Ramola D.com

Ramola D was born in Madras, trained as a journalist and moved to America to study creative writing. Currently living in Virginia, she teaches creative writing part-time at The George Washington University and The Writer's Center, Bethesda.  Her previous collection of poetry Invisible Season, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing Prize.

Short Story Collections

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Temporary Lives
(University of Massachusetss Press, 2009)

reviewed by Julia Bohanna

Interview with Ramola D

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Ramola D: I think the stories that ended up in this collection were written across about twelve years. They were not all written at the same time. I wrote some not long after I finished my MFA in poetry at George Mason over a four year period, the others during but mostly after I completed a novel, when I started to write short fiction again. I worked on a few for years after I wrote them.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

RD: No, none of the stories was intended for a particular collection. When I first started some of the stories that ended up here in Temporary Lives - such as Room Enough for the Sky or In Another World, I was experimenting with fabulist fiction and magic realism and flash fiction. I grew up reading the Brontes, Jane Austen, Twain, Hawthorne, Dickens, the English and American classics - after my MFA I was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera, also Janet Frame, whom I’ve long loved, and really experimenting with form. I was also exploring the surreal and language poets and writing poetry. I’ve always been drawn to the lyric in language, whether poetry or prose, and so I found myself playing with language and form a good deal.
    My first version of this collection had a lot of pieces which were experimental in that way, not classically plotted. That version was briefly represented by an agent in New York who showed it around to various editors at Doubleday and Knopf and some other places who said some lovely things about it ("radiant and lyrical", etc.) but essentially said - to my eternal astonishment - it was "too literary." It was my first encounter with mainstream publishing’s bias toward the classical and minimalist.
   I worked closely with one editor on one of my stories, but she ultimately said the stories were too unfinished - she was looking at experimental work through a classic filter, and of course those stories were different. I did send the manuscript out for a while to contests after that, but not much happened. I kind of put it on a back shelf while I wrote my novel, it felt like I could not publish it. Eventually though I did go back to it, and I made some changes - I literally pulled out the most experimental pieces and began to include some of the newer stories I was writing - like The Next Corpse Collector and What the Watchman Saw.
    I have to say that lately I’m as drawn to the challenges of classic form as to experimental writing, I haven’t by any means dropped the latter, but I’ve been exploring the former. I’ve been teaching short fiction too, and re-reading the classics in short fiction - Joyce’s Dubliners, Chekhov, Hemingway, Cheever, Malamud, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor - and exploring POV, and finding I like exploring different styles or ways of writing a story, so I was also writing stories that might be considered more classic in form. So I built a new version of the collection then, putting in some of these stories.
   Again, I spent years sending out this collection - but I felt it was stronger now, a cohesive manuscript, so I persisted - it made finalist in the 2004 Nebraska Book Series and was finally selected in the AWP Grace Paley Short Fiction contest in 2008, which was great, unexpected. Maybe I should say unanticipated - you send out to the literary contests because that is what you are supposed to do, try the contests or find a trade publisher. When the manuscript was selected by Jewell Parker Rhodes, I felt very fortunate, just relieved and glad the manuscript would be published at last. 

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

RD: I felt I knew early on what the title would be - Temporary Lives is also the name of a story, one of the early-written ones - and I tried to listen for echoes to this center in the other stories I had. Rose Ammal, the main character in Temporary Lives, modelled on my grandmother’s generation, and privy to all sorts of oppression and repression by way of being female, as well as some rather extraordinary betrayal - comes to something of an understanding of her hardships as temporary, in her struggle to find meaning and reclaim her life.
   My fascination early was with characters in India - based on people I have encountered through journalism or observed, whom I’ve had much curiosity about - perceived to live on the margins of the more privileged, middle-class world I myself inhabited - mostly women (and I was drawn to the stories of middle-class women too, whose privilege did not protect them after all), also children, and older men in situations of oppression and impoverishment whose desire for self and freedom somehow broke through - I believe in the essential desire for self in all beings, I wanted to explore and attempt to give voice to those kinds of experiences. So I had quite a few stories with characters grappling with difficult situations and striving to change their realities.
    I also ended up choosing to include only the stories situated completely in India. I did include one story set in the US, but only because it was part of that early-written set and because the protagonist there spoke strongly out of her Indian (rather than American) sensibility.
    I’ve been in the States now for twenty years, and over this time my writing interests have expanded—in addition to stories set in India, which I continue to write, I have a second collection of stories I call bicultural, because the characters in there, whether first or second-generation Indian-American, speak out of the bicultural experience of being Indian and encountering America - or being American and encountering India. The characters in Temporary Lives are more distinctly situated in India. Given that earlier experience, I also included stories that seemed more obviously "finished."
   For order, I listened to the voices in each story. I read each story through, paying attention to the endings and beginnings, and trying to see if the place where one story ended felt like a place another story, another voice could begin. It was a trial and error sort of thing. I listened for some kind of consonance, coherence. 

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

RD:  I think to me a story is a movement into another space, its own dimension. Stories create their own worlds. The more a story can draw me into its space, into someone’s experience - through whatever means it chooses, language or event or sensibility - the more power it has to affect me, to impact, to resonate.
  I’m all wrapped up in those first magic childhood meanings of story - as fairytale and fable - the secret garden, the enchanted forest, the distant quest. I’m drawn to stories with that quality of world to them - where the moments of intensity in them are felt through that voiced, personal experience of a particular, created world. 

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

RD:  That’s sort of a complex question. I think the easy answer is no, straight off, I am not thinking of a reader at the actual point of writing, I’m writing for myself, and I’m writing for the story. But anyone who tangles with craft is thinking of audience, intrinsically - whether it’s editors/publishers or readers -we’re writing within a common space of awareness. I write to explore and understand but I also write to be comprehensible, to be read and readable. It would be disingenuous to say definitively I write for no-one but myself. It may be more honest to say that though my allegiance is to the story, I write for myself and for people like me, and, especially in my more lyric work, when I let myself get all wrapped up in language and run where it goes, possibly also for that one particular reader or editor who will "get" me.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

RD: It’s strange to imagine someone reading my work, at the end of it all. I guess I would be curious about the experience, for the reader. What spoke to you? What do you come away with? Were the stories evocative in some way, for your own life? Stuff like that.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

RD: I don’t know - are they? I hope they are! I’m happy the book is a book and is out there. My hope, like any other writer’s, is that Temporary Lives finds readers - here in the US, in the UK, and in India, in particular. It was released only recently, I am just beginning to do readings. As you know, as writers we’re all readers first. As a reader, I can recall the tremendous impact certain books have had on me, the books I return to, to read over and over. And the feeling of discovery when you come upon writing, or a writer who speaks to your own sensibility, your love for language—for me Kate Braverman comes to mind, or Carole Maso, or Sandra Cisneros, Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, Susan Minot, Merce Rodoreda. I hope in some small way my book finds a reader or readers who may be looking for it, or something like it.

TSR: What are you working on now?

RD: I’m working on more bicultural short fiction, a new novel drawn from my maternal grandparents’ lives in the Christian deep south of 1910s and ‘20s British-ruled India when the Independence movement was heating up, a play about Gaza, pieces of creative non-fiction, and poems on famines in India during the later years of the British Raj, an NEA-funded project I am striving to complete this spring. I’m trying to ease into the novel, really, while finishing up the poetry project. I’ve been teaching drama for a few years now and have become fascinated with plays, they teach me so much about writing fiction. And I can’t seem to stop writing short fiction - there’s always a story brewing, that I’m working on. I feel I am writing for two new collections currently, each with its own centre. And I’m striving to find publishers for my first novel, a rather feminist novel of awakening set in India, and my second collection of fiction - the bicultural short fiction of women and men in relationship set in the US and India.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

RD: The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, by Susan Vreeland - just extraordinary, a tremendous collection of stories linked around a fictional painting by Vermeer and spanning centuries and continents; The Road of Five Churches, a brilliant collection by Stephanie Dickinson, just a gorgeous and lyric writer whose work I love, who truly deserves major recognition; Love Begins in Winter, by Simon van Booy - such mysterious, meandering, meditative stories.
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