Announcement! Announcement! My good friend Neesha Meminger has a new book out and it’s magical. The last time we caught up with Neesha, it was to discuss her other book Jazz in Love. Fans of that book will definitely dig her latest one, even though it’s a departure from contemporary fiction. Neesha wades into fantasy waters and does it well. Plus, the main character, Pammi, is a secondary character from her last novel. We caught up with Neesha to discuss the new project.
What inspired you to write a fantasy novel? Was it challenging to incorporate fantastical elements?
I loved magic and fantasy as a child. I don’t think I’ve met a child yet who doesn’t! It engages the imagination and makes the seemingly impossible, possible. All fairytales are full of magic — fairy godmothers and wolves who talk and mirrors that tell tales and lands where no one grows old… And the stories I grew up with at home were deeply rooted in Indian myths and legends. The lines between the fantastic and the real were always blurry and my mother never made the distinction between the two. I wrote many short stories and poems, prior to having my first book published, that had elements of the speculative. They had a thread of magic or a hint of the fantastic woven throughout. In fact, the very first novel I ever shopped around to agents – an epic tale of trans-global migration – had a grandmother ghost in it. But the first novel to get published was a contemporary realistic one. It was distilled from the longer, epic novel I’d written, sans the grandmother ghost. But I’d always wanted to write stories that broke open the world we live in, so that we could glimpse other Possibles, and grow bigger than we think we can. Into The Wise Dark had been brewing in my mind for a while and when I finally began to write it, I felt like I was coming home in a way.
How did you transition between writing two different genres — contemporary for Shine, Coconut Moon and Jazz in Love – and now, fantasy with Into the Wise Dark? Did you have to switch “hats” or sensibilities so to speak?
I read a lot of both, so it wasn’t super hard for me to make the transition. The challenges I faced were the same challenges I face with all my other writing. I have weak areas and blind spots and strengths and some things that I do really well. All of those came into play in the same way. I still look at issues of race and gender and sexuality and collective action over individual glory, and my key protagonists are all women and/or women of color. This is true for all my work. It will always be true of my work. I often get asked if I will “branch out” and write characters who are not South Asian. My answer to that is usually, “Yes. I will stop writing strong South Asian female protagonists when the shelves at major bookstores are lined with novels about strong South Asian female protagonists. Until then, this is what I shall focus on.”
The other thing we hear a lot about when it comes to fantasy and speculative fiction is “world-building.” At first, this term intimidated me, but then, when I thought about it, I realized I’d been “world-building” all my life. Every time I translated the western culture we lived in to my non-English-speaking parents at home, I was world-building. Every time I tried to explain the strange and foreign traditions and customs of my family to the outside world, I was world-building. And in both my contemporary novels, I still had to build worlds. I needed to build an “inside” world of South Asian culture and traditions that could feel real to readers who might not be familiar with those. If readers couldn’t step inside and become a part of the world I’d created, they wouldn’t experience the story as it was meant to be experienced. So, when I thought of it in those terms, the process was less intimidating and felt more doable.
What’s next for you? A sequel to Into the Wise Dark? Another contemporary tale? Both?
At this point, I’m not sure which direction my career will take. Writing will always be an important part of my life and connecting with my readers is a necessity for me. It shapes me and helps me evolve. But the path has been unpredictable and bumpy and, many times, not at all what I expected. Now, with the way the world is in flux and all the (very rapid!) changes taking place, I’m having a bit of a breather so I can gain some perspective. But rest assured I will be putting *something* out in the not-so-distant future .
Photo Credit: Ignite Books