Mum­bai water­front by Fran­cis­co Anzola

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 LilithThe Nor­mal School, Dig­ging through the Fat, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She holds an MFA in fic­tion from The New School.