sense of control and authenticity.
LF: I think Rachel feels like she wants to dull the pain of her life a bit, and so she engages in behavior that isn’t really all that healthy, but she doesn’t have other outlets, or maybe she’s choosing not to pursue them. I don’t think she dips into true self sabotage, but she definitely does something I’ve seen and experienced which is sort of sinking into your pain and unhappiness for a while before realizing that’s not the best way to gain contentment or happiness. It’s not the most mature approach, but that’s part of her trajectory and growth, that she moves past it. I think for a lot of women, when we can’t control anything else, controlling our bodies is a big way to establish control of something, and that’s what she’s doing.
SZ: Can you discuss the theme of control? There seems to be a large question of who has it, a fight for decision-making status in the apartment, and the tension of it in Rachel’s marriage. Very often it feels like Swati, Dhruv, and Rachel are each trying to convince the others of the right way to live. Yet, throughout the book Rachel notes the multiplicity in everything around her. How are these things reconciled, if they are?
LF: As I said before, I’m very much a humanist, so I’m always on the side of you should dictate your life for yourself, and in that way, Rachel is sort of right, because that’s what she’s voting for — control of her life — but of course she’s a bit in conflict with herself because part of her enjoys the way Dhruv dictates their lives; initially, it’s restful, if ultimately not something she can live with. But I think in all relationships there is a push pull of decision making, and Dhruv abandons that in India, wanting to be the sole decision maker. Swati is battling with the traditional role of mother-in-law which she unconsciously takes on based on her conditioning, and a growing realization that she wants to change her life, has changed her life, and needs to change her thinking as a result. I think Rachel and Swati are the ones who grow the most in this story, and Dhruv lags behind, unable to reconcile himself with a more multifaceted world.
SZ: What are you currently working on? What have you been reading lately?
LF: I’m currently working on my next novel, as well as a new play and some other projects. I’ve been reading a few great things, although focusing is sometimes a hard task in these strange times. Recent favorites have been The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett, These Ghosts are Family by Maisy Card, Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline, and The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson. I’m excited to read How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang and The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero next.
Simona is the Jewish Book Council’s managing editor of digital content and marketing. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a concentration in English and History and studied abroad in India and England. Prior to the JBC she worked at Oxford University Press. Her writing has been featured in Lilith, The Normal School, Digging through the Fat, and other publications. She holds an MFA in fiction from The New School.